Lying approximately 100KM north of Scotland are the 300 islands and skerries that make up the Shetland archipelago. With its capital, Lerwick, situated closer to Norway than Scotland, it is a community of people that have always felt a strong connection to their Norse roots. It’s worth embracing the distinctive nature of the island when visiting Shetland.
Shetland, or Zetland as it was once known, was a Scandinavian state until the end of the 15th Century . It was gifted to Scotland as part of a dowry succeeding Princess Margaret of Denmark’s marriage to James III of Scotland.
Shetland’s history leaves its 13,000 residents unique in the sense that many of them identify as Shetlanders first and Scots second. So intertwined is their history with Scandinavia that their identity is a mix of influences and cultures. When you step off the ferry onto the Lerwick terminal you get the sense that you are about to have a magical experience while visiting Shetland.
Travelling to Shetland
There are a few ways to get to Shetland from the mainland. You can fly direct from most cities in Scotland including Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness. This is obviously the quickest way to reach Shetland however it comes at a cost and does mean you are missing out on the legendary ferry journey!
The ferry leaves from Aberdeen and stops at Orkney before continuing onto Shetland. The total journey from Aberdeen to Shetland takes around 12 hours and sails through the night. There are a number of options when traveling. You can pay for foot passenger tickets only and rough it out overnight- finding a space somewhere to bed down. Alternatively, you can pay a nominal fee for a reclining chair or a sleeping pod. Although, I can’t say I’ve heard the most glowing reviews about the Pods! Bear in mind that many of the passengers will enjoy a fair swalley in the ferry bar so any communal sleeping areas have the potential to be noisy, a little smelly and generally incompatible with a good nights sleep!
To Sleep or Not to Sleep
If you value your sleep as much as we do then you can pay an extra fee for a private cabin. Our small ensuite cabin set us back around £80 each way but for us it was absolutely priceless. A comfy bed, a TV and a hot shower in the morning set us up perfectly for our 8am arrival in Shetland and meant we could explore the island feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep.
We also opted to take our car over. This meant we could explore the island on our own time and to our own schedule. With only a few days to spare we had no time to lose and the car made everything that little bit easier while visiting Shetland.
For a full list of ferry prices please click here.
We were able to visit many of Shetland’s sights, however a return trip is needed in order to further experience everything that Scotland’s most northerly island has to offer. We hope to return to the island during Shetland’s famous Up Helly Aa festival. Up Helly Aa takes place on the last Tuesday in January every year and involves a series of marches and visitations, culminating in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a galley. This fire festival marks the end of yule and is rooted deeply in the Norse pagan culture of Shetland’s past.
While we haven’t yet had the chance to experience this fiery spectacle we were still able to see much of what makes Shetland such a special place. We have created a list of our favourite experiences while visiting Shetland!
It’s rare that my favourite part of an area is its main town. My outdoor loving nature usually gravitates towards a remote hill, loch or waterfall, however there is something about Lerwick that is just absolutely magical. Paved with flagstones and filled with small, crooked buildings dating from the 18th and 19th century, the town has a colourful and interesting past.
Overlooking Victoria Pier, the Tollbooth was originally built in 1770 for collecting taxes. However, its use has changed remarkably over the years. It has been; a jail, ballroom, museum, archive, seaman’s mission, post office, and more recently, the headquarters for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute). If walls could talk I am sure they would have a story or two here!
The stone cobbled streets and alleys add a character unmatched in many other parts of Scotland. Their charm is compounded by the street signs which display both the old and new names for the streets and alleys knows as “da lanes” by the locals. The curious street signs are a nod to the past after the Commissioners of Police decided to ‘modernise’ the names in 1845. For example, Betty Mann’s Closs was renamed Crooked Lane and Dirty Closs changed to Chromate Lane. The display of both sets of names really evokes the Lerwick of old and adds to the quirky nature of the main town.
Another amazing feature in Lerwick is the centrally located Bain’s beach. Just a stone’s throw from the old town and sandwiched between the lodberries sits this beautiful small sandy beach which seems out of place and completely at home all at the same time. This beach is a must see when visiting Shetland .
