Travelling to the very tip of the British Isles is quite an adventure. You will be closer to the Arctic Circle than to London at a latitude of almost 61° N. Shetland is a wonderful archipelago whose southern tip is ~100 miles north of the Scottish mainland. If you like rugged coastal scenery, diverse bird and sea life it is worth a journey. There is a distinctive Nordic cultural heritage, truly exceptional archaeology and perhaps some of the best seafood to be found anywhere.
With a campervan, your only option will be the NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen or Kirkwall in Orkney. It is worth planning a 2 week trip in the summer months to avoid holiday crowds and the worst of the weather. The islands are exposed and you will be lucky to avoid strong winds that make the coastal scenery so dramatic.
There are numerous campsites, many which combine with marinas to share facilities. They are maintained by the local council and are clean and tidy. Unfortunately the campsite at Lerwick closed, but we were allowed to wild camp on Victoria Pier. There is a wonderful youth hostel on Unst at Uyeasound which can accommodate campers with electric hook up. A few times locals directed us to secret wild camping spots and we stayed quay side at the inter island ferry terminals, which have toilet facilities.
The Shetland landscape is really wild, so come prepared. Although we did not see Orcas, which are frequent visitors, we did see a full range of sea birds, such as Puffins, Fulmars and Gannets in great volumes. Otters are common too and you can also expect to see a variety of different whales and dolphins. Seals are common and inquisitive.
We travelled from Orkney to reach Lerwick in the early morning and travelled north to Unst, via Yell using the inter-island ferries to reach a car park to walk to Muckle Flugga, which used to be the most northerly inhabited point in the British Isles until the lighthouse was automated. The bird life here is spectacular. You can get close to a variety of sea bird cliff colonies after first dodging the Arctic Skuas on the path. Unst has a collection of most northerly features, not least the end of National Cycle Network Route 1, part of the North Sea Cycle Route, I have written about elsewhere. “Bobby’s” bus shelter is famous for being mysteriously decorated from time to time. The local hostel is superb too and an opportunity to meet like minded travellers.
Fetlar is another island worth a visit, which is a remote as can be from mainland life, even by Shetland standards. A resident Snowy Owl has since left, but gentle walks along the beaches are tranquil and full of surprises, if you just sit and observe. Yell is worth a drive around before catching the ferry to the “mainland” and driving towards the north west, passing the huge Sullom Voe oil terminal, a mainstay of the Shetland economy.
Eshaness has lovely walks, through dramatic coastal scenery, near the lighthouse. Brae is a good place to camp and stock up at a modern Co-op and to visit Frankie’s Fish and Chip shop, another “most northerly” as easily the best cod and chips I have ever had. Try the scallops too, like huge steaks.
Try to time your visit to visit any of the numerous agricultural festivals, or music festival, or rally. If you are brave enough to visit in winter, then try to see Up Helly Aa (you will have to Google that).
Further roads allow you to potter around the western mainland coast until you reach Scalloway, the second largest town. It has a great museum and a research centre, where more superb seafood is available. A large peninsula projects south west and has lovely remote beaches. You can camp at Bridge End Outdoor Centre a while away many pleasant hours exploring the area on foot or bicycle.
Further south you can find a tombolo beach connecting St. Ninians Island. This is a spectacular and unusual geological feature and the best example I have seen. It is worth crossing the sand bar to the island for a refreshing walk.
At the southern tip of Shetland you will find Sumburgh Head, just beyond the airport. Here you can visit the famous lighthouse and Jarlshof pre-historic village and see yet more sea bird life and possibilities to see Orcas and whales, cruising past the headland.
Before leaving Shetland a visit to the Museum and Cultural Centre in Lerwick is recommended before board the ferry. The collection of artefacts and the presentation of Shetland history and culture is richer and more interesting than you might expect, particularly the boat building traditions. We attended a Shetland Fiddle Festival event too to see some remarkable performances by young children, proficient in playing reels and folk songs. It is worth asking around to see what is on, as such events give a great insight into the local culture.
We hope to return again in a few years to do more walking and to explore other island that can be reached by passenger ferry. I’d like to see Orcas too as we just missed a sighting, which was right outside the Tesco superstore in Lerwick. The shop emptied apparently, as people rushed to the shoreline to see a pod hunting seals within a few metres from the road.
You can also read my experience cycling through Orkney and Shetland as part of the North Sea Cycle Route, Eurovelo 12 and National Cycle Network Route 1. If you choose to cycle on Shetland, then I hope you like strong headwinds.
The Shetland Guide Book – Charles Tait – an excellent guide which is all you need, in addition to the 1:250,000 Ordnance Survey Road Map 1 – Northern Scotland, which also covers Orkney.
The Shetland Bus – David J Howarth – the story behind the connection between Shetland and Norway during the second world war, when small fishing vessels ferried supplies, men and arms to support the Norwegian resistance.