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
Scenery: Walls Harbour
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
Wildlife: Sumburgh Head
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
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
Crafts and Culture: A Factory Tour of Jamieson’s Mill
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?
Music: Performers at a Shetland Wedding
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.
History: Shetland is dotted with historical artefacts.
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.
By: Barnaby Davies
photos by Barnaby Davies and may not be used without permission