Mainland Shetland – My Travel Blog Highlights
An absolute belter of a storm rages outside. I’ve been tossing and turning in my cabin bunk, gauging the distance to the bathroom and the likelihood of projectile vomiting on my journey there. Images of Titanic scream to mind as I attempt every diversion technique known to man to distract me from the growing messages of outrage being passed along by my stomach. Should I have taken the plane? No. God help me – that may have been worse. Where did they say the nearest life raft was? How many people can fit in a life raft anyway? I pretty much count the minutes until our good ship finally docks and the reverberating sound of Celine Dion finally bounces off to damage some other poor sod’s nervous system. Naturally I fall out of my cabin to find the staff infuriatingly unperturbed by the journey and in the most hearty of good spirits as I mutter something about thank you and gingerly take my leave of the vessel.
Yes, I have arrived in Shetland.
A man of the sea, sadly I am not. Lengthy ferry journeys (despite the absolutely fantastic service provided by NorthLink by the way) in anything other than becalmed waters do not agree with me. But it all matters not because at long last I’m able to add Shetland to my travel blog wanders. Having spent the last week exploring the northern boundary of Scottish territory, it’s been an amazing journey into a fascinating culture, presenting me with an extremely different side of Scotland. For now, here’s my look at the best of Mainland Shetland, where the majority of the attractions are to be found. I’ll be expanding on the below with a look into the wonderful Isle of Unst, one of Shetland’s North Isles. There will also be a more detailed look at a bit of a visitor’s practical and cultural guide for Shetland coming up soon too. For now, let’s dive right in.
Shetland Travel Blog
Lerwick – Shetland’s Capital
The Shetland Museum and Archives is one of the finest museums in the country. I don’t say that lightly and I am not exaggerating, not even a little bit and here’s my top picks to prove it. Starting with the remarkable geology of the Shetland Isles and passing through the Vikings (the good stuff!), ancestral aids and the post-1800 years including both World Wars, it is an interactive and engaging look at 5000 years of history. Modern and slick with a great location almost in the water at Hay’s Dock, this is the only place to start when it comes to getting to know Shetland. There’s even a special mention for Up Helly Aa, the legendary Shetland Fire Festival that comes first on everyone’s calendars. Read more about Shetland’s uniquely powerful culture in my Shetland Travel Guide.
Next door to the Museum, you’ll find Mareel. A cinema, concert hall, meeting area, recording studio and café all rolled into one, this fantastic space is a modernised arts centre for Shetland. A hub of activity, it provided me with a quick fix as my city boy tendencies started to crave technology and connectivity. From my time here, it seems that Shetland suffers the same problem of so many islands – large numbers of young folk upping sticks and leaving. Mareel goes a long way to tackling this common issue and presents a plethora of interest points for young Shetlanders.
On the outskirts of town sits one of Shetland’s most interesting historical attractions, Clickimin Broch. With its advantageous loch-side location and site origins from around 700BC (Bronze Age), this is a structure that has seen centuries of Lerwick life. Boasting all sorts of nooks and crannies (stooping required), the mind races to envisage the various historical civilisations that will have passed through.
Scalloway – and a word on the ‘Shetland Bus’
Allow me to take you back to war-torn Northern Europe for a minute or two. Hitler’s Nazis are in the ascendancy and the Allies are under fierce pressure to weather the surge of invading German forces as they skip from country to country. Norway was one such nation to fall in the early stages of World War II and there was an inevitable exodus as military and civilian personnel fled the invading forces. With geography in mind, many wearied and terrified Norwegian eyes turned to Shetland and braving the treacherous waters of the North Sea became their only route of escape.
In summer 1941, the ‘Shetland Bus’ came into being. In effect a clandestine return trip service that exchanged agents, weapons and equipment with Norwegian refugees, it formed one of the most fascinating examples of international support and collaboration in the history of Europe’s great nations. The little town of Scalloway became the ultimate Shetland base for the ‘bus’ route and the journeys became more and more sophisticated as the war dragged on. Aside from being a practical and humanitarian mission, the ‘Shetland Bus’ successfully diverted huge numbers of German troops to the North Sea – away from the primary conflict areas of WW2.
I know my war history – I studied it through school and right up to first year university – but I’m embarrassed to say this was a chapter of WW2 that fell completely off my radar. The excellent Scalloway Museum is in the heart of the town and is primarily a moving and thoughtful tribute to this extraordinary chunk of local history. The personal feats of bravery and endurance (many lives were lost at sea during this process) ensures visitors (many from Norway with their own memories of the story) flock to Shetland’s former capital. This is an absolute must see. Ask for Billy if he’s around, I couldn’t have hoped for a better local to talk me through the museum’s journey and focus.
Next door you’ll find the spooky ruins of Scalloway Castle. Built by forced labour around 1600 under the odious gaze of Earl Patrick Stewart, it has a genesis that sits uneasily. Both Patrick and his father Robert were unquestionably corrupt and evil-minded. This castle was built to satisfy Patrick’s vanity and the locals paid the price for that. The younger Stewart was to see his comeuppance – of sorts anyway – in 1615 when he was executed for treason. For the modern-day castle lovers such as myself, I quite happily bounced around the evocative interior as my imagination ran away with itself – trying not to dwell too much on the castle’s past.
