Have you ever wondered about the Shetland Islands and what it might be like to visit them? If you’re planning a trip to Scotland, you must have, at least a little bit, possibly before cinching up your mouth into a brief, regretful grimace and moving on to more accessible regions. This dismissal happens all too often. Today I’m doing my part to combat the “Shetland write-off” by giving you some concrete reasons to visit.
I have largely focused on specific topics throughout the life of Traveling Savage, but now I’m providing you with information at a higher level to help in your Scotland trip-planning, idea-generation phase. These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles collect many of my previous posts on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
As always, don’t hesitate to pepper me with questions.
The Shetland Islands
Today’s most northerly outpost of Scottish civilization was for most of its human occupation a Norwegian settlement, and this ancestry shows prominently in Shetland’s culture and place names. For reasons I still can’t fathom, I expected Shetland to be a gray and rocky monotony, but I found a hilly and windswept landscape saturated in green and glittering blue. Brilliant white sand beaches hopscotched earth-tone pebbled coves sparkling with bits of sea glass. Along the perimeter of Shetland’s mainland and out to Unst and Yell great headlands rise up as if to fight the incessant sea, and in that clash are born towering sea stacks and cliffs pocked with seabird colonies. There is a distinct edge-of-the-world feeling to Shetland, and those that live here are proud to be its sentinels. There are few beaten paths out here under the wide northern skies – plenty of space to listen to that interior vibrating voice so often lost amidst the clamor of society.
Things You Can’t Miss
Jarlshof. The archaeological jewel of Shetland, Jarlshof is a prehistoric settlement dating back to the Neolithic that gives Orkney’s Skara Brae a run for its money. The site at the very southern tip of Shetland’s mainland, near Sumburgh Head, has been home to many cultures over the millennia, including Picts and Vikings, with the ruins of their buildings built on top of and around each other. Jarlshof is the civilization equivalent of sedimentary rock – a true wonder – and is a huge reason to visit Shetland. On a clear day, you might even see Fair Isle.
The Shetland Folk Festival. Each May, the people of Shetland host one of the world’s great folk music festivals: The Shetland Folk Festival. Bands from around the world ferry up to Shetland for several days of rollicking music across the breadth of the islands, for the music is truly for the Shetlanders. Visitors are welcome, of course, and during the festival I traveled far and wide from Lerwick into the hinterland to listen to Norwegian folk, Scottish trad, American bluegrass, and Mississippi riverboat ragtime music. The festival is a serious party for four straight days. I advise you to get some tips before you come.
St. Ninian’s Isle. There are few things finer than serendipity, but St. Ninian’s Isle is a place you should not miss on a trip to Shetland. There’s nothing overly fancy about this small tide island, but it is undeniably beautiful and perfect in a natural way. Beyond its gorgeous beach is a bit of interesting history, for here in 1958 a boy discovered a hoard of early medieval treasure beneath a church’s floorboards. The collection of wrought and gilded silver bowls, jewelry, and other pieces date from 800 AD – probably the worldly goods of some great Viking lord.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
Up Helly Aa. The end of January in Shetland bears witness to the Up Helly Aa fire festival, which is a Norse celebration of the end of Yule. Historically, young men would drag barrels of burning tar on sledges through the streets while generally causing mischief. These days, a crowd bearing flaming torches processes to a replica Viking longship. Once there, they cast their torches upon the longship and cheer as the boat is consumed in the conflagration. Drinking commences. Up Helly Aa is celebrated in ten locations across Shetland, and the spectacle is the primary reason for braving the Shetland winter.
The Broch of Mousa. Located on a small island off the east coast of southern Shetland, the Broch of Mousa is the tallest standing broch left in the world. Brochs are Iron Age drystone dwellings that look like ancient nuclear reactors. They functioned as dwellings for families and the skill of their construction is mind-boggling. Of the 500+ brochs around Scotland, the broch of Mousa is one of the smallest. At 2,000 years old it’s a marvel it still stands. Will our skyscrapers be standing in 4014 AD?
