UK SCOTTISH ISLES NORTHERN LIGHTSAnchored in the North Sea, the Shetland Islands are the northernmost outpost of Scotland, a rugged archipelago consisting of over 100 islands, rich in history and culture. These exotic islands, far off from the hustle and bustle of the country’s largest cities, are a delightful escape complete with nature’s wonders and beautiful wildlife.

Inhabited for over 6000 years, the Shetlands were once under Norse rule, accounting for many of its street names which remain today. In 1469, the islands were gifted by Christian I as security against the payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, who was to marry James III of Scotland. Because the money was never paid, the islands remained under the crown of Scotland ever since.

The Shetlands' extreme northerly latitude gives rise to very long daylight hours in summer- locally called Simmer Dim - and if you are lucky, spectacular displays of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, in winter.  This phenonemon is caused by the earth's magnetic field bending of the electrically charged solar wind into high altitude oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules.  Collisions with oxygen atoms results in a green light emission, whereas collisions with nitrogen atoms gives off a blue colour.  These colours appear to dance around like coloured curtains as the magnetic field directs the solar wind onto different atmospheric regions.  The best conditions for observing the Northern Lights is on crisp winter nights between 10pm and 3am. 

The largest of the Shetland Islands is Mainland, home to Lerwick – the capital and main port of the archipelago which is Shetland’s only burgh. Shetland’s picturesque rugged coastlines and rolling hills enjoy an oceanic climate with long, mild winters and short, cool summers.

Locals speak with a Scandinavian accent and are proud of a culture that reflects their Scottish and Norse heritage, especially showcased in their traditional music. Gastronomy in Shetland is largely known for its local seafood, beef and lamb dishes and the Valhalla Brewery, Britain’s northernmost brewery that produces real ale.
Cycling is common in Shetland when the weather is fine but not advised in harsh weather conditions as shelters can be hard to find. You can hire bikes in Lerwick from Grantfield Garage [North Rd (Lerwick), Tel. +44 1595692709,, per day/week £5/£30]. Bus timetables and routes are available at any tourist office across the islands.  



SHETLANDS Northern GannetsHome to the National Nature Reserve of Hermaness [] on Britain’s most northerly peninsula, the island of Unst (pop. 700) is rich in flora and fauna and beautifully punctuated with coastal cliffs and charming villages. The Reserve inspired Unst’s most famous resident, Robert Louis Stevenson to pen Treasure Island.  Its cliffscape and sea stacks are the spectacular habitats for over a hundred breeding Puffins, Gannets. Fulmar and Guillemat, and its hinterland holds the worlds second largest colony of Great Skua.

Sitting on a sheltered bay,
Haroldswick is Unst’s Viking district, and was named after Norway's King Harald. Unst Boat Haven [Haroldswick, Tel. +44 1957711809, ad/ch £2/free] near the heritage centre showcases the maritime history of the island including replicas. Look out for the Viking longboat.

The Hermaness Visitor Centre [Muckle Flugga Shore Station 2 Haroldswick, Tel. +44 1595711278,] near the entrance of the reserve will provide you with tips for wildlife spotting. A 6.5-kilometer walk from the reserve’s entrance takes you to the cliffs where puffins like to hang out. Gannets, guillemots and fulmars nest here and skuas nest nearby, sometimes guarding the path. These creatures won’t dive at you unless disturbed so make cautious, un-threatening movements. From the cliffs you’ll see Muckle Flugga and Out Stack, Britain’s northernmost point.

Baltasound is Unst’s capital and its largest settlement.  A century ago it was defined by its massive herring industry, but this has now almost entirely collapsed.  Turning off from the main road to Little Hamar, look out for the curious bus shelter [] where locals have left an armchair, a TV, flowers, novels and an old computer to keep you occupied while waiting. Don’t forget to sign the visitor’s book!

The Valhalla Brewery
[Baltasound, Tel. +44 01957711658,, £3.50 (tours)] up north is a fine example of a back-shed brewery producing Britain’s most northerly ales.