On a cheerier note, the nearby Scalloway Hotel offers some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. Lobster of the very highest order, this place is right up there. Foodies, don’t miss it.
Coastal Magnificence in the South
The long, dagger-like stretch from Lerwick to Sumburgh Head is maybe Shetland at its most naturally beautiful. Gentle hills, gleaming beaches, ancient ruins, boisterous bird life and dramatic cliffs grapple for your attention.
As far as beaches go, the white glowing sands at Scousburgh and over the tombolo to St Ninian’s Isle take the biscuit. And the biscuit tin for that matter. These are some of the finest beaches in Scotland and throw up nostalgic personal memories of the Western Isles. St Ninian’s sits just off the west coast of Mainland Shetland and the ever-changing light over this stretch has photographers never knowing what’s coming next. I make multiple visits – my first appearance saw me nearly wrenched into the general direction of Massachusetts by the wind – and the difference even in the ferocity of the waves on either side of the tombolo is fascinating. In a vista that could captivate even the most restless by-passer for hours, I feel lost in time. Scousburgh, a little further to the south, gets less hype but is equally magnificent, in a more familiar, less exposed way. I shall leave the decision over first prize to you good people.
At the very end of the road comes the majestic lighthouse at Sumburgh Head. The oldest of Shetland’s numerous picturesque lighthouses, this is a prime spot for the many, many visiting birders to marvel at the puffins in summer. Taking a guided tour here is well advised – the wonderful staff will delight in telling you about the whales, dolphins et al that drop by for visits to keep the birds company. Historians pay attention to the radar station within – it was here that warning was sent to Orkney to warn of a large scale attack on the naval fleet stationed at Scapa Flow during WW2. Thanks to the actions taken in this spot on the 8th of April 1840 – a large scale catastrophe for the Allies was averted.
Aside from jumping in and out of cars, Shetland’s coastlines can also be colourfully explored by kayak. Now now, I know what you’re thinking. I’ve lost the plot. Lethal northern winds and mountainous waves – you must be kidding. But catch Shetland’s coasts on a calm day and this suddenly becomes a fabulous idea. Sea Kayak Shetland run a multitude of different routes and will take the weather and your experience levels into consideration for each. I spent a half day (advisable for most other than the super-keen I’d think) on the water and found it both exhilarating and effortlessly relaxing in equal measure. Angus is an excellent overseer and guide and you can expect to come up close with bobbing seals, otters and, of course, all sorts of bird life.
West and North Mainland
The West Mainland peninsula is a fairly lonely route into a loch-strewn and rugged stretch of Shetland. A favourite for the wildlife spotters, it is short on specific attractions and relies on its curious natural allure to pull in visitors. Distance walking routes and the odd prehistoric cairn add alternative appeal, but I simply enjoyed the drive on a misty and atmospheric morning. Ending in Sandness, my destination was Jamieson’s of Shetland. Local wool specialists for generations, I’ll talk more about Shetland’s local crafts and historical industry in a follow up Shetland travel blog later this month.
The best way to experience the largely empty north of Mainland Shetland is to head to Eshaness. Sparsely populated and involving mainly single track roads, this particular road trip feels like an expedition. The ubiquitous peat bogs gradually taper-off and are replaced by dramatic and cragged stretches of coastline – as the road to the end of the world seemingly beckons. The destination is the picturesque Eshaness Lighthouse that stands guard over the Atlantic.
There are a couple of good walking options in the lighthouse vicinity. This extensive circuit could take you half a day of exploring the wider area. A shorter option (around an hour) covers the main highlights and gives you a solid, equally mind-blowing experience. In both cases, take great care as the cliffs are precariously exposed. You’ll hopefully have noticed that I’ve kept any comparisons with Orkney absent up to now. I’ll cheekily squeeze one in here – Eshaness (and much of the northern coastline) has a similar exposed and lonely drama to Hoy’s western face. Coastal drama just doesn’t come finer.
Waves crash furiously into the sandstone cliff-faces below and the wind whistles over a barren landscape. I catch this utterly breath-taking part of the islands as the day’s sunset beckons and it delivers a sobering moment when all else just fades into insignificance. Nature has you in its grasp. I hate to leave.
I catch a glimpse of the rapidly retreating sunset in my rear view mirror as I head back on the single track road to civilisation. I realise I’m smiling ear to ear.
My trip to Shetland was supported by VisitScotland, through my role as VisitScotland Ambassador. Resultantly, I was fortunate enough to be given guided tours of several of the businesses and sites mentioned in this post. This in no way alters my immovable position of honesty and accuracy and everything in this Shetland travel blog was based entirely on my own personal experience, views and preferences. As ever, I would never recommend anything that I did not consider to be of genuine interest to my readers and I believe that all of the above would add value to any visit to Shetland. I hope you’ll agree.
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