Jarlshof Prehistoric & Norse Settlement. Photo: Sophie Whitehead.
As you read this, I will (hopefully) be sunning my weary legs on a beach in the Adriatic, or exploring a medieval town’s backstreets. The reality is, I’ll probably be trying to rub sun cream into sandy skin, stickied with ice-cream while wondering if it’s an acceptable time to order a large glass of sauvignon blanc. As I was planning the holiday, I found myself ‘googling’ “best things to do in Croatia” and realised that this is what many Shetland visitors will also be furiously googling before any trip to our islands. So, I have put together this guide to the ‘Top 7 in Shetland’ for visitors. These are all outdoor activities for varying abilities (and most can be tailored into a shorter or longer experience depending on interest and/or ability). I should also say that this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather it gives an idea for ‘something to do’ for every day of a week-long break.
1. Mousa Broch
Mousa Broch, an imposing 2,000 year-old structure, built during the mid-Iron Age.
Did you know that Shetland has over 120 broch sites and that Mousa represents the best example of a broch anywhere else in the world. That’s a fact.
Many people ask about brochs; what they are, what they were used for, and why we were building them. In a nutshell, a broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, built in the mid-Iron Age. They are unique to the north and west of Scotland and archaeologists are still not agreed on what their purpose was. Were they defensive structures? Agricultural grain stores? Homes for high-status members of the community or bolt-holes in times of strife or trouble? Perhaps we will never know? What we do know is that they have a unique construction; built with a double-wall, giving an inner and outer wall with a staircase between the two, leading to the top.
These trips are amazing, the culminating in a magnificent spectacle of nature all played out under the shadow of the 2,000-year-old broch. If you want more info about this, I wrote about it here.
Mousa has it all; archaeology, geology, hiking, wildlife and much more. I will write a longer blog about this one soon but, for now, add it to the ‘must-do’ list for your Shetland adventure.
2. Jarlshof Prehistoric & Norse Settlement
Jarlshof from above; this fascinating site spans 5,000 years of human history in Shetland.
Anyone who follows me on Instagram will know that I harp on about this site all the time. I am more than a little obsessed with Jarlshof (meaning the Earl’s House, and so coined by Walter Scott in his book The Pirate).
Jarlshof makes it onto this list because as far as archaeological sites go – and we’ve got them in abundance – this one literally has it all. It has an (almost) uninterrupted chronology spanning 5,000 years of human history in Shetland – not something to sniff at.
Deep in thought at Jarlshof. Photo: Sophie Whitehead.
The site, maintained by Historic Scotland, will take visitors on a tantalising journey from the Neolithic (New Stone Age), through the Bronze and into the early, mid and late-Iron Age. The journey then changes with the arrival of the Vikings and a period of Norse settlement begins. Society during this time changed on unparalleled levels from anything that had gone before. From there, visitors visit the Medieval (Norse) and the arrival of Scottish landowners.
The site is open all year round, although the Visitor Centre is only open May to September, and information can be found here.
Jarlshof truly is unmissable. It is the largest multi-period site in Europe, and your journey will take you through Shetland’s entire ‘human’ story.
3. Lerwick’s Old Town
Lerwick waterfront; get lost in the rich history of Shetland's fascinating capital town. Photo: Susan Molloy.
This is another favourite of mine; I absolutely love the town that I am blessed to call home. Do I feel like a traitor to my Scalloway roots? Yes, I do, but bear with me.
Lerwick, is a relatively new town, certainly in European terms as it only began to grow from the 1600s. Before this, Scalloway, six-miles to the west, my home town/village, was the economic and legislative centre in Shetland. Lerwick grew quickly throughout the 18th- and 19th-century and by the 1830s was firmly established as the capital in Shetland, overtaking Scalloway.
Lerwick, Shetland's capital town. Photos: Susan Molloy.
Spending an afternoon getting immersed in Lerwick’s streets, lanes and architecture is bliss – in fact, that’s how I spent most of my second maternity leave. Explore the waterfront and surrounding town; look for Jimmy Perez’s house, paddle on Bain’s Beach, take in the views from Fort Charlotte, gaze at the Town Hall’s windows, take a coastal walk around the Knab or simply enjoy some retail therapy on da street (Commercial Street). There is no shortage of ways to enjoy Lerwick.
Hermaness Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland.
Hermaness is a walk to the edge of the world, or at least to the edge of the UK. Barren and wild, this is the most northerly point of Britain. Dominated by the imposing Muckle Flugga lighthouse, precariously perched where the sky meets the sea and solans (gannets) and bonxies (great skuas) rule.
