Before I even begin this post I feel like I won’t do Shetland justice. There are so many reasons to visit Shetland, but most of all, so you can see it for yourself. Words really can’t describe the way you’ll feel and the things you’ll see in this group of islands that are a part of Scotland, and yet not…
I imagine most people don’t even consider visiting the islands of the UK, even though Scotland alone has over 790 islands. These are divided into the Hebrides (the Inner and Outer), Orkney, and Shetland. The Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides is probably the most popular island in Scotland, but I’ve always had a special interest in Shetland, a group of islands so far to the north that they’re closer to Norway than mainland Scotland.
In the late 1920s, my great grandparents on my father’s side moved from Unst, the northern most island in Shetland and therefore Great Britain, to New Zealand, about the furthermost place they could go. Our Scottish heritage was always spoken about when I was growing up, but I knew little of the specifics. Finally having the opportunity to visit Shetland in 2014 was one of the most amazing trips I ever had. In an odd way, visiting Shetland makes me feel even closer to roots, despite my birthplace being far on the other side of the world.
But, why should YOU visit Shetland, where Scotland meets Scandinavia, at the intersection between the Faroe Islands and Norway?
Shetland has 15 inhabited islands to explore and a wealth of things to do and places to visit. I thought about writing a list of the top things to do in Shetland or the best places to go, but I decided it was better to present this archipelago through the reasons why it’s so amazing, and why Shetland really needs to be added to your Scotland itinerary! So here goes…
The epic scenery
For a chain of islands located far from… pretty much everything, Shetland sure does have some varied and epic scenery. You might imagine it as a grey and rocky sort of place, but in reality, Shetland is far from that. With clear blue seas and beautiful beaches, it wouldn’t be out of place in a much more southern latitude.
St Ninian’s Isle is one of the best places to visit in Shetland. It’s one of the best examples of a tombolo in Europe (that means beach with two sides) and the largest in the UK. In 1958 a hoard of treasure was discovered under a concrete slab in the floor of a medieval church by a schoolboy. The St Ninian’s Isle Treasure, mostly made of silver, is considered to be one of the best finds of Pictish jewellery and other items. The Picts lived in the north and east of Scotland before the Roman conquest of Britain and before Vikings came.
But the scenery in Shetland isn’t just beautiful beaches and green, treeless landscapes, it’s also made of dramatic coastlines and towering cliffs. The cliffs of Eshaness, also on mainland Shetland, are well worth the detour off the main road. The dark hue of the cliffs contrasts drastically with the white of the waves as they smash against the rock below.
Shetland is bursting at the seams with wildlife. My favourite, of course, are puffins (called Tammie Nories locally), who can be found at various places from the tip of Unst down to the Sumburgh Head lighthouse at the foot of Shetland. National Geographic named Shetland as one of the best places to see Puffins, and with the amount I saw at Sumburgh lighthouse and how close they were, I’d have to agree! They come to nest in burrows from mid-April to early August.
At the top of Shetland on the island of Unst is the Hermaness National Nature Reserve, a must-see on your list of things to do in Shetland. It encompasses vast moorlands and high sea cliffs that are perfect for a variety of birdlife. You can see puffins at Hermaness too, as well as over half the world’s population of Bonxie’s (Great Skua). Just watch out in breeding time between May to August, as they sometimes like to dive towards you!
Shetland’s wildlife doesn’t stop at the land and air, however, there’s also whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the sea and seals to be found along the coastlines.
Shetland history plays out in the landscape. There are the remains of so many croft houses here that I dubbed it “the land of abandoned houses” when I first visited. Important archaeological sites are spread all over the islands. Jarlshof, located near the airport, is one of the most fascinating historical sites I’ve ever been to. It has been the home for many different cultures across the centuries and rivals Skara Brae in nearby Orkney. The settlements date back to the neolithic period and were then built upon by Picts, Vikings, and Scottish lairds. The amount of history in such a small space is truly mind-blowing!
The people of Shetland have their own unique history, largely built around the sea and therefore the fishing industry, including a herring boom in the late 19th to early 20th century. At that time the population of Shetland was hugely inflated, in comparison to the roughly 23,000 people that live there now. For example, it’s thought around 10,000 people lived in the settlement of Baltasound in Unst during the herring season in that time.
During both World Wars, many islanders fought as soldiers and a large number were in the navy. The islands suffered as many were killed, higher proportionally to the population than anywhere else in Britain. The remains of fortifications from the wars can be seen around the islands.
Shetland has a long history is emigration. Unfortunately, there were land clearances from crofts in the 19th century, added to a potato famine and shortage of fish that lead to some enforced emigration and some by choice, which continued well into the 20th century. People claiming Shetland ancestry can be found all over the world, including Martin Scorsese… and myself! My family left Shetland in 1926 to go to New Zealand, where many people have Shetland roots.
I am in love with the culture in Shetland. As an outsider, I was still aware of the community spirit on the islands. The people of the islands band together for entertainment, like with the creation of UnstFest, a family and community run festival held in Unst every July.
Being so far away from Scotland and coming from a unique blend of Scottish and Scandinavian history makes Shetland feel like an entirely new and different place. Shetland has its own dialect, and if you happen to hear two Shetlanders speaking together in Shetlandic you may find that you’re barely able to understand a thing! However, storytelling and oral history are very important in Shetland, and you can find out a lot more about it at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick.
Food in Shetland
Many a pub in Scotland offers Shetland mussels, but when you visit Shetland you get to enjoy even more of their delicious seafood. There’s salmon, scallops, mussels, and lobster, and more. Even the chippies are amazing, with their super fresh fish!
Don’t forget to try bannocks, which are a bit like bready scones, and then there’s the salted lamb or mutton, and salted fish, a nod to an era when preserving food without a refrigerator was a necessary fact of life. Reestit mutton is a Shetland specialty of Scandinavian origin. The mutton is salted first and was then traditionally hung in the rafters of the croft house to be preserved and have flavour added by the peat burning inside. It’s delicious in a soup!
For the sweet tooth, there are bakeries dotted around the island, and tablet from Shetland is definitely some of the best.
Breweries & a Distillery
For a small group of islands in the north sea, Shetland has more than its fair share of alcohol production. The Lerwick Brewery has a wide range of beers, with the 60° North Lager their first release and the most popular. The most northerly brewery in the UK is Valhalla, located in Unst. They have been brewing beer since 1997 and they pride themselves on producing Shetland and Viking inspired beer.
More recently, Unst also gained the most northerly distillery, the Shetland Distillery Company. The current focus is their Shetland Reel Gin, which uses a variety of botanicals including seaweed in one of their releases, which has proved immensely popular. The next step for the Shetland Distillery Company is to become the most northerly producer of Whisky, of course!
These small ponies are somehow world famous! We know that small ponies have been kept on the Shetland Isles since the Bronze Age. They are very sturdy animals who do well in harsh conditions, and were used for pulling carts, carrying peat and coal and farming the land. Now they’re mostly used for small children to ride or on petting shows.
Tartan and bagpipes didn’t really play a part in Shetland history, thanks to the late annexing of the islands to Scotland, but knitwear and Shetland lace have long been a part of life here. Knitwear and lace patterns could be distinct to a person or family, and passed down through generations. This intricate work is still done in Shetland today.
Artists have long been inspired by Shetland, including painters or writers like Sir Walter Scott. Many people who live there today still make their living from creating and selling their art.
Up Helly Aa
Up Helly Aa is a fire festival held in Shetland in January. While it’s held in Lerwick, but many places around the islands have their own fire festival events. It’s a celebration of Shetland’s history and spirit, played out in the form of Jarl Squads with men (and occasionally women, depending on the squad) dressed up in Viking gear. The head of the festival, the Guizer Jarl, will have organised what his squad is wearing and how the celebration will play out. It’s months in the planning and often includes torchlight processions and the burning of a Viking galley.
