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Shetland & Fair Isle

Shetland’s 14 chapels

The scenery is stunning, the plants and birds sometimes unique, and the history compelling, from pre-historic archaeology to modern mineral extraction. The excellent Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick places the Methodist story in the context of thousands of years of habitation on Shetland: www.shetlandmuseumandarchives.org.uk

John Nicolson was a Shetland islander who had been converted to Methodism while in the army. He returned to Shetland in 1819, and in two years had formed a 'circuit'. He asked for the Conference's help, and with the support of Adam Clarke, John Raby and Samuel Dunn were sent in 1822. Despite opposition from the Kirk, by the time of John Nicolson’s death in 1828, there were four circuits and 1,000 members. Nicolson’s grave can be seen at Gruting. Despite heavy emigration, by 1932 there were 1,398 members. Today, there are 200.

The pictures on this page illustrate the 14 Methodist chapels across Shetland. The members offer a warm welcome, having adapted their historic spaces to engage with their communities and with tourists. In most places, sensitive renovation has extended the use of the chapel buildings with better facilities; you can see here new kitchens, extensions for toilets, and often the removal of pews to create more flexible meeting spaces.

Haroldswick – the most northerly church in Britain



East Yell







North Roe




haroldswick mc
Photo Credit: Shetland Methodist District

Fair Isle – The Blue Chapel

Fair Isle, Britain’s most remote inhabited island, lies midway between Shetland and Orkney. Fair Isle is a mere three miles long and one mile wide. World famous for its distinctively patterned knitwear, Fair Isle is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

This special place is the home of choice for about 60 people. Visitors, often visiting the bird observatory, travel by the reliable ferry, Good Shepherd, or fly in on scheduled flights. But the first visiting ordained Methodist minister arrived in a 22 foot open boat on 5 June 1824. The ‘Methodist societies’ of that time were led by ‘exhorters’ – lay members who led worship long before local preachers became a recognised preaching order.

Minutes of the Lerwick Circuit Meeting, recorded on 1 October 1884, stated: “The chairman reported on the wretched condition of the chapel in Fair Isle, it being beyond the possibility of repairing.” So a new, second chapel was built on the same site, by local voluntary labour and completed sometime in 1885 and legally secured on 29 January 1886. Taking into account prevailing winds, the second chapel was turned completely round with a door now at the east end. The exterior walls of the building are rough natural local stone, with the corners dressed in sandstone. Above the porch on the east gable there is a small bellcote; an important feature in past years for visitors asking where the service was – they were told to follow the bell. The interior is lit by two clear glass windows on either side letting in natural light, and the chapel’s light blue pews have earned it the nickname ‘the Blue Chapel’. Many traditions influence worship, as the congregation includes Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Church of Scotland, Romanian Orthodox, and individuals not wanting a specific church label; and during the holiday season the mix is even greater.