What to gain from the Shetland Islands

Shetland Islands | Erica Fowler
Shetland Islands | Erica Fowler

What to gain from the Shetland Islands

by Erica Fowler
Stripes Europe


This windswept archipelago has striking ocean cliffsides and lush sheep-filled pastures. As the northernmost point in the United Kingdom, it is worth an escape to learn about its beauty and history.

You can take the NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen, Scotland to Lerwick, which takes 14 hours, and is primarily overnight, but you can reserve a cabin and relax while enjoying the view. I grew up with Shetland sheepdogs, and I always wondered what it was like where their canine ancestors came from. Just how different from the Scottish mainland was the culture of the Islands? Are there trees at all? Any vegetation I ever saw in pictures was what could hold up to merciless ocean gusts. And it’s true, trees really aren’t a part of the natural landscape, giving the land a look all its own.

Explore vast nature reserves

Dotted between communities are vast hike-able expanses of green space. Several areas, like the Hermaness Nature Reserve in the north allow you to get to the closest point to the North Pole while still in the UK. The Noss Nature Reserve in the east allows you to enjoy boat tours in the pristine waters. You will be joined by cute puffins, swooping seabirds and you may even spot seals resting on shore or orcas swimming offshore. The environment can be harsh due to rapidly changing weather and powerful winds, so it’s recommended to have a windbreaker and clothing layers to stave off the North Sea chill. A Shetland phrase reflects this temporary condition, meaning “a day between weathers” and will sound like “a day atween waddirs.” But the unpredictable weather can’t get you down if you visit in mid-summer, or “Simmer Dim” when you will get up to 19 hours of sunlight and amber skies due to the Islands’ location in the northern hemisphere. It’s an odd and wonderful experience, and the locals rejoice with the seemingly longer days.

Shetland Culture

The 23,000 residents are famously friendly with a small community feel. The only difficulty that may be encountered in town is the thickShetland English dialect full of their own words and phrases. The Shetland dialect is a hybrid of Old Scots and Norse influences, with its own Germanic roots. If experiencing some of that charm is what you’re seeking, be sure to visit during the Shetland Folk Festival from April 27–30, when you can get your fill of various styles of music from loal and visiting bands.

A tableful from down the street

By virtue of living on the Islands, food production is local and full of diversity. The fishing industry churns out nets of seafood like salmon, mackerel and mussels. Stop by Frankie’s Fish and Chips if you find yourself on the western half of the Mainland near Brae, which serves up crispy fresh battered fish and thick fries, or as it’s called endearingly, chippys. The herding lifestyle has been a generational mainstay for centuries, and so the residents benefit from local mutton, cow’s milk, butter and cheese, plus a thriving wool production. You can also tour the Shetland Reel gin distillery or the Lerwick Brewery for beer fans. Wherever you enjoy a meal or a tasting, you’re welcome to the sight of the Shetland Islands’ verdant green and deep blue that you’ll likely want to take home with you.

Follow Norse Traces

A celebration of Norse heritage that is worth attending is the series of festivals called Up Helly Aa, which occurs from January through March every year. Torch-lit parades in Viking dress reverberate through the Islands. As for the Viking settlements that were once just as sprawling as the current towns, many of those sites remain unexcavated. However, from what archeologists have uncovered, there’s a bevy of insights into the Shetland’s previous residents. The Viking Unst Project is a settlement site that was used as a staging location for forces whose goal was to claim Scottish loot and land. But the Vikings were not just brutal raiding parties that destroyed and pillaged, as has so often been the stereotype. In fact, Viking communities made of farms, longhouses and craftspeople multiplied on the Islands during the 9th century in a peaceful co-existence with the pre-existing residents called the Picts, who were thought to be an amalgamation of Celtic and Briton groups.

There is no doubt that the natural environment necessitates sturdy infrastructure. Historically, homes weren’t wood-clad like in Scandinavia due to the lack of forests, but structures of stone and earthen mounds for insulation. You’ll see the stone footprints of Viking longhouses and the Pictish buildings built before them scattered throughout the landscape. Like the third little pig outsmarting the wolf, stone structures held up best to the blustery and stormy weather for generations. Some of the best examples of these building styles are the ruins at Sandwick Bay to the East and the Jarlshof Norse settlement. If you only have time for one historical site, the Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age village to the south is an amazing place of maze-like trenches that was only rediscovered in 1975.


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