Up Helly Aa is an extremely busy time in Lerwick, in the middle of winter when tourists wouldn’t usually venture this far north. Book early if you plan to go to Up Helly Aa, or consider some of the other fire festival celebrations around Shetland. I went to Scalloway a few years ago, but I would LOVE to return for the Lerwick event in future!
Something that really stood out to me about Shetland is the role that music plays in everyday life. The fiddle is the traditional instrument of Shetland, in comparison to the bagpipes in the rest of Scotland. I was amazed by how many people could play the fiddle and the accordion, including young people. There’s so much musical talent in Shetland!
Community dances are still a thing, and everybody seems to learn the dances from the time they can walk! If you have the chance to attend a music night in Shetland I would highly recommend it and don’t be afraid to get up and join in the dancing. Someone will be happy to show you the steps!
Although it’s relatively easy to get to Shetland these days, it can still feel quite isolated. The physical distance is palpable. There are empty roads and beaches where you’ll see no one else, and it’s unlikely you’ll have any phone signal in the remotest areas.
Having said that, there is plenty of community spirit that’s fostered by the isolation of Shetland, and it’s almost like taking a step back in time to when things were simpler. Coming back to the bustle of Edinburgh was certainly a noticeable change after spending some time in Shetland, and I have to say I missed the feeling!
Read More: 9 Lesser Known Hidden Gems in Edinburgh
Practicalities, logistics, and need to know
How to get to Shetland
Ferry to Shetland
Shetland may be the most northerly point in Britain but it is still very accessible. Travelling to Shetland by ferry is generally my preference, and I’ve taken the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick and also from Kirkwall in Orkney to Lerwick. From Aberdeen to Lerwick by ferry is about 12 hours, but you can book a cabin or comfortable seat, or rough it on the normal chairs/cushions! Check out NorthLink Ferries for all the options, and remember to book early in summer if you want to take a car or grab a cabin.
Fly to Shetland
If you’d prefer to fly then there are multiple direct flights to Shetland available from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, and Kirkwall and they take about 2 hours.
Getting around Shetland
Once you’re on the islands, the best way to get around Shetland is by car. You can bring your own on the ferry from Aberdeen or Orkney, or hire a car from Sumburgh Airport or Lerwick. However, if you’re really into cycling, then it is possible to cycle around Shetland. The roads aren’t exactly busy, although the islands aren’t flat either!
Where to stay
Deciding where to stay in Shetland can be difficult. There are a lot of accommodation options in Shetland and it’s really about whether you’re after seclusion or being close to the main centre.
The capital of Shetland is Lerwick, and it’s the biggest place, although in saying that it’s quite small! It makes a good base for choosing accommodation in Shetland if you want to explore the mainland thoroughly, and from there it is possible to do a day trip up to the most northerly isle of Unst.
My favourite B&B is Fort Charlotte Guest House which is centrally located in Lerwick, and has the best breakfast I think I’ve ever had in a B&B! However, since you’ll likely be driving around Shetland a lot to see the sights, you can pretty much stay anywhere. There are small shops and groceries stores around the island, so no need to worry!
I would recommend staying more than a day on Unst if you have the time. The most northern island in Britain has a lot to offer, despite its size and remote location. You can stay at the former RAF base, Saxa Vord, which has several accommodation options including self-catering houses, a lodge or a hostel. There’s an onsite restaurant and it’s also the home of the most northerly brewery (Valhalla) and gin distillery (Shetland Reel) in Britain.
The best time to visit Shetland
Shetland is located on the same latitude as southern Greenland, just to give you an idea of how far north it is. However, the best time to visit Shetland is really up to you.
Visiting Shetland in summer
If you want long days with barely (if any) night then summer is a great time to visit Shetland with plenty of daylight exploring hours. Puffins are usually found on the islands between April and August if you really want to see them.
Visiting Shetland in winter
The first time I visited Shetland was in January, the middle of winter. Yes it was cold and the daylight hours were limited, but I still managed to see a lot and I was able to go to the Scalloway fire festival.
If you’re planning a trip to Scotland then seriously consider adding Shetland to your itinerary. It’s something a little different from the usual Edinburgh and Highlands trip. Believe me, you really need to see it for yourself.
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