A Week Or Two In Shetland - Part One: The South

by Alastair Hamilton -

Last year, I wrote about how to pack as much as possible of Shetland into two days or three days. Short trips can be an enjoyable ‘taster’ but Shetland is bigger and more diverse than many people imagine. Yielding to the temptation to fit in too much can mean that it’s not the most relaxing break.

So, let’s look at a trip that extends over at least a week and possibly ten days or a fortnight. In a week or so, you can certainly see a lot of what the islands have to offer. But a longer stay is better if you really want to absorb the spirit of the place, giving you time to explore off the beaten track, unwind and really enjoy all that this very special corner of Europe has to offer.

a longer stay is better if you really want to absorb the spirit of the place

This month, we’ll begin by looking at Lerwick, the south and central mainland and the islands you can reach from those areas. Next month, we’ll visit the west and north mainland and the remaining islands.

Rather than sketch out a firm day-by-day itinerary, I’ve chosen to look at what each part of Shetland has to offer, with a rough indication of how long you might want to spend there. In practice, you’ll no doubt want to focus on the things that most interest you and, if the weather turns out to be a bit mixed, adjust your programme to suit. You might, for instance, want to spend some of your time fly fishing, sea angling, kayaking, diving or playing golf; all of these and more are possible. If, like quite a few of our visitors, you’re on a yachting trip, you can hire a car or a bike when necessary.

You can find out lots more about travel, accommodation and food on our main website, which also has much more background information and ideas on things to do, than we can fit in here.

When it comes to shopping, there are interesting places throughout Shetland in which to find genuine Shetland knitwear; wool for knitting; local books; jewellery and glassware; leatherwork; local beer and gin; drawings, photographs and paintings by our many gifted artists; CDs of local music; and hand-made chocolates, fudge or soap. At the end of your stay, if your journey home won’t take long, you might want to take some of the Shetland lamb, beef or smoked fish you’ve hopefully sampled during your stay

Lerwick, Bressay and Noss

Lerwick is Shetland’s capital and its large harbour is sheltered from the east by the island of Bressay. To the east of Bressay, separated by a narrow channel, is Noss, a National Nature Reserve with exceptional seabird cliffs.

A couple of days are really the minimum to take all this in; three will allow a bit more time for walking, relaxing and perhaps some browsing in the town’s shops.

People have lived in the Lerwick area for thousands of years: there’s striking evidence of that at the Iron Age Broch of Clickimin, which is pretty well preserved. But the town of Lerwick isn’t very old, having grown up to serve the Dutch herring fleets that used to base themselves in the harbour during the summer. The first few buildings were traders’ huts but permanent buildings began to appear in the 17th century. Those known as lodberries fulfilled the functions of pier, warehouse and trader’s residence; the word means ‘loading stone’. You can still see some of them along the very picturesque waterfront in the south end of the town. One of them has featured as Perez’ house in the Shetland television series, shown on BBC1.

Houses spread up the hillside from the waterfront, forming the area known as the lanes. Towards the end of the 19th century, the area had become so congested that it was decided to create a ‘new town’ immediately to the west, and it was duly laid out on a grid pattern, with many fine Victorian villas reflecting the prosperity of the time. Another symbol of confidence was the completion of the Town Hall was completed in 1883. As I explain in another blog this month, it’s remarkable both for the vision that lay behind it and for the outstanding quality of the decoration, which includes some of the finest secular stained glass in Britain.

lodberries fulfilled the functions of pier, warehouse and trader’s residence

Not far away is Fort Charlotte, an impressive structure named after Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. The first fortification was constructed in 1652 in connection with the first Anglo-Dutch war and it was later attacked. The structure that we see today dates from 1781 and was built to counter potential threats from Dutch, French, Spanish and American forces, though it never saw military action.

Any visit to Shetland needs to include the Shetland Museum and Archives. Displays tell the islands’ story from early geological time until the present. It’s really well organised and good for children, too, with such treats as a trowie knowe (where the legendary little people lived) and the chance to grind some flour in a stone mill. If you’re interesting in delving deeper into island history, the Archives staff can help.

You might catch a concert, or a current or classic film, at the nearby arts centre, Mareel. The museum has a cafe-restaurant and Mareel has a cafe-bar; both have great views of the historic Hay’s Dock (1830) and the harbour beyond. Seals are often seen here. Less than ten minutes’ walk away is the Clickimin Leisure Centre, which has superb facilities including a large pool, children’s pool and flumes.

There are some pleasant walks around Lerwick, including an easy stroll southwards on the Ness of Sound or a route around the cliffs by the Knab that gives good views over Bressay and the south entrance to the harbour.

Any visit to Shetland needs to include the Shetland Museum and Archives

One of the most spectacular seabird cliffs in Britain, on the island of Noss, is easy to reach from Lerwick. You can take the car ferry from Lerwick to Bressay, drive, cycle or walk across the island and board the inflatable that crosses the narrow Noss Sound. You can get around the island, following the marked route, in about four hours, but it’s much better to allow five or six. The views from the cliff tops are simply stunning; below you are 150,000 birds: gannets, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and puffins. If you prefer, you can enjoy the scene from below, on one of the boats that offer tours from Lerwick.

There’s some excellent walking and wildlife-watching to be had on Bressay too; you can walk up the road that leads to the top of the Ward of Bressay, or wander to the north or south ends of the islands where there are great views and some intriguing wartime remains.

