Shetland: Why the northernmost reaches of the British Isles are so fascinating

The news that the islands will be home to Britain’s first spaceport has put Shetland on the map for a worldwide audience


Lerwick is the main port on Shetland

Shetland is having a moment — and not for the first time. The news that the islands will be home to Britain’s first spaceport has put Shetland on the map for a worldwide audience, while the hit TV series of the same name, based on the Ann Cleeves bestsellers that dramatically raised awareness of this remote corner of the UK a few years ago, is due to return with a new season.

The time to go is now. Cruise ships already stop at Lerwick, Shetland’s main town and harbour, so it’s only a matter of time before they decide to head even further north to Unst, where those rockets will be launched.

And Lerwick and the Shetland mainland are surprisingly accessible from London and other English cities too, despite actually being closer to Bergen in Norway — with which it shared a ruler until 1472 — than to Edinburgh. Direct flights may only go from Scottish airports but high-speed trains to Aberdeen connect with an excellent overnight ferry service.

Pretty Lerwick instantly conveys the space, peace and remoteness that are the great glory of these islands, plus the bonus of spectacular cliff scenery for those who venture to some of its further-flung nooks.

Lerwick itself is an easy town to see — start at the beginning of Commercial Street, wander past shops showcasing the patterned knitwear and silver jewellery for which Shetland is famous (although maybe wait to buy from the makers in their outlying studios), and stroll on another ten minutes to the excellent — and free — Shetland Museum and Archives.

Here it was a surprise to discover not only a model of a croft and relics of every aspect of Shetland life (including some fetching mid-century jumpers) but an exhibition by world-famous American-Jewish photographer Diane Arbus.

Shetland might feel remote but it has its finger firmly on the pulse of the contemporary cultural world; next door to the museum, the Mareel performance space hosts the island’s several annual film fests.

The fiddle rules in these islands, which have no tradition of bagpipes, and you’ll find somewhere to hear live music in Lerwick pretty well every night of the week; I found grandmothers playing alongside the men and boys in the Lounge Bar pub opposite the tourist office.

But after one night, I couldn’t resist the temptation to discover the wide-open spaces and picturesque coves beyond the capital, whose 8,000 residents make up a third of the islands’ total population.

Having visited previously without a guide, it was a revelation to set out on some sightseeing with a top guiding firm; McKinlay Kidd, which picked up the Telegraph Travel award for Best Specialist Tour Operator this year.

Spending two days with one of its small escorted groups took us to the spectacular clifftop scenery of the Eshaness peninsula on the west coast and some of the highlights of the northern mainland, including the pretty marina at Voe, Hillswick, site of a seal sanctuary — plus a quirkily decorated public loo that’s a marvel of folk art — and Lunna, famous for its wartime operation known as the “Shetland Bus”.

These fishing boats risked the dangers of war and weather connecting Scotland with Nazi-occupied Norway and became a lifeline for refugees escaping to the UK, including many Jews, as well as supporting the Norwegian resistance by transporting undercover agents, radio operators, weapons and other equipment.

Later operations moved from secluded Lunna to the larger town of Scalloway, where there’s a museum with more detail on this slice of wartime history.

The south has its own share of tempting attractions, some literally minutes from the Sumburgh Airport runway, including Jarlshof, where 6,000 years of life on Shetland are layered in walkable, well-documented ruins, and the beautiful but over-engineered Sumburgh Lighthouse, built by author Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather.

The base for this tour was Busta House in Brae, the closest thing Shetland has to a four-star hotel. Rooms were cosy and well-appointed, dinner equalled anything to be found in Lerwick, including plenty of local fish, while the Jacobean mansion’s attractive Long Room — where the Queen took tea in the 1960s — is now the perfect spot for a single malt nightcap.

Consider saving one evening to head to Britain’s most northernmost fish and chip shop, the excellent and award-winning Frankie’s, during your stay too.

Moving on, my next stop was Unst, Shetland’s northernmost island, by way of intervening Yell. Reached from the mainland by car ferry, Unst is an important breeding ground for puffins and other seabirds (so not the most obvious choice for a rocket-launching pad) but despite its remoteness, there’s plenty for visitors.

Along with the 16th-century ruins of Muness Castle, there’s art glass at nearby Glansin Glass, a fine heritage centre bringing the crofting existence to life, and the famous Hermaness National Nature Reserve, a haven for seabirds overlooking Muckle Flugga, the memorably named northernmost point of the British Isles.

Unst has its own quirky corners to discover too, including Bobby’s bus stop, whose owner regularly re-does the decor to delight waiting passengers, an honesty box for “Peerie” — (little) boxes set up to raise funds for Alzheimer’s research — and Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms in front of the Boat Haven maritime museum, for homemade scones, cakes and delightful retail therapy.

By contrast, Yell feels bleaker and less populated than its northern neighbour, but is somehow still home to more people, a total of 957 inhabitants, most of whom seemed to have packed out East Yell Hall for the annual island show on the day of my visit.

Islanders entered elaborate baked goods and flowers as well as arts, crafts and livestock — a chance to get closer to bighorn sheep and a few of the adorable Shetland ponies that have populated these islands since prehistoric times.

My six-day stay was simply not long enough to do the islands justice; I could happily have hung out longer at the studios of Laurence Odie and Karlin Anderson, respectively artisan knitters and jewellers in Hoswick, a tiny village a short drive south of Lerwick.

The same goes for the arts centre and café at beautiful Weisdale Mill, a similar distance to the north, and Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary, to see not only the seals Jan Bevington has been rescuing since 1987, but her beautiful garden made of mini-standing stones.

Not to mention wishing for more time to explore the Viking longhouses on Unst, which has a real standing stone of its own, and to get to Fair Isle, where the Shetland knitting tradition was born.

Who needs spaceports? As the Otters Crossing sign on the side road to Weisdale suggests, plus Shetland’s enticing hints of the ancient Norse world, there is always more to discover on these magical, friendly islands.

Getting There

Eight nights on Shetland including ferry crossing with cabin, hotel & B&B accommodation, a one-day guided tour and boat trip to the Noss seabird reserve costs from £1,255 with McKinlay Kidd. Fly-drive packages from Scottish airports are also available.

Return ferry crossings from Aberdeen to Lerwick with NorthLink Ferries cost from £46.40.

Train tickets from London to Aberdeen cost from £55 one way with LNER

More information at

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive