At 60° North, a titanic conflict from antiquity rages between the Atlantic and the Sea of the North, for dominion over a subarctic archipelago home to the 100-island chain known as Shetland. But most travelers won’t notice the continuous clash unless inclement weather blocks their only means of passage: sea or air.
At landfall, visitors confront striking optics and undeniable hints of attempts by humans to harness and impose their will over these islands. Shear, craggy, charcoal dark cliffs jut out of the sea and mist releasing flocks of sea birds, massive swarms the size of several football fields, when set against a backdrop of the rocks, trick the mind into believing they are smaller, proving the age-old quip that appearances can be deceiving. Granite gray-brown rock outcroppings crown sweeping green foothills and valleys with dots of ancient dark gray stone structures — castles, homes, fences, and breakwaters — standing defiant against the test of time amid a steady cool breeze.
From antiquity to modernity
When you set foot on Shetland, you’re automatically caught up in a thousand years of Nordic and Scottish history, where generations of fishers and whalers lives were bound to the sea defiant against the forces of nature. Communities are close-knit here, a quality plain to see, stemming from generations of hardship in this hauntingly beautiful but remote, arduous terrain.
Most travelers get to these islands by sea, via a ferryboat or cruise ship, arriving at Lerwick, an old port town presenting an optical oddity of the past and the present at once. Founded in the 1600’s on the main island of Shetland, called the “mainland” by locals, it’s home to about 7,500 inhabitants — one third of the entire human population out of 16 occupied islands.
Lerwick presents a history you can see, touch, feel, and smell, suggesting a past you can imagine. For us, an eastbound cruise liner in July 2016 was our gateway for a day. The port at Lerwick is too small for some cruise ship hookups at the pier. Visitors make their way ashore by tender.
“Welcome to Leirvik”, states an old town-dweller walker-by wrapped in a woolen coat and scarf — standard-wear for residents on an island chock full of sheep. And you’ll wonder: was that a Scottish accent?
Not hardly. Lerwick, means “muddy bay” in Old Norse. And affectations of Nordic-speak are prominent in islander oral talk to this day. In fact, differing accents between islanders can render talk challenging.
Some island names are Nordic in origin. And prior to the past six centuries of Scottish rule, the Norse ruled Shetland. The King of Norway pledged the islands as security for the dowry in the marriage of his daughter to James III of Scotland. The islands were ceded to Scotland in 1472.
A walk through Lerwick
Eighteenth century sandstone buildings share the port area with modern industrial steel structures. A walk around town — easy to do since it’s small — reinforces first impressions: tough buildings for tough terrain and harsh weather. An hour, two at the most, will leave you with a quick and memorable impression.
Lerwick has it all, or at least enough, as it must, to support residents in this remote setting. Most islanders live within 10 miles of the town.
There’s the Queens Hotel, a five-star hostel, associations and clubs of all sorts, boarding inns, pubs, restaurants, a library, school, the regional office of the Scottish National Police, and more organized activities than one can recall, absent a checklist of outdoor, natural exploration, organized tours and cultural events.
The modern roads and vehicles on these islands may impress and surprise you. How is it such quality is here?
Think: “Oil money”. Shetland is a base for oil company operations in the North Sea. Pipelines crisscross the islands to the chagrin of environmentally minded residents.
Yet, there’s simplicity. You won’t find a single traffic light. Authorities keep track of goings-on with CCTV surveillance systems, a common practice in the United Kingdom.
The former capital: Scalloway
From Lerwick, you can grab a taxi, rental car, or tour bus for a half hour ride passing through peat and heather-covered landscapes to Scalloway, the former capital of the main island.
Scalloway Castle is a central attraction for visitors, built in 1600 by the pompous tyrant Earl Patrick Stewart. Stewart and his equally unpopular son were beheaded for employing forced labor, extortion, and bribes to serve their ends. The castle served as the administrative center for Shetland and as a barracks for Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the 1650s. The original tower house has been restored, but the surrounding walls and buildings are gone. A spiral staircase provides access to rooms in the south wing of the castle, part of which is open to visitors.
