The Shetland Islands; Scotland’s best-kept winter secret?
Here at WOW we love spending our summers showing tourists the best that Scotland has to offer and, with 90% of tourists coming to Inverness from May – September, it certainly is a busy time! Conversely, many tourists are put off at the thought of visiting Scotland in winter due to bad weather and limited daylight. However, as our exploratory trip to Shetland last weekend proved, the combination of bright, sunny winters’ days andvery few visitors, can herald a truly wonderful winter break. Read on to find out why we had such an incredible time on our February adventure to Shetland..
For those of you who read our last blog, you will know that we spent a few days exploring Orkney in mid-January. After three bitterly cold but sunny, dry winter days finding some fantastic unexplored gems to show our guests, we left the islands feeling that we had perhaps, up until now, neglected this area of the world from our tours, in favour of the Western Isles. So, when we had a few days free the following week, we decided to venture even further north, to find out if this was perhaps another area of Scotland which merited further exploration; boy are we glad that we made this trip!
To get to Shetland, which is located 210 miles North of Aberdeen (and just 230 miles West of Bergen in Norway!) we took a Flybe flight on Friday morning up from Inverness to Sumburgh. As the flight is short, the plane flew really low and, thanks to the clear blue skies and sunshine (which we were to become accustomed to throughout the weekend!) we got fantastic views of the North of Scotland and could pick out towns and even individual sights on Orkney on our way over. Along with the six other people on the 34 seater flight, we landed at Sumburgh, on the far south of the Shetland “mainland” at around 10.30am – we then collected a hire car to begin our journey.
First of all we headed North to Dunrossness, where a walk over the UK’s largest active tombolo to St Ninian’s Isle, rewarded us with great views over the outlying islands. Keen to keep going, we then headed up to Lerwick, the island’s principal town, where we purchased some fantastic Shetland fudge then wandered round cobbled streets of the harbour area and picked up a (somewhat disappointing we have to admit) cappuccino at the Havly Café. Keen to get to our destination, we continued our journey, winding round coastal roads up to the village of Brae, where we stopped at a cousin’s house; our accommodation for the night was a recently renovated old croft house nestled back into a hill and overlooking a serene voe (voe is the Shetland term for an sea inlet). Our cousin had ordered in fish & chips for us, which was just the ticket before we headed out for our eagerly-awaited evening entertainment; Up Helly Aa.
After driving up past the hugely conspicuous, but strangely unobtrusive, oil terminal at Sullom Voe we reached the ferry port at Toft, where we boarded with our car for a half hour journey over to the island of Yell. We then drove up to the tiny village of Cullivoe, setting for the Viking festival of Up Helly Aa; a traditional fire festival which takes place all over Shetland each year in January/February. After ascertaining that the village consisted of a town hall, a Galley Shed (apparently where the preparations for the festival take place, for six months of every year!), a school and a few houses, we figured that the hall was showing most signs of life, so headed in there with a crate of beer and high expectations. We were not to be disappointed, as the only non-locals there we were quickly welcomed by the Jarl Squad; a group of incredibly hairy men decked out in full Viking gear, with axes and shields to boot. After toasting with some Fireball (a cinnamon whisky drunk like water at this time of year!) and drinking from their horn (well, it would have been impolite to say no!) we enjoyed some friendly banter with the squad one of whom, when we asked him how long he had been drinking for, replied, “two weeks”. Musicians were warming up in one corner, and meat pies were being distributed in another, whilst women rushed about organising and kids doddled around amongst it all.
At 7.30pm it was time for the main event to start and, with the help (bribing qualities?) of a bottle of whisky, we managed to get in on the action by securing a couple of flames to carry (a real honour but, given we were the only tourists there, it was a bit easier to get involved than it would have been in larger Up Helly Aa festivals on the islands!) then positioning ourselves unobtrusively..right at the front of the procession! To a chorus of cheering and Viking war cries, the Galley Ship (a longship carefully crafted by the Jarl Squad over the preceding months) was wheeled half a mile down to the pier, followed by about 100 torch bearers in squads, and most of the village too. The procession really was a sight to behold (check out the pics on our Facebook page) and we can truly say that we have never experienced anything like that before!! The whole route was lit by six foot high torches, and the heat was like nothing we had ever experienced (especially in Scotland, at night, in February!). Upon arrival at the pier the galley ship was lowered into the water and, without further ado, each person threw their burning torch onto the ship, before it was pushed out to sea; months of work, quite literally going up in smoke!
