When time is tight...

by Alastair Hamilton -

I’m regularly asked to suggest itineraries for visits to Shetland; often, the visits that people are planning are very short, perhaps just two or three days, and those who arrive on cruise liners typically have just a day to experience what the islands have to offer.

Any trip to Shetland will live in the memory, for it’s a remarkable place in so many ways, and the shortest of trips may well create an unquenchable desire to come back and stay longer.

One of the reasons that people plan quite short visits is that they may not realise just how large Shetland is. The compressed version of the islands that appears on ‘tilted’ television weather maps doesn’t help. The reality is that, driving on mostly excellent, fast roads, it takes around two hours to drive the length of the mainland, and around three if visits to Unst or Fetlar are to feature.

The first recommendation, then, is that if you’ve allowed two days, you should – if travel arrangements allow – add at least one more. However, if a longer visit isn’t possible, here’s a quick guide to what you might do, assuming that you have just those two full days. In fact, you could easily spread these suggestions over three or four more relaxed days, especially if civilised pauses for tea and cake are required. I’ve tried to include options that reflect a range of interests.

Any visit to Shetland will live in the memory

Day 1

If you can make an early start, have your own transport, and are tempted by the prospect of seeing the very top of Britain, it’s perfectly possible to undertake a day trip to Unst. A drive north through the Shetland mainland, taking about 45 minutes, is followed by a ferry crossing to Yell and, after another drive of a little under half an hour, a further ferry to Unst; ferries are easily booked in advance. Around ferry terminals, keep an eye out for otters and, aboard the ferries, don’t be surprised if there’s a sighting of porpoises or whales. Once in Unst – roughly two hours from Lerwick – you can head to Hermaness National Nature Reserve, a great place for seabirds and for encountering the bonxies (great skuas) that may dive-bomb you on the path – hold a stick or something similar above your head for protection! You’ll be able to look down on Muckle Flugga Lighthouse and, beyond that, a rock called Out Stack, which is where Britain ends. The walk to the top of the headland and back will take you about three hours; a bit longer if you want to linger, or come back by a different route. There are more details here. Do take particular care not to walk on steep, grassy slopes above the cliffs, as they can be slippery and thus very dangerous.

If you don’t fancy a longish walk, there is another way to see Muckle Flugga and Out Stack: you can drive up the road to the former radar station at Saxa Vord, park the car and then walk northwards for a few hundred metres along a track that gives excellent views.

it’s perfectly possible to undertake a day trip to Unst

For the walk, you’ll probably want to take a picnic, but you might want to leave room (and time) for a generous post-walk helping of cake and afternoon tea at Victoria’s Vintage Tearooms in Haroldswick. You might also have time to look into the adjacent Boat Haven or the Unst Heritage Centre for an fascinating insight into the island’s past. If organising a visit to a brewery appeals, you could do that, too: there’s one in Unst.

If you don’t do the Hermaness walk, you can allow more time to explore, for example by heading to the beautiful little east-facing sandy beach at Skaw, just north of Britain’s northernmost house; or you could explore Unst’s Viking past. Another option is to divide your time between Unst and Yell, or (if the ferry times work for you) Fetlar. Both Yell and Fetlar have excellent local heritage centres, bird reserves and walking. Yell is noted for otters and, if you want a close encounter with them, local guides can help. The ferries from Yell back to the mainland run well into the evening, so you can return to your mainland base after a very full day. Alternatively, you could stay in Unst and make an early start southwards in the morning, perhaps to explore Northmavine.

...you could stay in Unst and make an early start southwards in the morning...

In any case, Northmavine is an obvious alternative for Day 1. It involves less driving and will let you explore some of Shetland’s most spectacular coastal scenery in walks from Eshaness Lighthouse along the cliff-tops, the rim of an ancient volcano which features spectacular rock formations.

If conditions are favourable, you could walk up Ronas Hill, Shetland’s highest, with notable sub-arctic rock patterning. Other walks (there are many!) could take you to Uyea or Fethaland. Again, there’s a heritage centre – Tangwick Haa – that reveals the district’s past, and you’re not far from tea and indulgent cake, either, at the Braewick Café, which has stunning views. There are places to stay in Northmavine and it’s a perfectly feasible overnight stop.

Walking in Shetland is excellent but we do recommend that you read our guide.

Day 2

So much more to see, so little time! Making choices is really hard and there’s more in the suggestions below than you’re likely to be able to fit into one day, but the selection obviously depends on what most interests you.

One option for the morning would be to take in the award-winning Shetland Museum in Lerwick, which will help fill in some of the gaps inevitable in a short trip and make clear how much more there is to see. You could also visit the Scalloway Museum, which has fascinating displays about the Shetland Bus, the wartime link between Shetland and Norway. In Lerwick, you might also explore the old town and see Fort Charlotte; in Scalloway, you can visit Earl Patrick Stewart’s castle.

Another option for a half-day is to take a boat trip, for example to see the spectacular seabird cliffs at Noss: cruises operate from the small boat harbour in the centre of Lerwick. You can also go by ferry to Bressay and then inflatable to Noss, and walk up to the cliffs; but you really need most of the day to do that trip justice. Another tempting boat trip is to Mousa, from Sandwick in the south mainland. On Mousa, you can not only see but climb to the roof level of the Broch, the most complete Iron Age fort of its kind anywhere, and there are seals (and maybe larger sea creatures) to be seen, too. There’s an excellent circular walk.

For a whole day trip, a good option is the south mainland, possibly including the Mousa adventure. In fact, there are so many highlights in the area that they really can’t all be done properly in a day, but my top choices would include:

  • a visit to Sumburgh Head to see the beautifully-restored lighthouse and the seabirds, including (from mid-April until the beginning of August) those gorgeous puffins;
  • an exploration of the archaeological sites at Jarlshof and Old Scatness
  • a walk on the spectacular tombolo that links the mainland to St Ninian’s Isle, with the remains of a chapel
  • a look inside Quendale Mill, one of the three large mills that used to serve Shetland – most were much smaller – or the Croft House Museum, which portrays rural life in an earlier era

But that would have to be all. There is so much to see in Shetland, and these ideas really only provide a taste of what’s on offer. There’s a whole west mainland to explore, stunning beaches and good walks in Burra, and much more in the north, for example the beautiful landscapes and seascapes of Muckle Roe or the tranquillity of Nesting. Then there are all the other islands...but we’ll look at some options for longer stays another time.

There is so much to see in Shetland, and these ideas really only provide a taste of what’s on offer.