Many maps plonk the Shetland islands in a box somewhere off Aberdeen, but in fact they’re a lot closer to Bergen in Norway than they are to Edinburgh. Shetland endures the most violent weather experienced in the British Isles. There are some good spells of dry, sunny weather from May to September, but it’s the “simmer dim”, the twilight which lingers through the small hours at this latitude, that makes Shetland summers so memorable.
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The islands’ capital, Lerwick, is a busy little port and the only town of any size. Many parts of Shetland can be reached from here on a day-trip. South Mainland is a narrow finger of land that runs some 25 miles from Lerwick to Sumburgh Head, an area particularly rich in archeological remains, including the Iron Age Mousa Broch and the ancient settlement of Jarlshof. A further 25 miles south of Sumburgh Head is the remote but thriving Fair Isle, synonymous with knitwear and exceptional birdlife. Even more remote are the distinctive peaks and precipitous cliffs of the island of Foula, fourteen miles west of Mainland. Shetland’s three North Isles bring Britain to a dramatic, windswept end: Yell has the largest population of otters in the UK; Fetlar is home to the rare red-necked phalarope; north of Unst, there’s nothing until you reach the North Pole.
Inhabited until World War II, and now a National Nature Reserve, Noss is a popular day-trip from Lerwick. Sloping gently into the sea at its western end, and plunging vertically for more than 500ft at its eastern end, the island has the dramatic outline of a half-sunk ocean liner. The cliffed coastline is home to vast colonies of gannets, puffins, guillemots, shags, razorbills and fulmars. As Noss is only one mile wide, it’s easy enough to do an entire circumference in one day. If you do, keep close to the coast, since otherwise you’re likely to be dive-bombed by the great skuas (locally known as “bonxies”). Boat trips from Lerwick to Noss include those run by Seabirds and Seals. It’s also possible to take a ferry to Maryfield on Bressay; from here it’s a two-mile walk to the landing stage where a Scottish Natural Heritage RIB can take you to Noss.
Shetland’s South Mainland is a long, thin finger of land, just three or four miles wide, but 25 miles long, ending in the cliffs of Sumburgh Head (262ft), which rises sharply out of the land only to drop vertically into the sea. The road up to Sumburgh lighthouse is the perfect site for watching nesting kittiwakes, fulmars, shags, razorbills, guillemots, gannets and puffins. South Mainland also harbours some of Shetland’s most impressive archeological treasures – in particular, Jarlshof and Mousa Broch.
Jarlshof is the largest and most impressive of Shetland’s archeological sites. Only half of the original broch survives, and its courtyard is now an Iron Age aisled roundhouse, with stone piers. It’s difficult to distinguish the original broch from the later Pictish wheelhouses that now surround it, but it’s great fun to explore, as you’re free to roam around the cells, checking out the in-built stone shelving, water tanks, beds and so on. Inland lies the maze of grass-topped foundations marking out the Viking longhouses, and towering over the whole complex are the ruins of the laird’s house, built by Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland, in the late sixteenth century, and the Old House of Sumburgh, built by his son, Earl Patrick.
The island of Mousa boasts the most amazingly well-preserved broch in Scotland. Rising to more than 40ft, and looking rather like a Stone Age cooling tower, Mousa Broch has a remarkable presence, and even makes an appearance in the Norse sagas. The low entrance-passage leads through two concentric walls to a central courtyard, divided into separate beehive chambers. Between the walls, a rough (very dark) staircase leads to the top parapet; a torch is provided for visitors. Mousa is only a mile wide, but if the weather’s not too bad it’s easy enough to spend the whole day here. From late May to late July, thousands of storm petrels breed in and around the broch walls, fishing out at sea during the day, and returning to the nests after dark.
A small passenger ferry runs to Mousa from Sandwick. The ferry runs special late-night trips, setting off in the “simmer dim” twilight around 11pm.