At Sixty degrees North, they are literally the UK’s “Top” islands.
The Shetland Islands aren’t just ponies and Fair Isle sweaters. Shetland is a magical, ice-carved archipelago thriving in the North Atlantic, with a unique history and culture. And with its northerly latitude, Shetland can enjoy up to nineteen hours of sunshine in midsummer. The twilight in this month is referred to as the “Simmer Dim.”
But what truly justifies the 12-hour ferry journey from Scotland?
1. Scenery & Walking
Shetland’s coast is spectacular yet varied. From vertiginous, storm-ravaged cliffs to sheltered beaches of pristine sand, Shetland has it all. And with nowhere on the main island further than three miles from the sea, the coast is where you will spend most of your time. Some of the finest walking in Europe can be found here. And because Shetland is part of Scotland – and has been since 1468 – there are no laws of trespass. It is perfect for walking.
Make your way quite literally to the island above all others – to Unst, the UK’s most northerly island. Be sure to pause at the infamous bus stop on the main road, which has become progressively more luxurious and quirky. This much-loved bus stop began with just a comfortable armchair, but now houses a computer, television (no electricity though) and even fresh flowers. On last inspection, there were even some bright pink shoes in a drawer. You cannot miss it; there is only one road! From here there is a panoramic view.
For those that love reaching the top of a mountain, or the end of a road, continue to Hermaness. From here it is a three-mile walk to the end of the UK – well, almost. On the most northerly hill in Britain, you can gaze over the small rocky island of Muckle Flugga to Outstack, Britain’s northernmost point. But you can’t actually walk to it. What you can do, though, is consider the charming folklore behind Outstack. The rival giants Herma and Saxa, battling for the attention of a mermaid, are said to have hurled rocks at each other, one of which landed in the sea.
The giants then set off to follow the mermaid to the North Pole. But both of them drowned because they couldn’t swim! Gazing in their wake, the expanse of Atlantic lies before you: to the north is the Arctic, to the west is Greenland, and 200 miles to the east is Norway. But wait, there is a sound carried by the wind…
Over 17,000 breeding pairs of gannets shriek noisily at Muckle Flugga – it is a twitcher’s paradise. But they are not the sole ornithological draw on the archipelago, not by a long shot. For those seeking cute, inimitable puffins – Shetlanders call them “tammy nories” – they can be found in numerous coastal areas; in Hermaness, between May and September, you can see 25,000 of them in one fell swoop. Iconic Sumburgh Head, a stone’s throw from the airport, also has cliffs littered with puffins, as well as kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots and fulmars. Seabirds-and-Seals offer expert boat trip tours around one of the many seabird colonies.
The eastern island of Fetlar, with its fertile soils and green landscape, is known as “The Garden Of Shetland.” And it is home to 90% of the UK’s breeding population of Red-necked Phalarope. Each summer, these stunning, charismatic little waders have visiting ornithologists jumping for joy. But if you’re coming to Shetland seeking birdlife, watch out for the “Skooty Aalins” (Arctic Skuas) and “Bonxies” (Great Skuas) dive-bombing the unwary visitor! Nesting areas can be a like a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds – it may be worth carrying a stick.
Perhaps you’re more interested in mammals than birdlife? Well, “selkies” (seals) are to be found in many of Shetland’s “voes” – long, narrow sea inlets, found all over the archipelago. Often, sitting with a thermos flask on a remote beach, a grey or common seal will raise its head only a few yards away. They can also be found snoozing in the sunshine, hauled out on headlands all around Shetland. Sea otters, too, sometimes play along the beaches.
Because Shetland lies close to the European Continental Shelf’s edge, the water is nutrient-rich, providing a diverse and dynamic marine environment. Harbour porpoises (“neesicks”) frolic in the sea, as do Minke whales, Humpbacks and killer whales. Maybe you will be lucky enough to see the latter while taking one of the regular ferries between the eight served islands. May-September is optimal for whale sightings.
3. Crafts & Culture
Knitting is probably the best-known craft in Shetland. To that end, one animal you will certainly see plenty of is the sheep, an important island resource (and road hazard). Shetland sheep have exceptionally soft fine wool, used to produce gossamer lace, the famous Fair Isle knitwear, and fine tweeds. It is well worth taking a tour of the only mill on the isles.
From 17th – 20th June, Flavour of Shetland is held, a four-day festival of Shetland music, craft, culture and food. Be sure to sample the fresh fish and seafood on display, as well as unusual specialities such as seawater oatcakes and Shetland Black potatoes.
