Shetland Travel Guide
As I continue my review of this month’s trip to the Shetland Isles, I’m going to deviate slightly from the typical blogging route and dive into a deeper exploration at getting the most out of visiting these parts. Its fascinating and unique culture, its wildlife, its largely self-sufficient industrial prowess – this is a place with a very strong identity. Whether weighing up a visit or just blessed with a traveller’s curiosity, this Shetland travel guide is an attempt at putting my interpretation of the place into words.
Where else could I possibly start? The Viking influence in Shetland is well-kent and legendary. The fearsome Scandinavian warriors stormed to the Isles around 1200 years ago and many made them their new home. While the ‘rape and pillage’ tag may spring to mind, they were in actuality an exceptionally industrious people and introduced new methods of agriculture, entertainment and construction. Invaders yes, but also progressive settlers. The Nordic legacy lives on today – in the language, housing styles, place names and, of course, through the eternal power of Up Helly Aa.
While I’ve always been aware of Up Helly Aa and attended the Edinburgh Hogmanay Processions on numerous occasions, my true exposure to the process is very recent. Earlier this summer I had dinner (as you do) in Glasgow with the current Jarl’s Squad, who were kind enough to show up in full dress. Chatting about the details of their role, the origins of the tradition and the detailed planning required was one of the biggest eye-openers in my time as a Scotland travel blogger. Going back to the late 1800s, Up Helly Aas have become THE event in the Shetland calendar.
The Jarl is the main man – he selects the squad of would-be warriors and oversees the extraordinary amount of effort that goes in to each man’s weaponry and clothing. Gigantic beards are also a matter of considerable importance and, throughout my actual visit to Shetland, it was impossible to miss the conspicuous number of bearded gents. The event itself meanwhile is organised pandemonium. The Jarl Squads take to the streets in force and are followed by a large procession of locals as they collectively celebrate the start of the New Year, their own way. A blinding mass of blazing torches combine to set fire to a carefully constructed Viking galley ship and, although the Lerwick event is the largest, these happen across the islands every year between January and March. Singing, drinking and tale telling go on well into the early hours. This is without doubt one of the most powerful displays of cultural pride in the world.
In addition to attending the event(s) themselves (which you absolutely should at least once in your life), you can immerse yourself further into Viking mode with a visit to Jarlshof. Alongside the pre-historic brochs, roundhouses and wheelhouses there are the distinctive Viking longhouses that reveal their presence here. Then there’s a brilliant re-creation of a Viking longship (Skipbladner) on Unst that you’ll not be able to resist clambering aboard if passing by. And, for culture vultures, the Shetland Museum is top class for a broader look at Shetland’s colourful past.
Viking fixation aside, I would say Shetland was the most un-Scottish of Scottish experiences I’ve had. There were definitely times when I pondered that this didn’t feel like Scotland – thing was, it didn’t feel like anywhere else either. I wrested about with this for a bit before eventually concluding that Shetland is simply its own place. A relatively isolated island was always going to take on its own identity so it should really come as no surprise that it is supremely unique. I see bits of the Uists, Orkney, Islay and Caithness in abundance but there’s at least as many signals emanating from Norway, the Faroes and Iceland too. Whatever way you look at it though, Shetland has a character that will take some beating.
Shetland offers an absolutely astonishing mix of landscapes. While vast stretches of the terrain are frankly bland and desolate, the coastal areas are as dramatically jaw-dropping as anywhere you’ll ever see. Peat bogs stretch out over endless treeless miles inland and on a grey day this paints a truly bleak picture. But in Shetland you are never more than 3 miles from the sea….and that is where its x-factor unquestionably lies.
Vengeful waves scream into gigantic sandstone cliff-faces. Sea birds squawk mercilessly. And the light plays around joyously with a photographer’s creativity. It’s hard to imagine a busier landscape than a Shetland coastline. That’s before I even get to the beaches – they’re pretty good too.
Even if you have only a fleeting interest in wildlife, bring a pair of binoculars to Shetland. Trust me here. Over 1 million seabirds breed in Shetland every year and a sizable number of visitors to the islands are bird enthusiasts. Puffins, guillemots, petrels, oystercatchers, gannets….they’re all here in glorious form. That said, respect the locals’ privacy please – there can’t be much worse than a bunch of alarmingly oblivious binoculars buzzing about in your garden as you’re trying to do the dishes. True story, I did actually witness this. The appeal does not end there either. Whales (Humpback, Killer and Minke), dolphins, seals and the easy-to-adore otter are other regular visitors to Shetland’s coastlines.
Coming inland, there is one iconic species that needs no introduction to anyone with any knowledge of these parts. The Shetland Pony is quite possibly the cutest animal in the world. Visible throughout Shetland in fields and, in one very fortunate case during my travels, actually holding up traffic on the road, you’ll not have to look too far to find them. I attended the Shetland Pony Show and Sale during my visit – an annual event where droves of them are inspected and put on the market for purchase. I’d have bought the lot of them if I could’ve. They take a slightly unnerving statuesque form as they appear deep in thought. It’s a love at first sight thing. If you manage not to reach for your camera, you might want to get yourself checked out. You can’t be well.
