Planning A Visit? There’s Lots To Look Forward To!
by Alastair Hamilton -
Maybe you’ve been to Shetland before; perhaps a trip in 2019 will be your first. Either way, the islands offer rich and memorable experiences at any time of year, with a whole range of outdoor and indoor activities on offer.
Our islands, each of which has its own character, reward explorers. It’s very easy to travel between them; some are linked to the mainland or to each other by bridges. Others are connected by efficient ferries and, in some cases, air services. However, Shetland is larger than many people imagine; it can make sense to base yourself in two or three different locations during your stay.
One of the many good things about a Shetland holiday is that it’s still easy to enjoy the kind of peace and quiet that’s becoming rarer in corners of the UK that were once thought remote. Our roads remain uncrowded. On beaches and around our coast, you may well have the place entirely to yourself; well, apart from an inquisitive seal, or maybe even an otter.
Our great outdoors offers all sorts of opportunities; walking, cycling and kayaking, for example. Wildlife is everywhere, and the islands are notable for exceptional bird life; there are seabirds in abundance and bird-watchers find rare migrants in spring and autumn. Larger sea creatures, for example porpoises, minke or humpback whales and orcas can also sometimes be seen. Luck plays a large part, of course, but it helps that local social media sites light up when there’s a sighting.
Botanists will find much to interest them too and we even have some mini-forests if you need to re-connect with trees. If the shaping of the land fascinates you, Shetland is a UNESCO-registered Geopark, with an astonishingly complex geology. At Ollaberry, in the north mainland, there’s a remarkable exposure of a geological fault, part of the same one that forms Scotland's Great Glen.
If you’re interested in archaeology, we have a wealth of sites to explore, including the extensive remains at Jarlshof and Old Scatness. There are many brochs, these mysterious iron age towers whose purpose is still not fully understood, including the virtually-complete example on the island of Mousa. In our museums, you can uncover all of Shetland's story.
There’s lots of information on our website about holiday planning, including information about how to get here, how to get around and the areas you can visit. Whether you’re thinking of staying in a hotel, a B&B, a self-catering property or a hostel, you can find all the relevant links. If camping appeals – in a tent or one of our unique camping böds, we have information on that, too. If you arrive by yacht, we have many well-equipped marinas.
When you do want to get involved in one of our many festivals and special events, there’s no lack of choice, because they embrace everything from music to wool, boats to cinema and drama to literature.
The year begins with a string of fire festivals, running from mid-January until mid-March. The largest, the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, involves almost 1,000 torchbearers and thousands of spectators, but those in country districts can be just as enjoyable.
Shetland is home to several amateur dramatic groups and the annual County Drama Festival takes place from 4th to 7th March, in Lerwick’s Garrison Theatre. As well as watching a wide variety of plays, audiences can hear the critique offered by the independent adjudicator.
April sees the first of several musical events when, on the 26th and 27th, Shetland’s young fiddlers compete for the honour of Shetland’s Young Fiddler of the Year. Shetland fiddlers are highly-esteemed in traditional music circles; Aly Bain is still the best-known internationally, but many rising stars are making their mark. The talent on display at the competition is always remarkable.
Many of those fiddlers, young and old, appear in the Shetland Folk Festival, one of the major UK events of its kind, but they’re joined by dozens of performers from many corners of the globe. The music on offer is eclectic, with excursions into jazz, blues and rock, among other genres. Scandinavia, Scotland and North America always feature strongly, but over the years there have been performers from, for example, Australia, Bolivia, Mongolia and Zimbabwe. Tickets are always in high demand and it’s wise to register for membership in order to benefit from early booking.
The summer is a time of hyper-activity in the islands, with all sorts of diversions on offer. Lifeboat days, a midsummer carnival, yachting and rowing regattas and several agricultural shows punctuate the diary between June and August. The larger ones include the invitation-only Simmer Dim Rally, from 20th to 23rd June, when hundreds of bikers from the UK and beyond converge on the islands.
A few days later, from 26 to 29 June, Lerwick’s harbour is packed with scores of yachts taking place in the annual Bergen-Shetland Races, bringing lots of colour and even more activity in what’s always a busy port.