Some views from Hermaness & Muckle Flugga, Unst, Shetland.
The walk is aided by a boardwalk, weaving through dense moor before the smell of the sea, the cacophony of the birds and landscape opens up revealing views across the vast-nothingness of the Atlantic in all her glory. Standing on the edge of the cliffs, knowing that there is nothing between you and North America is quite something. I wrote about the walk here.
5. St Ninian’s Isle
St Ninian's Isle sand tombolo in Shetland's South Mainland.
Picture-perfect St Ninian’s Isle is unmissable, even if it is just for a quick photo on the way to the airport. St Ninian’s is the image that adorns most of the glossy mags advertising Shetland and, the vast sand tombolo, linking the island (St Ninian’s) to the mainland is an impressive sight at over 50-metres long. Take a walk, paddle in the sea, pick up a stone or shell and listen as the water laps onto the sand at either side. In the summer, this is an excellent place to watch tirricks (Arctic terns) feed as skootie Alans (Arctic skuas) chase them, twisting and turning mid-air, till they divulge their food.
If you want to explore a little further then go onto the island and walk to the Chapel site (interpretation panels at the beach will guide you). The 12th-century chapel was excavated in the 1950s and was the site of a remarkable discovery. Schoolboy, Douglas Coutts, helping archaeologists on the first day of the summer holidays uncovered a sandstone cross-incised slab which, underneath, contained a box filled with 28-pieces of highly decorated silverware and the jawbone of a porpoise. Nobody knows why this treasure, dating to the 9th century, was buried and why it was never recovered; perhaps we never will, but it is well worth the walk.
Some of the coastal views on St Ninian's Isle. Note the island of Foula on the image on the right.
Also on the island, take a walk to the south-west corner and marvel at the geology – layers of sandstone – on the cliffs and stacks and spend a quiet moment tracing the flight of a maalie (fulmar).
6. Culswick Broch
Approaching Culswick Broch on Shetland's West Mainland.
This one is a little off-the-beaten-track but is one of my favourites for archaeology, dramatic landscapes, solitude and wildlife.
Culswick Broch is tucked away in the corner of Shetland’s West Mainland, park at the signs for the broch in the deep valley of Culswick and follow the dirt road. By road, the walk is about 3 miles (4.6 km), and the broch is the pièce de résistance at the end, commanding views across much of the West Mainland.
Views across Sottersta and out to sea beyond, on the Culswick Broch walk.
A broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, built during the mid-Iron Age these structures are unique to the north and west of Scotland. Archaeologists are still debating their purpose and use but, for me, the beauty of the broch lies in the mystery and intrigue that these impressive buildings evoke.
I wrote more about the Culswick broch in a blog post that you can read here.
Eshaness cliffs on a breezy winter day.
No guide to Shetland would be complete without mentioning the impressive cliffs at Eshaness. The cliffs that form part of the Eshaness circular walk are part of an ancient landscape formed by the blast of a volcano millions of years ago and is one of the many reasons why Shetland is a Unesco Geopark.
The Grind o' da Navir, Eshaness.
The walk here takes you right through the flank of the volcano and along the way you will encounter lava-flows, geos (long, narrow inlets), collapsed sea-caves (Hols o’ Scraada) and the Grind o’ da Navir, an impressive natural amphitheatre carved out by the power of the sea. On the way back, take a moment to explore the ruined watermills and 2,000-year-old broch that stands in a ruinous state in loch close to the Hols o’ Scraada.
The Hols o' Scraada, Eshaness.
So that’s me, a quick guide to seven unmissable Shetland experiences that will enrich your visit and make you dream of coming back, time and time again. And for me, it’s back to the suncream and sauvignon.
The Lodge in Fetlar; the perfect rural retreat in Shetland.
In early August we stayed in an award-winning self-catering cottage in Fetlar. The Lodge sits tucked above the shore, overlooking Lambhoga, and won the 2019 Lux Life’s most Tranquil Accommodation award. And wow, what a spot. As you drive into Houbie, the heart of the island, The Lodge comes into view. Nestled in the shadow of the impressive, if imposing, Leagarth House to which the Lodge was built to serve; originally as a gardener’s cottage for the early-20th-century mansion. The Lodge was built in 1900 for then-owner Sir Watson Cheyne, a pioneering surgeon who grew up in Fetlar.
Fetlar; the perfect place to get-away-from-it-all.
