The Shetland Islands are a remote archipelago that offers the allure of overseas travel but in a familiar environment.
And it really feels overseas, with the ferry crossing from Aberdeen stretching overnight. The comfortably appointed MV Hjaltland, made for a great start to our holiday.
Fish and chips in the on board restaurant were delicious and a comfortable cabin made for an excellent night’s sleep.
In Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, our accommodation was the Grand Hotel, in the heart of the town’s commercial district. Lerwick has a decent range of shops, from the Shetland Soap Company which works with adults who have learning disabilities, to gift shops such as The Peerie Shop.
“Peerie” or “little” was one of various local words which gave our stay a mildly foreign feel without the need to reach for a phrase book.
Armed with pamphlets, maps and walking guides we planned the coming days. A leaflet guided us through a walking tour of the town, past the old “lodberry” waterfront buildings once used for maritime commerce and around to the Clickimin Broch. This well-preserved round Iron Age stone structure is one of a number across the islands. They helped protect inhabitants against invaders from the sea.
Not all seaborne visitors were repelled, though. Indeed, many helped defend the islands.
At the imposing cemetery, we joined an informative Commonwealth War Graves tour given by a local history teacher.
From Norwegian sailors to a Canadian airman awarded the Victoria Cross, the windswept hillside offered poignant reminders of how Shetland’s strategic position led to sacrifices in both World Wars.
The Norwegian influence is even clearer in the town of Scalloway. This was the landing point for “The Norwegian Bus”, a wartime route used by Norwegians escaping the Nazis by fishing boat.
Many went back on daring missions to fight for their homeland. Even today, the red wooden houses of the town and Norwegian flags give it a distinctly Scandinavian air.
A bus ride took us to Sumburgh Head. Here lay one of a number of walks we followed from Peter Guy’s book Shetland Classic Walks.
The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1821 and still operates. The steep coastal walk up to it provided a panorama across the bay. High cliffs and sea rocks are home to thousands of birds and the twitching opportunities here are legion.
A circular tea room with full length windows offered refreshment at the summit. Walking back we visited the prehistoric Norse settlement and Jarlshof archaeological site. Nearby lies the light sandy beach of West Voe. Across Shetland, stretches of whitish sand and crystal blue waters gave the impression of a holiday in the Caribbean or Mediterranean.
Given the cold winds, it’s understandable that Shetland is so closely associated with knitting. Fair Isle is served by ferry three to four times weekly in high season, and the trip takes two and a half hours, but in Lerwick there are a number of wool shops with local yarns and sweaters.
The New Harbour Café was an unpretentious spot for a solid cooked breakfast, while The Dowry was the sort of trendy coffee shop one might expect in the West End of Glasgow.
Even more ambitious was restaurant No. 88, with its modern reinterpretations of Scottish staples such as lamb emphasising locally sourced ingredients.
On a warm evening, the harbour front makes a great spot to sit and watch the traffic, from trawlers to naval vessels.
Up Helly Aa may be associated with Lerwick, but many towns hold their own. The bar in the Maryfield House Hotel on Bressay has shields from the local festival stretching back decades.
From there, a walk up to Aithness was one of the highlights of the trip. A seal bobbed up and down in the water. Nearby puffins and oystercatchers swooped.
Scattered seashells near the path showed that disposing of ood packaging is a problem birds had well before humans!
To get closer to some of the islands’ iconic creatures in their natural habitat, visit the Shetland Pony Experience where you can learn about the diminutive horses, groom them, lead them around an obstacle course and take them down to a beach for photographs.
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