By Toby SkinnerOctober 30th 2020

From secret beaches to epic adventures and fresh seafood, why you need to start planning a trip to Shetland.

1. Because there are more than enough beaches to go round

Shetland’s beaches come in all varieties, from Quendale’s perfect crescent of white sand to the beautiful tombolo at St Ninian’s, which disappears at high tide. Beaches like the beautiful Breckon on Yell or Meal beach on Burra island can feel almost tropical on sunny days, with white sand glinting through turquoise water, while bays like Deepdale and the reddish Lang Ayre are all about wild geological drama. Read here to discover some of the locals’ favourites.

2. Because Britain’s northernmost point looks like this

Every Brit has heard of John o’ Groats. Britain’s real northernmost point is less famous but more spectacular. The Muckle Flugga lighthouse sits on a little water-buffeted stack, just beyond the northern edge of the Hermaness headland on Unst – an epic walk of Middle Earth cliffs, crashing waves, gannet colonies and ominously circling bonxies (great skuas), with only a little sign on a wooden post at the walk’s northernmost point. Local Norse-inspired myth has it that Muckle Flugga was formed when the giants Herma and Saxa fell in love with the same mermaid, hurling rocks at one another in rage. The mermaid called a truce, offering to marry whichever giant could follow her to the North Pole, but both drowned in pursuit. There’s nothing but sea from here until the North Pole, and it’s difficult not to feel a certain nature-awe here on the far edge of the British Isles.

3. Because it looks good in all weather

Shetland is glorious on a long warm summer’s day: the turquoise waters; the gently swaying marram grasses; the little boats hauling up lobster pots beyond pebble beaches; the skies turning curious shades of pink and orange over long evenings. But there are many Shetlanders who live for the exact opposite: those stormy winter days when huge swells rip down Bluemull Sound, dwarfing the cliffs of Unst; when the horse-shaped Dore Holm stack off Eshaness is pounded by almighty white rollers, snarling skywards. The light on short winter’s days can be moodily intense, with the skies shifting and casting ominous shadows. Read about artist Ruth Brownlee’s love of moody Shetland skies here.

4. And because you sometimes get these

They call them the Mirrie Dancers in local dialect, these spectral curtains of green and sometimes pink, orange and purple. You shouldn’t come to Shetland specifically to see the Northern Lights – they’re too enigmatic for that – but it’s worth bringing a tripod in winter just in case.

5. To join an adrenaline-soaked orca chase…

Few things get Shetland locals excited like an orca sighting, which often sets WhatsApp chats pinging across the islands, sometimes resulting in offices emptying and ferries slowing down for a look. These magnificent apex predators are seen throughout the year, but are especially common in June and July, when they come to hunt for newly-born seal pups around the islands. If you’re coming up, it’s worth joining the Shetland Orca Sightings Facebook group, where locals provide live updates on where orcas have been spotted.

6. … or silently search for otters

If looking for orcas is about speed and timing (often they’ve swum on by the time you reach the spot), searching for otters is all about extreme stealth. It’s possible to go out on photography expeditions with local experts like Brydon Thomason and Richard Shucksmith, who have licences to take visitors to specific otter habitats. They will always find bays where the wind is blowing from the sea, because otters have a powerful sense of smell, and will take care not to disturb mothers and holts, using silent mirrorless cameras. But Shetland is home to more otters than anywhere else in Europe, and possibly the world – and the thrill of seeing these skittish but playful creatures is immense.

7. To see thriving bird colonies

Few places in the UK rival Shetland for birdwatching, with RSPB Reserves at Sumburgh Head and on Fetlar and Fair Isle, and two of the UK’s largest gannet colonies at Hermaness and Noss, off Bressay. The birdwatching covers all sorts, from the great mass of gannets on the steep cliffs of Noss in the summer, to spotting tiny, delicate red-necked phalaropes around Loch Funzie on Fetlar. Birds range from the faintly comical puffins, which are sometimes happy to be photographed up close, to the large bonxies (great skuas), which circle ominously overhead, especially on the moorlands of northern Unst, Fair Isle and Foula. There are also rarities for serious twitchers, especially during spring and winter migrations – from Siberian thick-billed warblers to North American surf scoters and Marmora’s warblers from Corsica and Sardinia. Bring binoculars and a long lens, in other words.

8. To feel the Viking spirit

Very few places in the UK feel as immediately Viking as Shetland, where the Norse-inspired place names give an immediate sense of a long Scandinavian influence. The Viking influence runs deep: from the longhouse and other remains at the Jarlshof settlement in the south, which dates far beyond the Vikings to 2,500BC, to Haroldswick on northernmost Unst, where a longhouse and Viking ship have been recreated using traditional building techniques. Then there’s Up Helly Aa, the best-known of Shetland’s many festivals, for which Viking-inspired Jarl squads build a galley to be set on fire at the end of a torchlit procession. Held in 12 locations in Shetland through January and March, with the biggest in Lerwick, it’s a spectacle unlike anything else.

9. Because there are photo opportunities everywhere

Shetland’s landscape provides pure geological and natural drama: the interior of rolling peaty moorland is often fringed by steep cliffs, which aren’t suited to vertigo-sufferers but provide a haven for Shetland’s birds and other wildlife. Either way, there are amazing photo opportunities across the archipelago – which partly explains why so many Shetland locals are amateur photographers.

10. To get a famous welcome

Shetlanders tend to give visitors a warm welcome, whoever they are and wherever they’ve come from. This is an archipelago of egalitarianism and broad-church tolerance, where most events are for the whole community – and anyone who wants to join in. Visitors will often be invited into peoples’ homes for ‘tea and fancies’, with fancies running the gamut from Rich Tea biscuits to Bake Off-worthy cakes (local boy James Morton is a former runner-up). For a mainline into the local community culture, visitors should check out one of the Sunday Teas that are held in village halls across the islands, with locals baking goods that are sold for charity.

11. For a proper adventure

With 1,679 miles of coastline to explore, Shetland is a great place for a real adventure – an archipelago primed for wild swimming, wild camping, hiking and active adventures. Quiet, well-maintained roads make it excellent for a cycling tour, and Shetland is perfect for sea-based journeys, with Sea Kayak Shetland running bespoke guided trips to paddle around sea stacks with curious seals for company. Really, it’s a place that gives you the freedom to make your own deep-nature adventure.

12. To connect with your creative side

Shetland has long inspired artists, writers and craftspeople, and it’s easy to get a taste of that inspiration on a trip. The islands have a particularly rich heritage when it comes to knitting and textiles, and numerous businesses run excellent textile tours of the islands, from GlobalYell Textiles to Shetland Wool Adventures, covering everything from sheep-shearing to weaving delicate shawls. The Shetland Craft Trail also links small-scale craftspeople across the islands, while galleries like the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale and the Shetland Gallery on Yell showcase Shetland’s many talented artists. Or you could come for one of the big events, like Shetland Wool Week in late September or the Craft Fair in November.

13. Because there’s an event for you

It’s not just the Craft Fair and Wool Week that draw people to Shetland from around the world. The Shetland Folk Festival brings some of the world’s top folk musicians to the islands every spring, but the fun is open to everyone, with the islands essentially becoming one big concert venue. The Screenplay film festival in late summer, curated by critic Mark Kermode and film historian Linda Ruth Williams, is an offshoot of the Wordplay literary festival, and brings screenings and talks from some of the industry’s best, as well as providing a platform for Shetland filmmakers. And the Viking-inspired Up Helly Aa fire festivals from January to March are a piece of spectacular living culture that is completely unique to Shetland. It’s well worth timing a trip to coincide with one of these events.

14. To eat the best of the land and sea

Shetland has always had amazing produce, from the land and sea, from plump mussels to sweet and tender lamb and lobster washed with fresh clean tides. You’ll find Gremista Farm beef, Burra crab and local scallops on the menu at The Dowry in Lerwick, while C’est La Vie down the road does a wonderful French bistro-style take on Shetland mussels. Even the fish and chips here is all about provenance, with places like Frankie’s in Brae and the Fort in Lerwick able to tell you which boat your fish came in on. With Shetland producing its own gin, beer, sea salt, fudge and much more, it’s possible to come here and eat entirely locally.

