Experience life at the edge on the most northerly part of the UK. There’s a different world waiting for you in Shetland. Now is the best time to start planning your dream future trip to the top of Britain!
Shetland is an archipelago of extremes, where life is shaped by the ocean, between the Atlantic and the North Sea. At 60 degrees North, yet easily accessible by ferry or plane, you will find freedom, wildlife and wild beauty, but also a rich culture and a dynamic, forward-looking community. If you’re intrigued, here are some of the most unique experiences and unusual things to do while in Shetland.
1. Discover really remote islands
Escape to one of the most beautiful and remote islands in the UK, the Isle of Foula. It is home to some of Britain’s highest sheer sea cliffs, thousands of seabirds and a population of only thirty people. Closer to the mainland, take the ferry over to the Isle of Papa Stour and watch the full force of the Atlantic Ocean carve its spectacular coastline into beautiful arches, stacks and caves.
In the North Sea, the Out Skerries are the most easterly islands of Shetland. They boast dramatic scenery, historical interest, outstanding wildlife and a warm welcome from the Skerries folks. Don’t miss the nearby Isle of Whalsay which is home to Britain’s most northerly 18-hole golf course and boasts epic panoramas and sea life. Further south, Fair Isle needs no introduction, famous for both knitwear and seabirds, but also its cultural heritage and community spirit.
Did you know?
Shetland is made up of around 100 islands with 16 of them inhabited. How many can you visit? Start your island hopping adventure and jump on an inter-flight over the islands in a tiny eight-seater aircraft – an unforgettable experience! Or hop on a ferry, or a charter boat with Shetland Sea Adventures. Look out for the Scottish Islands Passport coming soon to help you explore the islands.
2. Explore an extinct volcano in the Shetland Geopark
Where else can you walk on ancient oceanic crust, explore an extinct volcano and stroll across shifting sands in the space of a day? From the highest sheer cliffs in Britain, to tranquil voes and sandy beaches, Shetland is packed with incredible geology which spans almost three billion years. This rich geological heritage earned the islands the status of UNESCO Global Geopark, one of just seven in the UK.
The archipelago has the most diverse landscapes for an area its size anywhere in Europe, all due to an astonishing range of rocks and formations. Witness the dark purple volcanic wonders of the Eshaness cliffs, a remarkable example of the Great Glen Fault at the Back Sands beach in Ollaberry and the UK’s largest active tombolo at St Ninian’s Isle.
Did you know?
Because of its isolation, Shetland has a unique flora of its own. The botanical highlight of any visit is the Keen of Hamar Nature Reserve on the Isle of Unst. Here you can find the only examples in the world of Edmondston’s Chickweed, named after Unst’s famous 19th century teenage botanist, Thomas Edmondston.
3. Look up to the skies for the simmer dim
See what midnight in midsummer looks like in Shetland and enjoy exceptionally long summer days and 19 hours of daylight. The simmer dim is the night-long twilight, when the sun dips below the horizon, just long enough to turn a sunset in to a sunrise. Dusk runs into dawn and it is never truly dark. You could even head out and play midnight golf! Shetland winter dark skies are just as incredible – sit under the stars and look out for the Northern Lights, or Mirrie Dancers – as they’re known locally.
Did you know?
All eyes will be on Shetland in 2022 as the new Shetland Space Centre takes to the skies on the Isle of Unst. Shetland’s northernmost island will be the site for the UK’s first ever commercial satellite rocket launch – putting Shetland at the heart of a fast-growing global space industry.
4. Discover the power of the sea
Nowhere in Shetland is more than 5km from the sea. With nearly 1700 miles of coastline, crystal clear waters, natural harbours and sheltered bays, this is a paradise for watersports enthusiasts.
Paddle through the shiny blue waters around the dramatic granite cliffs of Muckle Roe and explore its incredible hidden sea caves and tunnels with an expert guide from Sea Kayak Shetland. Or refresh your mind and body with an open water swim at one of Shetland’s secret beaches (check out the Selkies open water swimming group).
If you want to experience Shetland like you’ve never before, try a hands-on sailing adventure on The Swan, a beautiful traditional wooden Sail Fifie built in Shetland in 1900. No prior experience required.
Did you know?
With some of Europe’s best wind, wave and tidal resources, Shetland is a leader in marine renewable energy, pioneering developments in wind, wave and tidal power. The Bluemull Sound offshore tidal array, between Yell and Unst, was the first in the world to supply electricity to the grid.
5. Spot orcas right from the coast
Being surrounded by deep waters, Shetland is one of the best places to see marine animals in the UK. Keep your eyes peeled for a sighting of the semi-resident pods of orcas (‘killer whales’). They hunt seals very close to the shore and sightings are frequent.
