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Where is Shetland? Many cartographers place the Shetland Islands in a box somewhere in the Moray Firth. To add confusion, they are sometimes shown at a reduced scale. Visitors are often surprised to discover just how far north Shetland is. In reality, the archipelago – which includes more than 100 islands - lies about 160km from the nearest point on the Scottish mainland and the Shetland mainland is about 80km north of the northernmost tip of Orkney. Shetland is also roughly equidistant – about 320km - from Aberdeen in Scotland, Bergen in Norway and Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. The islands straddle the 60th parallel and are on the same latitude as Anchorage in Alaska, Cape Farewell in Greenland or St Petersburg. The Arctic Circle is just 650km to the north, which means that in summer the islands have no darkness, merely a twilight known locally as the ‘simmer dim’. Incidentally, locals may wince if you refer to 'the Shetlands': say either 'Shetland' or 'the Shetland Islands'.
What's it like?
By comparison with many parts of the UK, Shetland sees relatively few visitors and is most unlikely to become a mass-market destination. Although it can seem positively Aegean on a warm, calm summer’s day, the climate is generally more suited to active holidays than to soaking up rays on the (admittedly beautiful) beaches. It’s neither particularly wet – certainly less so than much of western Scotland – nor, thanks to the influence of the sea, is it particularly cold. It is windy, though much less so during the summer months.
In terms of environment, expect a hilly terrain (ranging up to almost 500 metres) surrounded by an attractive and often-spectacular coast which features cliffs, stacks, natural arches, caves and blowholes as well as rocky and sandy shores. The landscape is largely but not entirely treeless and is mostly moorland and rough grazing, with occasional areas under cultivation; spring flowers are a particular treat in May and June. It is superb walking country. There are some outstanding seabird colonies, for example at Noss (an island not far from the islands’ capital, Lerwick) and at Hermaness on the northernmost island of Unst. At Sumburgh Head, the puffins can be approached to within a few feet. Seals can be seen all around the coast and patience (bolstered by local advice) will sometimes be rewarded with a sighting of an otter. In summer especially, there are always sightings of whales, though being in the right place at the right time is, of course, a matter of luck.
Many visitors find that the islands are larger than they imagined. Including a couple of short ferry crossings, a drive - on good roads - from the south of the main island to the northern tip of Unst will take almost three hours. The heavily-indented coastline extends to a remarkable 1,697 miles; nowhere is more than three miles from the sea.
Shetland has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years and the islands are very rich in archaeological remains, with well over 7,000 recorded sites. Highlights include the multi-period settlements at Jarlshof and Old Scatness and the best-preserved broch (round, defensive tower-house) in the world, located on the island of Mousa. A Pictish culture was replaced from about 800 AD by a Norse one, as Viking explorers and settlers spread westwards from Norway across the North Atlantic. In 1469, however, the islands were mortgaged to Scotland by a Norwegian king, Christian 1, who was unable to raise a dowry for his daughter Margaret’s marriage to James III of Scotland. From then on, Scottish settlers began to move into the islands, typically lairds (landlords) and merchants. The church, the law and the education system became Scottish too. That said, the dialect spoken by Shetlanders still contains old Norse words alongside Scots and English ones and place-names clearly betray Norse origins; there's more about this on the website of the local society dedicated to preserving and developing the dialect, Shetland ForWirds.
Shetland men traditionally made their living from the sea, either through fishing or through seafaring in the merchant trade or the navy. The two world wars were significant for the islands, lying as they do at a crossroads in the north Atlantic. During the Second World War, refugees and resistance workers travelled between Shetland and occupied Norway, initially on fishing boats, in a risky, secret operation known as ‘The Shetland Bus’. Fishing is still hugely important in the economy and there is widespread farming of mussels and salmon. From the land, there is excellent lamb and a limited amount of superb beef. The islands became a significant centre for the oil industry in the 1970s, though the direct impact is restricted to a small and little-visited corner of the north mainland. Nevertheless, revenue from oil has supported a blossoming of excellent social and cultural facilities and considerable investment in the islands’ heritage. The islands’ knitwear was always celebrated, though very little of what is labelled ‘Shetland’ in shops around the world actually originates in the islands. Today, young designers have revitalised the range on offer.
Shetland has some impressive, if relatively small-scale, architecture. Traditionally, homes were built from stone with a thatched or turfed roof, though only one or two examples of thatch now survive. Later, roofs were tarred. Larger, more ambitious homes had a roof of slate or stone slabs. The old part of Lerwick has been well looked after and is attractive, with many fine old stone buildings and a surprising number of trees and shrubs in the lanes leading up the hill from Commercial Street. There is also some noticeable Scandinavian influence, most obviously at the North Mainland village of Voe; and recent housing has often employed Scandinavian designs, with much use of timber as opposed to the render that used to be the most popular finish.
Culturally, Shetland is rich. There is a surprisingly long list of published local fiction, local history and poetry. The visual arts have found a home at the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale, run by a local charitable trust, and there is a substantial number of practising visual artists. In 2007 a stunning new museum opened in Lerwick, run by another trust and fully equipped to tell Shetland’s story.
