Shetland Tours From Mainland Scotland
Located at 60 degrees north, roughly the same latitude as Bergen & Anchorage, Alaska, Shetland is Scotland's most northerly archipelago, made up of 100 islands, sixteen of which are inhabited, with a population of 23,000 humans and up to one million birds! The warming effects of the gulf stream, even this close to the Arctic Circle, means that there is a plethora of marine and bird life to be seen around these unspoiled islands. In addition, Shetland is home to some remarkable history, from its ancient three billion year old geology, 5,000 archaeological sites dating from 4,000 BC, through to its Viking occupation from the 9th to 14th centuries and since then as part of Scotland's rich maritime tradition.
As you would expect from an island chain, Shetland has an amazing coastline, all 2,700 kilometres of it, which offers a variety of tall cliffs, beaches, sea stacks, rocks and walks for the visitor to explore. The whole archipelago is a UNESCO Global Geopark This landscape provides a habitat for a plethora of wildlife, including puffins, particularly around Sumburgh Lighthouse in the far south and at Hermaness Nature Reserve on Unst - the most northerly inhabited island in the country, rare birds such as the red-necked phalarope and marine mammals such as otters, seals and pods of orcas, who prey on the latter, are all relatively common sightings in the summer. And although not wild, you can't talk about animals in this part of the world without mentioning the impossibly cute Shetland pony!
Nowhere epitomises Shetland's history more than Jarlshoff, where neolithic, bronze age, Viking and medieval buildings compete for space in a remarkably small area in the south of Mainland Shetland. And just next door is the iron age village of Old Scatness as well as the beautifully located Ness of Burgi iron age fort, making this area an ancient history lovers dream. Further north there are medieval castles, well preserved brochs (fortified beehive shaped houses) such as Mousa and Clickimin and recreated Viking longboat and longhouses.
Although the Hebrides, Orkney and parts of mainland Scotland fell under Viking control for hundreds of years, nowhere is their legacy more obvious than in Shetland. Place names, local dialect, festivals, architecture and its flag have all been greatly influenced by Shetland's Scandinavian past, despite having been formally annexed by Scotland as long ago as 1472, likely aided by its remote location halfway between Norway and the Scottish north coast.
Another commonality with the Nordic nations is the folklore belief in Trows, little people who live in the hills. Trows are mischievous and playful and some believe that Shetlanders love of folk music comes from their ancestors hearing the Trows playing the fiddle. Whatever the truth of this, Shetland have produced many great fiddle players over the years and is host to the Shetland Folk festival which is held in the Spring. The most famous festival on the islands though, and one which celebrates the Norse legacy, is Up Helly Aa at the end of every January, a fire festival where hundreds of participants dressed as Vikings march through Lerwick and set fire to a longboat in the harbour.
As you would expect from an island archipelago in the North Atlantic, Shetland is famous for its seafood, including cod, halibut, lobster and crab, and although most of it is exported you can still sample it in many places around the islands. My own favourite is the award winning Frankie's Fish & Chip Café in the village of Brae, a great venue with stunning views out to Busta Voe. Beef and Lamb is also produced on the islands where good grazing can be found, including on the beaches where sheep graze on the seaweed giving the meat a unique nutty flavour. Although not plentiful there are cafés and restaurants which cater for gluten free, vegetarian and vegan diets.
Lying on the same latitude as Anchorage and Bergen you will already have realised that you are not going to choose Shetland for a tropical beach holiday. However, owing to the warming effects of the gulf stream, winter here can actually be milder than the interior of Scotland's mainland whilst summer is cooler owing to the sea breezes. Whatever time of year you intend to visit Shetland, it is wise to warm clothing, waterproofs and layers. Shetland is the best place to see the Northern Lights in Scotland, known locally as the Mirrie Dancers, particularly in the winter when the days are short and the nights are long, conversely in mid-summer it is light for 24 hours per day, the hazy twilight around midnight is known as the Simmer Dim.
Ferry is the usual mode of transport for tours to Shetland (7 hrs 45 m from Orkney and at least 12 hrs 30 m from Aberdeen). If you choose the ferry option the good news is that all of the ferries, in both directions, travel through the night, therefore you are not losing a day's touring through travel. Tours can begin in Glasgow, Edinburgh, or any other city in Scotland. The ferry is also the most convenient way to combine a Shetland tour with an Orkney tour. If ferries aren't your thing then you can fly from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness or Kirkwall into Sumburgh Airport in the south of Shetland, where I could meet you, after bringing my van over on the ferry from Aberdeen.
Shetland and Orkney make up two groups of islands that are commonly known in Scotland as the Northern Isles. Their relative proximity means that it is possible to combine both archipelagos in a circular island hopping tour, facilitated by the fact that every second ferry between Aberdeen and Lerwick, Shetland stops in Kirkwall, Orkney. Even better, the ferry journey is through the night so you won't lose a day's touring and there are comfortable cabins on board Northlink's fleet of ferries for you to get a good night's sleep. For more information on Orkney please visit my Orkney tours page or contact me directly.