The Shetland Islands are the most northerly part of Britain, a group of islands 100 miles north of mainland Scotland. The largest town, Lerwick, is closer to Norway than to Edinburgh, and culturally and geographically they feel more Norse than Scottish. They're low-lying and treeless, divided by long fjords ("voes") and sparsely populated - but prosperous thanks to the oil industry.
Islands and their towns and villages
Mainland is the main island in the group, with most of the population. To avoid ambiguity, on this and related pages the term Mainland, cap "M", refers to this island, while the landmass of Great Britain to the south is referred to as the Scottish mainland, small "m". The chief settlements on Mainland are:
- 1 Lerwick is the only town of any size on the islands, with a population of some 7000, about a third of Shetland's total. Much of it is modern and industrial, centred around its busy port. It does have some attractive 18th / 19th C architecture, and its sights include the Broch of Clickimin, Fort Charlotte, and a couple of museums. It has the most accommodation, eating and drinking, and is the obvious base for visitors, with good access to the rest of Shetland.
- 2 Scalloway is a small town on the west coast six miles from Lerwick. Until 1708 it was the capital of Shetland. It has a castle and museum, plus a marina, shops and accommodation.
- South of Scalloway, three islands have been connected by road, becoming part of Mainland. These are Trondra, West Burra and East Burra.
- Voe is the Norse word for an inlet of the sea, so there are lots around Shetland, but the village of 3 Voe is at a road junction in north Mainland. The A970 continues north to the village of 4 Brae and over "Mavis Grind", the neck of land across to the northwest part of Mainland. Here 5 Hillswick has wildlife, high sea cliffs, and true Arctic tundra. A little way south of Brae, the island of Muckle Roe has been linked by road and is now part of Mainland.
- 6 Walls in the west of Mainland has Staneydale Temple, a Neolithic structure.
- 7 Sumburgh: flights from the Scottish mainland land here, 25 miles south of Lerwick. It has the prehistoric and Norse settlement of Jarlshof, and an RSPB reserve on Sumburgh Head.
The other inhabited islands are:
- 8 Bressay is just east of Lerwick. It provides access to the nature reserve and spectacular sea-cliffs on the island of Noss.
- 9 Yell is the second largest island, linked by short ferry crossings to Mainland to the south, Unst to the north, and Fetlar to the east.
- 10 Unst is the most northerly inhabited island in Scotland and the United Kingdom. It has Viking heritage, unspoilt scenery, and the Hermaness nature reserve where thousands of seabirds nest.
- 11 Fetlar is divided by the curious Funzie Girt, a Neolithic stone wall.
- 12 Papa Stour to the northwest of Mainland has great sea-cliffs, arches and "gloups".
- Vaila south of Walls is just a farm and has no ferry service.
- Northeast of Mainland are the little islands of 13 Whalsay and 14 Out Skerries
- Two islands vie for the title of Britain's remotest inhabited island: 15 Fair Isle midway between Orkney and Shetland, and 16 Foula away to the west.
Shetland is 60 degrees North, on the same latitude as Hudson’s Bay and the Yukon. It’s windy! In mid-summer the day is almost 20 hours long, with only a brief “simmer dim” before sunrise. You can easily get sunburned, not noticing the sun in the cool breeze, in between getting drenched by showers. Winter days are short, gloomy affairs.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
Shetland was settled from prehistoric times and because there were few trees, dwellings had to be made of stone. So these have survived better than elsewhere: Jarlshof dates back to 2500 BC. From 800 AD Shetland came under Viking rule, and (as in Orkney) this lasted until 1472 when the northern islands were ceded to Scotland. The people spoke “Norn”, a North Germanic / Scandinavian language which only died out in 1850, but this news failed to reach the remote island of Foula, where one native speaker was still alive in the 1920s. The culture was never Gaelic, but Norse, and this lives on in place names, traditions such as Up Helly Aa, the style of music, and the local dialect – see Shetland ForWirds. And a medieval transcription error changed Hjaltland into “Zetland”, so these islands became Britain’s most northerly misprint.
Shetland was transformed by North Sea oil in the 1970s. A huge oil terminal was built at Sullom Voe near Brae on Mainland. Oil money halted population decline and boosted the economy, so roads and other infrastructure are good and unemployment is low. As oil stocks decline, Shetland is turning back to crofting and fishing - there are many fish farms in the sheltered voes. Tourism also grew: Lerwick is a regular port of call for cruise ships, and the main sights are mobbed when they arrive.
