The Shetland Islands: Scotland’s Best Kept Secret – Things to Know!

Shetland Islands -Scotland's Best Kept Secret
The Skidbladner in Unst, Shetland Islands

I visited Scotland in June 2019 and I instantly fell in love with it. There is a lot to see in the land of the Scots and our road trip circuiting Edinburgh, Glasgow, the Speyside, Inverness and the Loch Ness was enough to make me leave my heart in Scotland. Little did I know I would be returning in 3 months time, this time to see another face of this stunning land crowning the Northern Seas…

I don’t remember exactly when I made up my mind to visit the Shetland Islands; I mean every time someone asks me so, I really do not have an answer but I do know I was mesmerized by the fact that this archipelago of some 300 islands lay undiscovered by the usual tourist trails and promised to be everything that I wanted it to be. I have sometimes wondered if my resolve to visit the Shetland Islands is something that I can attribute to ‘Shetland’ – the Netflix show. Probably not… I clicked on the ‘Shetland’ icon on my recommended list (that Netflix “cookied” me for) only because I was already in my head planning a trip to this paradise of a place.

Realistically speaking though, the Shetland Islands may not elicit the same emotions from everyone the way it does from me, but you may want to consider a trip there if you are a sucker for going off the well-trodden path and like (a lot of) adventure. From how I experienced Shetland, it is perfect for a solo trip (yes a female solo trip) or a quick couple-ey vacation; I would not recommend it for a cute girls-only trip or a big group of friends’ get-together. I visited Shetland with my husband and it has been one of the most memorable vacations/trips we have taken together.

A disclaimer before you read on – Through this post I attempt give you a glimpse of Shetland through my eyes and it is quite possible that other bloggers may have a completely different view 🙂

Here are a few things to know that will help you plan an itinerary –

What & Where are the Shetland Islands?

Shetland lies north of Scotland, East of Faroe Islands & West of Norway

The Shetland Islands are a cluster of islands that are interestingly located almost equidistantly from Norway, Scotland and the Faroe Islands. It is a part of the UK and under the Scottish administration, though culturally and historically they claim to be closer to Norway. Lerwick is the capital and is the biggest town on the archipelago. The only airport in Shetland is in Sumburgh about 40 kms (25 miles) from Lerwick and the drive is eyeopening and awe-inspiring especially if it is your first trip to this part of the world. Wool is their main “cash-crop” and I can vouch for the fact that Shetland has way more sheep than people (the ratio they say is 15:1)!

The Shetland Harbour at Dusk

The Shetland Islands have 4 “main” islands – Mainland (Lerwick and Sumburgh airport are located here), Yell, Unst (Eshaness Lighthouse & Hermaness National Nature Reserve are located here) and Fair Isle (very well known for its woolen crafts). There are daily ferries between Mainland, Yell and Unst and the journey is one of its kind.

There are virtually no trees on these islands and to someone like me who hails from a tropical country, its just something I couldn’t wrap my head around – everything about the tree-less Shetland islands left me mermerized me…

How to reach the Shetland Islands?

There are two ways to reach any island – by air and by ferry and you can avail either to reach the Shetland Islands. However, bear in my mind that there is only one ferry service and only one airline that flies to Shetland’s “main” island, the former being the affordable option and the latter pretty expensive!

LoganAir i.e. Scotland’s regional carrier flies small air crafts from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Sumburgh (Shetland’s biggest airport). We flew into Sumburgh from Edinburgh in a tiny Saab340 and it was my first time in a 1+2 configuration aircraft. The journey takes about 1.5 hours, is pretty smooth and the views from the top are just gorgeous. We took off from Edinburgh, flew over Dundee, then the Aberdeen port and then over the beautiful North Sea.

When the aircraft starts to descend, one can see gorgeous skerries dotting the sea and then suddenly the Shetland mainland comes into view. It has been one of my favorite descends competing very closely with descending into Male (Maldives) and Imphal (Manipur)…

A LoganAir ticket from Aberdeen to Sumburgh costs around GBP 150 to 200, while from Edinburgh it costed a whopping GBP 250 each.

The Northlink Ferries ferry service has only one overnight ferry (12 hours) per day from Aberdeen to Lerwick and back. Needless to say, it is the most preferred way to travel between the UK Mainland and Shetland especially if you are traveling with a car and/or are looking for an affordable travel option. It costs around GBP 30 per person one way and I can’t think of anything cheaper really. The sea however can get seriously choppy and even those with the steeliest of tummies can get pretty uncomfortable! During our ferry ride from Lerwick to Aberdeen, I puked for over 2 hours continuously and then tried to sleep off the resulting pounding headache for 9 hours. The first hour was fabulous though where I shopped in the ferry shop for souvenirs to take home! My husband who has never had any form of motion sickness also needed to use the sea-sickness bag for a wee bit! #Fact

Will I need a car once on the island?

