The most northerly of Britain’s island groups, Shetland is so far removed from the rest of the UK that it usually appears as an inset on maps. Although relatively little known to those from outside the islands, Shetland is a magnificent terrain for walkers, especially those who love to really explore and get away from the beaten track. The coastal walking here includes some of the finest in the country, with superb cliffs, towering sea stacks, caves and natural arches seemingly around every corner.
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The most northerly of Britain’s island groups, Shetland is so far removed from the rest of the UK that it usually appears as an inset on maps. This archipelago of around 300 islands and skerries lies as far north as St Petersburg or Anchorage, and is almost 1000km north of London but only 643km south of the Arctic Circle. Although relatively little known to those from outside the islands, Shetland is a magnificent terrain for walkers, especially those who love to explore and get away from the beaten track. The coastal walking here includes some of the finest in the country, with superb cliffs, towering sea stacks, caves and natural arches seemingly around every corner.
Added to this is Shetland’s better known claim to fame for its spectacular seabird colonies – huge gannetries, moorland packed with Arctic and great skuas, Arctic terns in the more sheltered spots, and everyone’s favourite – the puffins. The islands also enjoy a dense population of otters, many seals, and a chance to see killer whales or other giants of the deep. Beyond all this natural grandeur, Shetland’s history is fascinating, too. The archaeological attractions are much less known than those on Orkney, but sites such as Jarlshof have preserved remains from prehistory right up to more recent times. These include Iron Age villages, chambered cairns, Viking longhouses, Pictish carvings and circular stone Iron Age towers, or brochs as they are known. The most impressive and complete of these in existence is on the island of Mousa.
Although most of these walks are termed moderate, much of Shetland is remote and many of the routes are pathless and can be rough underfoot. Choose sturdy footwear and carry waterproof clothing. The summary at the start of each walk should help you choose what will be appropriate. The sketch map accompanying every walk is meant as an outline guide rather than a navigational aid, so for all but the most straightforward routes an Ordnance Survey map is essential.
Scotland has fantastic access rights, some of the most progressive in Europe, thanks to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. This gives walkers the right of access over most land away from residential buildings and gardens. It is balanced with a set of responsibilities set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, full details of which can be found at www.outdooraccess-scotland.com, where there is also some useful advice on wild camping. In Shetland sheep and cattle often graze on unfenced land or in fields along the route of walks, and ground-nesting birds are abundant; therefore, dogs must be kept under strict control, especially in spring and early summer and whenever livestock is present. Even an encounter with a friendly dog can cause a ewe to abort a lamb and there have been cases of sheep being driven over cliffs by free-running dogs. Keep well away from cows with calves if you have a dog.
Shetland is served by overnight vehicle ferries operating seven days a week between Aberdeen and Lerwick; crossings take either 12.5 hours (direct) or 14.5 hours (with a call at Kirkwall on Orkney), depending on the day. Although the crossing is long and can sometimes be rough in the winter months, the boats are very comfortable with good facilities. Alternatively, the main airport for the islands is at Sumburgh at the southern end, which has daily flights to Inverness (via Orkney), Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh and also twice weekly to Bergen in Norway. Once on the islands the road network is very well maintained and away from Lerwick traffic is light. Bus travel requires advance planning, but does reach some surprisingly remote corners. Within Shetland the islands are connected by ferries run by the island’s council. Mainland, Yell, Unst, Fetlar, Bressay and Whalsay are all linked by regular vehicle ferries – with the charge usually made in one direction only. Papa Stour and Out Skerries are further out and day visits are possible only on certain days each week. Reaching Foula and Fair Isle requires more planning – daytrips are only possible by air on certain days each week. These need to be booked well in advance and, like some of the longer ferries, are often cancelled at short notice, depending on the weather.
History and culture
The earliest evidence of human habitation in Shetland dates back to beyond 4000bc and the islands are very rich in prehistoric sites. The Norse – previously raiders – began colonising the islands from the 9th century and their culture soon came to dominate. The West Nordic language, Norn, was still spoken here up until the 19th century. Orkney and Shetland became a Norse Earldom, but in the following centuries Scotland grew increasingly interested in the islands. Ongoing hostilities culminated in the Battle of Largs in 1263 in Ayrshire, with the eventual outcome that Scotland took control of the Hebrides, though Orkney and Shetland remained Norse at first. By the 15th century, Denmark controlled Norway and King Christian I ceded both Orkney and Shetland to the Scots as a marriage dowry – with the condition that they could be bought back by his heirs. The islands became a part of the Scottish Kingdom and all subsequent attempts by the Danes to redeem them were ignored. Regardless, the connection with Norway has remained strong. When Norway became an independent country again in 1906, Shetlanders sent a letter to the King stating: ‘Today no foreign flag is more familiar or more welcome in our voes and havens than that of Norway, and Shetlanders continue to look upon Norway as their motherland, and recall with pride and affection the time when their forefathers were under the rule of the kings of Norway’. Perhaps the best known celebration of this Norse heritage today is in the Up Helly Aa fire festivals. These are held throughout Shetland in January, with the largest and best known in Lerwick. The ceremonies only actually date back to the late 19th century, but have now grown to be the islands’ major cultural event. A different man each year is chosen to be the ‘Jarl’, and his squad of followers is elaborately dressed as Vikings. Other squads wear a variety of different costumes, and all take part in a torchlit procession which culminates in the torches being thrown to set alight a replica Viking longship. Afterwards each of the local halls are visited, where all-night parties are held, with each squad performing an act – a dance or song which is usually a humorous take on local events or current affairs – and then taking a turn on the floor with the female audience members, making the ceilidh band earn its crust as they are kept playing till dawn. Fishing has long been central to the islands’ economy and remains important today, with further employment in agriculture, renewable energy and tourism. But it was the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s that enabled Shetland to avoid the economic decline that has affected some other remote communities. The massive oil terminal at Sullom Voe is the largest in Europe and taxes from the oil revenues have been paid into a charitable trust to help fund local public services.
Outside Lerwick accommodation is fairly scarce, but there is a range of bed and breakfasts, hotels and self-catering cottages, as well as several hostels and campsites. There is also an expanding network of stopovers with facilities for campervans. Peculiar to Shetland are camping böds which offer low-cost and very basic self-catering accommodation, usually in restored historic buildings – the name böd meaning a building used to house fishermen and their gear.