The Scalloway Museum, next to the castle, houses a special display depicting the village’s unique role in World War II. A joint British-Norwegian military operation, code name the “Shetland Bus”, ran allied agents, weapons, radios and other wartime supplies back and forth between Nazi-occupied Norway and Shetland. The islands were both a refuge and training area for Norwegian resistance fighters.
The Shetland Bus link between Norway and the village of Scalloway is not surprising. By line-of-sight, Scalloway is closer to Bergen, Norway (228 miles) than it is to Edinburgh, Scotland (260 miles).
Shetland Ponies are a famous and popular tourist attraction. We stopped by “Carol’s Ponies” in the foothills not far from Scalloway, for a peek at authentic island ponies. Carol or members of her staff happily share their knowledge of these hardy beasts with all comers.
Colonies of wildlife as thick as molasses on French toast abound on these islands. There are more birds on Shetland than humans. On any day, one can see a mirage of color as seabirds obscure island cliffs. It’s a setting known to attract avian researchers documenting migratory bird movements.
Shetland offers the best sea mammal watching experience in the United Kingdom. Seals and sea otters sunbathe on rock outcroppings while Porpoises and Whales joyfully beach themselves with little regard for humans, offering the spectacular postcard portraits photographers love.
Shetland for the masses
Shetland may be remote, but it is no longer unknown. Fame envelops these isles thanks to the Internet and a recent award-winning BBC television crime mini-series, “Shetland”. Native Scot writer Ann Cleeves spent many summers on Shetland, and story lines from her murder-mystery books center on island life. Production is under way for the latest update this series.
These islands are now a destination of choice for many including expats, writers, wildlife researchers, outdoor and sports enthusiasts, photographers and those just wanting to get away from it all.
Revenue from cruise ship visits alone is a big business now. Island authorities project more than 90 cruise ship bookings carrying about 96,000 passengers during 2018. And oil drilling in the North Sea continues.
The outcome: an expansion of infrastructure and services across the isles. Oil workers, tourists, thrill seekers, and explorers all need support services. Figures cited by the official tourist authority show Shetland offers:
- Three top-tier golf courses
- Eighteen game halls
- Eight swimming pools
- Twenty football fields
- Six laser centers
- Twenty marinas
- Five boating clubs
- Sixty-six play areas (for children)
- Many multi-court fields
- Six thousand archaeological sites going back as many years spanning the islands
When to go
The best time to visit is midsummer. The flowers are out, thousands of seabirds are flitting around the cliffs, and the islands become a land of the midnight sun. Given the subarctic location of the islands, you can read a newspaper outside at 11 p.m.
How to get there
Northlink Ferries run overnight car ferries between Aberdeen, Scotland and Lerwick (high-season one-way passenger/car £41/146, 12 to 15 hours) daily, some stopping at Kirkwall, Orkney. With a basic ticket you can sleep in recliner chairs or the bar area. It's £36.50 for a berth in a shared cabin and £84 to £137 for a double cabin. Sleeping pods (£18) feature reclining seats. Ferries have a cafe, bar, fee-for-service lounge and cinema, and slow Wi-Fi onboard.
Cruise ship lines offer half and one day stops at Lerwick port in the summertime.
The main airport is at Sumburgh, 25 miles south of Lerwick. Fly be operates daily flights to Aberdeen, Kirkwall, Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and, to Bergen, Norway, during the summer services.
Where to stay
Hotels and rental spots can book up fast. Reserve as far in advance if you can. Check out Trip Advisor, Booking.com, or your favorite online travel site to find vacancies.
Need a long-term stay? House rentals called “camping boards”, take the form of legacy island houses. Island entrepreneurs rent them out. Some can house up to 16 people.
See this story about Iceland in our island hopping series.