The Shetland Islands are the farthest point north in Great Britain. There are about 100 islands in the archipelago (about 15 of them inhabited), so far from the mainland they’re almost half-way to Norway and lie on the same latitude as part of Greenland. They’ve even been owned by Norway for part of their history. So there’s, as you would expect, a great deal of Viking or Norse heritage. I’ve read that the climate, on the other hand is not as cold as you would expect, this far north, thanks to the warming of the Gulf Stream. But it’s windy, and it rains quite a lot. It might be called the Shetland Isles on the map, but as far as the Scots are concerned this is simply ‘Shetland’.
This is the also the furthest I can travel away from home during the Covid-19 crisis without being threatened with quarantine when I get home. It’s taken two aeroplanes, via Edinburgh. The second was a small Saab prop plane, but thankfully an uneventful journey. And no catering event either.
True to form, it’s raining when I arrive on the main island (pragmatically known as Mainland) and sadly, I have no coat. There was a heatwave in Brighton on the south coast when I left and I forgot to sling my parka in the car, as intended. I have a hired Citigo Skoda and I’ve discovered that my hotel, at Brae, in north Mainland is an hour’s drive away. Shetland is bigger than I thought.
Before I can get away I have to drive across the airport runway. Then I’m navigating through mist on narrow roads, which are fortunately empty for the most part. There are ethereal glimpses of shimmery water and mossy patches of hillside. Otherwise I can see nothing.
Busta House is a proper country house hotel set on the banks of a sea loch just outside Brae. It’s advertised as having sea views, though you have to stand up and peer through the trees to see much of the view. Nevertheless, it’s a great location and has gorgeous terraced gardens.
It’s a huge place with a beautiful lounge and heaps of atmosphere. There’s an elegant long room in the oldest part of the house where you can sip your cocktails. It’s very busy - the dining room is bustling. The staff are really friendly and helpful and the food, if not haute cuisine, is local and well presented. Its described as hearty and that’s the perfect word. Or you can have a fish and chip meal in the most northerly fish and chip shop in the British Isles - Frankie’s at Brae.
Busta House has a complicated and interesting history. There’s a glassed in section of wall in my room that covers calligraphy from earlier times -parts of the building date back to the sixteenth century. It was built by the Gifford family. Barbara, the eighteenth century cruelly treated wife (secretly married) of one of the sons of the family, is said to haunt the place. She has, apparently, been seen by several guests. I hope I’m not one of them.
It’s ‘da simmer dim’ -all night twilight- and sleeping is a little odd. But in the morning I can see blue sky out of the window, so I’m setting off to make the most of it. First, an unintentional detour into Muckle Roe, an island off the west coast joined to Mainland by a bridge. It’s a serendipitous delight. It turns out to be one of the designated national scenic areas that are confusingly lumped under one Shetland umbrella, even though they are dotted throughout the islands.
Shetland reminds me of the Faroe Islands (unsurprisingly). It’s less dramatic- the highest points can best be described as rolling hills rather than mountains. It’s charm lies in the many snaking sea inlets, known here as voes. They are not quite fjords, their sides are less steep. These are the deepest sapphire lined with emerald billiard table grass and dotted with minuscule islets. On the banks, traditional stone houses patterned with tangerine lichen (some derelict crofters cottages) mixed with more modern Nordic style blood red wood dwellings. The whole is beautifully illustrated at Muckle Roe. This brilliant name actual means Big Red Island, as it’s composed of red granite.
Over Mavis Grind (the names are just amazing) a narrow strip of land holding onto north mainland, where you can throw a pebble into the North Sea on one side and the Atlantic on the other. Apparently fishermen have been known to drag their boats from one side to the other to save sailing around the island. There’s even a sign warning of otters crossing, though sadly I can’t see one. The land beyond here is known as Northmavine and it’s wild and glorious.
The weather is changing every five minutes. Rain, cloud, sun. But the wind is unrelenting. I’m winding north on single track roads with passing places, and cattle grids and again thankfully, very little traffic. It’s more of a challenge avoiding the ubiquitous sheep who nip across the road at every opportunity. The lambs are still small and are delightful. But not as cute as the tiny Shetland foals with their thick bristly manes.
The Citigo automatic doesn't live up to its name in any way. It certainly doesn't go. I have to rev really hard on hills in reverse to stop it going forwards instead. And it really doesn't like changing gear. Anything up hill is a struggle so I’m bumping along and looking for parking spaces that are relatively flat if I want to stop. And I’m doing that a lot, to take photos of all the great scenery, during the sunny intervals.