There are over 100 islands. Eleven are inhabited: several have been linked by road causeway, to become part of Mainland. There are also some natural causeways: Mavis Grind is not a fearsome barmaid but the strand by which the northwest area of Northmavine clings onto Mainland. Ten of the eleven have a public ferry and can be visited, and a couple more (Noss and Mousa) are easily visited in summer by boat trip. One or two others currently have no residents, but the land agents haven’t totally despaired of attracting a wealthy new owner to re-build the derelict farm cottage.
Shetland has few international links so you need to travel via the Scottish mainland.
Sumburgh Airport (LSI IATA) is at Sumburgh on the south tip of Shetland Mainland, 30 miles south of Lerwick. Loganair fly here from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness on the Scottish mainland, from Kirkwall in Orkney, and from Bergen in Norway. Loganair are a full-service airline, with 20 kilo checked baggage included in the fare; they use medium-sized twin-prop aircraft, eg the Saab 340. There are also flights within the Shetland Islands, see "Get around".
The terminal itself is small, with a cafe/bar, shop, wi-fi internet and ATM. An hour before flight is fine for check-in, as neither security nor retailing are as overgrown as in large mainland airports. One runway crosses the main road A970, so this is closed whenever a flight is coming in or taking off. Pick up & drop off by car is free but airport parking is charged.
Car hire is available at the airport from Star Rent a Car or Bolts Car Hire. These also act for the major companies (Avis, Hertz) that you may choose to book through. Their depots are off-site, so they'll meet you and transfer you to your car. They only have small fleets so advance reservation is highly advisable.
Taxi firms serving the airport (booking strongly advised) are:
- - Boddam Cabs +44 1950 460 111; firstname.lastname@example.org
- - J & I Taxis +44 1950 422 207; email@example.com
- - Allied Taxis +44 1595 690 069
- - Smith’s Airport Taxis +44 1950 460560; firstname.lastname@example.org
- - Sinclair’s Taxis +44 1595 696060; email@example.com
Bus 6 runs between Sumburgh airport & village and Lerwick, daily every 90 mins, taking one hour: see South Mainland bus timetable.
Scatsta airport near Sullom Voe oil terminal doesn't have commercial flights, it's only used to bring in oil workers from Aberdeen. They then wriggle into their survival gear and transfer to helicopters for the oil rigs out in the North Sea.
Lerwick Tingwall airport only has inter-island flights, see "Get around".
On 2 or 3 nights per week, the ferry also calls at Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. On those nights the ferry sails two hours earlier, around 17:00, to make the extra stop and reach its final destination at the usual time. See Kirkwall#Get_in for need-to-know info about the Aberdeen-Kirkwall and Kirkwall-Lerwick service.
In Aberdeen follow signs to the harbour, which is very close to Union Street railway and bus stations. You're aiming for the big white ship with a blue hairy-scary Viking on its side. Follow the relevant signs for foot passengers or queuing vehicles. They may ask for photo ID, and hand you a disclaimer stating that you're travelling at your own risk: the crossing can be rough.
On board, the cabins are small but have decent bunks with private toilet and shower. Or you can sleep in the reclining aircraft-style seats in the lounge, or stretch out on the couches in the bar once it has closed. If you take a sleeping bag and pillow, you'll have to carry them around as staff won't let you leave them unattended. There's no access to vehicles once at sea, so you need to gather up all your kit & caboodle before locking up and going upstairs.
The ferry is fairly plush and well equipped. There are two bars, a self-service restaurant, a cinema and a table-service restaurant with Shetland and Orkney specialities. There is also a cinema, though if it is rough, watching a film in a dark room is a good recipe for sea-sickness. The ship's interior is all non-smoking, but there is an outside deck where you can smoke. If the weather is fair, there may be access to the upper deck until late at night, and again early morning as you approach Lerwick.
Arrival in Shetland is announced at 06:30 and the self-service restaurant opens for breakfast. The ferry usually docks on time at 07:30, and drivers must leave promptly to move their cars, but (with their boarding pass) may return on board for breakfast. They, along with non-drivers and foot passengers, can remain on the ship until 09:00. In any case have your boarding pass ready when you disembark, as they check for fare-dodgers. The ferry terminal is at Holmsgarth a mile north of the centre of Lerwick and pre-booked hire cars can be collected at the terminal.
