The Shetland Islands (July 2021)


I’d wanted to visit the Shetland Islands for many years, and with international travel still very limited because of COVID-19, now seemed to be the ideal time to see them.

Shetland is as far North as you can go in the UK, with Lerwick further north than Oslo in Norway. There are about 100 islands, though less than 20 are inhabited. The total population is about 23,000.

Getting off the plane at Sumburgh, after just an hour’s flight from Aberdeen. You can also fly from Glasgow and Edinburgh, though the flights can be pretty pricey.

I’m not sure who the eejit on the right is but he seemed to be enjoying himself.

I'd traveled to Shetland fully expecting the weather to be terrible, but when I arrived it was an absolutely gorgeous day. I’d arranged to meet some very kind local people, Neville and Jean, who took me on a fantastic tour around the south part of Mainland, the main island in Shetland.

Those are seals basking happily on the beach.

This seems to be an odd but charming Shetland wedding tradition. I always see weddings when I travel - we saw Karun and Bryan’s wedding reception shortly after this.

The wonderful tombolo leading to St. Ninian’s Isle, the largest one in the UK.  (Yes, I didn’t know what it was either - it’s a causeway of sand with sea on both sides).

First encounter with a Shetland pony - they're tiny and they're everywhere. 

The highly impressive multi-period archaeological remains at Jarlshof. I'd read about this place when I was still at school, before doing my degree in archaeology, so it was wonderful to see it in reality. 

The site was originally mostly covered by sand dunes and then exposed after a storm in the 19th Century, like Skara Brae in Orkney. Remains here date from the Neolithic period, through Bronze Age, Iron Age, Early Christian, Viking and Medieval. 

A big thank you to Neville Martin for taking me around the site!

Lerwick is the main (really the only) town on Shetland. This is Market Square, in the centre. I loved the architecture of  the old buildings.

Calm waters near the excellent Shetland Museum in Lerwick.

This mural is a tribute to the crime series Shetland, which was shot (as you could guess) in Shetland. I rewatched it while I was here and kept recognising places which added a lot of enjoyment.

I hadn’t realised the guy from Love Actually and Death in Paradise was in it.

I was staying in Commercial Street, in the beautiful old part of Lerwick.

The house I was staying in is the big one at the end here; rather wonderfully it had its own sea gate. Apparently this area is riddled with old smugglers’ tunnels - the house was originally a Lodberry, a warehouse dating back to the 18th Century before piers were built. Goods were loaded directly into the warehouse using the gates. And for those who’ve seen the series Shetland, Jimmy Perez’s house is the one in the foreground with the boats. I could see it out my window. Very cool!


The house was absolutely brilliant, with wonderful views across the sea. Some times I almost didn’t want to leave, it was so lovely. The bedroom projected out over the water and at night you could hear the sea lapping softly outside, very soothing after a long day of walking.

Walking down some steps on the outskirts of Lerwick to look at an old World War II installation. I looked at the seaweed and thought it looked incredibly dangerous  - then promptly slipped and fell, which might have been a swift end to my trip. Thankfully I fell well, no injuries, other than pride.

This was the installation I went down (literally) the steps to have a look at. Very unusual - apparently it was an anti-submarine battery equipped with torpedos, though it was never actually used in anger.

The dappled light on the land here, across the water on Bressay, seemed very typical of Shetland.

The next day I took the ferry across to the island of Bressay, just a 10 minute journey. They seem to have had some success crossbreeding pandas with cows here.

A Jam jar shortage on Bressay. Bloody Brexit. *

*Disclaimer: this has nothing to do with Brexit. 

A bleakly beautiful walk across the island, just pylons and a sea of bog cotton.

My main aim walking across the island was to see an old gun emplacement in the north but on the way I noticed the map showed an abandoned military camp dating to the 1940s so I took a detour to look at that, while being dive-bombed by some very agitated sea birds nesting nearby.

The old camp was really interesting, lots of remnants of buildings and gun emplacements. The disembodied fireplace was a bit surreal.

I found this bottle just sitting on the ground, in the camp ruins. A quick look online suggests that it's actually a vintage (miniature) champagne bottle, probably from the 1940s or 50s, so presumably associated with the camp.

I loved how these green nets seemed to be almost part of the landscape.

A  very remote and sinister abandoned Herring processing factory, dating back to the turn of the 20th Century. There wasn’t even a track to this. I got a distinct feeling that it was a place where something bad had happened.

Definitely nothing bad ever happened here.

30,000 steps there and back, but well worth it; this is a First World War gun emplacement on Score Hill, in the North of Bressay. There was no road to this - it took a long trek across hills and bog to get to it. The gun was just left in place to rust after the war.

A bunker associated with the gun battery. I was initially baffled and a little perturbed by the strange pool of light, until I realised it was coming through a ventilation pipe in the roof..

Dusk back in Lerwick, at almost 11pm. There was a wonderful calmness.

Whoops! Not always so calm, it seems. This street during a storm over a 100 years ago.

Next day‘s trip was a walk around the peninsula at Scalloway, the former capital of Shetland.

Scalloway was the base of operations for the Shetland Bus - the secret World War II operation to infiltrate and sabotage Nazi-occupied Norway. Norway House was the headquarters for these missions.

A yellow bucket, somewhat jarring in the natural landscape.

The beach was littered with sea urchins; I’ve never seen so many.

A very sad sight - I thought this lamb was just sleeping but it was dead. Its eyes had been pecked out by crows, which flew away as I approached. The mother was crying out balefully further up the hill, but there was nothing to be done. Nature red in tooth and claw.

Death seemed to be everywhere on this walk.

One of the joys of  travelling around Shetland by bus was witnessing how the bus stops had been accessorised to make them more comfortable in between the infrequent services. Microwaves and all.

Next trip, and definitely one of the highlights - a walk around the Hillswick peninsula, on the north of Mainland, with stunning views all around.

These little lighthouses seem to come equipped with their own solar panels.

I kept telling myself - this scenery is absolutely stunning.

King of the Hillswick Peninsula. 

This video shows the stunning beauty of the peninsula.

A really cute (not dead) lamb and some impressive cliffs beyond.

Next trip was to the island of Mousa, just off the south coast of Mainland, and its amazing Iron Age Broch, the best preserved in Scotland. It really is enormous, and has impressed for centuries - it gets mentioned several times in the Viking Sagas.

Mousa is famous for its nesting birds; I strayed too close to one nest, and this Great Skua (notoriously aggressive birds) was not at all happy. It dive-bombed me several times. The first picture is it lining up for a run at me, the second is it sweeping past my head, talons out, and the third picture is of the grass as I hit the dirt to avoid being scalped.

On my last day I took the bus up to Walls. Just me, the bus driver and thick, thick fog. Couldn’t see a thing on the way there.

Surely a candidate for the remotest red telephone box in the fog. And there wasn’t even a telephone inside.

My plan to walk along a coastal path seemed a little foolhardy, especially when the distant headland disappeared into the fog. So I turned back.

My week in Shetland flew by, and I felt bereft to be leaving such a wonderful place. As someone said to me, it gets to you - visits that were only supposed to be a few months turn into decades.

This poem, by Isla Jamieson, aged 10, summed up my feelings perfectly.

As I never did get to see the Mirrie Dancers - the Northern Lights - I'll have to return some day soon for another adventure.

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