Not many people pack up and go to the Shetland Islands in January, but that is precisely what I did last week. The main reason for the visit was the fire festival of Up Helly Aa, however we stayed a full week. There’s so much to see and do up in the Shetland Islands, too, that a full week wasn’t enough. Read on for my definitive post on exploring the Shetland Islands, including where to stay, eat, and drink, and what to see and do. I’ll also include a bit of information on visiting during both the summer and Up Helly Aa.
the shetland islands
The Shetland Islands are the farthest northern islands in the British Isles. They lie nearly 170km north of the northernmost part of Scotland’s mainland. The Orkney Islands are about 80km to the south and the Faroes are about 280km to the north. Shetland is made up of 100 or so islands, only 16 of which are inhabited. The Mainland is home to the capital, Lerwick, and the former capital of Scalloway (6km to the west). Over half the population (pop. 23,000) lives within 10km of Lerwick.
Shetland’s location at the far northern edge of the UK means it holds a number of records like northernmost castle, northernmost gin distillery, and northernmost settlement. Unst, one of the larger islands in the chain, is the northernmost island but it is not the northernmost point. That distinction belongs to Out Stack, a pile of rocks in the North Sea and technically a Shetland island.
The Shetland Islands may be a part of Scotland now, but for much of their history they were Norse. As a result, there’s little in the way of Scottish heritage here. There is a lot of Bronze and Iron Age ruins, though you’ll be hard pressed to find them on the main roads. Viking longhouses and Pict settlements also abound, but again, ruins and hard to get to. Unlike both Orkney and the Outer Hebrides, there are no major standing stone circle sites.
lerwick and the mainland
Lerwick is the largest town in the Shetlands. It is located about halfway up the eastern side of the southern mainland. Here, you’ll find the major museums like the Shetland Museum and Textile Museum, as well as Fort Charlotte, the main ferry terminal, and most accommodation and dining/shopping opportunities.
It’s a great central location, at less than two hours from every point on the island. Mainland Shetland has quite a bit to see and do as well. The major archaeological sights of Old Scatness and Jarlshof are here, as is the Stevenson lighthouse at Sumburgh Head. Scalloway Castle is about twenty minutes west of Lerwick and was once home to a tyrannical earl. He was eventually beheaded at Edinburgh Castle, but he terrorised his tenants for decades.
The Scalloway Museum – a jam-packed museum next to the castle – is home to an extensive Shetland Bus exhibit. Shetland Bus, which admittedly I’d never heard of, was a secretive special ops team that ran between Shetland and Norway during the Second World War. It was part of the resistance movement, and was so top secret that even most local residents didn’t know about it. There is a memorial at the harbour, a short walk from the museum.
However, I highly suggest getting OUT of Lerwick during your stay. Hiring a car from either the airport or from one of the car rental companies in town means you have the freedom to explore the entire island chain. Several other islands are accessible from the mainland by car. These include Burra, Trondra, and Northmavine. Others, like Yell, Unst, Whalsay, and Bressay are accessible by car ferries that run regularly through the day and evening. Ferries to uninhabited islands – namely Mousa and the exceptional Mousa Broch – run only in the summer.
Northmavine is one of the islands accessible from the mainland by car. You may not realise you’re crossing on to another island, however the geology changes dramatically and that’s the first clue. Northmavine is on the western side of the Shetland Islands and its western cliffs boast some of the coolest scenery. They might not be some of the tallest cliffs, but on a windy day you definitely don’t want to be near the edge. The Stevenson lighthouse at Eshaness sits atop these cliffs, with a few blowholes nearby and some lovely arches off the coast. Sea stacks abound here too. On a windy day, the rough green seas against the coal black cliffs make for some outstanding photography.
I took the above photo from inside the car during a wicked wind and rainstorm, and look forward to going back and seeing it in the sunlight!
Burra is about twenty minutes from Lerwick and is a predominantly residential and crofting island. However, I mention it because this is one of the best places to see Shetland ponies. Despite what the guidebooks tell you, the native Shetland pony does not just wander up to visitors that stop on the side of the road. They are wary of strangers, according to my pony breeder source, so you’re best to go with someone who knows the ponies.
We met Barbara and George, breeders and owners of the Shetland Pony Riding School, to discuss their pony experience. Locals on Burra, they’ve run a riding school for Shetlander children for a number of years. They are one of the only pony breeders to have an indoor arena. Their new “experience” lets visitors get up close and personal with the ponies. Children and small adults can ride them while others will have to make do with simply petting or brushing them. If this is something you want to include on your Shetland Island experience, let me know!
yell and unst
In order to get to Unst, the most northerly island in the Shetlands, you must drive through Yell. The ferry to Yell leaves from Toft, about fifteen minutes north of Voe, and arrives at Ulsta twenty-five minutes later. From Ulsta, you have to drive another twenty-five minutes to Gutcher for the ferry to Belmont on Unst (which is a ten minute ferry). Yell is tiny – from the top you can see most of the surrounding sea. There’s very little here – mainly farms – but in the summer you’ll find a few galleries and cafes open for business. As for us, we drove straight through!
Unst has quite a bit of interesting stuff. Firstly, there’s the Final Check Out, the most northerly convenience store and Bobby’s bus shelter. There’s also a Viking longship replica and a longhouse, a boat haven, and a heritage centre. Unst also has a lot of great beaches, many of which look completely out of place in the North Atlantic. Similar to the beaches on the Outer Hebrides, the white sand and turquoise seas are reminiscent of the Caribbean, not Scotland or Norway!