Fetlar, one of Shetland’s three North Isles has endearingly been known as the ‘Garden of Shetland’ since Norse times, and it’s easy to understand why. The stunning landscapes, fertile valleys and diverse geology give rise to the most incredible display of flora and fauna. As we walked through the island, I was amazed by the array of flowers; scented meadowsweet, wild angelica and hogweed, vibrant bog asphodel, sunny buttercups, carpets of eyebright and creeping willow, and, a personal highlight for the whole family, young and old – heather berries.
Bog cotton, bog asphodel and meadowsweet in Fetlar.
Today Fetlar has a population of 60, with two new families set to move into the isle before the year is out. We were joined on the 25-minute ferry crossing from Yell by one other car – the ‘shop’ car. The Landrover was stacked to the rafters with boxes marked ‘Fetlar shop’, having made the weekly journey to the mainland, bringing vital supplies to the island. The shop is in Houbie, just up the hill from The Lodge, and is very much the centre of the community here. Well-stocked and friendly, I think we sold them out of both ice-cream and Lerwick Brewery’s ‘Tushker’ beer (and I can only apologise to the residents who were left disappointed after a long day in the sun to discover that their local shop was out-of-stock!).
Loch of Funzie, Fetlar.
Despite being a remote and picturesque getaway, Fetlar has not been without its share of problems over the years. In the 19th century, the landlord (laird) evicted many of the tenant farmers from the land to make way for large-scale sheep farming and the island never really recovered. By the 1990s the population was at an all-time low. So it’s heartening to hear that new life is coming to the island as new families, and life, move in. The clearances undoubtedly left many scars on the community, mostly in the form of ruined houses and homesteads; homes once filled with warmth and happiness, reduced to gloomy ruins with empty hearths. I wrote about this last year, and you can read about it here.
Views from the front door of The Lodge across the Wick of Tresta and Lambhoga.
Fetlar has been inhabited for about 5,000 years, and it has been argued that the first Vikings in Shetland arrived in Fetlar, although Unst could well dispute this claim! One thing is clear, as you walk through the island, the hand of ancient man is all around you, and if you tune the eye to the landscape, you can read it like a book. The story of Fetlar is the story of Shetland’s broader past.
Getting to Fetlar
Fetlar is relatively easy to get to, although ferry booking is advised. The journey involves two crossings; from Toft (Mainland) to Ulsta (Yell), and then Gutcher (Yell) to Hamars Ness (Fetlar), often with a drop in at Unst to pick up more passengers en route. To get to Toft, follow the A970 from Lerwick then the A968 towards Mossbank. The first crossing takes about 15 minutes. Allow half an hour to travel through Yell towards Gutcher. The final leg, Gutcher to Hamar’s Ness, takes 25 minutes on the ferry.
Fetlar ferry at Hamar's Ness.
The Shetland Islands Council operates Shetland’s network of Inter-Island ferries, and timetables and bookings can be made here.
The Lodge, situated in Houbie, Fetlar.
The Lodge, Houbie
It’s hard to fault the accommodation provided at The Lodge. The setting is so serene and relaxing that it’s little wonder it won an award for tranquillity this year. The Lodge itself is a three bedroom self-catering cottage that is well kitted out and thoughtfully renovated. It oozes serenity and calm, and the pastel-coloured wood-lined walls throughout the house give the place a soothing sense of peace – sure to relieve any stress or anxiety.
There are two doors; one at the front of the property with off-road parking, and one at the back that leads onto the main road. But don’t fear, traffic is not an issue here, and the roads are quiet. We used the door at the front of the house, a sunny spot with breathtaking, uninterrupted views out to sea. My only criticism here is that the freshly mowed grass presented a never-ending problem as little feet trooped in-and-out the house in a flurry of grass-cuttings. As a result, I was continually sweeping grass from the house. A path to the front door or a mower with a grass box would provide a simple solution.
The house is well-equipped with everything that you might need during your stay; well-stocked kitchen, wifi, TV, information, games and books and the glorious views across the Wick of Tresta.
Houbie, Fetlar, with Leagarth House in the foreground and The Lodge behind.
A weekend in Fetlar (some ideas for your stay)
I have written a lot about Fetlar; last year, I wrote two blogs about things to do in Fetlar that included:
Returning this year, we stroked off a few more ‘must do’s’ from the list from an island which has a tremendous amount to give.
Houbie, Fetlar, with views to Leagarth and The Lodge.
Houbie itself has a lot to offer within a stone’s throw of The Lodge. Fetlar Interpretive Centre is just across the road, offering a glimpse into the island’s history, culture, tradition, people and folklore. It is well worth spending an afternoon as there is a lot of information to get through. A testament to the quality of this community-run museum is its four-star Visit Scotland rating.