The other animal that you’ll become very familiar with inland is of course the sheep. Strangely much cuter and less menacing than Western Isles sheep (which look kinda murdersome, just me?) many are apparently offshoots of Spaelsau sheep, native to Norway. See, it’s those Vikings again! There’s a brilliant little treasure trove for Shetland’s top quality local produce in the form of the Shetland Tannery. Offering sheepskins (from local sheep and that would otherwise have been discarded) and various lifestyle products, Natalie (Shetland’s only female tanner) runs her workshop from her family home. Which includes the friendliest sheepdog ever.
Shetland Industry and Life
Fishing is unsurprisingly the biggest industry in the Shetland Isles. In excess of 80,000 tonnes of fish are landed here annually (cod, haddock, mackerel, herring and more) with much of the catch also being processed locally. So we’re talking a big employer as the clean and cool waters around Shetland keep fish numbers supremely high. Fish and mussel farms are dotted about off-shore and if you’re lucky you may spot a local farmer showing off his lobster catch. Failing that head for the excellent Scalloway Hotel for high end produce at very reasonable prices or to the award winning Frankie’s Fish and Chips for a budget-friendly option. For the latter think Scallop Suppers. No, seriously. Watermills were also a vital historic source of sustenance for Shetlanders and you’ll find no finer an example of this working process than 19th Century Quendale Mill.
Coming back to wool, it is another massive element within the Shetland economy. I was fortunate to be given a tour of Jamieson’s of Shetland – a booming local producer of top quality yarn as a commercial woollen mill. Using traditional methods and original machinery, the care that goes into making their products is quite astonishing. Not usually my thing, I found myself captivated with the industrial process as well as Garry’s (whose family has owned the business for generations and is yet another bearded Jarl Squad member by the way) infectious passion for his work. Jamieson’s is currently running at full capacity and sells to worldwide markets as the focus on quality intensifies.
The creative crafts scene really is fantastic here and the impressively coordinated Shetland Craft Trail is the best way to get properly immersed in this stuff. Highlights for me included the work at Shetland Jewellery and Hoswick Visitor Centre. The former brings you up close with the intricacy of handmade jewel sculpting and sells everything you can imagine. The latter looks into the history of the settlement of Hoswick and houses various weaving machinery and a bizarre collection of wireless radios. Neighbouring Laurence Odie Knitwear Ltd is another bustling wool factory and big thanks to the charismatic Laurence (yes, he was bearded and is the upcoming Yarl for Yell incidentally) for showing me around. As my tour ended, he points out with amusement that the immortal cardy worn by Robin William’s Mrs Doubtfire was in fact made here.
Shetland has of course benefitted economically from the oil and gas industry in recent decades. Access to the lucrative North Sea resources has ensured that money has spread around the local economy and facilities are of a much higher standard that other Scottish islands as a result. Roads are slick, accommodation and restaurant standards high and everything generally feels more efficient and coordinated. Even many small businesses have proper websites that are mobile responsive and secure – something that took some getting used to given my endless frustrations with the technological limitations in the Highlands and Islands. As a digital marketing consultant, I applaud this with long awaited delight!
A Bunch of Practical Information
When to visit?
I generally advise avoiding summer months for most of the Scottish Isles as the crowds are in, the weather is appallingly unreliable, the midges are out and the prices are high. Not so on Shetland and summer is probably your best bet, particularly if you’re interested in the bird life. Puffins head out to sea as the summer weather fades so if these guys are on your list, consider a mid-summer visit. Up Helly Aa (January) will always bring in visitors in droves and arrangements for this should be made months in advance.
As for how long to visit, you’ll want at least a week if you want to properly experience Shetland. If you intend to adequately explore multiple islands then I suggest thinking nearer to a fortnight.
Getting to Mainland Shetland
Shetland is a geographically challenging spot to reach. Although there are regular direct flights from Scotland’s main cities, you will almost certainly need a car to get about while here. Hence, the 12 hour overnight ferry from Aberdeen (sometimes stopping in Orkney) becomes the best option. NorthLink Ferries are a genuinely excellent service and, provided the seas are not too choppy, your trip will fly by. Locally sourced food and drink is available on board and the staff are impeccably friendly. I do strongly advise getting a cabin if your budget will permit it.
Getting Around While Here
It’s hard for me to imagine getting the best out of Shetland without a car. You’d be making life exceedingly difficult for yourself and rental cars are ubiquitous. As the numerous office chairs that adorn the bus stops throughout Shetland suggest, buses don’t come along too regularly.
As for island hopping, the North Isles get the majority of interest and you can jump over to Yell from Toft on North Mainland. From Yell, you can then hop onto connecting ferries to Unst and Fetlar. Stay tuned for next week’s blog when I look back on my visit to Unst! Bressay and Noss are reachable from Lerwick by frequent ferries. Super-remote Foula can be reached by plane (via Tingwall Airport) or boat (from Waas) but both options are very much weather dependent.
As you can doubtless imagine, wind is the big issue on Shetland. It doesn’t get much windier than here and this can be dangerous particularly in the clifftop spots where you’ll likely find yourself. Like all Scottish islands, the other elements of the forecast are unpredictable and all over the shop. Four seasons in an hour etc etc. Yes, unfortunately that means being prepared for just about anything! If it makes you feel any better, I’m a drone pilot. Imagine how I felt.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my Shetland travel guide and are currently making plans to get yourself to Scotland’s northern limits as soon as possible. For those in the know, are there any crucial elements that I’ve missed out?
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