A wildlife cruise. With its miles of rocky coastline, Shetland is the perfect place to charter a boat or book a wildlife cruise. With good weather and any luck, you’ll be able to spot gray seals, pods of dolphins, minke whales, sea otters, puffins and loads of seabirds, or maybe even orcas chasing seals. Even if you don’t see any wildlife (which would be rare), a cruise is a great way to change your perspective and see Shetland from a different angle.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Hike the cliffs of Eshaness. To be fair, there’s not much of a beaten path on Shetland. Most everything is out of the way, but there are a few even-more-out-of-the-way places worth checking out. In the far northwest of Shetland’s mainland stand the awesome cliffs of Eshaness. Here the waves claw at the dark headlands like teeth dragged across a ripe plum. There’s no path that I found along the cliff tops, but you don’t really need one (just don’t get too close to the edge). Simply brave the wind and take in the mammoth views out across the Atlantic.
Go birding at Hermaness. The most northerly point of Shetland, on the most distant and northerly island of Unst, lies the Hermaness National Nature Reserve. It takes some effort to get here – a long drive, two short drives, and two short ferry rides one way – but if you’re an explorer or a birder at heart you will find this to be a most rewarding day out. Park the car at Cleva Ness and follow the path over the hills to the shredded cliffs of Hermaness. It’s a beautiful place. I don’t think I’ve ever been “farther” from civilization.
Get lost in Nibon. Off the A970 beyond Brae the rocky hills of Nibon roll to the coast. The road out here is little more than a one-lane track of crushed up rocks the size of my fist – it’s neither friendly on your car nor your bladder. Whenever you choose to stop, take in the alien landscape and realize that people live out here. Well, a couple do. Soak in the beauty, maybe bring a bottle of something, and relax.
Logistics and Salient Bits
Bases. The primary base for a stay on Shetland is Lerwick. It is the only town of any size and it is very small – smaller even than Kirkwall on Orkney. Lerwick is pleasant and it possesses all the facilities you might need, not to mention it is the port for ferries to and from the mainland and Orkney. I recommend staying in or near Lerwick. Alternatively, you could book a self-catering cottage out in the hinterland, but I would stick to the south or west mainland as you will inevitably find yourself returning to Lerwick on many occasions and you don’t want to be too distant (unless you do).
Transportation. Getting to Shetland is an obstacle, but you have a few options. The fastest route is to fly up to Sumburgh airport, which is at the southernmost tip of the Shetland mainland (near Jarlshof). You’ll need to then take a bus or a rental car up to Lerwick. If time isn’t so much a factor, you can take an overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick. This is how I got to Shetland (the same ferry with all the musicians arriving to the Shetland Folk Festival) but be aware that the seas can be very rough depending on the time of year and weather forecast. If sleeping isn’t important, don’t book a room. You can pass out in one of the sleeper seats. Finally, you can take a shorter ferry from Kirkwall to Lerwick if that fits your itinerary. Flying seems to be just as economical as taking the overnight ferry. Rent a car once you’ve arrived to Shetland. More than any other place in Scotland you’ll need it to get the most out of your explorations.
Food & Drink. I had more than my fair share of drinks while in Shetland, primarily thanks to the folk festival, but there were few bars that really stood out. Most of the drinking happened in hotel bars or assembly halls where there were performances, but I enjoyed the Lounge Bar in Lerwick and the Baltasound Hotel on Unst is supposed to be quite good. Food is a similar story. I had a nuclear plate of Vindaloo at the Gurkha’s Kitchen and the monkfish tail wrapped in bacon (below) at The Queen’s Hotel was tasty. Unfortunately, I can’t say much more about the food scene in Shetland, though I’m sure it’s more diverse and respectable than I experienced.
Shetland is a haven for nature lovers and misanthropes alike. The festivals are a great reason to visit, but a solid three nights on any trip would be a worthwhile addition and a splash of variety.