Shetland is particularly celebrated for its music. The tradition is built around the fiddle (violin) and the fiddling style is subtly different from what you’ll hear in Scotland. Many youngsters learn the fiddle at school and a number of young Shetland bands have made a name for themselves well away from the islands; Aly Bain, Shetland’s best-known traditional performer, has been an inspiration to them. This heritage proved fertile ground for the establishment of an annual Folk Festival around the beginning of May, undoubtedly one of the highlights in the calendar. A huge event run entirely by volunteers, it's noted for an eclectic approach that has embraced anything from bluegrass to jazz to folk-rock. There's been traditional music from Italy, Mongolia, Africa, India, the Americas and many other places besides. Tickets sell out so quickly that early booking is essential.
In Shetland, there's a strong following for music of many kinds and the many fiddle players are joined by some accomplished jazz, rock and classical performers. You should be able to sample some of this; sessions often occur in pubs or hotels. A new music venue incorporating two cinemas, Mareel, will open in 2012.
Getting to Shetland is not difficult. There are two options, air or ship. There are year-round direct air services to Sumburgh Airport (code LSI or SDZ) from the Scottish mainland, all operated by FlyBe's franchise partner, Loganair, and these can be booked online at www.flybe.com. There are up to five flights a day from Aberdeen (ABZ; flight time 1 hour) and between one and three a day from Edinburgh (EDI; one and a half hours), one from Glasgow, (GLA; one and a half hours), two from Inverness (INV; just under two hours) and two from Kirkwall (Orkney; KOI; about 35 minutes). These are by no means ‘low-cost’ flights - it's possible to pay over GBP300 for a return from Glasgow - but reasonable fares can be had if you book well in advance. The lowest return fare from Aberdeen or Inverness is in the region of GBP100 and return fares from Edinburgh and Glasgow start at about GBP140. Sumburgh Airport is 25 miles south of Lerwick; cars can be hired there though it is best to reserve in advance. The main firms are Bolts and Star. There is a reasonable bus service connecting the airport to Lerwick, though connections with flights are not guaranteed. Taxis are available too.
NorthLink Ferries operate a daily service in each direction between Aberdeen and Lerwick. All these services are overnight, with journey times of 12 hours or, for services which call at Kirkwall in Orkney en route, 14 hours. In summer, the seas are usually quite calm and the journey is very comfortable. You can bring your own car. The ferries were brand-new in 2003 and are well-equipped. Cabin accommodation is scarce in July and August and it is necessary to book well in advance to be sure of a berth. It’s possible to book either a whole two-berth or four-berth cabin, or to book a berth in a shared cabin. There are also reclining seats, though those without berths often find the seats in the bar or cafeteria a more comfortable proposition. Meals in the cafeteria are perfectly adequate, but if you feel like treating yourself a little more lavishly there is also a good restaurant featuring local produce from the islands.
Once in Shetland, there is a good road network. The main routes are almost all two-lane; minor roads are single track with passing places to allow you to pass oncoming cars or to enable faster traffic to overtake. Cycling is perfectly feasible in the less windy months, although there are a few quite long hills. There is a useful network of local buses; though they are mostly geared towards those commuting into Lerwick in the morning and out at night, it is possible to visit most parts of the islands by that means. The islands of Yell, Unst, Fetlar, Whalsay, Skerries, Bressay and Papa Stour are connected to the mainland by roll-on, roll-off car ferries. Fair Isle and Foula can be reached by smaller ferries, or by air from Tingwall Airport near Lerwick. Ferry fares are subsidised; a typical return journey for a car and driver will cost about GBP12 and the ferries between Unst, Yell and Fetlar are at present free. On the main ferry routes, services are frequent – typically hourly or better – and journey times are between seven and 30 minutes. It is possible to book car passages by phone in advance (except on the Bressay route) and this is recommended in peak season.
Given that the number of visitors is relatively low, there is less accommodation than you’d find in, say, Skye or Orkney. You can find places to stay here on TripAdvisor or on the islands’ tourism website, www.visit.shetland.org, which has links to TripAdvisor ratings where available and also contains lots of other information about the islands. The official accommodation gradings range between one and four stars, but this writer’s view is that most hotels are of two- or three-star quality. Hotels in Lerwick tend to be geared towards the needs of business travellers and tour groups. Smaller hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs are to be found in Lerwick and in most other communities; they’re often very comfortable and will bring you closer to local life; some are outstanding - again, check TripAdvisor. There is a range of self-catering options, too. If you’re on a budget, or want a little more adventure, there is a network of ‘Camping Böds’ – restored buildings with interesting histories – where you can bed down for the night; you need everything you’d take on a camping holiday except for the tent. These must be booked through the tourist office in Lerwick (telephone 01595 693434). Finally, Lerwick has an excellent youth hostel - recently rated the best in Europe - and there is also an independent hostel at Uyeasound on Unst.
When to come
The sunniest, driest weather is usually in May and June, when there is also unbroken daylight. July and August may be a little warmer, but can also be cloudier, and sea fog (often confined to the windward side of the islands) may disrupt air services. September can be very pleasant. Outside these months, the weather tends to be much less settled and gale- or even hurricane-force winds sweep salt spray across the islands. These storms can be spectacles in themselves. Winter usually brings some snow, but in most years amounts are small; temperatures rarely dip below about -2ºC.
There are specific events which might attract you out of the main holiday season. Apart from the Shetland Folk Festival mentioned above, these include the largest of several local Viking fire festivals, Up Helly A, held in Lerwick on the last Tuesday in January and, in early autumn, the literary festival, WordPlay or the film festival, ScreenPlay. If you have a specialist interest, such as angling, motorbiking, sailing, golf, or birdwatching, a web search with 'Shetland' as one of the terms will usually track down contacts with local clubs and highlight relevant events.