Take the overnight Aberdeen ferry, dreaming of Shetland, your destination–treeless, foreboding, lashed by rain–then wake up berthed the following morning in Lerwick harbour–the islands’ capital rising over you, grey and stony.
I avoid all that slow-boat contemplative stuff by hopping on a plane, arriving with friends, one raised on Mainland, the largest of Shetland’s 100 islands.
We land at Sumburgh, near the lighthouse. Puffins swirl above the cliff-edge. Maybe they’re celebrating the brightness. The mizzle-marinated fields are bathed in sunshine. I have four days, two friends and a hire car; can we do Shetland’s Greatest Hits?
Driving north, the island at times becomes so narrow that both the Atlantic to the west and the purple-white plumes of the restless North Sea feel almost simultaneously touchable.
Lerwick looms, its stacking terraces of fine buildings and solid houses, intersected by tilting, higgledy-piggledy vennels, gaze directly towards the sea. Bedded in rock, the town feels braced against the elements, a citadel, a redoubt.
We have our own hidey-hole, an ex-council house, with views down over slate rooftops and a lamb next door on the hoof, eating half a garden….Ah, Shetland lamb.
We fight our hunger-pangs by heading for early dinner at Da Steak Hoose. The Shetland Visitor Guide gives Da Steak Hoose a decent shake, mentioning succulence, showing a photogenic picture of steak with onion-rings, posing seductively together on a plate. Riffle the pages and out fly references to fiddle music, knitwear, to Selkie adventure tours or away days spent on a herring drifter. Landlubbers, do not despair—you have the joys of Shetland’s Iron Age, its Viking traditions and castle ruins, wonderful beaches where double ply knitwear might come in handy; and do not dismiss the irresistible lure to inveterate shopaholics (count me in) of Harry’s department store, Lerwick’s answer to Harrods or Jenners.
But the jewel of discovery in the Visitor Guide is the presence of an advert for the UK’s top fish and chip shop–Frankie’s, at Brae. Tomorrow beckons.
Birdsong and lamb bleats softly waken me. The sun is out. In sunshine Shetland could easily be heaven. The Local gods, Viking or otherwise, are with us. The fine pink-stoned Customs House at the bottom of our road is selling tickets for a charity trip (in aid of the RNLI) around the islands of Bressay and Noss the following day.
Whatever direction you take is a winner. Magnetic north–home to Frankie’s, to scenes of murder on the TV thriller, ‘Shetland’, a landscape of deeply indented sea lochs, vertiginous cliffs and screams of sea birds—lures us towards Mainland’s highest point, Ronas Hill, crowned by a prehistoric burial chamber. South, and farther west, is the stunning Eshaness peninsula, hammered by big Atlantic waves. Wind-blown ponies stray over our path. “They just don’t do that,” says Anne, my companion. “They’d normally scatter.” Instead, they pose, and in the background stand the Drongs, rotten teeth of sunlit rock thrust up through the tremble of the sea. I roll the window down and….click.
Frankie’s is every chippie-fan’s dream—great ocean views seen across a table groaning with crisp golden haddock and chips, the tang of vinegar, the prompt attentive service, the generous helpings. No wonder we linger.
Sometimes trees crop up, in clusters around a cottage or near a mill, speckles of sheep on soft rocky headlands, as we slipstream back towards Lerwick, stopping for coffee at a gallery, finishing up at the capital’s Shetland Museum which celebrates the nature and maritime past across a broad arc of the islands’ millennia.
In sunset light we stroll the rocky foreshore seeing sea pinks, campion, buttercups. And there, perky and slippery on a boulder-pile, a young seal cow lollops in slo-mo, eyed by gannets; then, with a slurp, she disappears.
The following morning, south-westerly rain passes over swiftly, leaving brightness. Our afternoon ferry trip ploughs around Bressay, crammed with passengers, drinking, picnicking, swarming on deck to watch as a lifeboat tailed by a helicopter simulates a rescue manoeuvre at sea. This is the RNLI saying thanks, and proving its prowess as the ‘victim’’ is winched to safety. The thunder of rotor-blades drowns applause.
That night we see Scalloway, former capital of the islands archipelago, marked by its silhouetted castle, a ruin in stone, while we dine on Shetland’s finest produce—juicy halibut steaks and lamb—in the splendid restaurant of the Scalloway Hotel.
The town is a gem, with a great museum, the warmest people and a story to tell. The museum brings you down to earth and into the present. Local ‘characters’ and the marvellous wartime tale of Nazi-thwarting operations linked with Norway make riveting reading.
Pressed for time on our final day, we visit Sumburgh, with its puffin squadron flying daring missions around the headland to feed their young, before we explore the lighthouse’s past. Then we hurry on to Jarlshof, a well-preserved Bronze and Iron Age freeze-frame of civilisation around which we dash. “Time,” says John, “to visit St. Ninian’s Isle.” But is there?
The Greatest hits just keep on rolling—and I have barely dipped one toe in the current of Shetland’s fascinations. Like the Vikings, I will return.
Loganair flies daily from Glasgow to Sumburgh return from £366. Go to www.loganair.co.uk
North Link Ferries sail daily to Lerwick from Aberdeen. Return Travel with a car costs £380. Go to www.northlinkferries.co.uk
The Scalloway Hotel (www.scallowayhotel.com ) has double rooms at £130 per night. The Lerwick Hotel (www.shetlandhotels.com ) has doubles at £85 per night.
Frankies is outstanding for fish and chips. Go to www.frankiesfishandchips.com Traditional dining available at The Waterfront Bar, at the Shetland Hotel. Go to www.shetlandhotels.com or call 01595-695515.
What to Do:
Visit Scalloway Museum. Go to www.scallowaymuseum.org See Sumburgh Head Lighthouse Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve. Go to www.sumburgh.com Take a one day wildlife tour. Go to www.shetlandnature.net
Source : HeraldScotland