Ramble On: Driving Tours of Shetland

by Keith Savage · 2 comments


Driving Tours of Shetland

Ramble On is a series highlighting some of the most beautiful and interesting drives around Scotland.

I hate road trips.

Distances in the States are so vast and, frankly, a lot of the scenery around my country just doesn’t tickle my fancy. I know I know, there are places so beautiful they’ll make my soul cry, but I ain’t buying. Nope, not a fan.

It’s more than a bit strange, then, that I absolutely love touring around Scotland. In fact, it’s my favorite activity over here because the scale is just right and there’s almost never a dull scene out the window. The cost of fuel is nauseating though – I just spent the equivalent of $60 filling up my tiny Kia Pimiento Picanto. I’ll eat this expense every time because there’s simply no better way to get to know a place. Given my recent search for Shetland’s identity, I decided to hit the road during the day in between Shetland Folk Festival concerts and see how Shetland shapes up.

I was not disappointed. You could drive anywhere in Shetland and be immersed in natural beauty. Sometimes I find such bounty paralyzing – I need a mock destination just to get me going in a specific direction. In that spirit I’ve put together three driving tours that you can follow when you come to Shetland. Believe me, after checking out these pictures you might just find yourself looking at flights. As an added bonus, I’ve put together a simple google map of the Shetland driving tours to provide a visual of the routes I discuss below.

Remember, in Britain you drive on the right side of the car and the left side of the road! Beware of blind summits.

Tour 1: The Wilds of Northmavine

Destination: Eshaness Cliffs | Time: Allow 3 hours

From the very small town of Brae, follow the A970 north toward Hillswick. Pass through rolling hills coated in brown and orange heath and alongside glistening cobalt blue lochs. Go through Urafirth, around the bay, and straight into Hillswick. This is a dying town with a picturesque beach and a tidy compactness to it. One of the locals told me there are wrecks in the bay. Check the beach for sea glass.

When you’re ready to move on, return on the A970 for a short way and turn left at the B9078 toward Eshaness. This is a single-track road with passing places that gifts drivers with views of broken cliffs and sea stacks. Braewick is especially beautiful, and there’s a café there to fuel up on refreshments and enjoy the view.

Continue along the B9078 to Stenness. You might think you’re on someone’s farm but it’s simply the road ending at the wrecked “village” of Stenness. A few crumbled stone crofts lay next to a small rocky bay. It’s a symbol of northern Shetland and a worthy look.

Finally, return on the B9078 and turn left toward Eshaness. The road deposits you on the top of cliffs next to a lighthouse built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s family. This is epic coastline with cliffs pockmarked by nesting Kittiwakes and other seabirds beyond my ken. The wind off the Atlantic slams into this peninsula and the sound of crashing waves is audible everywhere you walk. There’s a coastal walk worth the hike as well.

Tour 2: Into the West Mainland

Destination: Sandness | Time: Allow 3 hours

Starting from the Tingwall airport, follow the A971 through Whiteness and Weisdale toward Bixter. This span along Weisdale Voe has some of the most spectacular views of any I saw in Shetland. Pull off into the parking areas frequently and gape. Just after Bixter, turn left onto the B9071 and follow the signs to Sand. Avoid Inner Sand as that will take you away from the beautiful beach. Instead, turn right before the beach and follow the road to the ruined St. Mary’s Chapel. This beach seems like it hasn’t seen humanity in eons.

Return to the B9071 and turn left to follow the road south toward Reawick. This stretch along what are essentially fjords is another stunner as the road seems to hang on the side of the massive hills. At Reawick, park down by the red sandy beach. It’s more coarse than Sand, but the contrast of the dark brownish-red color with the greens and blues of the landscape is mesmerizing (see what I mean this Friday).

Follow signs for Bridge of Walls and continue on single-track roads until you reach the A971 again. Go left toward Sandness and cross some of the  most wild, stoney, and barren land in Shetland. I literally saw only two souls, a father and son cutting peat, until I reached Sandess (where I saw one person). It’s sparse out here.

At Sandness, follow the road to the public toilets and, by extension, the beach. Lots of signs for toilets round these parts. Sandness is a silent scattering of houses with views to the island of Papa Stour. There’s another walk here if the need to stretch arises.

Tour 3: North into Delting and Across the Waters to Yell and Unst

Destination: Hermaness, Unst | Time: Allow 5 hours

From the Voe/Hillside area, follow the A968 toward the Northern Isles and the ferry terminal at Toft. The road climbs steeply along Dales Voe and provides incomprehensibly gorgeous views out to sea and the small isles of Foraness and Linga. The ferry terminal in Toft appears before too long; buy a ticket. I paid £9.60 and it covered my voyage to Yell and on to Unst and back: four ferry rides.

After a 15-minute ferry crossing to Yell, stay on the A968 as it cruises along the water before cutting inland. In comparison to the rest of Shetland, Yell is a stoney wasteland and most folks burn through it on their way to Unst. It’s worth exploring, but not now. Stay on the A968 all the way to Gutcher where the ferry to Unst operates.

This is an even shorter ferry – ten minutes and there’s Unst. This is a northbound route, so follow the A968 through Baltasound and Haroldswick to Norwick. This has got to be one of the most pristine beaches in Shetland. The UK? The world? It’s a fine, white, sandy beach that feels like the last stop before the end of the world. And it is. There’s nothing north but water.

When ready, return toward Haroldswick and follow signs to Burrafirth. This far out many roads seem to lose names and the best you can do is follow signs to specific places. Keep going toward Burrafirth and Hermaness. Skip the visitor center at Hermaness and park up in the lot instead. There’s a hiking path to an amazing viewpoint and the Burrafirth beach is another white crescent of perfection.

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Shetland’s landscape is hewn at a colossal scale. Everything looks bigger with the absence of trees and the roads seem to literally run off into postcards. You can’t go astray wherever you ramble in Shetland, but you can find some truly incredible places if you’ve got some help 😉


StephanieNo Gravatar May 5, 2011 at 8:45 PM

Looks like you had good weather again. You should reconsider driving in the states, however. I hear the drive to San Antonio, TX is actually quite beautiful.

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KenNo Gravatar May 4, 2011 at 6:33 AM

Well done, Keith. I’m continually amazed at the beauty of Scotland everywhere you go on your travels. I know I’ve got to go back. It’s always on my mind.

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