Client Report: The Shetland Islands

Our clients Paul and Sue K. went to Shetland this summer and wrote this lovely report for us to share with our readers. 

There are many reasons for one to include a visit to the Shetland Islands on a trip to Britain. For us, however, there were just three: rocks, brochs, and rookeries. The geological history of the islands is a jigsaw puzzle; the range of prehistoric and more recent settlements is extraordinary; and the opportunities for “twitchers” (British parlance for birdwatchers) are as varied as are the species of birds and animals on the islands. And so, we were off to the Shetlands in mid-June.

By air, one arrives at Sumburgh on the southern tip of the main island (one of more than a hundred that make up the archipelago). The plane is small, the runway is appropriately short, and one is not far from anywhere in this sparsely populated land. The northern end of the island, for example, is only about fifty miles away, though there are inter-island ferries that can take visitors to islands with such picturesque names as Yell and Unst. At the north end of the latter is Muckle Flugga, from which there is only the ocean between one and the north pole. And nowhere in Shetland is more than three or four miles from the sea.

Driving from the airport, be careful: the road crosses the in— and out—bound runway, and you may need to stop to let a flight go by. But even before that there is the opportunity to visit the prehistoric site of Jarlshof, where there was human habitation from about 2500 BCE until the mid-1600s of the modern era. This remarkable Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, Pictish, Norse and medieval, and finally Scottish settlement contains round stone houses, underground souterrains, double-walled broches built for defense and housing, wheel-shaped houses, Viking long-houses, medieval farms, and a ruined manor house from the seventeenth century. It repays a leisurely visit, and is enhanced by being in the care of Historic Scotland, whose staff will ensure you know what you’re seeing.

Half-an-hour drive north from Sumburgh and Jarlshof brings you to Lerwick, Shetland’s main town. Good hotels, satisfying restaurants, fine museums, and shopping along Commercial Street (great wool sweaters!) encourage a stay here during a visit to Shetland. This port city is picturesque, with old merchant houses, the private wharves (“Lodberries”) that today still serve transport and commerce, and the ruined remains of yet another broch. The Shetland Museum and Archives at the north end of Lerwick is a good place to get a sense of the island. This is particularly true of their complicated geological history. Tectonic plate dynamics in the geologic past have resulted in the islands “floating” from close proximity to what became North America to their current place about 60 miles north of the Orkney Islands. In this process Lewisian gneiss has been combined with granite, limestone, Moine and Dalradian rocks, serpentinite and conglomerate stone, and other lithic varieties. The museum display prepares one for hikes and walks and “rocky” discoveries when outside weather allows. Hay’s Dock Restaurant in the museum has a good view over the harbor as well as good food and drink.

For our visit, two other sites beyond those mentioned so far were important destinations. One was the town of Scalloway, on the west coast of the main island. This is the historic capital of Shetland and is dominated by the ruins of the castle built in the early seventeenth century by Earl Patrick Stewart (his father was first given the title of Earl of Orkney by Mary, Queen of Scots). It’s a good example of a Scottish fortification built in the shape of an “L” and one can wander in its interior quite undisturbed by Earl Patrick’s infamous reputation: he was known as “Black Pattie” for his cruelty to his tenants and retainers and was beheaded in 1615 for treason by his half uncle, King James VI (who was also King James I of England). The nearby small museum in Scalloway is dominated by an excellent display on “The Shetland Bus.” This clandestine maritime activity of Shetland sailors during the Second World War took undercover agents, weapons, munitions, and other supplies to the anti-Nazi Norwegian resistance and brought back refugees from occupied Norway. Several hundred dangerous trips (undertaken usually at night and in stormy weather) are memorialized here. The day we were there, the museum was full of Norwegian tourists who still feel an affinity to the historic ties between Norse and Shetland civilization. The Scalloway Hotel on the harbor has good food—two rosettes from the British AA (Auto Association).

Our other intended destination in Shetland was Mousa Broch. This prehistoric site—probably constructed in the late first millennium BCE—lies on a small island off the east coast at Sandwick—a fifteen minute boat trip in good weather. Although now only about forty-five feet high, it was originally much higher. It is a cone-shaped double-walled structure, with walls tapering from eighteen to seven feet in thickness. It served as a defensible habitation site, entered through only one gateway, and encloses a space some fifty feet in diameter. Inside were originally lean-to structures in the courtyard, areas under cultivation, and work sites for a number of crafts, including smithing. Between the walls were both places of storage and residence. Internal staircases still enable visitors to climb to the top of the broch. Originally there were over 500 such brochs constructed by early peoples in Scotland; few survive today and this one is the largest. No wonder we wanted to visit it. But alas! The fickle Shetland weather prevented boats from making their scheduled trip to the island all of the days we were there: heavy rain, winds of 20-25 knots, and waves that often reached 15 to 20 feet ensured that we were left on the main island to do all the other things Shetland has to offer. The only visitors to Mousa Broch at this point were the thousands of Stormy Petrel birds that nightly nest in the broch. (Those in Portland, Oregon, who are familiar with the swifts that overnight in the chimney at the Chapman School, will know this type of phenomenon.) One of the cruises to Mousa during the summer time is timed at midnight to see the phenomenon of the petrels diving to their night rest.

Mention of the petrels brings up the third reason we wished to visit Shetland. The islands are a veritable paradise of bird nestings which draws watchers from throughout the world. Predator great skuas will dive bomb anything in their vision, phalaropes, gannets, puffins, terns, and auks seem to be everywhere on the -skerries and sea stacks that characterize the shores of the islands, and such little-known types as guillemots, fulmars, and kittiwakes are common. One won’t be disappointed if birds are the draw to the islands. A rich experience indeed. And, in case, lest one think that all we saw were birds—of course, there are animals, in particular a famous horse breed: Shetland ponies were all over the place!

When to go to the Shetlands? We went at the time of the summer solstice—nineteen hours of daylight, with the remainder of time characterized by the “simmer dim”—the twilight that ensures there is no night. And in July the Shetland Nature Festival is held with the height of the seabird nesting season. But things go on all year long. Come in January for the fire festival known as Up-Helly-Aa, a torch-lit procession through Lerwick marking the end of winter nights www.uphellyaa.org). Or in the spring, after winter storms have passed, to get the best of weather for outdoor activities. The fall is also viable: sea paddling in kayaks around the rugged coastlines of the islands. At 60° North Latitude, this is about as easy a venture to sub-arctic regions as there is. In case one is interested, there are some good ways to learn about the Shetlands. One is a British police procedural entitled “Shetland,” based on some noir novels by Ann Cleves (make sure you turn the sub-titles on; the Shetland Scottish version of English can be impenetrable!). Then there are good guidebooks, among them The Scotland Visitor Guide (GPP Press: Guilford, CT) and The Lonely Planet’s Scotland’s Highlands & Islands. Fuller treatments can be found in two books by Anna Ritchie, Viking Scotland (London: B.T. Batsford, 1993) and Shetland (Edinburgh: Stationery Office, 1997); and in the overview by Jill Slee Blackadder, Shetland (Grantown-on-Spey: Colin Baxter Photography, 2003).   We found the most useful website to be:  Visit Shetland

Our agents at WIT have traveled all over the world and for decades assisted and organized trips for clients. Call us for more info 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com. 

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