Perched at the crossroads of the North Atlantic and the North Sea are the Shetland Islands, a mesmerising archipelago that forms the northernmost point of the United Kingdom and where Scottish heritage intertwines with a unique Norse influence. These islands offer a blend of breathtaking scenery, abundant wildlife, and a deeply rooted Viking heritage, which all make them a captivating destination for nature lovers and history enthusiasts alike.
From the stunning cliffs and sandy beaches to the famous Shetland ponies and the renowned Shetland Wool Week, this article aims to give you a comprehensive insight into the life and beauty of this extraordinary corner of the world.
Whether you are drawn by the allure of the lively folk festivals or the appeal of the unspoiled natural scenery, the Shetland Islands promise an unforgettable journey. Join us as we unveil the secrets of the Shetland Islands, where the past and present merge seamlessly amidst the untamed beauty of nature.
The Shetland Islands are a Scottish archipelago located in the North Atlantic about 160 kilometres off the northeast coast of Scotland, somewhere between the Orkney Islands, the Faroe Islands, and Norway.
This archipelago comprises 100 islands, collectively with an area of 1,466 square kilometres. Only 16 of those are inhabited, with a population of 22,920 people. The largest island is called Mainland. It is the centre of most of the economic, cultural, and administrative activities of the archipelago and where most of the population lives. The Mainland is home to Lerwick, the capital and largest settlement in Shetland.
The smallest island in the archipelago is unidentified, for there are numerous tiny, uninhabited islets, often with negligible sizes, and it is challenging to determine which of them is the absolute smallest.
That being said, the smallest inhabited island is Papa Stour. It is known for its dramatic scenery, including cliffs, sea caves, and stacks. The island’s population is very small, with only a handful of residents, offering a tranquil and secluded living environment.
The history of the Shetland Islands is rich and varied. Initially inhabited in the Mesolithic era—between 10,000 BC and 8,000 BC—it has seen influences from the Picts, Norse Vikings, and Scots. The Viking influence is particularly notable, as the islands were under Norse rule until the 15th century before they became part of Scotland.
That is why Shetland has a distinct culture with many influences. This is evident in the local dialect, music, folklore, and festivals. The annual Up Helly Aa fire festival, celebrating the island’s Viking heritage, is particularly famous.
The weather in the Shetland Islands can be unpredictable and varies significantly, often experiencing ‘four seasons in one day.’ The islands are known for their windy conditions throughout the year, and rainfall is frequent yet usually not extreme.
Winter, where daylight hours are limited, is usually the wetter season, starting sometime around mid-November and lasting until mid-April. During this time, the weather can be more severe, with occasional gales and stormy conditions. Snow is relatively rare and does not usually lie for long; however, hail is more common. The average temperature in winter ranges from 3°C to 7°C.
Summer in the Shetland Islands runs from June to August. It is characterised by long daylight hours, including the ‘Simmer Dim’, when it never gets completely dark.
The temperature typically ranges between 11°C and 15°C, and fog and sea mist (locally known as ‘haar’) can occur, especially at the beginning of the season, affecting visibility.
The settlements in the Shetland Islands are a fascinating mix of history, culture, and natural beauty. From the capital town to smaller villages and hamlets, each of them has its own unique charm and serves as a window into the diverse lifestyles and traditions found within the Shetland Islands. Here are some of the notable settlements there:
- Lerwick: As the capital and largest town of the Shetland Islands, Lerwick, located on the east coast of the Mainland, is the main administrative and commercial centre. It is famous for hosting the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival, celebrating the island’s Viking heritage.
- Scalloway: Located on the west coast of the Mainland, Scalloway was once the capital of Shetland. It is known for its historic castle, Scalloway Castle, built in the 17th century, and its picturesque harbour.
- Brae: Situated in the north of the Mainland, Brae is a key service centre for the oil industry in the North Sea. It is a relatively new village, having grown substantially since the 1970s.
- Sumburgh: Found at the southern tip of the Mainland, Sumburgh is notable for the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse and the nearby Sumburgh Airport, which provides air connections to Mainland Scotland.
The prehistory of the Shetland Islands is a fascinating subject for history buffs and nature lovers alike. Numerous archaeological excavations in Shetland have uncovered artefacts like pottery, tools, and jewellery, providing insights into the everyday lives of the island’s ancient inhabitants, with evidence of human activity dating back over 6,000 years.
Ancient stone structures, known as brochs and standing stones, dot the landscape and offer a glimpse into the lives of early inhabitants. These ancient people were skilled farmers and fishermen who relied on the bountiful resources of the surrounding seas.
Starting around the late eighth century, the Shetland Islands saw the arrival of Norse settlers, the Vikings, which marked the beginning of the islands’ recorded history. The Norse influence significantly shaped the culture, language, and heritage of the Shetland Islands. They gradually became a significant outpost of the Norse empire and stayed a part of Norway for several centuries during this time.
In 1469, Shetland was pawned by the King of Norway and Denmark to Scotland as part of the dowry for his daughter, Princess Margaret of Denmark, who was to marry James III of Scotland. The islands were never reclaimed by Norway and remained under Scottish and, subsequently, British rule.