From Belmont in the south, hop on the free 25-minute ferry service from to Fetlar or the 10-minute service to Yell where you can take another [Tel. +44 1957722259, prices vary] to Mainland.


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Isle of Unst:  1. Hermaness Nature Reserve  2. Haroldswick  3. Baltasound  4. Muness Castle  5. Belmont

The fertile island of Fetlar (pop. 70) is a popular stop for locals and tourists, commonly known as “The Garden of Shetland”.  The northern part of the isle is a RSPB reserve which is home to breeding species such as the Arctic Skuas, Red-throated Loons, Whimbrels and Red-necked Phalaropes. This important breeding site is closed from May to August.

Fetlar, which has an international selection of shipwrecks that include Danish, Dutch, English, German and Soviet vessels, is divided in two by the huge Finnigirt Dkye (Funzie Girt), an ancient wall that runs from North to South which is believed to date back to the Mesolithic period. It is widely believed that the island gets its name from the Old Norse term “fetill” meaning “strap” suggesting that it is “two islands strapped together”.

The island has a shop but no petrol is sold. Ro-ro ferry services are operated from Hamars Ness.

Shetland Islands Merlin- Britain's smallest bird of prey WikipediaYell (pop. 960) is the second largest of the Shetland Islands that is great for hill walks and seal-and otter-watching. Inhabited since Neolithic times, the island was under Norse rule from the 9th – 14th centuries before landing under the Scottish rule. A transport hub for the neighbouring islands of Fetlar and Unst, Yell is also connected by ferry [Tel. +44 1957722259] to Mainland.

Visit the Old Haa Museum [Burravoe, Tel. +44 1957722339, admission free] to learn more about the local history, complete with curios such as pianos, and ships in bottles. This former 17th-century merchant’s house is also a visitor centre.

The remote island sits well with the resident population of otters who breed on its peaty shores and the little colonies of seabirds around the coast. In summer, look out for wading birds, divers and skuas. 


Shetland Islands Viking boat Flickr mrpattersonsirAbout three quarters of Orkney’s population are residents of Mainland, where an eventful history has left behind several significant archaeological sites, and fertile grounds provide sustenance to wildlife and the thriving archipelago.
Mainland, whose eastern part curiously resembles the shape of the letter “W”, is linked to southern islands of Orkney via the Churchill Barriers, increasing accessibility to these isles from the north. Western Mainland is part of one of the 40 National Scenic Areas of Scotland.

The three most significant of Mainland’s settlements are Kirkwall – the capital and traditional seat of the Bishop of Orkney, Stromness – an established seaport owing its growth to the expansion of whaling, and Finstown on the main road from Stromness to Kirkwall.

The cliffs of Eshaness are a photographer’s heaven up against the crushing waves of the Atlantic, north of Shetland Mainland. Well known for its iconic lighthouse, the headland offers unbeatable views of its natural surroundings both inland and out as sea. “Eshaness” means “Ash Ness” in Old Norse, a reference to the ashy volcanic rock that forms the dramatic cliffs.

Eshaness Lighthouse [Tel. +44 1595-694688,] is an hour’s drive from Shetland’s capital (Lerwick) and a lovely choice for cozy accommodation, especially on a stormy night. Atop on the cliffs of the headland, the romantic lighthouse offers views in all directions and is warmly decorated with old photographs, treating guests to a showcase of its bright history. For more on Eshaness’ social history, the Tangwick Haa Museum [Tangwick, +44 1806503389,, admission free] will charm you with its collection of black-and-white photographs and fascinating knickknacks.

Photo-worthy sights include Dore Holm – a small islet off the south coast with a high arch that resembles a horse drinking from the water, the Drongs – a series of granite stacks rising from the sea in St Magnus Bay and the Holes of Scraada – a collapsed cave system northeast of the lighthouse.


SHETLANDS Lerwick Sailing BoatsLerwick
Lerwick  (pop. 7,500) is the bustling cosmopolitan capital of the Shetland Islands resting some 160 kilometers off mainland Great Britain’s northern coast. Owing its development to the fishing trade, Lerwick enjoys cool weather all year round that complements blue-caressed shores and a wonderfully Scottish culture.

