Shetland rápido: I learn what you can really fit into three days...

by Alastair Hamilton -

Elsewhere on these pages, I’ve suggested how visitors might spend two days in Shetland, with a strong recommendation that it would be better to allow three and – ideally – many more. As it happens, I recently had the chance to try out a three-day break with a couple of Spanish friends. Angela and José are tour guides for Spanish speakers visiting the Scottish Highlands and – because of that – were constrained by their commitments. So, this is a kind of worked example of how such a trip might look.

They’d arrived on the ferry from Aberdeen and we began with a walk around old Lerwick, exploring the lanes that lead uphill from the seafront and stopping to look inside the Town Hall, which has nationally-important and beautifully crafted 19th century stained glass.

The area is wonderfully sheltered by buildings and high walls, so it’s one of the best places in Shetland for keen gardeners. There are lots of trees; fuschia is everywhere. Down by the harbour, we looked at the old lodberries; lodberrie literally means a loading stone, but in fact the meaning has expanded to cover the home and small warehouse in which Lerwick’s earliest traders lived and did business. They’re exceedingly picturesque and one of them is the location of Perez’ house in the Shetland television series.

...one of the best places in Shetland for keen gardeners...

After a very welcome breakfast in the Peerie Shop Café, we headed south. It was a bit too windy that day for the ferry to operate to Mousa (site of the best broch anywhere), so we carried on to Sumburgh Head and spent well over an hour there, taking in the story of the lighthouse and the interesting wartime role of the radar station that averted a British version of Pearl Harbor at Scapa Flow in Orkney. The natural history displays are really well done, too.

But, above all, we found it particularly hard to tear ourselves away from the puffins.

After lunch at the Sumburgh Hotel, we went next door to Jarlshof, which is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the northern isles. The site was continuously occupied from the Neolithic period to the 16th century and some sections (such as the wheelhouses) are so complete that pretending to be back in the Iron Age is really very easy.

The day was rounded off by a visit to St Ninian’s Isle, with its shell-sand tombolo that’s a thing of wonder and beauty at any time of year.

...pretending to be back in the Iron Age is really very easy.

Our second day was a bit of a marathon, but we did manage to pack a lot in without it feeling too rushed. We headed north, crossing by ferry to Yell and then onwards on a second ferry to Unst. Shetland’s internal ferries are really easy to use and not expensive: the two northbound and two southbound crossings (you pay only on the first northbound one) cost us a total of just £23.60 for the car and passengers.

We knew we didn’t have time to do the long walk on Hermaness that gives a great view of Muckle Flugga and Out Stack, so we drove up the neighbouring hill, Saxa Vord, and took a shorter walk among the bonxies (Great Skuas) to see Britain’s northernmost outposts from a slightly different angle.

That was followed by an exploration of one of my favourite corners of Unst, the beach at Cross Geo, Clibberswick, where – just beyond a talc quarry – serpentine rocks have been battered and then smoothed by the sea to produce an astonishing range of pebbles in colours ranging from creamy-white to jet black, with most displaying beautiful shades of green in between. It’s not a place on most visitors’ itineraries but everyone I’ve ever taken there has been delighted – and wished they could carry the whole beach home!

It’s not a place on most visitors’ itineraries...

A very leisurely lunch at Victoria’s Vintage Tearooms was excellent and somehow we even found room for cake. Next door, we took a look inside the Unst Boat Haven, which should be on every itinerary, for there are few better places to understand Shetland’s relationship with the sea. Before leaving Unst and heading south, we visited Muness Castle, which was begun in 1598 by Laurence Bruce, one of the rogueish landlords who made their presence felt in Shetland at that period. It’s nevertheless an impressive structure and testament to the craftsmanship of those who built it.

...we even found room for cake...

Back on the mainland, we paused in Brae for fish and chips from the award-winning Frankie’s, then headed north-west in the early evening to Eshaness, to take in the great cliff scenery, the natural arches and stacks, and the blowholes that make it such a special place. It was necessarily a short visit; one could easily spend a whole morning or day here, walking the coast and exploring the features of what was once either a volcano or possibly the outer rim of a meteorite strike; experts aren’t completely sure.

The last day was taken at a gentler pace. After a beach walk at Minn on West Burra, we spent around an hour in the excellent Scalloway museum, then headed into the castle, built by Earl Patrick Stewart, the similarly unloved half-brother of Lawrence Bruce of Muness. Again, it’s a seriously impressive structure, whatever one may feel about its origins. In the afternoon, after an exploration of the good things on offer from Handmade Fish (run by Dave Parham, whose smoked salmon and smoked haddock are quite wonderful) and Scoop (a fantastic deli), we had a good two hours in the utterly absorbing Shetland Museum and Archives and then retired to Fjara, a café by the shore, to watch the seals and passing ships. And then it was time to say goodbye.

It wasn’t easy to pack so much of Shetland into three days and it simply reinforced the point that more time is needed. The south mainland or Unst alone, could easily fill three or four days. Whilst one can get some sense of the main highlights in such a short time, it’s often the little diversions – like the stones at Cross Geo, or the beach at Minn, or indeed tasting smoked salmon in the shop – that will help to cement memories, and on a really short trip there isn’t time to do more than scratch the surface.

...it’s often the little diversions...that will help to cement memories...

The good news, of course, is that my friends will be back at some point to see all the many things that we couldn’t fit in to our pint pot and to enjoy, with more time, some of the things we could!