After postponing our planned 2020 trip to Shetland we were keen to make it in 2021 if safe to do so. Thankfully, double jabbed, and with extensive vaccine rollout in Scotland, we decided that the trip was safe and reasonable. It was great to get away somewhere a bit further flung and different again. Shetland’s strong norse influence is clear and with a 12 hour overnight – very comfortable with a cabin – ferry journey from Aberdeen it doesn’t exactly feel on the doorstep.
The trip was really all quite outstanding; Shetland delivered in a way that far exceeded my expectations. I’ve done my best to choose and illustrate some highlights below, ranging from puffins at opposite ends of the Shetland Islands at Sumburgh Head and Herma Ness, to Mousa Broch, Lerwick, the Ness of Hillswick, North Roe and much more. Please read on!
Puffins at Sumburgh Head and Herma Ness
Sumburgh Head is the southern most point of Shetland Mainland and an RSPB nature reserve with a large population of seabirds accessible for viewing. Parking at the bottom of the hill before the lighthouse, it was just a few metres before we came across our first puffins on the eastern cliffs and from there we circled around the head enjoying the puffins, great skuas (bonxies) and other sea birds.
At Herma Ness a little more effort is required but is repaid many times with the wonderful puffins, gannets, coastal scenery and getting to stand at the northern tip of Unst, Scotland and the British Isles. A well built path that becomes a walkway over the bog provides easy going from the car park on Burra Firth over the moor to the west side of Herma Ness. Visitors are discouraged from venturing off the path to reduce disturbance of the moorland birds.
Lerwick – Capital of Shetland
Lerwick is a thriving, friendly and cosmopolitan town and well worth a visit in its own right. It is also a great base for seeing Mainland Shetland. Read about and see more of Lerwick here. Commercial Street runs through the centre of town parallel to the shoreline and is full of character, small shops and restaurants. Search for accommodation using Booking.com.
North Roe; Fethaland, Ronas Hill and the Lang Ayre
North Roe is a village and surrounding area in the far north of Shetland Mainland, the most northern part of Northmavine; the area to the north of the narrow isthmus of Mavis Grind. The area is sparsely populated – Shetland was yet another area subject to the heinous clearance of people to make way for sheep. Today quiet solitude is easy to find but the people clearly have humour and character.
Fethaland is a peninsula at the far northern tip of North Roe and Shetland Mainland and has a fascinating combination of wild coastal scenery and historic interest. A seasonal deep sea (haaf) fishing station was situated here in the 19th century and the associated buildings remain and can be explored. It is quite a thing to imagine the hustle and bustle of the fishing station on a quiet day now.
Ronas Hill is Shetland’s highest hill, a great lump of rounded and glaciated granite. It only reaches 450 metres in height – it would barely be noted as a hill on the Scottish mainland; but alone at this height between the Faroe Isles and Orkney, at 60.5 degrees north, open to the full force of North Atlantic storms, this is an extreme environment. On the hill’s north west side, a couple of kilometres from the summit, are the Stonga Banks; steep, highly eroded cliffs that drop to the Lang Ayre gravel beach in a remote and extremely scenic bay.
Bressay and Noss Boats Trips
We were very lucky to take two boat trips from Lerwick around the islands of Bressay and Noss. The first was a wonderful private trip very kindly laid on for us by a relative of my partner; the second was the Shetland Seabird Tours boat trip. Bressay is a fairly large island lying immediately east of Lerwick over the Bressay Sound and sheltering the harbours of Lerwick from the open North Sea. The Isle of Noss is much smaller, just a couple of kilometres long, and is east again of Bressay, separated by the narrow and shallow Noss Sound. It is a National Nature Reserve with important bird colonies. Noss rises up in a great prow to the 180 metre high Noss Head on its east side with the Noup of Noss rocks below. The cliffs hereabouts are home to a huge number of gannets and other seabirds such as puffins, guillemots and fulmar; great skua, or bonxies, nest on the moorland and patrol the skies.
Nibon is a tiny hamlet at the end of a single track road on the west coast of Shetland Mainland on Northmavine, north of Mavis Grind. We stayed here for our second week on Shetland and loved it. Beyond the road end a track leads to the last house which lies just above a stony beach overlooking the narrow sound across to the Isle of Nibon. Birds fly up and down the sound going about their business, the Arctic Terns were particularly vocal. The hill above gives grand views over the Isle of Nibon and surrounding coastline which provides ample opportunity for exploration on foot.
Mousa and Mousa Broch
Mousa is an island just off the east coast of southern Mainland and is famed for its broch. The Mousa Broch is the most complete broch in Scotland and perhaps the most spectacular. The island itself is beautiful and the walk round the marked path short but very pleasant. Visitors are now strongly encouraged to follow only the marked path so as not to disturb nesting storm petrels and other wildlife. This is quite restrictive but for a good cause. We took the excellent Mousa Boat to the island that sails from Leebitten.
West Mainland and West Burra Coastline
St Ninian’s Isle, joined to Mainland by a stunning narrow isthmus of sand, is a celebrated location on southern Mainland’s west coast. In the two weeks we had in Shetland we also managed to visit several other west coast locations including Fitful Head, Quendale beach and Maywick beach. On West Burra, an island reached by two short bridges on the road south from Scalloway, we had time at Banna Minn beach, Kettla Ness and Sand of Meal. They are lovely locations.
Ness of Hillswick
From the hill above Nibon we had seen the crazy outline of The Drongs stacks off of the Ness of Hillswick. We had to visit and get a closer look and ended up having a lovely walk around this rough and wild headland. The Drongs are wonderful sharp granite stacks – and then we came across Gordi Stack – Shetland’s very own mini Matterhorn. This was the comparison that came to my mind when viewing this amazing twisted pinnacle of schist.
Fish Fossils at Exnaboe
Devonian rocks are present in the east of much of Shetland and comprise of sand and silt deposited in fresh water lakes containing fish. At The Cletts, Exnaboe, several fairly well preserved fish fossils can be discovered on the exposed rock surfaces. It’s also a lovely coastline to walk and explore.
Aberdeen – Lerwick Ferry
The 12 hour overnight ferry journeys on Northlink Ferries MV Hjaltland were an enjoyable and big part of this trip – I’d recommend a cabin. It was certainly the longest that I’ve ever been on the water. I’m definitely more accustomed to solid ground beneath my feet but enjoyed the experience. The voyages to and from Shetland were so calm that I’m looking forward to more excitement next time – but I might regret that!
Discover and explore more of the wonderful sights of Shetland through the articles and links below.
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