Catching the ferry to Yell

Truth be told, I am the kind of person who believes in walking and using public transport when exploring a new city or a place but when on Shetland, hiring a car is a must for the following reasons –

  1. The bus service is not frequent and not very reliable. You save a lot of time if you have a car.
  2. The islands have so many points and places to visit and the bus service doesn’t cover it all. Having a car simply gives you ample opportunity to explore the islands to your heart’s content!
  3. If you are visiting the Shetland Islands anytime other than the Summer months then you need to brace yourself for some really strong winds and chilly to cold weather. A car gives you the perfect cover and saves you from waiting at the bus stop during unpleasant weather conditions.
  4. If you plan to island hop, it basically means that you will have to use the inter island ferries quite a lot and for that a car is the best way to travel especially when you get off a ferry and have to drive across an island (in a hurry) to catch another one. I haven’t seen buses either on the ferries or at the ferry terminals.
Our cute Red Rental

You can rent a car in Shetland at two locations – one at the Lerwick Ferry Terminal and the other at the arrival lounge in Sumburgh Airport. We rented ours from the latter. We did try to pre-rent a car from Edinburgh but either the people at the car rental agencies hadn’t heard of Shetland or had no services extended to the Shetland Islands (should give you a fair idea of how delightfully non-commercial Shetland is!).

Shetland was a Viking Settlement

I am a huge fan of “Vikings”, the TV series and my excitement knew no bounds when I learnt that Shetland was an old Viking/Norse settlement. While the Unst island has the maximum number of viking settlement ruins and the Skidblander (viking ship) on the side of the road outside of Haroldswick village is perhaps the most awe-inspiring thing I have seen in a long time; the Mainland does boast of Jarlshof an old archaeological site that had been a settlement from the Bronze Age to the late 18th century. It boasts of a Viking Long House as well as a Pictish Wheelhouse!

Skidbladner, the Viking Ship in Haroldswick, Ust
Jarlshof, an ancient Norse settlement in Sumburgh

Shetland is Windy!

Picture me in Pune, (an Indian city that never goes below 16 degrees Celsius even in the peak of Winter) shopping and packing for a trip to the Shetland Islands in Fall – what do I turn to for help? Google of course! So when Google informed me that in October the temperature in Lerwick would be around 11 to 12 degrees C, I packed accordingly. Well, the moment we land at Sumburgh airport I know I have under-packed!

Shetland is super windy you guys and when I say windy I don’t mean breezy, I mean wind blowing at 40 mph! And because of that there is the windchill factor to consider and even though your weather app may say its 11 degrees, you will feel like its at least 4 degrees lesser, so pack warm! You need not just your parka, but warm woolen caps and mufflers and scarves!

Pro Tip: If you have long hair, always have a scrunchie at hand!

Shetland is Remote!

If you haven’t guessed this by now then let me reiterate – The Shetland Islands are remote and literally in the middle of nowhere. Coming from India, Shetland was a shock! The total number of people in the Shetland mainland probably equals the total number of people working in my office building in India! Wherever you go, its just you and mother nature…

Sumburgh-to-Lerwick
Drive from Sumburgh to Lerwick

Lerwick, the capital does boast of a well stocked Tesco and an equally stocked Coop, both located at opposite ends of the town but that’s where the connection to the “real” world ends. Family run restaurants, local businesses and community general stores is what will greet you in Shetland and its really endearing to see every business giving a boost to another. It is refreshing to say the least. Business-wise I doubt there is any competition and the whole island gives a homely, cozy vibe.

There are no Starbucks (duh!), no places to really party and no fine dining places but there is the The Wheel where you see the whole of Lerwick town come down to have a good time. And then there is The Dowry where the locals go on fancy dates and you get the best hot chocolate in town at The Fjara Cafe & Bar.

Raw & Rugged Natural Beauty of Shetland

But what is really there is nature’s untouched beauty resplendent in its rawness and ruggedness beckoning you with a hypnotizing force so strong that you are left breathless…

If you do venture out of the “Mainland” island and plan to stay on islands of Yell or Unst, then be sure to carry food with you because if you happen to find yourselves there after the tourist season is over then you will literally not find any places to eat after 5 pm! We were staying the night in Baltasound in Unst and we literally had to eat leftover sandwiches and apples for dinner!

Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Unst

Shetlanders are Easy to Talk To!

Shetlanders are a curious lot and I mean it in a good way… They will not come up to talk to you (well a few did) but in general they will not be the first people to strike up a conversation but they will look at you with a polite curiosity that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, rather wants you to go and chat them up. I don’t know, maybe it was because not a lot of Indians have reached up to the Shetland Islands (our host in Unst actually told us that we were the first Indians they had ever seen!) but we did catch open stares and apprehensive smiles on many occasions while traveling on these islands. The best conversations however, we had were on the ferry and at the ferry terminals. The easygoing conversations tinged with Scottish sarcastic humor made for some lovely sea crossings.

I plan to revisit Shetland again after this Covid-19 pandemic finally ends. The last one year has made me realise that there is so much that we take for granted and if I can, then I’d like to make amends by focusing on aspects that truly bring joy and contentment in my life. Yes, traveling to my favorite destinations again would bring me insurmountable joy 🙂

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