The economy of the Shetland Islands is diverse and influenced by its natural resources and industries. For instance, fishing plays a vital role in the local economy, with Shetland being one of Scotland’s top fishing regions.
The surrounding waters are abundant in various fish species, including herring, haddock, mackerel, shellfish, and cod. This has led to the development of a thriving high-quality seafood industry on the islands. In recent decades, aquaculture, especially salmon farming, has grown substantially, contributing significantly to the local economy.
While less prominent than fishing, agriculture, too, plays a significant part in sustaining the local economy, with sheep farming being particularly important. Shetland is known for its native sheep breed, which produces the famous Shetland wool, a high-quality material used in textiles.
However, the islands’ economy was dramatically transformed upon the sudden discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s. The oil and gas Sullom Voe Terminal in Shetland, constructed between 1975 and 1981, has become one of Europe’s largest oil terminals and plays a crucial role in the UK’s oil industry.
Besides, there has been a growing focus on sustainable energy sources and the long-term impacts of this sector. The islands are ideal for renewable energy, particularly wind power, thanks to their windy and coastal environment. They are also working towards increasing their renewable energy production, aiming to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and create a sustainable energy future.
The Shetland Islands’ location at the crossroads of the Atlantic and North Sea creates a unique environment of varied unspoiled habitats. As a true haven for nature lovers, the islands boast a rich and diverse array of wildlife, where northern and southern species overlap, contributing to the rich biodiversity of the region.
First and foremost, Shetland is particularly renowned for its birdlife species, with over 100 species breeding on the islands. The cliffs and sea stacks are home to numerous seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, and fulmars. Shetland also hosts a variety of other bird species. The moorlands and wetlands are important for breeding waders like snipe and redshank, and the islands are also a stopover for many migratory birds.
The clean, cold waters around the islands are rich in marine life. Visitors can spot seals, particularly grey and common seals, basking on the shores or in the water. The islands are also a great place to see otters, especially along the coastline and the surrounding seas are frequented by various species of whales and dolphins, including orcas, minkewhales, and porpoises.
One of the most iconic animals associated with the islands is the small, sturdy Shetland pony that is known for its resilience and strength. These ponies have adapted well to the harsh Shetland climate and are a symbol of the island’s natural heritage.
The culture and arts scene in the Shetland Islands is vibrant and unique, providing an enriching experience for visitors to immerse themselves in the heritage of these islands.
For instance, the islands have a strong musical tradition, with fiddle music, which has Norse and Scottish influences, being particularly popular. This style is characterised by its lively, distinctive tunes. The Shetland Folk Festival and the Accordion and Fiddle Festival are major events that showcase local and international talent. Traditional dances, often accompanied by fiddle music, are also a part of local gatherings and celebrations.
As we mentioned earlier, Shetland is world-renowned for its high-quality wool and knitting traditions. Traditional Shetland lace and Fair Isle knitting patterns are famous worldwide. Local artisans also produce a variety of crafts, including jewellery, ceramics, and woodworking, often inspired by the islands’ landscapes and wildlife.
Local galleries, studios and art exhibitions also give a glimpse of the creative talents of island residents and showcase the work of local painters, photographers, and sculptors. Shetland artists like to depict the stunning landscapes, wildlife, and heritage of the islands in their artworks.
Planning Your Trip to the Shetland Islands
Tourism in the Shetland Islands offers a unique experience, attracting visitors with its combination of stunning natural beauty, rich wildlife, vibrant cultural heritage, and historical significance. The islands provide a wide variety of interests, making them an appealing destination for various types of travellers.
The peak tourist season in the Shetland Islands typically falls during the summer months, from May to August. This period is favoured by visitors as the weather is mildest, offering more stable conditions. Days are also longer, which gives tourists more time to do outdoor activities and explore the islands. It is also the time when most of Shetland’s cultural events, folk festivals, and local celebrations take place.
Getting to the beautiful Shetland Islands is an adventure in itself, whether you do it by air or sea.
The most common way to reach Shetland by air is through Sumburgh Airport, located at the southern tip of the Mainland island. There are regular flights to Sumburgh from major Scottish airports such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness. These flights are operated by airlines like Loganair. It is advisable to book flights beforehand, especially during peak tourist season.
If you prefer a scenic route to soak in the stunning coastal views, taking a ferry is a great option. NorthLink Ferries operates the primary ferry service to Shetland from Mainland Scotland. The ferry departs from Aberdeen and sails to Lerwick, Shetland’s capital. There is also an option to travel via Orkney with a stop at Kirkwall.
The ferries offer a range of facilities, including cabins for overnight stays, restaurants, and lounges. This can be a more leisurely way to travel, allowing you to enjoy the sea journey and possibly spot marine wildlife.
Upon arrival in Shetland, rental cars, buses, and inter-island ferries are available for getting around the islands. Having a car can be advantageous for exploring more remote areas.