The coast around Esha Ness is renowned for its rock formations. A group of tall pencil like rocks is known as Da Drongs. (‘Da’ is often used as a substitute for ‘the’ in Shetland it seems). The best view of the larger stacks and holes in the area is around Esha Ness lighthouse, which was designed by David, one of the Stevenson family. The most well known Stevenson is Robert Louis, who apparently got the ideas for Treasure Island and Kidnapped by accompanying his relatives on their journeys to wild and out of the way places to design lighthouses.
The cliffs here have been immortalised in the titles of the TV detective series, Shetland, which I’ve been watching avidly to get a flavours of the islands. The Shetland tourist office are obviously in two minds about whether the publicity is a good thing. There’s a piece on their website saying that Shetland is not really like the series and that crime rates are low.
The sun is obliging and there are great views of the stacks with the light glinting on the sea spray. It’s competition for Australia’s Twelve Apostles. Esha Ness is a giant volcanic plug, with layers of ash and lava and erosion has given rise to a giant finger of a chasm pointing inland, which provides welcome shelter for many seabird nests. They wheel above as I wander alongside. Not too close. It’s still very windy.
Just down the coast at Stenness (Stone House) are the ruins of an old fishing port and supposedly agates on the beach. Sadly, I can’t see any, but there are good views of a doorway arch, appropriately called Dore Holm; this is stubbornly shrouded in mist.
More wiggling, along a seven mile voe (this one is deep enough to qualify as a fjord) nestling below the highest hill on Shetland, Ronas Hill. At 450 metres Ronas Hill doesn’t count as a mountain (600 metres is necessary) but is classed as a Marilyn (over 150 metres). It’s starkly beautiful here. Not a tree in sight on the steep wind lashed slopes. Then up the main north – south ‘highway’, with multitudes of passing places and views of colourful fishing ports and neat enclosed cemeteries. It peters out at a farm gate at Isbister, just past North Roe Village.
Today it’s overcast (at least it’s not raining) so I’m heading to the middle of Mainland There are many more cars going south. Well, all the tourists staying at Busta House must be going somewhere. Here in the middle of Mainland there are wide valleys penned in by parallel ridges. The peaks are tobacco coloured, peat bog riven with fissures, an ancient leather sofa worn and frayed.
The road teeters along the hilltops and sweeps down into the pea green lowland areas. These are sprinkled with houses and there are even a few robust trees, branches swaying forbearingly. There are plenty more sheep, of course, mainly now behind fencing. The climate doesn’t encourage agriculture. And the sea is ever present. Nowhere in Shetland is more than a couple of miles from the sea and there are constant glimpses of iridescent water in the voes and out to the islands. Bobbing trails of salmon disappear into the distance.
Lerwick has been the capital since 1708 and is home to over half the Shetlanders. Once through the sprawling docks and warehouses on the outskirts of town, it’s a charming little place bestrewn with bunting and offering plenty of little souvenir shops and cafes. Above the harbour there’s Fort Charlotte, which was first built in the time of Cromwell or Charles II depending on who you believe, but it now in its third incarnation after altercations with the Dutch. This edition has replica Napoleonic cannons and good views across to the island of Bressay.The town centre radiates from the small central port, the high street surprisingly modern, though winding narrow side streets and flights of stone steps testify to its fishing history. There’s even ‘Da Harbour Chippy’
There’s a sign on the road, to the south of the town centre, advising that parking and access is restricted due to filming for the TV series. But there's no sign of Douglas Henshall or his henchmen. The picturesque cottage that doubles as Jimmy Perez’ home is down here though, next to the pocket sized perfect little sand beach with crystal clear water, that he strolls on. It must be a nice place to live.. when it’s sunny.
Driving out of Lerwick I spot actor Mark Bonnar walking into the police station. And a whole row of cameras and crew. So they are filming today. I stop to watch and am politely cajoled for intruding into the shot. I expect they’ll cut that bit.
Shetland is well known for its brochs, which are stone built iron age mini castles. Archaeologists are unsure about their purpose but they are incredibly old roundhouse buildings. The Broch of Clickimin is a surprisingly complex broch that has been restored. The original broch was built about 2000 years ago. It stands on a small islet in Loch Clickimin, on the outskirts of town and is approached over a stone causeway.
Scalloway is the ancient capital of Shetland, (it dates back to prehistoric times) on the other side of Mainland – it takes six minutes to get there. Today it’s the second town in the islands - a small very quiet port. The castle was built by the infamous Earl of Orkney using slave labour, but it’s very definitely closed. It’s covered in scaffolding. The adjacent museum is also closed. Apparently there are fascinating exhibits about the Norwegian Bus. They used small boats on clandestine operations (mainly evacuations) to Norway after the Germans invaded in the Second World War. It was dangerous work. Forty four men had died by early 1943, leading to the fishing boats being replaced by ‘sub-chasers’, fast armed patrol boats borrowed from the US navy.