It was then back up to the school, where we had tickets to see a series of local “sketches” prepared by the procession squads. Lots of local jokes and mockery, traditional songs and fabulous costumes were the general theme for the two hour session, which was also being repeated up at the village hall. After this was finished, sandwiches and tea by the bucket-load were distributed by the locals, before we headed up to the hall for the next part of the evening..a Shetland ceilidh. Again, there was plenty of laughter and banter and we were delighted to be included in the proceedings, with the Jarl Squad now being our firm friends! We danced the night away with this hospitable crowd until 1am when, although the night was young, it was time for us to head back over on the ferry to Toft (we were in a group of 5 passengers, on a approx 144 capacity boat!) elated after our first experience of Up Helly Aa, which had far exceeded our expectations.
After such a fantastic cultural experience, could our next day top it? As it turned out, yes, but in a completely different way. On Saturday morning we woke to blue skies, sunshine and air so calm that we could see a mirror image of the overlooking hills reflected perfectly in the nearby voe. After a couple of much-appreciated bacon rolls we packed up a picnic and headed towards Ronas Hill, the highest point on Shetland. After a couple of hours’ of moderate hiking we reached the peak, where we were rewarded with a 360 degree panorama of the surrounding sea and outlying islands. We then headed north towards the cliffs, where we managed to find a steep route down the side of a river beach to a red pebble beach. Now, here at WOW Scotland, believe us when we say we have explored a LOT of beaches, but never before have we seen a beach like this; towering red cliffs cascading down to the water, fantastic rocky outcrops and a couple of seals, curiously keeping an eye on us from just a few meters offshore. After a quick dip in the icy seas (the sun glistening on the water may have helped to fool us into thinking it was temperate!) we started walking back and, after three hours, reached the car and headed back for the evening to our accommodation in Brae.
The next day, we could hardly believe our luck when, yet again, we awoke to pure blue skies and sunshine. Although it was only 6°C, the sun and the complete lack of wind really made us think summer might have arrived early, as we dandered along in our short-sleeved t-shirts! Our aim today was a coastal walk at Esha Ness, which again did its utmost to impress. A three hour easy walk along the cliffs on the far west coasts of the mainland gives fantastic views of the rock formations and towering strength of the Atlantic oceans which, in one place, has even scooped out a natural amphitheatre during the fiercest of storms.
From here, it was time to start making our way down south again, but not before a stop in Scalloway to take a look at the castle (ask for the key at the museum or hotel and you will have the run of the place to yourselves in the winter!) and enjoy a hearty roast dinner at the Scalloway Hotel. Well fed, we then headed down to Lerwick, where we called in to see some elderly relatives for a cup of tea…three hours later and we were fit to bursting (after traditional Shetland saucer meat and bannocks, and a few rather large drams for the non-drivers!) and decked out in Shetland knitwear kindly given to us by Kay’s great auntie, who knits them herself. Finally, before our early morning flight on Monday, we headed down to our accommodation near the RSPB reserve at Spiggie Loch.
After a friendly welcome at 11.30pm we, as the only guests in the delightful Setter Brae guesthouse, rolled into bed, exhausted but exhilarated after a three day trip which had far exceeded our expectations; local culture, fantastically friendly hospitality, impressive seascapes and unique coastal walks are just some of the highlights of Shetland, and we will definitely be back for more! Granted we were lucky with the weather, but it just goes to show that you just never can tell in Scotland! If you have time to come over during the winter, locals will welcome you with open arms, and we guarantee you will not be disappointed.
WOW Scotland offers Shetland tours on request, with the itinerary being customised to your interests and requirements. We would recommend that, due to the cost and time involved in getting to Shetland, you book 5 – 7 day taking in both Orkney and Shetland, to give you time to enjoy the islands (oh, and if you would like to come over for Up Helly Aa, we would not say no to accompanying you to the craziest but best festival Scotland has to offer!)