About 6,000 common and 3,000 grey seals sit around the coastlines of Mousa, Scatness and Sumburgh Head, while a boat trip out to Yell Sound could reveal harbour porpoises and an occasional school of dolphins. Take a guided trip with Shetland Nature , Shetland Wildlife or Shetland Photo Tours and you might even see an elusive sea otter – Shetland has the densest population of otters in Europe!
Did you know?
Shetland is well known for its cute native Shetland ponies and unique wildlife. In summer, the dramatic sea cliffs play host to over a million breeding seabirds, including the wonderful parrot-like puffins, or tammy norries as they are known locally.
6. Feel the Viking spirit
Shetland was once part of the Viking world. Today the influence of these ferocious warriors is everywhere, from place names such as St Olaf Street, to relics which continue to be unearthed across the isles. You can find evidence of Viking settlements at Jarlshof and Old Scatness in the South Mainland, or on the Isle of Unst, which has one of the highest concentrationr of rural Viking longhouses in the world.
Witness this incredible legacy at Europe’s largest annual fire festival Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, where the Viking Jarl squad parades with burning torches before setting alight the replica longship. Don’t miss the rural fire festivals between January and March, which culminate in singing and dancing long into the night.
Did you know?
Shetlanders spoke Old Norse, a language with strong similarities to Faroese and Icelandic, until the mid 1700s. And the ancient Viking Parliament used to meet at Tingwall in Shetland. Find out about the meaning of place names in Shetland.
7. Get into Shetland music
You’ll be surprised by the vibrancy of Shetland. It has a worldwide reputation as a hotbed of musical creativity. Shetland traditional music revolves around the fiddle and has evolved over the centuries since it was introduced to the isles in the 1700s. It was easy to transport and as Shetland folk have always been traders and fishermen, historically, they picked up influences from other parts of the world. Out of this melodic mix there evolved a Shetland sound.
When restrictions are eased, you can look forward to a Shetland spree to remember, and musical events galore all year round*, from the Shetland Folk Festival and Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival to Folk Frenzy and Unst Fest. You can even bring your instrument along to one of the many impromptu ‘sessions’ in the local pubs.
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Plan your trip in music and support Shetland artists. Listen to the energetic grooves of Ross and Ryan Couper or enjoy the traditional Shetland fiddle style of Kevin Henderson (founding member of award-winning supergroup Fiddlers Bid) and Jenna Reid. Check out the excellent Haltadans, the lovely quartet Herkja or talented musician Arthur Nicholson.
8. Beware of the Trows
One of the best-loved tales from Shetland’s folklore are those about the Trows, or little people who live in the hills. For centuries, Shetlanders dealt with their mischievous behaviour towards humans. Trows’ habits range from stealing cattle and food to even children.
Trows particularly love fiddle music and dancing. They would kidnap local musicians into their underground homes for entertainment for days on end. The musician would remain unaware of the passing of time until released days, months, year or even decades later.
Most Trows left in the 19th century, but you might still encounter them on the Isle of Fetlar. They are known to gather at the ancient stone circle of Haltadans. Folklore has it that the stones are a fiddler and his wife surrounded by dancing Trows. Surprised by the sun rising, they all turned to stone! To see an example of where Trows live, you could even visit the trowie knowe at the Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick. Enter at your peril!
Did you know?
Fetlar’s fiddle tunes are amongst the oldest in Shetland, and many are reputed to have been learned from the trows. You can learn about Fetlar folklore at the Fetlar Interpretive Centre. While you’re here, take time to explore the island. Often called the ‘Garden of Shetland’ because of its lush and fertile landscapes, it is also well known for its unique wildlife and birds, such as the rare red necked phalaropes.
9. Where traditional craft meets modern art
Discover the islands’ beautiful arts and crafts inspired by Shetland’s dramatic scenery, heritage and culture. From unique woodcraft and traditional knitwear techniques handed down through generations, to contemporary art and original jewellery.
Follow the Shetland Craft Trail and stop at Burra Bears, a company that hand-makes teddy bears with recycled Fair Isle knitwear. Shop local: treat yourself to some stunning silver jewellery by Red Houss Shetland, buy some inventive knitwear from innovative designer Nielanell or join a virtual Fair Isle knitting workshop with knitter Janette Budge.
Art lovers can enjoy the best of Shetland’s contemporary art and high-end craft at the Shetland Gallery on the Isle of Yell or at the Bonhoga Gallery in the beautiful Weisdale Mill. Don’t miss the nearby Shetland Jewellery, inspired by Scandinavian mythology, local wildlife, and traditional Celtic designs.
