This time it was different. A few hours out of Heathrow, interrupted only by a quick half and a nip in the bar at Aberdeen airport, and I was flying in low over Sumburgh Head, the North Sea quickly turning to a landscape of dry-stane dykes and treeless fields darkly cross-scarred by peat-cutting. It felt like cheating.
Two hundred and eleven miles by sea from Aberdeen, and closer to Oslo than to London, the 100 islands that make up Shetland (or the Shetland Islands, never say the Shetlands) have rugged coastlines and mostly marshy interiors, populated - on 15 of the islands - by scattered communities and sheep.
But was this Britain or Norway? Way back in time, the islands belonged to Norway and, despite being Scottish for more than 500 years, Norse culture remains a powerful influence, not least in the longship-burning festival of Up Helly Aa held every January. Many names are of Scandinavian origin and many islanders speak a little Norwegian.
In the main town, Lerwick, I set out in search of clues to Shetland's identity. The older parts were made up of brooding, heavy-stone architecture, while the newer buildings, the houses, leisure centres and shops were modern and utilitarian. And it was small. Very small.
It was also pretty when the sun shone but dour when the skies turned grey. As they frequently did. Wandering through the back streets, taking in the Lodberries, originally the quayside homes of Hanseatic merchants, I ran into a traffic warden. This felt like encountering a hill farmer on the Hanger Lane gyratory system. Was he Lerwick's only man in black and yellow? "Actually," he told me, in an accent pitched somewhere between Aberdeen and the Arctic tundra, "I'm the only traffic warden on Shetland." He told me his name was James Ericsson and he'd held the job for 12 years. Living in such a small community, surely everyone knew where he lived? "Ach, people are quite civilised," he said. "And I give them a bit of latitude."
In the evening I dropped in on the Isleburgh Exhibition, a collection of Shetland crafts and culture taking up two floors in a community centre. The exhibition includes a reconstruction of the inside of an early 20th- century croft, where two elderly ladies sit knitting and will chat to you about the harder aspects of life before improved communications and the oil boom began to erode the islands' isolation. In another room, the fiddle-playing teenagers of "Shetland's Young Heritage" played reels, polkas and laments with an enthusiasm that had the whole audience tapping their feet in time. Their leader, who couldn't have been more than 16, spoke of the "girl power" that was keeping Shetland's fiddle traditions alive. The one lad at the back reddened and looked down at his bow.
I wanted to take some of this music home with me. In the exhibition shop I found a tape: a familiar face, a black and yellow cover and the title: "Shetland's Singing Traffic Warden". James Ericsson, again, keeping body and soul together with a second job - as a recording artist. Except that on the sleeve, the performance was attributed to one Alan Bain. Not Ericsson then? The shop lady smiled coyly. "Well," she said, "the thing is, these days, he wants to sound a bit more, you know, Norwegian."
Hungry for more of Shetland's musical talent, I found an impromptu gathering of local musicians taking place the next day at the Lounge Bar, just off Commercial Street. Strains of foot-stomping fiddling were coming from an open window, but by the time I got inside, the ambience had altered. At the piano sat a young man in a Scottish football team tracksuit top playing cocktail jazz. He vamped his way through "The Shadow of your Smile", "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", and - wait for it - "Stormy Weather". An older man strapped into a piano-accordion sat down and began to join in. "It's in G," snapped the blue-clad Basie as his jam-partner hit the wrong key.
Later still, in a mood of malt-inspired bonhomie, we hit Poser's, Lerwick's only nightclub. The tourist board claims that Sky magazine voted it Britain's top nightspot a few years back. Odd that - to me it resembled a superannuated school disco, but the youth (and I mean youth) of Shetland got down to Abba and Cher with attitude, alcohol and a predisposition to wearing glowing red viking horns on their heads. As they spilled out on to Commercial Street, where they lingered until around 3am, they seemed like the seabirds; squabbling for space, squawking and taking pecks at one another.
Nightclubs notwithstanding, Shetland is better known for its oil industry (and for being the birthplace of Norman Lamont, though I don't think I'm doing the tourist board any favours by mentioning it). But what about that elusive cultural identity? I turned to one Dr Jonathan Wills - part- nature warden, part-journalist - for further assistance.
He took me out for a cruise in his boat, the Dunster II, heading out from
the middle island of Yell, pottering round the coastal inlets and bays on the lookout for otters, seals, whales, dolphins and the vast array of birdlife that nests on the small islets and looming cliffs. Bird-watching may seem little more than organic train-spotting, but Dr Wills' stories of the coastline's remarkable recovery from the Braer oil-tanker spill, as well as encounters with clockwork-waddling puffins and projectile-vomiting fulmars, made the trip worthwhile.
My ultimate goal was the lighthouse at Muckle Flugga, the final landfall on the British Isles, where a hardy lighthouse-keeper once swam round the lighthouse rock, before scoring Britain's most northerly goal with a fishing float that he punted through goalposts brought over by bosun's chair from the headland.
The skies were closing in and Jonathan insisted we wear fishermen's oilskins. He then lectured us on boat safety, at which point Laughton, our nature guide, nearly fell between the quay and the boat as he was casting off. Out round the coast the otters were evading us and we put in for lunch at the small port at Westside on Unst, the northernmost island. While a shipboard lunch was prepared, we strolled along the quay, past the few houses and a shop bearing the sign: "Donald Ritch - Purveyor of Fine Meats, Flat Caps and Turpentine".
The skies were getting darker, the wind stronger, and Jonathan warned us that we may not make it all the way to Muckle Flugga - so we washed down our sandwiches with the champagne he carries to celebrate passing the north tip. Bad idea. Off the Atlantic coast, the boat pitched and yawed and we were drenched by waves crashing over the boat. I caught a quick glimpse of the light before sticking my head back out over the rails. Having done a rather good impression of a fulmar at the ultimate border between Britain and Scandinavia, we turned and headed for home.
British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies from London Heathrow to Shetland (Sumburgh Airport) via Aberdeen. Return flights cost from pounds 257 return.
WHERE TO STAY
Busta House Hotel, Brae (tel: 01806 522506). B&b costs from pounds 70 per single room, and from pounds 91 per double room.
Burrastow House, Walls (tel: 01595 809307). B&b and dinner costs from pounds 70 per person per night in a double room.
WHAT TO DO
A day trip to Muckle Flugga and Hermaness Nature Reserve costs pounds 70 per person. Shetland Wildlife Tours (tel: 01950 422483).
For walking tours taking in crafts, archaeology or wildlife, contact Elizabeth Johnson (tel: 01950 422408).
The Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race will be visiting Lerwick from 9-12 August 1999. The 12th annual Shetland Accordian and Fiddle Festival runs from 14-18 October in Lerwick and around the islands. The Up Helly Aa viking festival takes place every January.
Contact the Scottish Tourist Board (tel: 0131-332 2433) and Shetland Islands Tourism (tel: 01595 693434).