By Promote ShetlandFebruary 16th 2022

Travel blogger Graeme Johncock from Scotland's Stories visited Shetland in February. Here are his top five highlights of a winter trip to the islands.

As a writer and storyteller, I had been eager to visit Shetland for a long time. There are so many fascinating stories and such a rich history that I was desperate to see all the places that I had read about.

Don't be put off by exploring Shetland in the winter – it was the perfect time of year for me. For five days I experienced bracing wind and stormy seas, barely seeing another soul for much of it.

With so much to do, knowing where to start isn’t an easy task but, in my opinion, these are the top 5 things to see in Shetland.

1. Jarlshof

There are plenty of archaeological wonders to choose from around Shetland. Standing stones, Neolithic temples and Viking longhouses to name just a few. None of them compare to the epic collection of remains at Jarlshof.

In all of my travels around Scotland, I have never been anywhere that allows you to walk through over 4000 years of habitation in a matter of minutes.

The walls are so well preserved that if you just added a roof, Jarlshof feels ready to move in right away. There really is no better place to start your Shetland journey and learn about almost the entire island’s history in one fell swoop.

Most of Jarlshof was hidden underground until the late 19th century. That’s when an especially violent storm washed away a section of sandbank and revealed part of these ancient stone buildings. As archaeologists continued to dig lower, they peeled away layer after layer of time.

Starting with the Neolithic homestead, visitors can see how the buildings developed into more elaborate Bronze Age homes, carrying on into the Iron Age with half of an enormous broch followed by beautiful wheelhouses. Suddenly, Viking longhouses appear with their conspicuous 90-degree corners and topping it all off is the ruined Laird’s House that would eventually give this place the name Jarlshof.

2. Garths Croft Bressay

Just a short ferry trip from Lerwick sits the underrated island of Bressay. Across here you’ll find Garths Croft run by Chris Dryer, an archaeologist during office hours and a crofter for every other waking minute. Chris isn’t a native Shetlander and only came into the crofting world later in life so getting a tour and hearing his story is a real highlight.

At Garths Croft you can meet and learn about traditional Shetland sheep which are specially adapted to thrive in the local climate. Not to mention that they’re a beautiful mix of colours and patterns. If you’ve ever wondered what life as a crofter is like or maybe even considered it yourself, then you need to speak to Chris. If you’re lucky then he might even give you some tips on drystone walling.

If you have the time, then don’t leave Bressay without exploring the rest of the island. There’s a beautiful lighthouse with equally spectacular views, the remains of First World War artillery placements along with several archaeological wonders to uncover. You’re never far from something worth seeing.

Read Chris Dyer's blog about life at Garths Croft Bressay.

3. Culswick Broch

Shetland has two things in abundance – shorelines and Iron Age brochs. The brisk walk up to Culswick Broch combines them both in the most incredible way.

Most of the walk is flat and sheltered from the weather, but just wait until you make the short climb up to Culswick Broch. The scenery folds out before you and on a windy day you can feel the full force of mother nature. Gaze down the coastline and watch the waves crashing into the sharp sea stacks or turn around and take in the sweeping landscape over the Loch of Brough. It’s not far but it is without a doubt the perfect place to enjoy some alone time and the remoteness

The broch itself is fairly dilapidated these days but still immensely impressive. Just imagine what Culswick would have looked like in its prime and the amount of effort it must have taken just to carry the stones up here. Originally, the walls may have been over 10 metres high so this mysterious structure towering over the cliffs would have been visible for miles.

4. Busta House Hotel

It might seem strange that a hotel features in a list of things to see in Shetland. Busta House Hotel is much more than simply somewhere to rest your head though. If you enjoy history then the earliest part of the hotel was built in the 16th century, although its most interesting chapter took place in the 1700s.

The owner William Gifford and his wife Lady Busta suffered a terrible tragedy when their 4 sons all drowned crossing Busta Voe one evening. Left without a male heir, Lady Busta’s niece Barbara came forward claiming that she had secretly married the eldest son John and was now carrying his child.

Unfortunately, Barbara didn’t have a happy life at Busta House. She was allowed to stay for a while and have her son but once the boy was 6 years old, his mother was kicked out. She would die in Lerwick 10 years later, cut off from her only child. It’s said that Barbara’s ghost still roams the halls looking for her son. Fortunately, the rooms are so comfortable you’ll probably sleep right through any paranormal activity.

If you are staying at Busta House Hotel, then you don’t need to worry about finding somewhere else to eat. For me, dinner was a portion of fresh Shetland seafood so large that I had to slowly hobble through to my seat by the fire in the Long Room. Somehow, I still had space for a few drams from the hotel’s large selection of whisky.

5. Unst – the island above all others

As “The island above all others”, Unst was always going to make it onto this list. Choosing which attraction on the island to suggest was a much trickier decision though. There are enough places worth seeing that I could have made a list dedicated purely to Unst!

In the end, the only option is to recommend the entirety of Unst as a destination. It hosts a long list of “most northerly” locations including the exceptional Shetland Reel distillery. One of only two castles on Shetland, Muness is entirely free and open to explore, while being able to walk inside the replica Viking longhouse and onboard the Skidbladner longship gave me goosebumps.

At night and especially in winter, the skies above Unst come alive. Situated so far north and with such little light pollution, there is nowhere better in Scotland to experience star gazing. Wild Skies Shetland are a new community group who intend to develop a Sky Trail across the island. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the legendary Mirrie Dancers otherwise known as the northern lights.

If you’re not so lucky then that just gives you a good excuse to come back.

Read more about Graeme's visit to Shetland at Scotland's Stories.