The first image that comes to most people’s minds when you mention the Shetland Islands is that of a pony, or perhaps the popular dog breed the Shetland Sheepdog. But even though they are well off of the average tourist’s European priority list, there is so much to do and see on the northernmost of Scotland’s islands that you could almost think of them as a country of their own.
Like the Orkney Islands, their neighbor to the southwest, the Shetlands combine Scottish and Norse cultural influences. Unlike other Scottish place names, which tend to be based on a mix of Gaelic and English, nearly every point on a map of the Shetlands has a Norse-derived name, including Lerwick, the largest town and island capital. The influence of the Norwegians goes beyond written language on the islands too, seeping into the music, speech and all aspects of its culture.
There are a few options for getting out to the Shetlands, but visitors looking for a quick side trip should make sure to look at a map first. You might think that everywhere in Scotland is fairly close and accessible, and on the mainland this is largely true, but the Shetlands are over 200 kilometers north of the Scottish mainland, and is the same distance from London as is Milan. There is a ferry to the main island (named “Mainland” in a move that twice confuses continental Europeans), which takes about 14 hours, usually overnight. You can leave from either Aberdeen (a direct trip) or from Scrabster Bay on the north shore of mainland Scotland. For a shorter, though less picturesque, trip, there is an airport at Sumburgh, which can be reached from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, and even Kirkwall on the Orkneys.
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What to do on the Shetlands
One of the most notable things about the Shetlands is that because they are so far north, they have a Scandinavian/Arctic light schedule, with basically 24-hour sunlight in the summer and nearly complete darkness in the depth of winter. This leads to a few unique opportunities. In the summer, the long day of sunlight is known as the “Simmer Dim”, and allows for great camping and hiking expeditions. You might need that long hike to get to sleep with a sun that never seems to go down. In the winter, the darkness and latitude make this the best place in Scotland to see the northern lights. Late at night or early in the morning, get away from any artificial lights (not hard in Shetland) and watch the sky dance with red, blue and green waves of surreal light.
Where to Stay
Lerwick is by far the largest settlement on the islands, with about 7,000 residents, and that’s where you’ll find the bulk of the hotels and other lodgings. Use the form below to search for a room, and have an amazing time on this most remote of Scottish isles.
Photo by cortomaltese