Wednesday, 30 May 2012


Anyone wanting to see the Aurora Borealis on British soil should head to Unst, which is the most northerly populated island in Britain, although as is always the case with this fabulous natural phenomenon a sighting cannot be guaranteed. There are some impressive photographs of the aurora taken in Unst on the island's website. But the island is not only a haven for astronomers. There is plenty of interest for geology enthusiasts, with schists and gneisses among the spectacular geological formations. Meanwhile, lovers of birds, animals and marine life have a wide variety of species to look out for, including puffins, ospreys, otters and whales, to name but a few, and the island is a major centre for the breeding of Shetland ponies. Hermaness National Nature Reserve includes one of Shetland's largest seabird colonies. To the north of the island is Britain's most northerly lighthouse, the splendidly named Muckle Flugga lighthouse. The design of the lighthouse was largely the work of Robert Louis Stevenson's father and uncle, and it is said that Unst was the writer's inspiration for Treasure Island.

Besides its natural attributes, there are plenty of man-made sights and attractions to keep visitors busy. The Unst Heritage Centre is open from May to September, showcasing the island's past and present. Muness Castle dates from the 16th century and is found in the south of the island. Belmont House, which offers accommodation, is a fine example of a Georgian dwelling, its precise symmetry looking slightly incongruous in this wild corner of Britain. However, the most bizarre and unique man-made sight on Unst has to be the famous Unst Bus Shelter. The Shelter, which was the proud recipient of an award courtesy of Buses Monthly Magazine, takes on a variety of themes, a different one for each year. Over the years pieces of furniture and other adornments, and even a TV, have taken pride of place in the shelter, which has its own website and a visitor's book. The shelter looks incredibly vulnerable in its exposed location; it is a miracle that it or its contents have not been blown halfway across the island by the stormy winds around these parts. Long may it continue to delight and amuse visitors to Unst.

Map of the area.

'Bobby's bus shelter (Unst)' photo (c) 2010, Max Warren - license:

Monday, 28 May 2012


Yell, the second largest Shetland island, has a varied scenery of rolling peat hills, lochs and cliffs, along with the award-winning beaches of West Sandwick and Breckon. The RSPB reserves here make it an ideal destination for nature lovers. Not only is there a wide variety of birdlife such as Red-throated Divers, Storm Petrels, Whimbrels and Golden Plovers, but the Lumbister Reserve has a thriving population of otters, so much so that Yell is considered to be the otter capital of Britain. There are also common seals, and dolphins, harbour porpoises and even the occasional killer whale can be spotted offshore. Yell can be reached by ferry from Mainland, and there are also links by ferry from here to Fetlar and Unst. The coast of Yell, which is dotted with crofting townships, offers fine walking. While out and about on Yell, visitors should look out for two reminders of past disasters. The first is a figurehead called "Da White Wife" from a German vessel called the Bohus which was wrecked off the island near Otterswick in 1924 on her way from Gothenburg to Chile. The second is the Catalina Memorial, which commemorates the crew of an RAF flying boat which crashed in the Yell hills during the Second World War.

Map of the area.

Saturday, 26 May 2012


Northmavine is a peninsula in the north west of Shetland's Mainland. It is almost an island, but for the 100-yards wide isthmus known as Mavis Grind which connects it to the Mainland. The highest point of the peninsula, Ronas Hill with its chambered cairn, is also the highest point in Shetland. On a clear day the whole of Shetland can be seen from here, and even Fair Isle. There are numerous other ancient remains dotted around the peninsula. The stretch of water which almost separates Northmavine from the Mainland is Sullom Voe, which played a key part in World War II with both the British Air Force and the Norwegian Air Force operating there, the latter making use of "flying boats". Nowadays, its main role is as the location of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal, serviced by its own airport, Scatsta Airport.

With its wonderful views and scenery, some of the best walking to be had in Shetland can be enjoyed on the Northmavine peninsula. Meanwhile, birdwatchers should head for Eshaness, whose wild and rugged coastline is home to fulmars and puffins. The headland is accessible by car, well worth the journey for the amazing clifftop view. For those who can't bear to tear themselves away, the lighthouse at Esha Ness offers self-catering accommodation. To the north of the lighthouse are a series of blowholes carved out of the cliffs by the sea called the Holes of Scraada.

