This week in Postcard, Kate Ginn recommends the Shetland Islands, UK
Standing on top of a cliff, with the wind whipping across my face and the salty taste of the North Sea on my lips from the waves below, the journey to get here suddenly seemed worth it.
Some 160km from the nearest point of the Scottish mainland but still part of the UK, Shetland has its own unique culture and geography, making it distinct from the rest of the country.
Despite being called an island, it is in reality an archipelago – with more than 100 islands, just 15 of them inhabited – lying at a North Atlantic crossroads; where Scotland meets Scandinavia and the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.
I have been lucky enough to visit several times, for work and pleasure, and loved each trip, for different reasons. It’s rugged landscape and spectacular coastline appeals to my sea-loving nature, while the diverse wildlife, including breeding colonies of puffins (more on those later) and Shetland ponies, is equally stunning.
Due to its location, the Shetland Isles is a fascinating mix of Nordic and British influences, from its food to scenery, sparking the imagination with its rich history. This mixed heritage is evident in place names and the design of more recent buildings. Surrounded by fertile fishing grounds and oil and gas fields, the population of Shetland – around 22,500 people – has enjoyed Scandinavian-style prosperity for the past quarter-century.
My favourite place:
I’m a sucker for nature and as one of Europe’s most accessible wildernesses; Shetland is an absolute gem for discovering the great outdoors and its inhabitants. Within a few kilometres of the main port of Lerwick, you can sail in a boat right alongside seabird cliffs almost 180 metres high. My top place is the bird reserve at Sumburgh Head, where you can get up close and personal with the local puffin colony. For the uninitiated, puffins are a small, predominantly black and white bird, with a brightly-coloured orange beak and matching webbed feet, which dwell on cliffs or offshore islands. Shetland is home to around 200,000 puffins during peak season. At Sumburgh Head you can actually drive to the edge of a puffin colony (a car makes a good hide) and watch these intriguing birds in action. Patience will be rewarded with some wonderful photographs.
Shetland is not all about the puffins – you’re guaranteed close encounters with common and grey seals at some point during your trip thanks to the 2,700km of coastline and 138 sandy beaches. During one stay, we were kept awake at night by seals “singing” on the beach near our bed and breakfast home. There are also otters (albeit shy ones) and the occasional dolphin or orca (killer whale). If you like being active, you won’t be disappointed. There’s something for everyone, from mountain biking to fishing, and scuba diving to round-the-clock golf. During midsummer, the sun is above the horizon for almost 19 hours and it never really gets dark. Shetland is not just a one trick pony – although the miniature Shetland ponies are incredibly cute to interact with – and there’s loads more than just nature. The local seafood is spectacularly fresh (I recommend the king scallops or haddock) as is the Shetland lamb, and the nightlife is far more bustling than you might imagine. Famous events include the Shetland Folk Festival, in which the fiddle, a local tradition, features prominently. A host of winter fire festivals (from its Norse heritage) culminate in the unforgettable Up Helly Aa, a series of marches ending in a torch-lit procession and burning of a boat (best known as the Viking longship), held on the last Tuesday in January every year.
The weather. If you like long scalding hot days lazing on a beach, Shetland might not suit. Temperatures over 25˚C (77˚F) are rare – the highest temperature on record was only 28.4˚C (83.1˚F) – though coming from Oman, this will be a much welcome respite. Winters here can be much milder than the rest of the UK, too, making it an ideal year-round destination.
Shetland as a whole is known worldwide for its knitwear. Buy directly from the knitter for the genuine article. There are some great contemporary designs. I picked up a jumper and cardigan, which are both still going strong. Or go on the Shetland Craft Trail to see 30 workshops and studios of local artists for some unique work.
Where to stay:
Choose from hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts, hostels and campsites and camping böds (a building once used to house fishermen and now used for those who want more basic accommodation on a budget). Sumburgh Hotel has 32 rooms, half of which offer sea views. I stayed in Busta House Hotel in Brae, a 16th century building overlooking the shores of Busta Voe, a sea inlet. Alternatively, try one of the Scandinavian-style self-catering lodges.
Top five things to do:
1. See puffins at Sumburgh Head
2. Take a trip to Unst, one of the North Isles of Shetland, and the most northerly populated island in the British Isles
3. Try the local seafood
4. Visit Jarlshof, a prehistoric and Norse settlement
5. Buy a Shetland wool jumper