The only burgh of Shetland, Lerwick’s port busily serves fishing boats, ferries and vessels of the oil industry. The cloudy town gets its name from an Old Norse term meaning “bay of clay” and evidence of human settlements in the area date back some 3000 years. In the 17th century the first official settlement of Lerwick was founded on the west side of Bressay Sound as a herring and white fish seaport that enabled trade with the Dutch. Today, the town is home to one of Europe’s largest pelagic fish factories and is a preferred stop for cruise liners in summer.

The ferry terminal [Holmsgarth Road, Tel. +44 8456000449] is a 20-minute walk from the town centre and the bus station [Tel. +44 1595694100] is on Commercial Road. The nearest airport is about 50 kilometers south of Lerwick in Sumburgh.

The contemporary-looking Shetland Museum & Archives [Hay's Dock, Tel. +44 1595-695057,, admission free] offers a comprehensive and engaging display of the area’s history including local mythology and geology. Amongst the museum’s prized possessions are The Pictish carvings and replica jewelry. Also fascinating is the boat-building workshop where carpenters restore and recreate traditional fishing vessels.

Fort Charlotte [Commercial Street, Tel. +44 131-6688831, admission free] is a five-sided cannoned Artillery Fort that keeps watch over the town of Lerwick. Once a strategic point to watch out for Dutch invasions, the fort now serves as a base for the Territorial Army.

The fortified Clickimin Broch [admission free] is set on a small loch, appearing to be set apart from modern-day Lerwick. A little more than 1 kilometer from the town centre, the large monument was occupied by ancient settlers from the 7th century BC to the 6th century AD.

Across the harbour from the centre is the Böd of Gremista [Lower Hillhead, Tel. +44 1595695057, admission free], the birthplace of Arthur Anderson which once served as the headquarters of a fish-curing establishment. The building now houses the Shetland Textile Working Museum and is operated by volunteers.  Annual themed exhibitions are held here.


Scalloway (pop. 1,200), the Shetland Islands’ ancient capital which sits on the North Atlantic coast of Mainland is now a modern fishing village whose heart is its busy harbour. The village nestles the creepy remains of the once majestic Scalloway Castle [Castle Street, Tel. +44 1595880243, admission free] from the 15th century. The castle is usually locked but you can borrow a key from the Scalloway Hotel nearby. The Scalloway Museum [Main Street, Tel. +44 1595880675, admission free] is a good stop for culture enthusiasts. Highlights include the Shetland Bus displays, and boats that were used to smuggle people during WWII.

In January, the annual Fire Festival takes place, involving a procession of torch-bearing guizers who follow a Viking longship or galley through the village to Port Arthur. Here, the guizers sing traditional Up Hella Aa songs and fill the galley with their blazing torches before setting it out alight into the sea. 

Sandwick (pop. 800) besprinkled in South Mainland may not be as pretty as others in Shetland but it provides a great settling for a relaxed getaway.   The village’s town hall (Carnegie Hall) is host to occasional local performances and the pier at Lebitton sees an annual sailing and rowing regatta. Book in advance for a day or night boat trip [Tel. +44 1950431367,, prices vary] to the island of Mousa, an RSPB serve which is home to some 7000 breeding pairs of storm petrels. The island is also home to Mousa Broch, a popular nesting spot for these nocturnal birds.  


Often stumbled upon, the little village of Sumburgh (pop. 100) sits on the southern tip of Shetland’s Mainland near the archaeological site of Jarlshof [HS, Tel. +44 1667460232, £4.70]. Spreading over 3 acres, the latter contains remains from 2500 BC up to the 17th Century AD, showcasing a complex of archaic settlements – the oldest being a stone village of oval huts from the Bronze Age. Above this rise brochs and wheelhouses from an Iron Age community, preceding the contrasting longhouses of a Viking settlement higher still. Crowning the site is the Old House of Sumburgh from the 16th century – named ‘Jarlshof’ in Walter Scott’s novel, The Pirate.

