The Shetland Islands

I’m not quite sure how to begin this post. I’ve just had a fantastic adventure in the Shetland Islands and saw and did so many wonderful things so this is probably going to be a long post.

On Friday evening we boarded a ferry, the MV Hjaltland, for the Shetland Islands. The Shetland Islands are at 60deg north, the same latitude as Bergen in Norway and St Petersburg in Russia. It’s an overnight trip which leaves Aberdeen at 7pm and arrives at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands at 7am. As we left Aberdeen we stood out on deck to farewell the city and there were dolphins in the sea near Aberdeen beach. The kids got very excited about this.

You can book a 4-berth cabin which is what we did. It’s quite exciting to go to sleep in a bed and then wake up in a completely different place. The ferry is large with a restaurant, a couple of bars and lounge areas, a shop, a kids’ play area, and even a cinema.

At first glance Shetland looks very barren. There aren’t any trees and instead just lots of green hills and steep, rocky cliffs. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have survived here but humans have thrived in this area for thousands of years. There are about 23,000 people living in Shetland now and just a few thousand in the capital at Lerwick.

We were only in Shetland for a day as we took the ferry back on Saturday night, so we made the most of our time and hired a car and drove around to see as much as we could. The first stop was a seal colony next to Tesco’s supermarket in Lerwick. The seals look a bit like large slugs sun-baking on rocks.

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I zoomed in on this next one:

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Next we drove to to Jarlshof, an archaeological site dating from 4000BC. It was only discovered in the 19th century when a storm ripped off the green mound to reveal the ancient human settlement beneath. I just love places like this. I find them fascinating and I’m always so impressed with what humans thousands of years ago were capable of. It seems like such a hostile environment but in fact humans did quite well here and survived by fishing, eating shellfish, and farming emmer wheat (emmer is an old wheat variety), barley, and sheep. There was no wood to burn for fire and instead they burnt peat.

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Next stop was the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head where I got to see my first puffin. These birds are pretty cute and have a distinctive orange beak. They did not seem frightened of us and we were able to get quite close and at one point a puffin was within a metre of where we were standing. The views were also spectacular.

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We left the puffins for St Ninian’s Isle, a tiny island joined to the main island by a sand bank called a tombolo. As a Queenslander I have quite high standards for beaches as I don’t think many places in the world can compete with Queensland ones, but this little beach was right up there with the best. The water was cold but very inviting nonetheless and had I brought my swimmers I think I might have gone in for a dip. Instead we walked along the sand and clambered over some rocks.

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After the beach we went to Scalloway Castle. On the gate into the castle grounds is a sign pointing tourists to the nearby museum to get the key for the castle. It doesn’t cost anything to go in and walk around. When the fellow in the museum gave me the key he said, “Make sure you don’t lock anyone inside”.

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There are lots of Shetland ponies on the Shetland Islands, which is not surprising, I guess. I think there might soon be one more, too:

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The people who live in Shetland would have to be among the friendliest I’ve ever encountered anywhere. The roads are quiet and the whole place feels remote and peaceful: not unlike the very south of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s a wonderful place for a holiday. We’ll definitely go back. I also really enjoyed the ferry. Arriving and leaving somewhere by boat gives you quite a different perspective of the place. I lived and worked on a boat for a few months many years ago and have very fond memories of that time. This boat was a lot bigger than that one but it was still very pleasant. The only negative is that it’s quite expensive and the food wasn’t all that great. But we will still take the ferry again next time.

28 thoughts on “The Shetland Islands

    1. Thanks! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. I love reliving my travel experiences through my blog but I’m never sure whether it’s boring for the people reading it.

    1. I would say there are plenty of liberals in Scotland, just not many liberal-democrats. Also weirdly they used to be yellow, but the SNP seem to have poached that colour at some point, not sure when.

  1. Laughing at your description of the seals like “large slugs”, can see what you mean!

    Great photos and descriptions of everything, sounds and looks like a lovely place (and I made involuntary eepy noises when I saw the puffins!), thanks for sharing.

    1. Puffins are probably the coolest birds I’ve seen or at the very least, equal in coolness to kookaburras. It’s a great place. I only wish we could have stayed longer but kids have school on Monday and I’ve got work to do.

  2. Shetland is a great place, and nice folks too – if you go up there in mid summer if never gets properly dark and the wildlife is brilliant, otters, seals, dolphins, even an orca if you’re lucky and there at the right time of year, plus the huge seabird colony up on the north coast – hope you get to spend longer there in future – feeling all nostalgic now as it s a few years since was there last

  3. Sounds like a lovely weekend! And very interesting for me to see all these photos and hear about Shetland, which I only know of as Shetland ponies (+ one!)
    So strange as you say, not to see any trees. Boats are definitely a great way to travel – we came from UK to SA by boat (took about 2 weeks).
    So please keep on posting about your adventures in Bonny Scotland. I for one am enjoying travelling round with you and your family 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. A 2-week boat trip to SA sounds very nice. I wish we could get to Australia and NZ that way. I’m sure we can but it takes too long.

      1. I don’t know that there are many pleasure cruises around now; seems to be more finding a berth on a container ship type thing! The voyage was great – I don’t get seasick, tho it was quite a rough crossing, and the dining room was half empty!

  4. Rachel,
    A terrific post and splendid photos. Your remark about there being a lot of Shetland ponies on the Shetland Islands reminded me of an old joke.
    If you ever go to the Canary Islands, you may be surprised to find that there are no canaries there.
    And if you also go to the Virgin Islands, you will find that there are no canaries there either.
    Love,
    Douglas.

  5. Beautiful! It does make me wonder how people can live there when it’s cold and bleak – though Lerwick as the home of my original ISP, Zetnet, in 1995! If you phoned up support, they were all Scottish. Alas, they were bought up by Breathe several years ago.

  6. As usual, great pictures. I enjoy your travels around Scotland. My paternal grandmother is from Scotland and I have always wanted to visit. You are giving me a glimpse. Nice post.

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