Given that the weather conditions are generally unstable, flight and ferry schedules can be affected, particularly in winter. So it is wise to check forecasts and be prepared for possible delays.
Places to Stay
When visiting the enchanting Shetland Islands, there are various options for places to stay that cater to different preferences and budgets, offering visitors a variety of choices.
While choosing where to stay depends on your itinerary and interests, anywhere in or near Lerwick is convenient for amenities and travel connections. However, if you are pursuing more unique experiences of the islands’ natural beauty and tranquillity, you may want to stay in more remote areas.
Here is an overview of the types of accommodations available in Shetland:
- Hotels: Lerwick, the capital and largest town, has the most significant number of hotels, including both larger, well-equipped options and smaller, family-run establishments. Hotels in other towns and rural areas tend to be smaller but offer a cosy, personal experience.
- Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs): B&Bs are popular in Shetland, available both in the towns and in more remote areas. They provide comfortable, homely accommodation. They are often family-run and offer a chance to experience local hospitality.
- Self-Catering Cottages and Apartments: For those who prefer more independence, self-catering cottages and apartments are a great option. These accommodations range from modern apartments to traditional croft houses and are found throughout the islands.
- Hostels, Guesthouses, and Camps: Budget travellers can find hostels and guesthouses, particularly in Lerwick and other larger settlements. These accommodations offer basic, affordable rooms, often with shared facilities. For outdoor enthusiasts, there are several campsites on the islands equipped with facilities for tents and caravans.
- Unique Accommodations: Shetland also offers some unique accommodation options, such as renovated lighthouses, eco-friendly lodges, and traditional Shetland ‘böds’ (similar to bothies) for a more rustic experience.
Like with the flights, it is advisable to book accommodations in advance as well, especially when travelling during the peak tourist season. Options in Lerwick tend to fill up quickly due to events and festivals.
Things to Do
When visiting the enchanting Shetland Islands, there are multiple unique and exciting activities to enjoy. Besides wildlife watching, visiting archaeological sites, enjoying traditional music and festivals, and exploring and shopping in the vibrant city of Lerwick, here are a few other things tourists can enjoy doing when in Shetland:
- Hiking and Walking Trails: The islands offer beautiful landscapes for hiking. Visitors can walk along the rugged coastline, through hills and moors, or explore the scenic trails in places like Eshaness cliffs and the island of Foula.
- Visiting Museums and Galleries: Visitors can learn about Shetland’s culture and heritage at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick or visit local art galleries showcasing the work of Shetland artists.
- Boat Trips: Boat tours are a great way to explore the coastline and remote islands. One can visit places like the Noss National Nature Reserve or go on a sea-angling trip.
- Enjoying Local Cuisine: Shetland’s cuisine, featuring fresh seafood and local lamb, is a must-try. Local specialities include reestit mutton and Shetland bannocks.
- Crafts and Knitting: Visiting local craft shops is recommended so visitors get to see the beautiful Shetland wool garments and maybe even take part in a knitting workshop.
Tips for an Amazing Vacation
Part of the charm of the Shetland Islands lies in their remote and unspoiled nature, which requires a bit of extra planning as well as staying open to the unique experiences the islands offer. So, here are some tips to ensure an even more memorable trip.
It is recommended to explore the islands on foot or by bike, for it allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the stunning landscapes, from dramatic cliffs to serene beaches, and discover hidden gems along the way.
Attending local events, visiting museums, and enjoying the music scene are great ways to engage with the local culture. Learning a few words in the Shetland dialect is also a fun way to connect with locals.
Visitors also need to respect the precious environment of the islands. They have to be mindful of wildlife, adhere to guidelines while birdwatching or hiking, and leave no trace.
The Shetland Islands offer a unique and enchanting experience, blending breathtaking natural landscapes with a rich tapestry of cultural heritage. From the dramatic cliffs and serene beaches to the lively music festivals and historical sites, these islands present a world where tradition and natural beauty intertwine.
Whether you are exploring the rugged outdoors, delving into Viking history, or savouring the local seafood, Shetland promises an array of unforgettable experiences. The warmth and hospitality of its people, coupled with the islands’ unspoiled charm, make it a must-visit destination for those seeking an adventure off the beaten path.
1. Is it expensive to live in the Shetland Islands?
Living in the Shetland Islands can be more expensive than in many other parts of the UK, mainly due to its remote location. Costs for transportation can be higher. As groceries and everyday goods are imported, the cost of many food items tends to be higher as well.
2. What language do they speak in the Shetland Islands?
In the Shetland Islands, the primary language spoken is English. However, the islands also have their own distinctive dialect known as Shetlandic, a variant of Scots, which has been influenced heavily by the Old Norse language.
3. Can I work or study in the Shetland Islands?
Yes, you can work or study in the Shetland Islands, although the opportunities may vary depending on your field of interest or expertise.
4. Does Shetand have an airport?
Yes, the Shetland Islands have an airport known as Sumburgh Airport. It is located at the southern tip of the main island, approximately 40 kilometres south of Lerwick. Sumburgh Airport serves as the main gateway for air travel to and from the Shetland Islands.