Shetland holiday: Shetland Folk Festival and more

Rachel Lawrence

written by
Rachel Lawrence

updated 07.06.2024

Each May, the spectacular Shetland Islands host a unique festival bringing together musicians from across Europe, North America and beyond. Travel editor and folk music fan, Rachel Lawrence, went to experience it and discovered what makes Shetland such a mesmerising holiday destination.

Bag a ticket for any one of the Shetland Folk Festival gigs and you’re in for a treat. A well curated line-up of local and visiting artists will have you tapping your feet, whooping and singing along. The festival is known for the high standard of its performers, not to mention their stamina as they play and party their way from Lerwick to Unst, and the 2024 line-up was no exception. 

From the transcendent vocals of rising star Beth Malcolm to the pounding rhythms of the Asturian guitar, flute and bouzaki ensemble Deira, or the frenetic energy of Shetland fiddler Ross Couper and his band, each act brought something fresh and new to the stage, and left audiences wanting more. 

Prince Edward Island’s Inn Echo blended traditional Canadian folk tunes and contemporary sounds, while Oregon indie-folk trio The Hackles captivated audiences with their delicate harmonies and beguiling lyrics, and Scottish-born country singer Kirsten Adamson had everyone singing along.

Eshaness, Shetland Islands © Rachel Lawrence

The breadth of musical styles, taking in traditional Shetland reels, Irish ballads, country, bluegrass, blues, jazz and even heavy metal, means you’re sure to find something you like at the festival. In the space of an evening, you could find yourself transported on a musical journey through the plaintive melodies of Donegal County, ethereal Swedish folk hymns and across the Atlantic to Canadian kitchen parties and American roots music. 

Concerts take place in village halls across the islands, from Bigton to Baltasound, where you’ll find Shetland’s renowned hospitality in full swing – volunteers from the local community ensure the smooth running of the events, along with a steady supply of free tea and cake, and a well-stocked bar. 

The festival culminates in a foy, or gathering, where all the visiting acts perform at Mareel and two other venues in Lerwick; after each 15-minute set there’s a speedy changeover before the next band appears. 

Meal Sands, Burra, Shetland Islands © Promote Shetland

Exploring the islands 

Travelling around the islands is all part of a Shetland holiday adventure. Head off the main A-road, which runs the length of the Mainland, and you’ll discover winding single-track roads with passing places, leading past peaty moorland where sheep roam freely and Shetland’s eponymous ponies graze. 

The fjord-like inlets called voes that characterise the coastline have shaped the islands’ culture, farming and industry, and the colourful houses and fishing boats which line the water's edge add to the Scandinavian feel. 

Burra, an island to the west of Mainland, reached via the island of Trondra and two short road bridges either side, is blessed with spectacular sandy beaches, including Meal Sands and Minn Beach. Further South, a graceful sandy causeway, or tombolo, forms a link between South Mainland and St Ninian’s Isle, known for a hoard of Pictish silver found here in the 1950s, replicas of which can be seen in the Shetland Museum

Brave swimmers can warm up in the horsebox sauna stationed here during the summer, but which side of the tombolo is best for swimming is up for debate. 

Mousa Island, Shetland Islands © Rachel Lawrence

A journey through time

Shetland’s American connection goes beyond its folk music scene, the popularity of country music here, or even the thousands of islanders who emigrated to America and Canada during the nineteenth century. 

Millenia ago, the islands were part of the same mountain range as the Appalachian Mountains and their unique geological make-up has earned the archipelago its Unesco Global Geopark status – just one of eight in the UK. Dramatic rock formations are visible all along its ragged coastline, from the volcanic cliffs and pointy "Drongs" of Eshaness to the spectacular sandstone cliffs on Bressay and Noss.

Millions of years of history are laid bare in layer upon layer of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks in myriad shades of pink, yellow and grey, and an array of textures and patterns. 

At Norwick Beach in Unst it is possible to walk across a cross-section of oceanic floor thrust upwards millions of years ago, while the lunar-like rocks scattered across the Keen of Hamar provide a habitat for a plant species found nowhere else in the world. 

The Shetland Museum in Lerwick is a good place to discover more about the archipelago’s rich geology (alongside imaginative displays on island life through the centuries). Artfully constructed geowalls at Mavis Grind and several other locations, including Unst Heritage Centre and the Loch of Funzie, on Fetlar, provide a vivid representation of what lies beneath your feet.

Lerwick Harbour, Shetland Islands © Promote Shetland

Vikings, “gutter lasses” and secret agents

If history’s your thing, you’ll find no shortage of fascinating places to visit – and even if it’s not, the scenic locations of Shetland’s numerous archeological sites are enough to take your breath away. The ruins at Jarlshof provide a walk through 5,000 years of history, from traces of a Neolithic settlement dating back to 2700 BC to a sixteenth-century laird’s house which has weathered many a storm. 

This complex site contains the remains of a Bronze Age smithy, an Iron Age broch, Pictish wheelhouses and Viking longhouses. Gaze out across the expanse of water between here and Fair Isle and it’s not hard to imagine life here in a more primitive age. 

The crowning jewel of Shetland’s ancient sites is Mousa Broch, the world’s best preserved Iron Age broch. This awe-inspiring 13-metre stone tower, entwined in myth and legend, sits majestically on the shoreline of the island of Mousa

Mousa Broch in Shetland © Rachel Lawrence

Exactly what its purpose was is uncertain, but the view from the parapet, accessed by a dingy spiral staircase, would have made it an excellent lookout point for invaders. 

Thousands of storm petrels (alamooties in Shetland dialect) nest in the cracks and crevices in the broch during the summer, while pools on the southeast side of the island provide shelter for common seals which come to birth their pups and moult. 

Catch the Mousa Boat from Sandwick and enjoy the skipper’s retelling of Norse legends associated with the broch, and interesting snippets about the island’s history in his gentle Shetland lilt.

Mousa Island, Shetland © Rachel Lawrence

Shetland’s more recent history is on display at its excellent local museums, many of which are run by local volunteers with a passion for their subject (they’re also a good place to sample some tasty cakes, something the islands’ bakers excel at – this is, after all, the birthplace of the honesty cake fridge). 

Learn more about the traditional way of life here, and the role women played in running the homestead while the men were out at sea, at the Crofthouse Museum in Dunrossness, or the perils of deep-sea fishing and whaling at the Tangwick Haa Museum

As documented at the Unst Heritage Centre and Boat Haven, the port of Baltasound was once the biggest herring station in Europe and during the summer its population of 500 would swell to over 10,000 as migrant workers, known as “gutter lasses”, came to gut and pack the herring catch. 

Informative displays at the Scalloway Museum, situated in the shadow of Scalloway Castle, chart the area’s history from Neolithic times to today, including its strategic role in World War II. In an undercover operation nicknamed the “Shetland Bus”, fishing boats were used to smuggle secret agents, weapons and equipment into Nazi-occupied Norway and bring back over 350 refugees. 

Scalloway, Shetland Islands © Rachel Lawrence

Night skies and birdwatching 

At 60º North, the Shetland Islands are the best place in Britain to see the Northern Lights. The best time to catch the Mirrie Dancers, as they’re known, is between late September and early March, but a Shetland sunset on a long summer’s evening is also a wonder to behold. 

The self-guided Sky Trail on Unst provides a fascinating way to learn more about the skies above Britain’s most northerly inhabited island – day or night, you can take in the view from 13 key sights while listening to recordings of songs, stories and poems in the local dialect.   

At the northern tip of Unst lies Hermaness National Nature Reserve. Shetland is a hotspot for birdwatchers, many of whom come to spot the rare species which stop by on spring and autumn migrations, but you don’t need expert knowledge to appreciate the birdlife here.

Peering down from the cliff edge at Hermaness to see flocks of gannets whirling and gliding on the air currents is a magical experience. And if you’re here between mid-April and early August you’ll see hundreds of puffins, or tammie nories, nestled in the cliff face and perched on the grassy slopes. Other good places to spot puffins are at Sumburgh Head Nature Reserve, Noss and Fair Isle. 

West Burra, Shetland Islands © Rachel Lawrence

Arts and crafts

It’s no surprise that the scenery and the quality of light in Shetland are a draw for painters and artists – at its numerous galleries and workshops you can learn about the techniques and inspiration behind the pieces on display, often from the artists themselves. 

The Hoswick Visitor Centre has an excellent display on the weaving and knitting techniques used to make the world-famous Fair Isle sweater. 

Nearby, you’ll find the Shetland Wool Company, packed with gorgeous knits manufactured on site, nielanell’s mould-breaking designs and Karlin Anderson’s inspired hand-made jewellery, all of which reflect Shetland’s rich tradition of creativity and innovation. 

St Ninian's Beach, Shetland Islands © Rachel Lawrence

A trip to these remote islands offers unforgettable experiences and a chance to reconnect with nature or lose yourself in the timeless strains of a fiddle played at full pelt. Whilst at the mercy of the elements – whether bright blue skies over turquoise waters, all-enveloping mist or ferocious waves whipped up by the wind – these captivating islands offer adventure, inspiration and above all, a warm welcome. 

Oh, and did we mention the cakes?

Getting to your Shetland holiday:

Return direct flights from Aberdeen or Edinburgh to Sumburgh cost from £180 with Loganair, while return foot passenger fares from Aberdeen to Lerwick cost from £50 with NorthLink Ferries

Or, skip the hassle of researching let us handle the details. Our tailor-made trips are designed by local travel experts, and are completely customisable. We handle the planning and booking and let you enjoy your holiday, with 24/7 support during your trip. See our existing itineraries for inspiration. 

For accommodation listings and more, visit

This article was brought to you in sponsorship with Promote Shetland. 


Rachel Lawrence

written by
Rachel Lawrence

updated 07.06.2024

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