Fares vary by season, but say £30 per adult and £120 per car each way. Reserving a reclining seat is £3.50, while twin cabins start from £100. Book early in summer because vehicle capacity and cabins sell out.
Taxis are also available. Cycling is also a possibility and can be wonderful in good weather but awful in driving wind and rain. This is also fantastic walking country, but distances between main attractions are surprising long. As places go, Shetland is probably about as safe a place to hitchhike as you will see, but the usual warnings apply.
Inter-island flights are operated by Airtask (+44 1595 840246 for booking) on behalf of Shetland Islands Council, and fly from 1 Tingwall Airport (LWK IATA) 7 miles north of Lerwick, to Fair Isle, Papa Stour and Foula. They don't fly from Sumburgh except for a summer Saturday flight between there and Fair Isle. You can't book online, as they need to prioritise travellers such as residents and visiting GPs. Reckon £85 for an adult return ticket.
There is no bus to Tingwall airport, so take a regular taxi, or book a Dial-a-Ride taxi from Viking Bus Station in Lerwick on 01595 745745 (before 16:30 on the day before flying).
The inhabited islands are served by ferries run by Shetland Islands Council - Calmac don't operate up here. The short crossing from Lerwick to Bressay can't be booked, and booking is seldom necessary for Yell, Unst, Fetlar or Whalsay - you'll want a car on all of these. There may not be many sailings, but they do sail early and late to enable residents to day-trip either direction. Visitors' vehicles can't be taken to (and are a waste of space on) Foula or Fair Isle: occasional contractors' vehicles have to be precariously loaded and unloaded by crane, with the stomach-churning 3 hour crossing enlivened by the continual shrilling of the van alarm.
Check the display board at Lerwick harbour (or online or by enquiry at the ferry office) before setting out if the weather is doubtful. Ferries may be cancelled for days on end, leaving you stranded among the seagulls. Or they may switch ports, e.g. the ferries to Whalsay and Out Skerries normally sail from Laxo, but in high winds they sail from Vidlin.
The roads are in excellent condition. A-roads connect Sumburgh Airport with Lerwick, Scalloway, the ferry pier for Yell and Unst (and across those islands), and the Northmavine peninsula. They are mostly two lanes, but in Northmavine and on the B-roads they are mostly single track. Traffic is very light, apart from "Lerwick rush hour" which is more like 15 mins around 9 am and 5 pm, and a little surge around ferry sailings. If you're taking it slow to admire the scenery, pull into a passing place to let others overtake. Do wave thank-you to drivers from the other direction who pull in to let you go by, especially if you suspect they were expecting you to be the one to give way.
There are no fixed speed cameras, but the police enforce speed limits especially in built-up areas, and are always vigilant for drink- or drugged-driving.
Petrol and diesel is widely available, although there are few filling stations outside Lerwick. Reckon to pay 10p per litre more than in mainland Scotland.
Car hire is available from:
- Bolts Car Hire, 26 North Road, Lerwick ZE1 OPE, ☏ . Also at Sumburgh, Tingwall & Scatsta airports and Lerwick ferry terminal, and act for the national companies.
- Star Rent a Car, 22 Commercial Road, Lerwick ZE1 0LX, ☏ . Min driver age 21. They're also at Sumburgh, Tingwall & Scatsta airports and Lerwick ferry terminal, and act for the national companies.
- Grantfield Garage, North Road, Lerwick ZE1 0NT, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Also at Sumburgh airport and Lerwick ferry terminal.
Lerwick Viking bus station is Shetland's transport hub. Buses run hourly to Scalloway and every 90 mins to two hours to Sumburgh village and airport. Other destinations including the north tip of Unst only have 3 or 4 M-Sat and nothing on Sunday. They're timed so that villagers can get into Lerwick, do what they need to and get home that afternoon. A day-trip out from Lerwick may not be practical, but see individual villages' "Get in" for options.
- Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick is a good start, with excellent displays on the geology, natural environment, and long history of these islands.