If you are wondering what it’s like to LIVE on Unst, check out this little blurb (<<) from the BBC, in which they interviewed some younger residents of this tiny island (pop. 600).
Unst boasts the northernmost gin distillery and northernmost brewery in the UK. I met with Luke, the production operator at Shetland Reel distillery to learn more about their new operation. He toured me (and my parents) around the distillery, which currently is a two man operation. I’m excited to see their future, because I know they’re going places! Later that day, back in Lerwick, I met Mark, the distillery manager, at a Taste of Shetland event. That’s where I tasted the gins and whisky, although distillery tours typically consist of a tasting.
bressay, noss, and whalsay
We didn’t make it to Bressay, Noss, or Whalsay, although as my dad says, “we have to save something for next time.” However, some brief information…
Bressay is across the sound from Lerwick and is accessible on the ferry. While the main road of Bressay is okay for cars, much of the island is better for walkers. It’s a great place to see wild birds as well as dramatic coves and waterfalls. From the summit of the island, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Sumburgh Head (south) and Saxa Vord (north). Shetland.org points out that from Sumburgh, you can spot Fair Isle, from there you can spot Orkney, and from Orkney you can spot mainland Scotland – perfect navigation for early explorers.
Noss is one of the most accessible seabird colonies in the UK. It’s mile-long sea cliffs are home to thousands of nesting birds and was made a National Nature Reserve in 1955. Other ecosystems around Noss include kelp forests, machairs, and peat-covered moorland.
Whalsay is the centre of Shetland’s fishing community and an easy day trip from Lerwick. The island has the most northerly 18 hole golf course and a museum dedicated to the German Hanseatic League.
up helly aa
Up Helly Aa is the Shetland Islands famous fire festival. It’s origins may be influenced by the Vikings but the festival itself dates back to only the 1880s. It’s always held on the last Tuesday of January, and the next day is a holiday. Which, honestly, is necessary as Tuesday night festivities don’t finish until 8am on Wednesday.
UHA has only ever been cancelled three times in its 130 year history. The first time was for the death of Queen Victoria, and then for the years during both world wars (1914-1919 and 1940-1945). It was postponed for an extreme bout of flu and the deaths of both King George and Winston Churchill. With this excellent track record, it is relatively easy to book your accommodation in advance as it’s almost certain the event will occur. Weather does not impede it – that’s a fair warning as typical January weather is wet, windy, and cold!
Keep an eye out for my upcoming post on my personal experience at Up Helly Aa!
where to stay in shetland
As with the rest of Scotland and the UK, there are a lot of hotels, hostels, camping bods, self-catering flats, guesthouses, and bed & breakfasts on Shetland. There’s little in the way of luxury accommodation, but some of the self-catering homes have stunning views and luxurious amenities.
For travellers on a budget, a hostel or self-catering accommodation is ideal, as you have the freedom to cook your own meals. However, most hotels have restaurants or lounges attached and serve meals throughout the day. You don’t have to be a guest at the hotels to stop in for a meal or tea. We stopped at the Busta House Hotel, a 3 star property in Brae, for a hot lunch and tea. It’s a large white farmhouse on the far side of the voe (a long, narrow sea loch) with a comfy lounge, timbered bar, and walled garden that is probably lovely in the summer!
During the summer and Up Helly Aa, I suggest booking accommodation in advance, as the best accommodation books up quickly. We booked out trip in November, and it was very difficult to find accommodation. Although we got very lucky with a little place right at the start of the UHA parade, it had some major drawbacks.
shetland island food
For such a small island chain, the Shetland Islands have a LOT of great food and drink. I mean, they obviously have great seafood, and it’s easy to see the salmon farms in the middle of the voes. But there’s so much more, from local chocolate producers to fudge makers and a gin distiller.
We had a flat, so we bought food and cooked for ourselves, but we had the chance to dine at a few of Shetland’s restaurants, explore some local shops, and chat to producers at the Taste of Shetland festival.
where to eat and drink
For fish and chips, you can’t go wrong with Frankie’s, in Brae. This is one of the most popular fish and chips shop in the UK and consistently voted as one of the best. In addition to the everyday fish and chips, they also serve fish cakes, wedges, calamari, and other daily specials. I had the salt and pepper squid, which was delicious.
In Lerwick, don’t miss the Mirrie Dancer chocolate shop. They partner with Viking Mead and Shetland Reel to create mead- and whisky-infused truffles. Trust me, these are delicious. The Island Larder by Shetland Fudge is a top place to stop in on a cold day; I had their famous churros and Belgian chocolate on the morning of Up Helly Aa and it hit the spot. They also serve spicy hot cocoa, should that strike your fancy. The Shetland Fudge shop, which serves homemade fudges, is nearby.
If you’re seeking an early coffee, dinner in Lerwick, or craving a cocktail, Fjara, in the new part of town, is open from early morning to late night. They are one of the few espresso bars in town – and also one of the few contemporary cocktail bars.
As you leave the town, there’s limited options for food and drink. Busta House, in Brae, is a good stop for lunch, as is the Brae Hotel across the voe and Scalloway Hotel in Scalloway. The Final Check Out on Unst or Mackenzie’s Farm Shop on Mainland are good for a quick, simple bite. I will say that in the summer there appears to be a bit more in terms of food and drink outside of the town. I’ll update this post after I visit in the summer!
Have you been to Shetland Islands? Leave your recommendations in the comments! Heading to Shetland Islands? Pin this >>> for future reference!