Although Scotland annexed Shetland in 1468, Scotland is spoken of as just another country that makes up the United Kingdom. Shetlanders are Shetlanders – an island nation, a people apart. Kilts and bagpipes do not play a part in the culture here. No, the influence is more Norse than Scottish. After all, Shetland was the first geographical landfall for 9th century Viking longboats. However, English – well, a version of it anyhow – is now widely spoken. And no trip is complete without a tale or two from one of Shetland’s outstanding storytellers.
Get two Shetlanders ‘spaekin Shaetlan’ (speaking Shetland) together, however, and you may need a little assistance in deciphering the gist. Storytelling, traditional arts and crafts, music and dance all play an important role in the lives of Shetlanders. The only way to find out is to come and meet them! Will spooky stories of nocturnal goblins or “nuggles” (mythical water-horses that live under watermill streams) frighten you?
Hardly a day passes without some sort of musical event in this vibrant community. And again, Norse influence is strong. Country dances and impromptu traditional sessions often take place, but there are a couple of major festivals too. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the UK’s most northerly Folk Festival will be held 29th April – 2nd May. For those arriving by overnight ferry from mainland Scotland, the party starts on the 28th!
Violin playing is known as fiddling in Shetland. And one of the best times to visit is during Fiddle Frenzy, held 8th – 15th August. This festival is spread across the islands, and offers a chance not only to witness some outstanding fiddling, but to join a fiddle school during the day as well. Visitors can grapple with basic technique on Shetland’s most famous instrument, and learn of the culture and traditions that surround it.
2010 promises to be a special year – it is the centenary of the birth of Dr Tom Anderson, a man who saved and moulded the Shetland fiddle scene we know today. It is also the 50th anniversary of the Shetland Fiddlers. Fiddle playing in Shetland can be traced back to around 1700, and falls into three categories: listening tunes, ritual tunes and dance music. This is the year to try out your musical aspirations in a nurturing environment.
There are a number of very important archaeological sites in Shetland, one of which is thought to date from 4000 years ago. This can be found near the international airport, at Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement, a complex of ancient settlements within three acres. Beginning with a Bronze Age village of oval stone huts, we slide through the epochs to an Iron Age broch (fortified tower). More recently still, there are remains of an entire Viking settlement, a medieval farmstead and a 16th Century laird’s house. The Jarlshof name comes from Sir Walter Scott – his novel The Pirates was inspired by the site.
Also in the south of Shetland is the finest of Scotland’s 500 or so Iron Age brochs. Remarkably well preserved due to its isolation – in fact, it is the best preserved broch in the world – Mousa Broch stands at a height of over forty feet. Taking the ferry from Sandwick, across to the island of Mousa, is half the fun of visiting. You can climb to the top of the tower between the two, thick, stone walls. Torches are provided in a box at the entrance – it is darker than you would imagine!
One place you really shouldn’t miss is St. Ninian’s Isle, reached via one of the very best tombolos in Europe. This is a spectacular bar of golden sand, traversable at all but the highest of tides, leading to the ruins of a 12th Century chapel. A hoard of 8th Century Celtic silver was found underneath in 1958. The buried treasure is now stored in Edinburgh, but replicas can be found in The Shetland Museum.
How to Get to the Shetland Islands & Where to Stay
The Shetland Islands are remote. There’s no way of getting away from that fact, but that doesn’t mean they’re inaccessible. Nightly ferries ply between Shetland’s port of Lerwick and Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland. Boats also leave from Scrabster in northern Scotland via the Orkney Islands. Flights to Shetland leave from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Inverness.
On arrival, it is certainly possible to travel to all the inhabited islands by public transport. There are bus services combined with ferry services, but it may be an adventure and require some planning! You can also hire a car, available for collection at both the airport and ferry terminal.
How cheaply can you stay in Shetland? Very, is the answer. There is a network of eight “bods”- buildings once used to house fishermen and their gear – at the time of writing, but you will need your own bedding. Managed by Shetland Amenity Trust, these unique historical buildings offer a real budget option. They range from £6-£8 (without or with electricity) per person per night. Check out camping-bods.com for more details.
A good budget place to start, though, is at the Youth Hostel in Lerwick, a fifteen-minute walk from the ferry terminal. There are a number of accommodation options in Shetland, but for those that really want to push the boat out, consider staying in one of the lighthouses. This is not cheap, but with a group of up to six people, it is affordable, and offers unrivalled views of some of the most dramatic scenery in Britain.
photos by Barnaby Davies and may not be used without permission