The lodberries are stone buildings which were constructed on the seafront by merchants in the 1700s to make it easy for their haul to be dropped straight from the boats into dry storage. You might recognise this area of Lerwick from the BBC TV series Shetland as The Lodberry is the house where Jimmy Perez lives.
The Lodberries also had another underground function. They were often used to smuggle tea, tobacco, and other goods onto the island. The merchants who lived on Commercial Street even had secret tunnels built from the lodberries into their homes so that they could move their cargo unnoticed.
There were once 21 active lodberries in Lerwick. Those that remain have largely been converted into new businesses and building. Those situated at the south end of the town stand in the sea as they have always done. Three former lodberries are incorporated into the Queens Hotel. I personally would love to lay in bed as the waves crash against the wall directly outside. Hmm… I might just have to book a room.
Sitting conspicuously between a large Tesco superstore and a modern sports centre is an ancient iron age broch dating back over 2000 years. The stone fortification was probably built by a powerful local dignitary as a display of their wealth and power. It used to be accessible only by a causeway before the level of the entire loch was lowered in more recent history. The well preserved and remarkably intact broch has many interesting features- including some stone cut footprints which are displayed near the entrance. It was our first stop when we arrived off the ferry as is definitely worth a look when visiting Shetland.
I would highly recommend visiting the Shetland Museum in Lerwick during your visit. Visitors and researchers can explore the fascinating story of Shetland’s heritage and culture in one place, with access to a wealth of documents and artefacts covering all aspects of the islands’ past at Shetland Museum and Archives. We did just that and thoroughly enjoyed our visit!
Strategically positioned overlooking the narrow strait between Shetland and Bressay is Fort Charlotte. The current pentagonal building dates from 1781, however there were two previous forts on the same site that were destroyed by war. The fort is great for a quick visit while in Lerwick. It’s free to visit and has plenty of information boards to explain the history of the fortification. One of the best things about the fort is the view across the harbour and out to sea. The buildings are still actively used by the military so it is only possible to explore the outside of the fort.
Fresh Seafood with views of the North Sea
As you would expect from an island renowned for its fishing industry Shetland is home to some of the most delicious seafood we’ve ever tasted. All the meals we enjoyed while in Shetland were fresh, flavourful, and cooked to perfection. I would highly recommend No 88, The Dowry and Fjara for an amazing meal.
We enjoyed two delicious meals at The Dowry including a brunch of eggs, avocado, sundried tomatoes, and halloumi. (Out of this world!) For dinner we decided to share a seafood stew that was packed full of tasty treats from the sea. The muscles were deliciously fresh and the scallops were sweet, soft and with just the right amount of colour on the outside. The sauce and broth that accompanied both was packed full of ocean flavour. Based on our experience I would highly recommend this restaurant.
We were also lucky enough to bag a table at the renowned Fjara café! Shell enjoyed a tasty fish cake and a local pint while looking out to the wild North Sea. I opted for a burger which was equally as tasty. The views from this small café made this experience for us. There is something innately calming about sitting in comfort watching the North Sea waves crash around you. The café is well worth a reservation when visiting Shetland.
No 88 Kitchen and Bar
As fabulous as those experiences were, I have to say that the late lunch we enjoyed at No.88 before jumping on our ferry home was the highlight of our culinary journey. We enjoyed an open fish finger sandwich and a seafood linguine. On the surface a simple meal, but when fresh seafood is cooked as well as it was here it just elevates it to another level. The batter on the homemade fish fingers was crisp and housed fresh flaky white fish. The linguine was full of the flavours of the sea including fresh muscles, calamari and prawns. The flavours were set off by a perfectly balanced creamy garlic sauce.
The food we enjoyed in Shetland was an experience in and of itself but also set us up for full days of exploring and adventuring! We have listed some of our favourite sites out with Lerwick below.
St Ninian’s Beach
One of my favourite spots in Shetland was the stunning St Ninian beach. St. Ninians beach is a large tombolo on the west coast of Shetland. This narrow sandy beach links the South Mainland with St Ninians Isle. We enjoyed a sunny afternoon swimming in the sea and paddleboarding with a few curious seals for company. The area exuded a peaceful ambiance only matched by its aesthetic beauty.