15. Because the roads are fun

Whether you’re in a car or motorhome, or on a bike, Shetland’s roads are a joy. The main roads tend to be slick and well-maintained, but rarely traffic-clogged, and sections like the snaking water-side road to the Toft ferry terminal in the North Mainland are especially fun to drive. But some of Shetland’s most magical drives and bike rides are on pretty single-track roads: like ‘the Alps’, the local term for the beautiful road over the hills from Voe in the east of the Mainland to Aith in the west; the coastal road between Spiggie and Bigton, flanked by white sandy beaches; or the dramatic drive to Eshaness in the north, when the horse-like stacks of Dore Holm appear on the horizon.

16. To discover more islands

Shetland is all about islands, which are ripe for discovery and make this a much more multi-dimensional destination than mans stone broch and storm petrel birds, while the beautiful island of Bressay is just a short ferry ride from Lerwick. Beyond that, the tiny island of Noss is home to Shetland’s largest gannet colony, which you can get close to on boat trips from Lerwick. All visitors should make for the three main Norty give it credit for. Off the Mainland, there are small boats to the tiny island of Mousa, with its famouh Isles: Yell, with its beautiful sandy beaches like Breckon and West Sandwick; Fetlar, known for its RSPB reserve and rare birds like the red-necked phalarope; and Unst, with stunning areas like The Westing and Hermaness, the headland leading to Britain’s northernmost point. If Hermaness or the eastern edge of Fetlar feel wild, Shetland has more remote islands still: like beautiful Foula in the sea to the west, with its dramatic sea arches and circling bonxies (great skuas); or Fair Isle to the south, another magical island famed for its bird observatory and ancient knitting culture. Both can be reached by ferries and small planes, and make for a true adventure.

17. Because the fishing is world-class

Lerwick is the UK’s second-biggest fishing port, and Shetland lands more fish than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. So it’s no surprise that the islands are a paradise for visiting anglers. One of the best spots to head for is Cullivoe, on the North Isle of Yell, where boats such as Oberon and Compass Rose take visiting anglers up the beautiful Bluemull Sound to the rich fishing grounds around the Muckle Flugga lighthouse – Britain’s northernmost point, which also happens to be where the UK’s largest-ever ling and turbot have been caught, and a rich fishing ground for cod, mackerel, halibut and much more.

18. To go back to the Iron Age

Rightly, Shetland is most readily associated with the Vikings. But its history goes much further back than that, and Shetland is home to some of the UK’s best-preserved Iron Age ruins. The most obvious of these are brochs, the evocative stone roundhouses which may have been fortresses, stately homes or something else entirely – and which can be found across the islands, from central Lerwick to the Jarlshof archaeological site and the tiny island of Mousa, where a little boat can take you to visit the hauntingly beautiful tower built around 100BC, whose sole modern residents are nesting storm petrels. Other Iron Age sites worth visiting include the Ness of Burghi, a beautiful walk along a narrow causeway in the South Mainland, which leads to a defensive blockhouse, built into the ground using stone and impressive construction skills.

19. To do something really wild

Shetland is a good place to do something wild. Pretty much the entire archipelago is primed and ready for wild camping, with the chance to set up near beautiful beaches and epic moorlands, while more than 900 miles of coastline makes this a paradise for wild swimming. Shetland is also a good place for wild partying, as anyone who has been here for the Folk Festival, Hogmanay or even just a random Friday in a village hall will tell you.

20. To really get away from it all

Shetland is a great place to do everything from wild camping to staying in smart hotels and grand houses like Belmont House on Unst. But perhaps its most singular place to stay is in a böd, one of the stone houses originally built by fishermen to house their gear. Since the first böd was opened to visitors in 1992, others have opened across the islands. They’re usually in remote places, and come without bedding or electricity – but make for a memorable retreat, to pure solitude in pure nature.

21. To feel truly free

If there was one word that sums up the experience of visiting Shetland, it might be freedom. This is an archipelago where you are free to drive and walk almost anywhere; to escape to solitude or to join in the action. It is a place of wide open spaces, huge seas and great arcing skies; the exact opposite of being in the middle of a traffic-clogged city. But perhaps even more than any of that, it is a place that doesn’t judge, whoever you are or wherever you’re from. It is a place to feel truly free.