A Note on Shetland

by Deborah Leggate -

Scott Dixon was a visitor to Shetland in July/August 2011, he has kindly shared his experience below.

Well, this has been a long time coming and there's no time like the present. 

You don't appreciate how remote the Shetland Isles are when you're flying, and it's just over 1 hour's flight from Edinburgh due North to the land of the midnight sun and Shetland ponies. By contrast, it's 15 hours by boat from Aberdeen via Orkney on to Lerwick. Shetland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to Manchester! The descent in to Sumburgh is quite dramatic, as the airport is on a peninsula surrounded by water and you get the impression that you're about to hit the water and find that there is a runway at the last minute that you're landing on! 

The first thing that you notice is the sudden drop in temperature as you step off the plane. I left Edinburgh at the end of July on a sweltering hot afternoon with temperatures in the low 20s (C) 70s (F), and little more than 1 hour later it was 12c 54F with a brisk, lazy wind that doesn't go around you (it goes through you). It's a standing joke in the summer that the temperature is always 14c 57F. 

I got my passport out ready for passport control, only to be waved towards a couple of automatic doors that opened and led to a tiny rotating conveyor belt and the airport lounge itself. Sumburgh airport is best described as cute, clean and compact with everything you would expect but on a very small scale. The bus stand is just moments away on the other side, and is £2.80 for a 25 mile trip North to Lerwick. 

The bus circumnavigates the airport on the way out past Sumburgh Head (famous point for Puffins and other wildlife), across the runway (traffic lights control the flow of traffic) and on through low rolling hills past houses that are randomly situated among the countryside and through small hamlets, villages and past stunning beaches with unique scenery. You will notice eventually that there are no trees anywhere, but there are lots of sheep and quite a few ponies!

The architecture has a Scandinavian theme to it, and you will often find timber framed houses with timber cladding in different colours on your travels thoughout Shetland. 

There are different Islands around Shetland, and the main strip on the map is referred to as 'Mainland'. Mainland Shetland is twice the size of the Isle of Man at about 60 miles long and a few miles wide, with a quarter of the population spread across the Islands (22,000). 

To the North of the 'Mainland' is Yell (20 miles long and a few miles wide with a population of 1000), which is only 10 mins away on the ferry. Yell does have one or two nice beaches which are probably worth a visit, but the one thing that strikes you as you pass through Yell on long, straight, pot-hole free roads is the number of sheep on the Island! There are literally tens of thousands of sheep that don't appear to belong to anyone, and just randomly roam by the roads, across the roads, on the hills and everywhere else! You won't see much traffic, so you are free to just swerve around the sheep like bollards and hope that you don't hit any because you would struggle to get a signal on your mobile phone let alone find anyone to rescue you. 

Yell connects on to Unst, which is Britain's most Northerly inhabited Island at 12 miles long, 6 miles wide and a population of 600 hardy folk. There are elderly folk on Unst that have never left the Island and have never been to the Mainland (Shetland), which is hard to believe in this day and age. Unst is home to one third of Shetland's famous ponies, which are so friendly and tame. There are some stunning beaches on Unst, and you will be reminded everywhere you go that you are on Britain's most Northerly inhabited Island. Unst is home to Shetland's only brewery, and I can vouch for the quality of their brews. Each brew has a story behind it, and are as unique as the Islands themselves. 

The Islands are only 10 mins apart by ferry, and the ferries run every 20 mins on a first come, first served basis. One ticket covers all trips with the car, and cost £9.60 for return travel on that day across all ferries from Mainland Shetland to Yell and on to Unst. 

There are other Islands worthy of a visit, such as Fair Isle, Foula and The Skerries. I didn't get a chance to visit these this time round, but there's always another time. 

Lerwick is the capital of Shetland with a population of 7500 folk. It's very compact, clean and charming with many cobbled streets and a pretty working harbour. 

The discovery of oil in 1972 has brought immense wealth and prosperity to the Islands, which the locals have never lost sight of. The Islands have 8 leisure centres, high quality roads, good infrastructure, no unemployment and a relatively good quality of life to thank for it. 

Shetland folk are generally well travelled and educated, and I found them to be hard working, resourceful, friendly, hospitable, laid back, trusting, curious and interested in the outside world. 

Shetland's famous for its fiddles, and you will find people playing fiddles everywhere; on the streets, in doorways and of course in pubs! 

A parting gesture on my last day was the B & B owner giving me a lift 1 mile away to Lerwick as I checked out, and the landlady of one of the pubs inviting me in for a farewell drink before I caught the bus back to the airport. That for me was the icing on the cake of a cracking holiday. 

It's fair to say that it left a lasting impression on me, and I would recommend it to anyone for a holiday with a difference and one for your bucket list.

Scott Dixon