- Up Helly Aa Exhibition in Lerwick. Each February the "guizers" start building a Viking longship, and by June the work in progress is on display, along with displays about the festival. Several places in Shetland have Up Helly Aa events, but by far the biggest and most spectacular is in Lerwick, with a grand costumed torchlight procession culminating in burning the longship. It's nowadays held on the last Tuesday in January.
- Prehistoric sites: the standout is Jarlshof in Sumburgh, inhabited from 2500 BC into early modern times. Other notable examples are Old Scatness (also near Sumburgh), Mousa Broch an Iron Age tower on Mousa, reached by boat from Sandwick (Mainland), Stanydale Temple a few miles east of Walls, and Clickimin Broch at the south edge of Lerwick.
- Historic sites include the Crofthouse Museum and Quendale Watermill near Sumburgh. The castles are variously smashed up, derelict or beyond ruin, so you visit them for the picturesque view: the best is in Scalloway.
- Wildlife: always keep your eyes open for this, and also watch out for sheep and Shetland ponies which may roam free on the little island roads.
- - Draatsi are otters, who prefer spots where a freshwater stream runs out to sea. They're best spotted early morning / late evening at low tide, especially on Yell.
- - Sea birds are prolific, look for puffins, gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags, great and arctic skuas, storm petrels, oystercatchers, eider ducks, cormorants and razorbills. Inland are curlews, whimbrels, golden and ringed plovers, lapwings and redshanks, and Fetlar has the rare red-legged phalarope.
- - Marine life includes Grey and Common Seals (always sniffing around the fish processing plants in Lerwick), whales especially Minke, and other cetaceans such as porpoises, dolphins and orcas.
- Most northerly this & that: taking the main road north brings you to a short ferry crossing to the island of Yell, then from the north tip of Yell to Unst, the most northerly inhabited island of Britain. It's an easy day-trip by car. Any feature here can reasonably be described as "the most northerly X in Britain" - the most northerly bus-stop is nothing special, but "Bobby's bus stop" a little way south is certainly worth seeing. The highlight is Hermaness, a nature reserve where sea birds wheel above the cliffs.
- Dramatic coastlines: all over Shetland but especially the cliffs and sea stacks of Hermaness (Unst), Eshaness (near Hillswick on Mainland), Noss (Bressay), Sumburgh head at the south tip of Mainland, and wild, lonely Foula. These are all great locations for sea birds, especially in the nesting season early summer.
- Tourist-free islands: the three small islands to the northeast don't have "sights" or visitor amenities, but come here for a glimpse of traditional ways of life based on crofting and fishing. To reach Fetlar see Yell.
- Whalsay is reached by a 30-minute ferry ride from 2 Laxo - these sail hourly M-Sat and every two hours Sunday, year round, to the harbour of Symbister. From Lerwick take A970 north then B9071 to Laxo. In high winds this pier is too exposed, and ferries sail instead from Vidlin three miles further up B9071 - don't visit under such conditions.
- Out Skerries are three islands. Housay and Bruray are inhabited and linked by a bridge, so they're effectively a single island. Grunay is uninhabited but plays the vital role of sheltering the harbour on Bruray. The ferry is a bit of an expedition: it sails M F Sa around 07:00 from Laxo via Whalsay to reach the Skerries for 09:30. The return sailing is 14:30 Monday and 19:00 Fri & Sat. A day trip is also possible on Sunday. Wednesday has a direct sailing from Skerries to Lerwick and return, so a day-trip from Mainland is not feasible.
- Beaches are often beautiful, deserted and look tropical, until you wade in for a swim - yikes it's cold! Consider bringing a wetsuit (at least 5mm), which will make snorkelling less of an ordeal.
- The 'Simmer Dim' and "almost midnight sun": Shetland is 60o North, so it's not in the Arctic Circle and doesn't have a true midnight sun. Nevertheless in June it will be almost 11 pm when the sun sets, though that's really 22:00 UT / GMT with daylight saving. It never goes properly dark, just dim, in summer, so at midnight it's light enough to play golf, but not necessarily light enough to find your ball in a thicket. The downside is that you can't skywatch, eg for the Northern Lights, as it's much too bright.
- Dark night skies: Nov-March is the time for these, though you have to be lucky with the weather, and dress very warmly. Get away from the town lights and give your eyes 15 mins to adjust, and the Milky Way and other objects will swim into view.
- Sea kayaking hire and guided tours are available from Sea Kayak Shetland. They're based in Frakkafield north of Lerwick, with access to either coast according to sea conditions.
- Wildlife watching boat trips: various operators but a good one is Seabirds and Seals, with tickets available from the TIC in Lerwick. One popular trip, combining a short sailing time with a spectacular result, is to Bressay and Noss. The lie of the land means that shore-based visitors can get a good view of Noss but find it difficult to approach the sea cliffs of Bressay, so a boat gives a better view. It's a small boat however so if it's windy, be prepared for a heaving, bouncy trip.
- Sport and Leisure facilities are dotted around Shetland, where you can swim, sauna, play squash or join a fitness class. There are several golf courses.
- Traditional music: Shetland's fiddle music has more than stood its ground against modern styles and is promoted in schools. You'll find it in many venues.
- Tune in to local media for a refreshing local take on life. The Shetland Times is published on Fridays, while Shetland Life and i,i Shetland are monthly. BBC Radio Shetland is on 92.7 FM and SIBC is on 96.2 FM. Plus you can get all the standard terrestrial and satellite TV channels, and national newspapers on the day of publication, with all the familiar depressing stuff that you came to Shetland to get away from.
- Up Helly Aa is last Tuesday in January, see above.
- Shetland Folk Festival is in May, with performances in halls and pubs all over Mainland and the outlying islands. The next is 30 April - 3 May 2020.
- Accordion and Fiddle Festival is in early October.
- Shetland Wool Week, various venues, covers the process from sheep-rearing through spinning, dyeing, weaving and knitting. It's late Sept / early Oct.
Knitware: Shetland Sheep provide fine, multi-coloured wool which is knitted locally into a variety of garments. Particularly fine (and expensive) is patterned knitwear created straight from the undyed natural colours of the sheep. Best known is the "Fair Isle" pattern, but Unst also has beautiful wares.
Shetland cuisine is heavily based on the excellent local seafood, together with local lamb. Milk and dairy products are produced on Shetland, as is some beef. One local speciality is reestit mutton which is salted, dried meat often served with bannocks or as part of a potato soup. Some fruit & veg are grown in the islands, but much has to be imported.
Most eating-out places are in Lerwick. Out of town the best dining is in the local hotels - see individual pages.
There are two good supermarkets in Lerwick, and local shops in other villages.
In summer there are Sunday Teas in local village halls, with good home baking. Proceeds generally go to charity.
The Shetland Distillery Company in Unst produces gin and blended malt whisky.
There are several lively bars and even a nightclub in Lerwick. Outside the capital, bars are in local hotels.
There is an off-licence in Lerwick and alcohol is sold in supermarkets and local shops.
The legal drinking age is 18 (16 for accompanied minors drinking beer or cider with a meal). Proof of age is often demanded of those who appear to be under 25.
Camping Böds provide very basic self-catering accommodation. There are nine of these across Shetland, which must be booked through the Shetland Amenity Trust in Lerwick (+44 1595 694688). Costs about £10 per person per night.
The greatest choice of accommodation of all standards is in Lerwick, so this is the obvious base for the visitor.
For emergency services (police, ambulance, fire & rescue, coastguard) ring 999. The National Health Service provides health care here on the same basis as elsewhere in Britain; the emergency hospital is the Gilbert Bain in Lerwick, and GPs in these parts are well versed in dealing with health problems far from city back-up.
You will be very unlucky to be mugged, robbed or threatened, though there's the occasional unpleasant drunk in Lerwick. The main hazards are natural: cold and rain, rough seas with strong currents, and lots of steep slippy slopes tumbling over unfenced cliffs. Seabirds, especially Bonxies (great skuas), may attack if you approach their nests in the breeding season. Keep to the paths, and wave an arm or a stick above your head if they start to dive-bomb you.
All major mobile phone networks are available in Shetland, though coverage for most tends to be a bit patchy (or in some cases non-existent) outside Lerwick. If your mobile does not work there are telephone boxes in most villages, and cards for these are available in newsagents and supermarkets.
Fast broadband is available over most of the islands, although in remote areas it is restricted by distance from the telephone exchange. Pay for use internet access is available in the Tourist Information Centre in Lerwick and some hotels and other locations.
Local government services are provided by Shetland Islands Council.
Electricity voltage and adaptors are UK standard.
To the Orkney Islands, or back to mainland Scotland, by ferry or air.