As with Orkney, the principal island is named Mainland, and Shetland's capital town, Lerwick, is located here on the east coast. It is the only town of any size in Shetland and is, therefore, the centre of all transport and communications as well as being home to about one third of all Shetlanders. Lerwick's busy harbour is always thronged with craft of all kinds, ferries, oil-rig supply boats, cruise liners, yachts, fishing and naval boats, an occasional tall ship. There is even a replica Viking longship, the Dim Riv , which is available for visitors to row and sail.
Tucked behind the harbour the compact old town, mostly built in local stone, is full of charm with intimate stone-paved alleys leading off the main street, itself lined with delightful granite houses and dignified shops. Most notable among the buildings is the baronial-looking Town Hall, its stained glass windows being a present to the town, jointly given by Norway, Holland and Germany as thanks for Shetland's kindness to seamen. The windows themselves depict the history of the islands.
Another striking building is Fort Charlotte , originally constructed between 1665-7 during Charles II's war with the Dutch. The latter attacked and destroyed the stronghold in 1673 and it was not rebuilt until 1782, when it was dedicated to, and named after, George III's queen. Visitors who make it to the battlements will be rewarded with quite stunning panoramic views. Also worth a visit is the Shetland Museum , located above the library, which documents the history of the islands from earliest times to the present day. The museum holds a collection of 5000 year old beads, pots and pumice stones found when excavating Sumburgh airport, but most striking amongst all these treasures on display is the exquisite Gulberwick Brooch, a 9th century Viking cloak pin.
Shetland's close association with Norse tradition is emphasised by the boisterous festival known as Up-Helly-Aa, which consumes Lerwick on the last Tuesday of every January. Loosely based on a pagan fire festival intended to herald the impending return of the sun, a procession of guizers , men dressed in winged helmets and shining armour, march through the streets carrying burning torches behind a replica Viking longship. In a field on the outskirts of town the blazing torches are tossed into the longship, creating a huge bonfire, which signals the start of the evening celebrations.
Six miles from Lerwick is the old fishing port of Scalloway, once Shetland's capital. Its major landmark is the gaunt ruin of an early 17th century castle built for Earl Patrick Stewart, a nephew of Mary Queen of Scots.
Mainland's wealth of Neolithic, Iron Age and Viking remains are numerous with major sites at Jarlshof, Clickmin Broch and the Broch of Mousa. Jarlshof, located at the southernmost tip of the island, in particular, displays evidence of more than 4 millennia of continuous occupation, as waves of settlers from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, built dwellings here, each on the ruins of its predecessor. Vikings subsequently built on top of that and medieval farmsteads later buried the Viking traces. As the 19th century concluded the site was merely a grassy mound topped with a medieval ruin when nature took a hand - a ferocious storm laid bare massive stones in a bank above the beach and archaeologists moved in. Hearths were found where peat fires burned 3000 years ago. Today the radial walls of ancient wheelhouses have been revealed, and an exhibition area is on hand to further explain the long history of Jarlshof.