Did you know?
Britain’s most northerly native sheep were brought to the isles by Viking settlers. Experience the islands’ rich knitting culture at Shetland Wool Week late September, which celebrates the island’s wool and textiles industries.
10. Visit Britain’s most famous (and intriguing) bus stop!
If you’re island hopping on Unst, don’t miss Bobby’s bus shelter, one of Scotland’s most quirky and intriguing sites, and possibly the only bus shelter that is also a tourist attraction!
The curious story of the shelter began 25 years ago. Six-year old Bobby Macaulay used to cycle to the shelter to catch the bus to school. After the shelter was removed, he wrote to the local paper. His letter was published and a new shelter was soon in place. But shortly after, strange things began to mysteriously appear inside: a small wicker table and sofa, a microwave, then a carpet, telephone and curtains. Soon, there was a television and a pair of (fake) hamsters too. None of the 500 islanders claimed responsibility.
The eccentric bus shelter quickly became an essential stop in Unst, partly due to the creativity of the “Bobby’s Bus Shelter Executive Board”, who change the decor every year. Themes have included the Queen’s Jubilee, outer space, women’s suffrage, tall ships and life underwater. It has become so popular that people stop to take a photo and sign the visitor book from all over the world.
Did you know?
While on Unst, don’t miss a trip to the Hermaness National Nature Reserve where you can briefly boast of being “Britain’s most northerly person”. There, you can follow the trail to find breathtaking cliff-top views towards Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, watch gannets dive spectacularly into the sea and get up close to puffins. To finish the day, enjoy some delicious cakes at Victoria’s Vintage Tearooms.
11. Taste some of the best fish and seafood in the UK
Shetland’s coastal waters and pristine ‘voes’ create idyllic conditions for an almost never-ending supply of the freshest tastiest fish and shellfish. The strong tidal streams are excellent for salmon, while the famously plump Shetland mussels grow naturally on ropes suspended in the sea.
The sea provides an endless source of inspiration for restaurants across the isles. Enjoy some traditional haddock, mackerel or halibut at Frankies Fish & Chips in Brae, or taste some succulent smoked salmon at Busta House Hotel, or try Burra crab and Yell blue mussels at Fjara Café Bar in Lerwick. As well as familiar fish such as haddock, more unusual fish including ling and megrim are often available. Shetland’s fish and shellfish are served fresh, smoked or pickled – a reminder of the islands’ Norse background.
Did you know?
Fishing is an integral part of Shetland’s heritage and important to today’s culture. Shetland has become one of the most sustainable and innovative fisheries in Europe. Lerwick is the UK’s second-biggest fishing port, and Shetland lands more fish than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Celebrate Shetland’s exceptional food and drink, find cooking inspiration and buy local produce on Taste of Shetland.
12. Learn to spik da Shetland dialect
Shetland dialect, or Shetlandic, is a mix of Old Scots with a strong Norse influence. It is one of the most distinctive variants of Scots, reflecting the islands’ history.
The Vikings arrived in the 9th Century and took their own language to Shetland, Old Norse. Shetland became part of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom until 1469, when the islands were pawned by the Danish king to the Scottish crown as part of a marriage settlement. During this time, the language slowly changed to Norn.
The modern Shetland dialect is still a living spoken tongue with a strong oral tradition of storytelling, drama and song. It shares much with other branches of Scots, though the legacy of Norwegian is obvious still in place names, vocabulary, expressions and pronunciation.
Did you know?
You can find out more about Shetlandic on Shetland ForWirds and explore the sounds of Shetland dialect with the sound map of the isles. Most English speakers shouldn’t have any problems understanding what Shetlanders say, but here are a few unusual words that you may hear:
- Peerie – small
- Muckle – large
- Foy – celebration
- Spree – jollification.
- Smooriekin – a kiss
- Blyde – happy (wir blyde ta see you!)
- Vexed – sorry
- Toorie – wooly hat
- Tammie norie – puffin
- Maali – fulmar
- Solan – gannet
- Come awa in – invitation to come into a house
- Spaegie – muscular pain caused by over-exertion
- Aa my mindin – as long as I can remember.
- As for dat! – what did you expect!
- Da laek a dat! – such a thing! (said of something outrageous)
- Fine day a wadder – a fine day of weather
- Jöst weel back – just got back
- Daander – gentle walk
Start planning your trip on www.shetland.org.
It’s easier to get there than you think. You can book your flight to Sumburgh Airport with Scotland’s airline Loganair or start your adventure with a comfortable overnight crossing from Aberdeen or Kirkwall with NorthLink Ferries.