Shetland Islands – A real Scottish experience

Lonely Planet recently voted Shetland one the world’s top 10 tourist destinations and it is so rich in natural beauty and interest that more and more people are putting it on their wish list of places to visit.

Where are the Shetland islands?

Situated in the extreme northeast of Scotland, this small archipelago of islands is home to a bewildering array of wildlife, from puffins and seals to otters and whales, and there are also exciting museums and galleries to explore. Lerwick, the capital, is packed with interesting cafes, restaurants and shops, and there are plenty of established walking routes, along with a thriving music scene and numerous festivals and events throughout the year.

Getting to the Shetlands

There are around ten daily flights to the Shetlands by air from cities such as Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow. There are also sporadic flights from Bergen in Norway. Car ferries leave Aberdeen each night of the week throughout the year and dock at the Lerwick ferry terminal, where there’s also a useful Welcome Point for visitors.

Summer festivals

Festivals have always marked the seasons on Shetland, growing out of a pagan tradition and transforming themselves down the centuries to become some of the islands’ most popular attractions nowadays. Music plays a big part and visitors revel in the riot of noise, colour and movement as the streets overflow and everyone has a fabulous time. The fire festivals are probably the most dramatic of these, transporting you back to the Viking age of long-ships, blazing warrior funerals and heaving mead halls. They take place throughout Europe but the biggest and most impressive one is held here as the ‘Lerwick Up Helly Aa’. With fancy dress, flaming torches and long-ships very much in evidence, this is a truly spectacular occasion in March, and is the first festival of the year.

In May there’s the Shetland Folk Festival, which sprang out of the fiddle tradition in the islands but now embraces everything from African drums to club swing and delta blues. The Tall Ships Races in mid-May also occasionally visit the Shetlands, as in 2011, so keep an eye on the calendar for the next one, and in September there’s the literary festival here, WordPlay, and also the film Festival, ScreenPlay. The Blues Festival is also packed into September, and November has the Shetland Food Festival to look forward to. Does anybody actually do any work on the Shetlands, we wonder?

Other attractions

Visitors to the Shetlands often arrive expecting a sort of wasteland of the far North, with some scattered primitive villages and lots of seals bobbing in a grey, stormy sea. The reality of the Shetlands is far more convivial, and there are plenty of things to see and do here apart from take an active part in the many festivals that punctuate the year. The nature trail is undoubtedly one of the biggest attractions, with such a richness and variety of wildlife, from whale-spotting to a wealth of other photo opportunities with puffins, seals and a healthy colony of otters. The arts scene up here is also very strong, and there are numerous galleries that showcase the local talent, and several museums that trace the turbulent history of these islands of the extreme north of the UK.

Accommodation

There’s no shortage of friendly and affordable accommodation in the Shetlands, mostly consisting of small family run guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts. Self-catering is also becoming increasingly popular, and there are also several small hotels such as Busta House Hotel and Islesburgh House, and chalet accommodation as well. Check out shetlandhotels.com for more info on some great places to stay.