Map of the area.

© 2005 Ruth Sharville, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 24 May 2012


The settlement of Walls (aka Waas) lies in the sheltered Vaila Sound, reached by single track roads on a journey enlivened by the occasional Shetland pony wandering into the road. Once a centre for fish curing, nowadays its lovely natural harbour is a magnet for pleasure craft in summer. Fishing boats also still use the harbour, and a ferry service runs from here to the island of Foula. There used to be three functioning churches in Walls, but one of them was converted into a bakery. One reason why Walls is so sheltered is that the islands of Vaila and Linga lie in the entrance to the Sound, providing protection from storms out at sea. In the late 1800s Vaila was bought by a Yorkshire mill owner, and he built an impressive mansion, Vaila Hall, on the site of an earlier house from the 17th century. The Hall is the largest house in Shetland. Walls is the starting point for the annual Round Foula Yacht Race, and there is also a Regatta held every year.

Map of the area.

© 2004 Colin Park, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 22 May 2012


One of the old Norse traditions which transferred to the Shetlands was the Thing (Þing), or old Norse parliament. These were typically held in a Vollr, or field, and this is the origin of the name Tingwall - field of the thing. The parish of Tingwall, to the west and north west of Lerwick, includes a number of lochs such as the Loch of Tingwall, where the excellent trout prove a draw for anglers. On a slope above the loch, with wonderful views, is the Tingwall Kirk, the second oldest kirk in Shetland still in use, and known as the Mother Church of Shetland. This rather austere, grey building was built around 1790, but in the graveyard is a grassy mound containing a burial vault, which is all that remains of a much earlier church, St Magnus, built in the late 1100s. St Magnus was one of three churches which were given to Shetland by three Norse sisters. The neat and simple interior of Tingwall Kirk includes a handsome wooden gallery and pulpit. Tingwall's diminutive airport offers connections by air to Fair Isle and to the outlying Shetland islands of Foula, Papa Stour and Out Skerries.

Map of the area.

© 2008 Nicholas Mutton, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 20 May 2012


Every year on the last Tuesday in January, the night sky above Lerwick is aglow with flames. The reason for this is that this is the occasion of the annual festival called Up Helly Aa, in which a day of marches and visitations reaches a climax with a torchlit procession and the burning of a galley. Females have traditionally been banned from taking part in the processions, meaning that many men dress up as women for the portrrayal of female characters, which has led to the event being dubbed "transvestite Tuesday". The festival takes place in a number of Shetland locations, but Lerwick's is the most famous. As is the case with many long-standing festivals, the origins of the event are lost in the mists of time, although a popular school of thought is that the festival marks the end of Yuletide. Of course, nowadays the fact that the festival is a good excuse for imbibing large quantities of alcohol is good enough reason for many.

Lerwick has been the capital of the Shetland Islands since 1708, having become a Dutch settlement in the previous century. Fort Charlotte was founded in 1653 to make use of the military potential of Bressay Sound. The old part of town by the waterfront still remains as a reminder of the town's origins, but during the 1970s there was an oil boom which led to significant growth. A relic of much earlier times can be reached via a causeway to an islet in the Loch of Clickimin, where there is a 4th century broch. The Shetland Museum on the waterfront has replicas of Celtic silverware and Norse artefacts on display. The Böd of Gremista, built in 1780, is a museum which tells the story of the fishing stations which once existed all over Shetland. The building also houses the Shetland Textile Working Museum. There are boat tours from Lerwick offering encounters with the seabirds of the Noss National Nature Reserve.  Lerwick is the most northerly town in Great Britain, so much so that it is actually closer to Oslo than to London.

Postscript: Since I originally wrote this piece, Lerwick has become famous as one of the locations featured in the TV crime series Shetland, adapted from the Ann Cleeves novels.

For a list of events in Lerwick and Shetland as a whole, follow this link.

Map of the area.

'Lerwick' photo (c) 2007, swifant - license:

Saturday, 19 May 2012


The animal most synonymous with the Shetland Islands is surely the Shetland Pony. Shetland Ponies are bred all over, but the Shetlands are their true home, and Brindister is one of the bloodlines commonly found in studs where the ponies are reared. The cute appearance of the ponies, with their long shaggy 'fringes' and their short, stubby legs belies the fact that they are among the hardiest of ponies, no doubt due to their origins in the harsh environment of these islands. These little horses have been kept on the islands since the Bronze Age, with some crossover from incoming Nordic and Celtic ponies, and because of their strength and hardiness they were traditionally used for pulling carts and ploughing farmland. Visitors to the Shetlands who are hoping for an encounter with these charming, intelligent creatures should head to Brindister Loch, where the ponies often hang out. Brindister Loch has a small island in it with the remains of a broch (Iron Age drystone tower).

Map of the area.

© 2010 Mike Pennington, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 14 May 2012


Imagine making your way from Shetland to Norway in a little boat being tossed around on heavy seas in the dead of night with no lights. Now add to the mix the risk of being discovered and shot at, and you will have an idea of the level of bravery of those who took part in the "Shetland Bus", a boat operation that took part during World War II with the aim of assisting the Norwegian Resistance movement. The Scalloway Museum includes a display telling the story of the Shetland Bus among its fascinating exhibits.  As a nod to the area's fishing industry, Scalloway is the base for the North Atlantic Fisheries College.

Scalloway used to be the capital of the Shetlands until Lerwick muscled in on the act in 1708. The most prominent reminder of the settlement's past is Scalloway Castle, built in 1600 by Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney. What is left of it is located near the quay, on a piece of land sticking out into the East Voe of Scalloway, so that the castle is surrounded by water on three sides. Back in its heyday Scalloway had close trading links with the Hanseatic merchants from Bremen and Hamburg, who knew it as Schaldewage. Just across the water from the port are the Scalloway Islands.

Map of the area.

© 2004 Colin Park, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 11 May 2012


St Ninian's Isle is not actually an island as such, being linked to the Mainland by a deliciously inviting sandy causeway with sea on either side: the correct name for this type of coastal feature is a "tombolo". The island has a chapel on it which lies on a site which goes back much farther than the present building. Excavations at the chapel have revealed ancient burials as well as a treasure trove of Pictish silver objects and the jaw-bone of a porpoise which were buried under a slab near the altar. The silverware, which includes bowls and items of jewellery, was discovered by a schoolboy who was helping the archaeologists, and dates from around 800 AD. The pieces are currently on display at the National Museum of Antiquities Scotland, while the Shetland Museum holds replicas.

Map of the area.

File:St. Ninians Isle Beach (7337892620).jpg
Photo by Chris Combe, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


The settlement of Quendale, on the southwest tip of South Shetland Mainland, takes its name from the Norse Kverndal, or "mill dale", and in fact one of its most noted visitor attractions today is a restored 19th century water mill. The mill offers visitors a short video explaining how it works followed by a tour, including the chance to view artefacts and memorabilia. The beaches in these parts are noted for their white sands, which prompted this flowery narrative by Robert Monteith in 1845: "It is a white sand so admirably light, but that with an ordinary gust of Wind, it flies so thick, that (like Mist) it darkens the horizon" *

A glance at an aerial photograph of the nearby Garths Ness shows an angry looking sea, so it is no surprise that a succession of shipwrecks have occurred off this coast over the years. The most recent was in 1993, when the Braer oil tanker ran aground on its way from Norway to Canada with 85,000 tonnes of crude oil on board. The stormy weather which followed the disaster was a mixed blessing: on the one hand the wave action helped the natural dispersion of the oil, but on the other hand field crops inland were badly affected by the nasty oily spray coming in on them.

* Description of the Islands of Orkney and Zetland, by Robert Monteith, 1845.

Map of the area.

© 2009 Stuart Wilding, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 7 May 2012


Sumburgh is at the southern tip of the Shetland Mainland, and is the point of entry for visitors arriving by air. Prior to adopting its role as Shetland's main airport, it acted as an RAF fighter base. Sumburgh Head is topped by a lighthouse designed by Robert Stevenson and inaugurated in 1821. The RSPB reserve there offers the opportunity to view everybody's favourite, the puffin. But even if you can't get there in person you can view the puffins going about their nesting business on the reserve's webcams. To the west of the headland is the Bay of Quendale and the towering Fitful Head which is topped by a radar dome. Those fit enough to manage the strenuous walk up to the top are rewarded with fabulous views over the Shetland Mainland.