St Ninian’s Isle is famous for the buried treasure that was found by schoolboy Douglas Coutts in 1958. Coutts found 28 silver objects in a wooden box, buried under a slab marked with a cross. The treasure dates to the 8th century and most of the pieces are considered to be Pictish.
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Nature Reserve and Café
If you are wanting to find an amazing spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and slice of cake then look no further than the café at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse. Sitting at the southern tip of Shetland this spot is a mecca for nature lovers! If you time your visit right you may be lucky enough to spot Puffins, basking sharks and even the rare Orca! The disused lighthouse is also very interesting to look around. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any whales during our visit! However, sitting in the café looking out to the Atlantic ocean below was an experience in and of itself. I would highly recommend a trip here when visiting Shetland.
Since visiting we often check their live video cam which is a great way for spotting bird life and the Northern lights on clear winter nights.
West Voe Sands
West Voe Sands is located on the Southern tip of Shetland, right by Sumburgh Airport and the ancient settlements of Jarlshof and Old Scatness Broch. The long white sand beach has very easy access and is popular with dog walkers and families. Picnic tables with views down over the beach are available for use.
We enjoyed having to drive across the airport runway to reach the beach!
Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement
The Jarlshof prehistoric site consists of ruins from over 4,000 years of Shetland history. From Neolithic roundhouses to a Celtic broch to a late medieval castle. The journey through the ruins leads you through thousands of years of Shetland’s history. The site is so well preserved that you can genuinely get a feel of what the settlements would have been like. Unfortunately the visitors centre is currently closed so you are unable to get the useful audio guide, however you can still visit the rest of the site.
You can’t go to Shetland without admiring their most famous breed- the Shetland pony. They have roamed the hills of Shetland for at least 4000 years, and are as permanent a fixture as the volcanic Eshaness coast or the ancient Jarsholf settlement.
Hardened by the exposed conditions they have become a sturdy and reliable breed. Shetland ponies were used in the British coal mines due their small strong frames. They were able to navigate the low, narrow tunnels while carrying large loads on their backs.
While giving the appearance of being free roaming animals, they are in fact owned and looked after by local crofters. However, they certainly make the most of the land they have called home for thousands of years!
Two places where you can see Shetland ponies are at the Shetland Croft House and next to Scalloway Castle. It is great to watch these fantastic wee ponies grazing while visiting Shetland.
Scalloway Castle is an impressive 4 story stone mansion overlooking the Scalloway bay. It was built in 1600 by Earl Patrick Stewart after Mary Queen of Scots had gifted both Orkney and Shetland to the Stewart family in the 16th Century.
The castle is somewhat of a symbol of the harsh rule that Earl Patrick Stewart subjected the islands to for over 40 years. Earl Patrick was imprisoned in 1609 for his unfair rule, and later granted bail before eventually being executed in 1615 due to his continued tyrannical behaviour. The castle then fell into disrepair leaving only the stone walls that we are able to see today.
Going North – Eshaness Rock Formations
The Eshaness peninsula on the West coast of Shetland boasts one of the most dramatic coastlines imaginable. It was born hundreds of millions of years ago when a powerful volcano spewed out volcanic rock and debris.
The cliff face still bears witness to the ash, dust and lava that the Eshaness Volcano threw out. Contrasting coloured layers and rock types freeze history in the cliffs forever.
The North Sea is now the main explosive force in the area as its huge unrelenting waves batter the rocks and arches around the coast!
Door Holm or “door island” is a small uninhabited islet off the North West sitting close to the Eshaness shore. The distinctive rock formation is said by some to resemble a horse drinking from the water. It certainly catches your eye as you drive along the coast!
We will be back!
We are keenly aware that we only managed to scrape the surface on our first visit to Shetland. However, in the brief time we were there we well and truly fell in love with the place! We hope to return soon so that we can further immerse ourselves in this wonderful Scottish Island.
Please let us know what you think of our Shetland trip. We would love to hear about your own experiences and recommendations!
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