Not far off, Old Scatness [Dunrossness, Tel. +44 1595694688, ad/ch £4/£3] is another historical site that sits well with kids. Guides costumed in Iron-Age wear lead tours around the area which was discovered in the 1970s during constructions to improve airport access. Admission tickets to the two sites go for 20% off collectively.

Easily spotted from Jarlshof, the cliffs of Sumburgh Head rising some 100 meters nestle colonies of razorbills, fulmars, guillemots and puffins. Topped by a lighthouse, this RSPB reserve is also a good spot for dolphin- and whale-watching. Consult the car-park notice board for more on recent sightings. Just north of the head is Sumburgh Airport [add, Tel. +44 1950460905 / +44 1950461000,].


SHETLANDS BressayWest of Noss, the island of Bressay (pop. 400) lies east of Mainland Shetland across Lerwick, seperated by Bressay Sound (Lerwick Harbour). The fifth largest of the Shetland Islands, Bressay boasts some 11 lochs – the largest ones being the Loch of Brough and the Loch of Grimsetter.

The island which is reachable by ferry [Tel. +44 1595743974, prices vary] from Lerwick is easy to explore on foot and great for cycling.

The rocky headland at the south entrance to the harbour nestles the 19th-century Bressay Lighthouse [+44 1595694688,], a famous Shetland landmark that offers accommodation from £50 a night.

The Bressay Heritage Centre [Tel. +44 1595820368,] near the ferry terminal in Maryfield hosts annual exhibitions on Bressay’s history. Highlights include the neighbouring Bronze Age Burnt Mound.

Walk to the eastern shore of Bressay Sound to see Gardie House, the iconic residence of the noble Scott family that was the subject of Wendy Scott’s 2007 publication, Gardie: A Shetland house and its people.

There is a church [Tel. +44 1595692125] near the island’s west coast close to the marina.


Once inhabited, the Isle of Noss across the Noss Sound from Bressay is now a sheep farm and has been a National Nature Reserve since 1955. In 1851, the island was home to a population of about 20 but no permanent inhabitants have remained since 1939. The former settlement was located on the lower west side of the island at Gungstie, a name meaning “landing place” in Old Norse. Developed in the 1670s, Gungstie is now used by seasonal wildlife wardens who guard the reserve. Probably the main attraction here on Noss is the Noup, a stunning cliff (180m) on which Gannets, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills nest. You’ll also see Arctic Skuas and otters around the island.

The Isle of Noss is accessible from Bressay via dinghy [Tel. +44 8001077818, £3] but you should phone ahead as the wardens do not operate them in certain weather conditions.


Foula (pop. 30), the most westerly of the Shetlands, is an island of wild sheep, ponies and seabirds rising from cliffs in the Atlantic. Built upon the fishing, farming and crofting trades, the island attracts nature-loving travelers who love island wildlife and peaceful getaways. Owned by the Holbourn family since the early 19th century, Foula was the film setting for the movie The Edge of the World – Michael Powell’s first major project.

In 1752, Foula remained on the Julian calendar while the rest of the UK adopted the Gregorian calendar, but because it did not observe a leap year in 1900, it is now a day ahead of the Julian calendar and 12 days behind the Gregorian calendar, effectively living in a time of its own. Christmas Day on the island falls on January 6th and New Year’s Day is January 13th.  The island’s name translates to “Bird Island” befitting for a home to a variety of avian species including the world’s largest colony of Great Skuas.

The Shaalds of Foula (Hoevdi Grund) is a reef that lies just over 3 kilometers east between Foula and Shetland Mainland. This infamous reef rests a few feet of the surface, making the area dangerous for ships. The island also nestles the highest of Shetlands’ cliffs like Kame and the pillars of the Gaada Stack on the north coast. The only beach on the island is on the east coast at the tip of Ham Voe.


1. Unst  2. Fetlar  3. Yell  4. Mainland  5. Bressay  6. Noss  7. Foular

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