The views from the cliff tops are simply stunning

The South Mainland, including Mousa and Fair Isle

A long, quite narrow strip of land links Lerwick with Sumburgh Head, the southernmost point of the Shetland mainland. There’s more than enough on the mainland and on Mousa to fill a couple of days, and enough walking opportunities to occupy another day or two. A day trip by air to Fair Isle is possible but a longer stay is more rewarding.

Heading south from the town, there are great sea views to the east. Immediately south of Cunningsburgh, at Catpund, a scramble up the hillside will reveal a remarkable ancient quarry where soapstone casseroles and other domestic items were carved out of solid rock by prehistoric and Norse peoples.

a remarkable ancient quarry

From here, you can also see the uninhabited island of Mousa, home to the finest broch in existence. Shetland and the north and west of Scotland are studded with these Iron Age towers, but only this one is more or less complete. Mousa is also a great place to see seals. During the summer, a passenger ferry operates from Leebitton, Sandwick and you can spend half a day or a whole day on the island. Late night trips are also offered to see (and hear!) Storm Petrels, which nest in the broch’s walls.

In Sandwick, at Hoswick, you can enjoy tea and cake, and have a look around the exhibits, in a small visitor centre that focuses on the histories of knitwear manufacture and communications. Cunningsburgh and Sandwick are good places to look for both traditional and contemporary Shetland knitwear.

Farther south, at Boddam, the thatched Croft House Museum offers a glimpse of a long-gone era; you can see how Shetlanders lived and worked more than 150 years ago.

the finest broch in existence

Close to Sumburgh Airport, there are two major archaeological sites. The first you’ll come to (unless you’ve just arrived by air) is Old Scatness, where excavations over over the past fifteen years or so have revealed a broch and Iron Age settlement. Opening times are restricted, so, if you’d like to tour the site, please check in advance. A mile or so farther on, nearer the airport entrance, is Jarlshof, which spans most of the history of human settlement in Shetland, from the Neolithic to the 16th century. It’s beautifully maintained and there’s a good visitor centre, too. It’s open daily during the summer.

Continuing southwards, you’ll come at last to the southern tip of the mainland at Sumburgh Head, surmounted by a lighthouse. An excellent visitor centre in recently-renovated buildings allows you to find out all about the birds and marine life, with glimpses, too, of the lighthouse’s history and the site’s wartime role. Primitive radar here prevented what might have become the British equivalent of Pearl Harbor, an attack on Scapa Flow in Orkney.

Jarlshof spans most of the history of human settlement in Shetland

But for many people, the highlight of a visit will be the chance to see the wildlife on this RSPB reserve and, in particular, puffins. They’re not in the least bothered by camera lenses and may well be just three or four metres away. You’ll see many other seabirds, too. Seals may be visible on the rocks far below and various species of whale are sometimes seen, though that’s very much a matter of luck.

The western side of the south mainland is celebrated for its stunning coastal scenery and magnificent beaches, especially the sand tombolo that links St Ninian’s Isle to the mainland. You can walk across it and visit the ruined chapel on the island, where a hoard of Celtic silverware was unearthed; replicas are in the Shetland Museum. However, there are other diversions, including the impeccably-restored Quendale Mill, bird-watching at the Loch of Spiggie (an RSPB reserve) and lots of opportunities for hill and coastal walking

stunning coastal scenery

Fair Isle, Britain’s remotest inhabited island, lies 25 miles south of the Shetland mainland. Its fame rests partly on knitwear and islanders continue to produce the real thing here, though of course the style has been ‘borrowed’ by imitators around the globe. Fair Isle is also a quite exceptional place for birds. There are seabirds, of course, but birders flock here during the spring and autumn migrations in the knowledge that they’ll almost certainly see something pretty unusual, for rarities from as far afield as North America or Siberia often find a safe haven here after being blown across the Atlantic or the North Sea.

But this very welcoming community has much else to offer. The walks are spectacular and there are other kinds of craft work here as well as knitwear, including traditional boat-building. It’s a beautiful, fascinating place and, although a day trip by air is possible, it really warrants at least two or three nights in the Bird Observatory or one of the B&Bs. There’s travel information here; you can fly or take the ferry.

this very welcoming community has much to offer

West of Lerwick is Scalloway, Shetland’s ancient capital. Highlights here include the excellent and very welcoming Scalloway Museum, which tells the story of the village and focuses especially on its role in the Shetland Bus operation, which supported the Norwegian resistance against the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. It’s very moving; and there are other sites in the village associated with that period, including a memorial on the seafront.

Scalloway Castle, adjacent to the museum, dates from 1600 and was the seat of the much-despised Earl Patrick Stewart, who ruled Shetland with a very firm hand and eventually made himself so unpopular that he was executed in Edinburgh. The castle is both a symbol of his power and a testament to the skills of the workers who were allegedly forced to build it.

South of Scalloway lie the islands of Trondra, West and East Burra; all three are linked to the mainland by bridges. Trondra has a fascinating croft, with a croft trail, that specialises in rare Shetland breeds. On West Burra, there are superb sandy beaches at Meal and Minn. There’s good walking, too, amid beautiful coastal scenery: head for Kettla Ness, beyond Minn on West Burra or Houss Ness on East Burra.

There’s good walking amid beautiful coastal scenery

If you’re heading back from this area, or Scalloway, it’s possible to take a detour north through the appealing Tingwall valley, with its lochs, and pause for a view of the Tingaholm (or Lawthing Holm), site of Shetland’s Norse parliament. A sign in the layby explains the scene.

In the second part of this article, next month, I’ll look at the rest of Shetland.