Explore Our Museums and Visitor Centres

Shetland folk are quietly proud of their heritage and, over decades in which the islands have faced significant change, they’ve been working correspondingly hard to preserve it. 

Shetland folk are quietly proud of their heritage and, over decades in which the islands have faced significant change, they’ve been working correspondingly hard to preserve it. One of the results is an islands-wide network of local museums and heritage centres, run by volunteers who banded together in local history groups.

However, there has also been major investment, resulting in a magnificent new museum in Lerwick in which all the threads in Shetland’s story are woven together, the fascinating and very moving Scalloway Museum, the visitor centre at Hoswick and the restoration of the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head.

The Crofthouse Museum and the museum in Lerwick was well worth. We are coming back!

Shetland Museum and Archives

The Shetland Museum and Archives is an essential port of call for local people exploring their heritage; but it’s also on the itinerary for visitors keen to learn more about these remarkable islands. Opened in 2007 by Queen Sonja of Norway and the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay, the museum takes visitors on a journey through Shetland’s past, beginning with a memorable explanation of Shetland’s changing position on planet Earth as continents drifted, collided and fragmented.

The story continues, introducing us in turn to early settlers and Pictish culture; the Viking colonisation of the islands; the mortgaging of Shetland to Scotland as part of a marriage dowry; and the development of the islands’ economy, culture and society up to the present day. The journey is illustrated by the museum’s comprehensive collections and interactive displays engage visitors of all ages.

Shetland Museum and Archives is fantastic, well worth a visit.

Not surprisingly, artefacts from crofting agriculture and fishing loom large, and the collection of knitting is excellent, but there are fascinating insights into such topics as medicine, music, wildlife, dialect, dress, communications and domestic technology. The last section recalls the arrival of the oil industry in Shetland and the way in which its impact was carefully managed. Perhaps most dramatic of all is the lofty Boat Hall, in which Shetland traditional boats are suspended; more can usually be seen on the dockside nearby. Traditional boats can also be seen under repair in the adjoining boatshed.

The Shetland Archives, on the first floor, contain a vast collection of historical documents pertaining to Shetland and a library with the most significant books relating to the islands’ history, including academic dissertations and theses. The Archives are used by researchers but there is much to engage the interested visitor.

The museum has a shop and there’s a café-restaurant on the first floor serving snacks and delicious main meals. All in all, it’s an experience not to be missed. Entry is free.

Scalloway Museum

Just a short drive or bus ride from Lerwick, the new Scalloway Museum was opened on Norwegian National Day in 2012 by the then Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. It tells one of the most compelling stories in Shetland’s recent history.

During the Second World War, the village was the main base for a clandestine operation called the Shetland Bus. Over each winter, taking advantage of darkness, small Norwegian fishing boats braved the treacherous North Sea to bring refugees from Nazi-occupied Norway to Shetland. On their return journey, they took in resistance fighters and the arms and equipment they need to pursue the fight against fascism. Many died in the operation and it was only when the US Navy lent fast boats that the losses ceased.

It’s a saga that relates acts of real heroism in the service of liberty and is all the more moving for its rigorously factual account of these perilous times.

Around a third of the museum is devoted to the Shetland Bus, but the rest of the displays are also richly detailed, portraying the life, economy and personalities of the village and the surrounding area. The generous space allows the display of a single-seater aircraft built by a local farmer, “Jim a Berry”. There is a play zone for younger children and a seated area for snacks and drinks. The museum is run by a dedicated band of volunteers and the modest charge for entry buys you a season ticket.

Hoswick Visitor Centre

Moving south from Lerwick, the Hoswick visitor centre in Sandwick offers an unusual but fascinating collection. In part, it celebrates local knitting and weaving, and you can see huge looms and admire contemporary local knitwear; there’s more knitwear to explore in the nearby knitwear factory and a nearby designer’s outlet.

Another feature of the museum is an astonishing collection of radio equipment, taking up an entire wall of the building. Around half of them – the domestic radios and radiograms – stir nostalgia in older visitors and curiosity in younger ones. However, the display of a variety of professional radio equipment, with labels that reveal their purpose, is equally fascinating.

At Hoswick, you can also learn about a piece of legal history known as the Hoswick whale case, when – thanks to the passing of the Crofting Act 1880 – crofters were able successfully to challenge the laird’s claim to the 380 whales that had been driven ashore on the beach.

Entry to the visitor centre is free, though donations are very welcome. It includes a cafe serving snacks and some delicious cakes.

Sumburgh Head

At the southern limit of the Shetland mainland, Sumburgh Head is impressive from any angle. It’s topped by a lighthouse that first shone a beam across the turbulent waters of the Sumburgh roost in January 1821; it was constructed by Robert Stevenson, engineer to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, who had first surveyed the site in 1814 in the company of Sir Walter Scott. Members of his family (“the lighthouse Stevensons”) went on to build six more around Shetland.

Later, in 1906, a fog signal was installed and it operated until 1987. The equipment still works and the foghorn is occasionally sounded – but not when there’s fog, as that would risk confusing mariners whose charts no longer mention it!

The lighthouse site saw service during the Second World War, when radar was installed. On 8 April 1940, it detected around 60 Luftwaffe bombers en route to attack the British fleet in Scapa Flow; thanks to the warning, the attack was repelled.

A World Class Visitor Attraction
Sumburgh Head is one of those places that visitors and locals simply must see.

Today, after comprehensive restoration and extension, the lighthouse buildings host displays about the site’s history and the natural world that surrounds it. As well as the lighthouse tower itself and the wartime radar hut, you can visit the engine room where compressed air is generated to power the foghorn and the blacksmith’s workshop where repairs were made to equipment.

Some of the buildings have been adapted to create an impressive marine life centre, detailing the birds and sea creatures that live around Sumburgh. Interactive screens, live video from puffin cliffs and life-size models of whales help visitors to appreciate the diversity and scale of the environment around them. A beautifully-designed extension to one building, featuring a curved window that provides a 180 degree panorama, houses a café that can also serve as an education centre or, sometimes, as a venue for weddings or civil partnerships.

VISIT SUMBURGH HEAD

You can visit Sumburgh Head at any time and there’s no entry fee.

If you want to see inside the buildings, they’re open from around Easter to the end of September and admission costs:

  • Adults - £6
  • Adult concessions - £4
  • Children - £2
  • Family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £12.50. It’s a season ticket, so you can come back as often as you wish.

On the cliffs and grassy banks that surround the site, an RSPB Reserve, you can watch thousands of seabirds and you may also spot seals or porpoises far below. This is also a favourite place to look for Orcas (Killer Whales), though of course their appearances aren’t predictable. Sumburgh is perhaps best known as the easiest place in Shetland to get close to puffins; between April and mid-August, these adorable little birds (“Tammy Nories” in Shetland dialect) happily pose for photographs just three or four metres beyond the wall that encloses the site.

SUMBURGH WEBCAMS

What’s more, you can visit Sumburgh on the internet; depending on the time of year, the webcams may reveal nesting puffins, stormy seas or the aurora borealis.

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