Shetland is at the crossroads of the North Atlantic, lying as close to Norway and the Faroes as it is to mainland UK – giving it a unique heritage and culture and a distinctive landscape.
Shetland was a part of Scandinavia until 1469 and much of this heritage is still evident today in its place-names, archaeology, music, folklore and dialect. With about 100 islands, there’s certainly plenty to explore.
The geology here is more diverse than in any similar-sized area in northern Europe. You can walk across the ocean crust, stroll through the flank of a volcano and visit the best exposure of the Great Glen Fault. Shetland is also rich in wildlife; over a million seabirds inhabit the cliffs, while inland the hills and moorland host a variety of breeding birds such as red-throated divers, waders and skuas. Many rare migratory birds are also recorded annually.
Offshore, whales, dolphins and seals are spotted and, for the lucky observer, otters abound. Midsummer sees a riot of colour, with numerous wild flowers in the fields and meadows.
The best place to start your journey into Shetland’s heritage and culture is the Shetland Museum and Archives. Set on the Lerwick waterfront in a restored 19th-century dock, the building tells Shetland’s story from its geological beginnings to the present day.
More than 3,000 artefacts from both the museum and archives collections are displayed together for the first time. Highlights include boats suspended in mid-air, world-famous textiles and a re-creation of a typical 18th-century house.
The archives searchroom, with easy access to the extensive collections, gives visitors a chance to explore Shetland’s past further, while Hay’s Dock Café Restaurant offers fresh local produce and fine harbour views. Further facilities include a shop selling exclusively designed local crafts and the boat shed, where visitors can watch vessels being built and restored using traditional techniques.
There is a programme of events throughout the year, including adult and children’s workshops, family days, films, talks, art exhibitions and conferences.
The museum supports a network of heritage and cultural sites throughout the isles, offering a real taste of Shetland. This includes local community museums; nature reserves; annual culture and heritage festivals; and some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Europe.
The most famous of these is Jarlshof, near the southern tip of the Shetland Mainland. It’s a multi-period complex whose oldest remains date back to the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. There was also a strong Viking presence at Jarlshof and some items from this defining period in Shetland’s history are in the care of the museum.
Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village is a fascinating time capsule where excavations have revealed Pictish and Iron Age settlements.
Shetland is famed for its spectacular Up-Helly-Aa fire festival each midwinter, when a full-size replica Viking longship is set alight by hundreds of torch-carriers.
Although more than 300 miles from Edinburgh, Shetland is easily accessible, with daily flights and car ferries. Shetland offers a wide range of accommodation, from camp sites with striking views to high-quality hotels. Alternatively, you can spend the night in a böd – a building that traditionally was used to accommodate fishermen and their gear.
Shetland is a destination with plenty to offer and an experience you will never forget, whether enjoying its warm hospitality or taking a midnight stroll during the “simmer dim” when the sun never sets.