The archaeological site of Jarlshof may be up against some stiff competition in this neck of the woods, but what sets it apart from the many other sites of archaeological interest in the Orkneys and Shetlands is that it covers multiple time periods from the Stone Age to the 1600s and all points in between. What remains of the 3,000 years of settlement which have left their mark here includes grassy mounds, passageways, walls, doors and brochs. There is a visitor centre on hand to assist in making sense of it all.

Live streaming webcam view of Sumburgh Head

Map of the area.

© 2004 Bob Embleton, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 4 May 2012


Looking at the map of the neighbouring archipelagoes of Orkney and Shetland, one notices a solitary, rather lonely looking speck of land between the two. This is Fair Isle, measuring just 3 miles from north to south and a mile and a half from east to west. The island has the distinction of being the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom. Fair Isle is officially part of the Shetlands, and can be reached from Shetland Mainland either by ferry from Grutness near Sumburgh, or by air from Tingwall.  South Lighthouse, at the southern end of the island as its name suggests, offers a unique accommodation experience for visitors.

Another accommodation option can be found at a bird observatory which is particularly popular during the spring and autumn migrations. The observatory was opened in 1948 by George Waterston, an ornithologist and former Director of the RSPB in Scotland, who bought Fair isle after World War II. It was a stint as a cook at the observatory that led to the writer Ann Cleeves falling in love with the island as well as her husband Tim who she met there. She has written a series of crime novels set in the Shetlands featuring investigator Jimmy Perez, some of which have been dramatized on TV.  Aside from fishing and agriculture, the most well-known product coming out of the island is the Fair Isle jumper, a type of woollen characterised by bands of elaborate geometric patterns in different colour combinations.

It would appear Fair Isle has sporting ambitions out of all proportion to its size judging from an event held during last year's Tall Ships Races, which came to the Shetlands in July 2011. The island held a football match "Fair Isle versus the Rest Of The World". It is not clear who won, but full marks for trying!

Map of the area.

© 2004 Dave Wheeler, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 3 May 2012


The neighbouring islands of Westray and Papa Westray are at the northern edge of the scattering of small islands to the northwest of Orkney Mainland. Both are rich in history going back several thousand years. Westray's most significant treasure is at first sight an unlikely one: a small sandstone carved figurine just 4cm in height dubbed the Westray Wife, also known as The Orkney Venus. The reason it is so celebrated is that it is the earliest example of such a carving to be found in Scotland, being around 5,000 years old. The object was found on the Links of Noltland, which is the site of a Neolithic village. Noltland Castle was built in the 16th century by Gilbert Balfour, Master of the Royal Household to Mary, Queen of Scots. It is an ingenious design aimed at providing maximum protection from all sides, with its Z-shape and 71 gun loops in the walls. The castle is credited with multiple hauntings, such as that of the Boky Hound, a ghostly dog. The village of Pierowall on the east coast is set in a deep sheltered bay and counts among its buildings a ruined medieval church. A Norse leader called Rognvald sailed here in 1136. Noup Cliffs RSPB reserve houses Orkney's largest seabird colony where guillemots, kittiwakes and razorbills vie for nesting sites, while out at sea porpoises and orca are sometimes seen.

Westray's diminutive neighbour, Papa Westray, aka Papay, gets its name from the Papae, or Celtic priests, who once lived there. In spite of its size, it manages to go one better than Westray for ancient treasures: the Knap of Howar, a prehistoric farmhouse, is thought to be the oldest preserved dwelling in north-west Europe. The even tinier island of Holm of Papa is home to a huge megalithic tomb. The RSPB reserve of North Hill on Papa Westray is noted for the wild flowers which grace its heath and dunes, and its birdlife which includes Arctic Skuas and Arctic Terns.

Map of the area.

Noup Head Lighthouse © 2008 Will Craig, via Wikimedia Commons