There’s also a haa – an old manor house belonging to the laird. This is Muckle Haa and it has an attached tumbledown stone cottage. Both have history according to local information boards. As does gaily painted New Street alongside the port.
Close by Scalloway, stone bridges lead to several scenic islands. First, Trondra and then East and West Burra almost split down the middle by the voes. The bridges are one track, so you have to keep your eyes peeled. I’m trying not get diverted by the gorgeous views across myriads of low islets. At the bottom of West Burra (another section of the Shetland Scenic Area) is Minn Beach. The white sand isthmus is a so-called tombolo, linking West Burra to Kettla Ness, home to arctic terns and seals. The whole forms a spectacular bay, with craggy pillars at the entrance. It’s a great end to the day’s adventures.
My Mousa Island trip is an excellent way to spend a day. Mousa means moss in Norse and is pronounced Moose, like the dessert, not cats who chase rodents. Mousa Island is owned by the laird of Sandwick – he lives in the huge manor house by the boat pier. The ferry takes 15 minutes and there’s a trail that leads around the island. I have almost three hours to walk it.
That's far too long for the distance involved, but there are gorgeous views round every corner and it’s worth taking time over. The sun is shining, the sea is impossibly blue and the clouds are carving intricate patterns above the picturesque stone walls weaving across the hillsides. There are signs warning that the slabs should not be sat on.
This is where tens of thousands of storm petrels nest. They return to roost at dusk which is currently about 10.30 at night and they run boat trips out to see them at double the cost of this day trip. There's clearly high demand. They're booked out this week. In addition to avoiding upsetting storm petrels (and shouting 'I’d rather have a gannet ripple') I’m also keeping a sharp eye out for the Arctic terns wheeling. I remember what happened when I went too close to their nests in Svalbard..
There are plenty of other seabirds nesting on the crags to admire. Rocks tilted on their sides like scales - a giant armadillo. And there are seals keeping a wary distance on a sandy scoop of beach.
It's a thoroughly enjoyable walk, even discounting the broch which is allegedly the highlight. It’s certainly photogenic in its lonely position on the cliff edge. But it's closed inside due to social distancing restrictions and I can't climb to the top. It’s promoted as bring the best example of a broch in the UK. At 13 metres it's taller than the one at Clickimin and unrestored. It’s one of a pair of brochs guarding Mousa Sound. Its twin at Burland on the Mainland is far less well preserved. Locals often purloined the stones from brochs for croft building.
Half an hour to ( almost) bask in the sunshine before returning to Mainland. The captain regales me with stories of missing passengers on past trips. And there’s a seal waiting on the jetty to welcome us when we return.
I’ve saved the top billed Shetland attractions for my last day, which is gloriously sunny to suit the occasion. I’m down to my tee shirt and that’s almost unheard of in Shetland. First, Sumburgh Head on the southern tip of Mainland, back across the airport runway. There’s a lighthouse with attached exhibitions, on the top of the cliffs above some more powdery white sweeps of beaches. but this isn’t the main draw.
Nestling in burrows atop the sheer rocks are a proliferation of puffins. They’re popping up everywhere amongst the candyfloss thrift and yellow vetch, solemn, droll and gorgeous. Definitely my favourite bird with their incredibly painted bills and comic clown like waddling. The collective noun is a circus - which is perfect. Their homes are puffinries and their babies are pufflings, which is beyond perfect. In this part of the world they’re also known as Tammie Nories.
Just along the coast is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country at Jarlshof. It’s a series of layered ruined and abandoned settlements, the oldest dating back over 4,000 years to Neolithic/Bronze Age times. The most recent ruin is a Victorian manor house, which Walter Scott dubbed Jarlshof in his 1821 novel, The Pirate, giving the place its name. In-between, Pictish wheelhouses, a Viking longhouse, and a medieval farmhouse. The ruins are all jumbled together with some explanatory signboards. Congratulations to the archaeologists for sorting this lot out.
And another day in Shetland, another island. This one is St Ninian’s Isle, reached via one more of the splendid sand tombolos. The guide books say I should walk round the island, so I set off as demanded. But that’s where the instructions end.
There are the most incredible views of jagged rock formations and the foaming lapis sea. It’s a contender for one of the most scenic walks ever. But there is very little in the way of signposting. It takes me three hours to circumnavigate the island, by the time I have followed a series of narrow tracks (often perilously close to the cliff edge), to keep arriving at dead ends (literally if I kept going over the edge) and having to re-trace my steps back towards the middle of the islet. Thankfully, the weather is gorgeous and the changing panoramas so lovely that it doesn’t matter at all.
Next stop Orkney.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.