What to do in Scotland's Shetland Isles

Whipped by North Atlantic winds, Scotland’s northernmost frontier is a truly remote escape, with plenty of ancient history and fine seafood to boot.

Friday, July 17, 2020,
By Gail Tolley
There are few places on Earth where ancient history is so gloriously in your face as ...

There are few places on Earth where ancient history is so gloriously in your face as Shetland.

Photograph by Getty Images

Why go

Back in the 15th century, when Shetland belonged to Scandinavia, King Christian I, the ruler of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, was in need of a dowry for his daughter Margaret’s marriage to Scotland’s King James III. He decided to pawn the islands, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, the archipelago is an intriguing blend of Scottish and Nordic culture — in fact, its remote location in the North Atlantic means it’s actually closer to Bergen than to Edinburgh. It’s a far-flung choice for a UK break that offers up plenty of opportunity for adventure. Travellers can hike along the jagged coastline, try their luck at spotting orcas and puffins, stumble across an Iron Age settlement or just hop in the car and drive through the islands’ windswept landscape (looking out for those famous ponies en route, of course). For a charming insight into Shetland life, tune into the local radio station, where news updates can cover everything from the size of the local fishing fleet’s catch to flares spotted out at sea and sightings of rare animals. 

What to do

There are few places on Earth where ancient history is so gloriously in your face as Shetland. Archaeological sites are everywhere: Jarlshof is one of the finest, situated on a dramatic headland at the southern tip of the mainland. Here, visitors will find the remains of a settlement spanning 4,000 years that contains everything from Iron Age wheelhouses to a 16th-century laird’s house. For an even older sight, take a trip to Eshaness. This peninsula, on Shetland’s wild and wave-battered west coast, is home to the remains of a 350 million-year-old volcano. Follow the faint path along the coastline from the lighthouse to see the conical cross-section and layers of solidified lava flows up close.

Don’t miss

Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, features a gorgeous winding high street (the second-prettiest in Scotland, according to a poll last year by Scotland’s Towns Partnership). At the southern end, you’ll find the lodberries, a collection of water-fronted cottages and storehouses once used by merchants (and possibly smugglers) for easy access to the water. Look familiar? One of them stands in for the home of Detective Jimmy Perez in BBC’s crime drama Shetland.  

Where to eat

Frankie’s is a chippie with a difference. You’ll find beautifully-battered haddock and chunky chips here but you’ll also see steaming bowls of just-caught mussels and scallops the size of golf balls emerging from the kitchen. Over in Lerwick, The Dowry is a modern cafe with Nordic vibes and views out to the harbour. It serves pretty-as-a-picture cakes and beautifully presented mains. It’s also a good spot to try Shetland’s local ale, brewed a mile up the road at Lerwick Brewery.

We like

Two short ferry rides from the mainland will get you to Unst, the northernmost island in Shetland. It’s home to Shetland Reel, a remote gin distillery (you can pop in for a tour during summer). It’s also the place for jaw-dropping coastal walks with a dramatic, end-of-the-world feel. A walk through Hermaness National Nature Reserve will lead you within sight of the rocky stack of Muckle Flugga, the most northerly point in the UK. Alternatively, explore the headland at Skaw, a desolate spot dotted with ruined Second World War bunkers. It’s also been earmarked by the Shetland Space Centre as a possible satellite launch pad site.  

Where to stay

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse perches precipitously on the southern tip of mainland Shetland. It’s one of three lighthouses that’s been converted into atmospheric accommodation by the Shetland Amenity Trust. Bed down in the beautifully renovated former lightkeeper’s house, which has walls so thick you’ll barely notice if there’s a storm raging outside. On a clear day, you can see out to Fair Isle, 30 miles away. And look out for passing orcas — this is one of the best places to see them from land. 

Head to the Visit Scotland website for more information on visiting the Shetland Isles

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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