July kicks off with the Shetland Nature Festival, with all kinds of activities on offer between the 6th and 14th. The programme always includes guided walks and talks, many of them aimed at youngsters, focusing on that magnificent natural environment and the wildlife that surrounds us. Immediately afterwards, the enterprising people of Unst, our northernmost inhabited island, welcome us to UnstFest (13th-21st July), the programme for which is always astonishing in its diversity. There are so many events that it seems as if every inhabitant must be involved in organising it.
There’s more music in the annual Folk Frenzy, which runs from 18th to 22nd July. Originally known as Fiddle Frenzy, a summer school for those wanting to improve their fiddle skills and learn about the Shetland Fiddle Tradition, the festival has recently branched out to explore wider folk traditions, although the Shetland Fiddle still plays an central role. There are also evening concerts and lots of associated workshops, not all of them involving music.
Another annual event, Shetland Boat Week, will see a wide range of activities between 1st and 10th August. Boat trips, displays of boats, fishing trips, cooking sessions, talks and much more are on offer. Shetland’s heritage is obviously bound closely to the sea and the week offers everyone, young and old, the chance to renew and celebrate that connection.
The agricultural shows get under way in August. The three largest ones are in Voe (on the 3rd), Cunningsburgh (on the 14th) and Walls (on the 10th), followed by Unst on the 31st and Yell on 7th September. All of them are about much more than agriculture; there’s home baking, photography, craft work and knitwear, too.
As summer fades into autumn, there are more festivals. ScreenPlay is all about film, curated by film critic Mark Kermode, film historian Linda Ruth Williams. It always presents an outstanding selection of films in the excellent cinemas at Mareel, our arts centre. They’re accompanied by talks and Q&A sessions featuring leading actors (such as Timothy Spall, in 2018) and directors (like Nick Park, of Wallace and Gromit fame, also in 2018). Dates have yet to be confirmed but it’s likely to take place around the end of August.
Next up is Shetland Wool Week, an event which celebrates everything to do with Shetland’s textile heritage. It attracts knitters and spinners from all over the world and offers an extensive programme that includes talks, visits to wool spinners and producers, workshops, masterclasses and a great deal more. The 2019 dates are 28th September to 6th October.
October also sees our annual celebration of Shetland’s food, the Taste of Shetland Festival. As well as stalls and pop-up cafés that offer the pick of produce from land and sea, there are demonstrations and competitions, with the highlight being the final of the Cooking Challenge, the prize for which, in 2018, included a six-course tasting menu with matching wines at Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh, plus superb accommodation.
Music is to the fore again in mid-October, when those with a passion for accordions and fiddles enjoy tunes from a wealth of local and visiting bands at the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival. There are concerts at venues around the islands, with a final grand dance at the Clickimin Centre in Lerwick, where up to 1,000 dancers are kept on their toes by a dozen or more bands.
WordPlay is the Shetland book festival. Held in early November, it’s a chance to hear from a range of authors and participate in workshops on a variety of themes. In 2018, we were able to listen to talks by local writers such as Malachy Tallack, John Goodlad and Robert Alan Jamieson alongside visiting ones, including Prof. A C Grayling, the Guardian’s Patrick Barkham, Orkney-based Amy Liptrot and Jo Swinson MP. We can look forward to a similarly impressive line-up in 2019.
Around this time, too, and for the rest of the winter, we can occasionally expect to see an entirely natural spectacle in the form of the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. Many displays are quite subdued and their astonishing beauty is best appreciated via photography, using a long exposure, as in the example below. But there are usually a few times each winter when the display is much more dramatic and, occasionally, the whole northern half of the sky - or even more - glows with shimmering curtains or shafts of light, so that you’re aware of it as soon as you step outside. Even without the aurora, dark skies in almost all of Shetland offer an opportunity to see the full glory of the Milky Way.
These are just some of the events that take place through the Shetland year. There are hundreds of others: Sunday afternoon teas, local regattas, stand-up by nationally-known comedians, sporting tournaments, classical recitals; they’re all here.
Indoors or outdoors, you really won’t be short of things to do in these beautiful and welcoming islands, whether you’re here simply for a holiday or may be thinking about a more permanent change of pace and place.
Whatever tempts you to 60° north, we hope to see you in 2019!
Posted in: Exploring Shetland