The islands lie some 80 km (50 mi) to the northeast of Orkney, 168 km (104 mi) from the Scottish mainland and 280 km (170 mi) southeast of the Faroe Islands. They form part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. The total area is 1,466 km2 (566 sq mi), and the population totalled 23,210 in 2011. Comprising the Shetland constituency of the Scottish Parliament, Shetland Islands Council is one of the 32 council areas of Scotland; the islands' administrative centre and only burgh is Lerwick, which has also been the capital of Shetland since taking over from Scalloway in 1708.
The largest island, known as the "Mainland", has an area of 967 km2 (373 sq mi), making it the third-largest Scottish island and the fifth-largest of the British Isles. There are an additional 15 inhabited islands. The archipelago has an oceanic climate, a complex geology, a rugged coastline and many low, rolling hills.
Humans have lived in Shetland since the Mesolithic period. The earliest written references to the islands date to Roman times. The early historic period was dominated by Scandinavian influences, especially from Norway, and the islands did not become part of Scotland until the 15th century. When Scotland became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, trade with northern Europe decreased. Fishing has continued to be an important aspect of the economy up to the present day. The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s significantly boosted Shetland's economy, employment and public sector revenues.
The local way of life reflects the Scottish and Norse heritage of the isles, including the Up Helly Aa fire festival, and a strong musical tradition, especially the traditional fiddle style. The islands have produced a variety of writers of prose and poetry, often in the distinct Shetland dialect of Scots. There are numerous areas set aside to protect the local fauna and flora, including a number of important sea bird nesting sites. The Shetland pony and Shetland Sheepdog are two well-known Shetland animal breeds. Other local breeds include the Shetland sheep, cow, goose, and duck. The Shetland pig, or grice, has been extinct since about 1930.
The islands' motto, which appears on the Council's coat of arms, is "Með lögum skal land byggja." This Old Norse phrase is taken from the Danish 1241 Basic Law, Code of Jutland, and is also mentioned in Njáls saga, and means "By law shall land be built".