The Shetland Isles some miles off the north coast of Scotland are fascinating and beautiful islands, packed with wildlife and a different view around every headland. Shetland will take your traveller’s mind and blow it over a sea cliff with its stunning scenery, friendly people and tranquillity. Getting to Shetland is quite a journey for anyone but it is perfect for the pace of a campervan or motorhome holiday. Read on and get the bug …
If you are taking your campervan, rather than hiring one there, you will be on the ferry from Aberdeen. Even if you are hiring, consider taking the ferry, rather than flying for a gentler way of getting north. We got on the NorthLink ferry in Kirkwall, Orkney, as we spent a few days on these islands first. As we were only on the ferry from about midnight until early morning we decided that the sleeping pods would be an acceptable and cheaper option, rather than paying for a cabin. This turned out to be a frugal choice too far! The sleeping pods area is full of people shuffling, snoring and generally being quietly noisy and if you value your sleep get a cabin. If you must save money, take your own blanket and find a corner of the boat to sleep in. On our return to Aberdeen we had a cabin which felt luxurious.
Where to start exploring
Before you go make use of the Shetland Tourist Information site as it is incredibly useful. I spent hours checking out the walking pages for ideas for long and short walks on the islands. We followed a number of these including Hillswick Ness, North Roe, Culswick, St Ninian’s Isle, Eshaness and Hams of Muckle Roe. They were all good paths and excellent hiking with cliffs, sea stacks and arches around every headland.
Getting off what Shetlanders call The Mainland [the main island] is easy. There are daily inter-island ferries to the northern islands, Yell, Unst and Fetlar and to Whalsay and Bressay on the east. There are also regular sailings to Skerries, Papa Stour, Foula and Fair Isle.
Reading some of Ann Cleve’s Shetland series or watching the TV series before you visit could be a fun part of your planning. It will in no way prepare you for the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the community but they are great stories.
There are wild camping spots on Shetland but do support the community campsites as these are a great chance to meet local people and support rural areas. Information about the nine campsites is on the website including the facilities they provide and cost. Some of these campsites have honesty boxes, at others a volunteer will come round for payment. We stayed at almost all the campsites and they were all good although my favourite was the Burravoe Pier site on Yell. We spent a few days in this picturesque spot, walked and cycled from here and just watched the sea. I also loved camping at the village hall at North Roe where there are no facilities except for water and electric. We had it to ourselves and sat in the evening sunshine listening to snipe drumming overhead. My post about Scottish campsites is here.
A slow pace
My top tip is don’t dash around Shetland, even if you are only there for a few days. We explored the islands for three weeks and this felt good but we could easily have stayed for longer and even after so long there were still things we didn’t get round to seeing.
Taking it slowly will give you chance to find your own special corners. There is a main road along the length of Shetland’s Mainland but you will want to turn off this road to explore the single-track roads that often end at the sea, which is never far away. Stopping and watching the sea was one of our favourite activities, the views change with the weather and tides. If you are lucky and patient you might spot seals, otters or orcas.
Experience the slower pace of life in Shetland and give yourself time to talk to people. We found that Shetlanders still practice the art of conversation and many of them willingly and generously shared fascinating stories with us.
Find at least one of the cake cupboards. These are roadside places to buy yummy fresh cakes with an honesty box. We visited the Cake Fridge at East Burrafirth and the Emma’s Cake Corner in Hoswick many times. For a full list.
Buy the Shetland Times on a Friday and check out which village halls are offering Sunday Tea or Sunday Lunch and get along. In the winter, the lunch is soup and sandwiches and cake for a fixed price. In summer there is an offering of homemade cakes, quiche, sandwiches and more, each item a small amount of money. All this is washed down by constant refills of tea or coffee. Sitting at communal tables you will get a chance to chat to some more Shetlanders. The money raised generally goes to a good cause or to support the village hall.
You can also buy Shetland milk and excellent Shetland butter in the village shops and supermarkets.
Things to see
You will probably spend lots of time beach combing and sitting on cliffs but eventually you might want to see some sights.
Take a boat trip with Shetland Seabird Tours. They take weather-dependent daily trips to see the birds around Noss and have early bird dawn trips too. We never got to see the birds on Noss as on the day we were booked the orcas were around and we had an amazing hour watching them hunting the bays. Whatever you see, you will enjoy a great trip with a knowledgeable crew.
A trip to Mousa to see the best preserved broch in Scotland [and anywhere] is another must-do. This is a short boat trip and walk to the broch. You can also visit at night, leaving around 22.30, to see the storm petrels returning to their nests in the broch. This is a unique Shetland wildlife experience.
Visit Jarlshof, the site of human settlement for around 4,000 years near Sumburgh Airport. With examples of buildings from Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Norse and medieval eras this is a complicated and fascinating site.
If you have a wet day spend it in Lerwick. After browsing the shops and cafes, visit the bright and modern museum on the quayside where you will learn so much about Shetland and its history. A trip to the Town Hall to see the colourful stained glass windows that tell stories from Shetland’s history is also worthwhile.
The Tangwick Haa Museum at Eshaness will give you a useful overview of Shetland’s fishing industry and Querndale Mill surprised us with its varied exhibits, in particular the photographs of local wildlife and their Shetland names. The beautiful Burravoe Haa Museum on Yell tells more stories about fishing and local history and has an archive of wildlife photographs taken by Bobby Tulloch, a local man. The Old Haa also serves excellent tea and homemade cake.
If it is the seabird nesting season you will want to go to either Sumburgh Head or Hermaness National Nature Reserve on Unst. You might see puffins, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots or razorbills and other birds.
Some people might tell you that trees can’t grow on Shetland. Although it can be windy, this isn’t true and we visited some superb woodlands. Da Gairdins at Sand, Garderhouse is a woodland garden on three crofts that is lovingly tended by Ruby. Michaelswood near Aith is a magical community woodland to remember a young man who died. Both of these are perfect to visit on a breezy day when you want some shelter.
Find your Shetland
Everyone finds their own way to enjoy Shetland. I hope these give you some ideas to start planning your own trip. If you’ve visited Shetland and I’ve forgotten your favourite thing to do then drop a comment below.