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.