A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited. Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK. In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland. The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough. It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.
I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing. It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next. Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape. There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.
I was hooked the first time I visited. A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back. I felt in-tune with the place instantly. The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline. Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic. The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true. Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life. Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies. Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food. Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character. I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!
The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not. Shetland is also the place to see otters. The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand. You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.
Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales. One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.
There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline. Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world. There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.
Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle. Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain. I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was. It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.
If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food. Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus. There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants. I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally. On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry. He refused to take anything for the catch.
The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary. Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime. People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community. People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!
It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure. The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter. In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people. All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.
There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example. You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website http://visit.shetland.org/]
For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.