Fetlar Interpretive Centre, Houbie.
The Centre is open from May to September (Monday to Saturday 11 - 4 pm; Sunday 12.30 - 4 pm).
Also in Houbie, just beside The Lodge is a beautiful, sandy beach, complete with a 19th-century stepped pool system, designed to encourage trouts to breed in the stream. The beach has a pier and slipway, and we spent every evening of our stay in wetsuits exploring the shoreline and bay beyond.
The beach at Houbie, beside The Lodge, with the trout pools on the left.
Coastal walk from Houbie to Tresta
Houbie is an excellent location to explore every corner of Fetlar, and we began our stay by walking the coast between Houbie and Tresta before returning to The Lodge via the main road.
Walk distance: 5 miles
We began at the Lodge, following the coastline to Tresta Beach. This part of the walk is 1.5 miles and incorporates stunning scenery, geology, archaeology and cliffs.
Along the way, in Dammins and Clemmel Geo, we discovered a steatite quarry with bowl-shaped carvings and initials engraved in the rock face; documenting years of human history in this area.
Steatite/soapstone workings in Fetlar.
Steatite, better known as soapstone, is a soft rock that is extremely easy to carve. It has been used here since prehistoric times; Neolithic people using it to temper pottery. The Viking and Norse settlers later arrived, using it for almost every conceivable purpose in the home and beyond. Steatite/soapstone is synonymous with Norse occupation in Shetland, and its use can be traced all through the North Atlantic. It’s a topic that is close to me, and it formed the basis of my masters thesis, exploring the rise of fishing in Shetland. The thesis tracked the growth of our mainstay industry from Norse times, using the artefactual finds – steatite line-sinkers – as evidence. Outcrops of this versatile rock are found in various places throughout Shetland; notably Unst, Fetlar, Fethaland and Catpund.
Steatite/soapstone items in Shetland Museum. (l-r) line-sinker; toy quernstone; loomweights.
Moving on, we rounded another headland and came on more archaeology; more evidence of Fetlar’s past people. Standing proud on the edge of the cliff sits the Broch of Houbie; a 2,000-year-old Iron Age structure, cloaked in mystery and intrigue. These towers of the past, erected in the mid-Iron Age, still cause archaeologists to stop and scratch their heads, wondering at their purpose and use. The broch, like most of the other 120 broch sites in Shetland, now stands in ruin, but the ramparts are still visible. The conical-shaped mound, rising from the landscape is sure to stop you in your tracks and wonder for a while. We had a picnic here, gazing out over the Wick of Tresta, watching the maalies (fulmars) in their elegant flight, soaring high in the thermals on a warm southerly breeze.
Broch of Houbie; note the ramparts on the right. Hansi and Lena stand on top of the now collapsed structure. It has commanding views across the Wick of Tresta.
The next part of the walk takes you around to Tresta Beach, where the church and Papil Water come into view. Sheer cliffs, geos and caves punctuate the coastline here, and the path between the fence and the cliff-edge can be narrow in places. This is where we happened on the grumpiest crofter (farmer) I think I have ever met. With many profanities and gesticulations, he tried to clear us from his land – concerned, I suspect, that we were going to drive his sheep and lambs over the cliffs. He needn’t have worried. Growing up in Shetland, we are well aware of how to respect the countryside and everything in it. It was just a shame that the children had to be subjected to such ill-temper and bad language – scaring them as we proceeded to the beach.
Tresta Beach coming into view with Papil Water behind.
For anyone concerned about walking the countryside in Shetland, you needn’t be. We have the ‘right to roam’ here, meaning that you can freely explore as you wish. The only requirement is that you respect the land, leave gates as you find them, take away your rubbish and keep dogs on a leash if sheep are around. It is worth bearing in mind that some areas can be dangerous; with sheer cliffs, overhangs, bogs and ground-nesting birds, it is worth doing your homework. I did write a blog about staying safe in the outdoors in Shetland and you can read that here.
Papil Water, Fetlar.
From Tresta beach we walked around Papil Water, skirting past a colony of bonxies (great skuas) who eyed us with as much suspicion as we gave them. Both parties – us and the bonxies – keeping a respectful distance from the other. Incidentally, this is one of the best trout lochs in Shetland. We then re-joined the road and made our way lazily back to The Lodge with little feet beginning to tire and belly’s rumbling.
Bonxies (great skuas) taking off from Papil Water, Fetlar.
Tresta Beach, Fetlar.
This beach deserves a special mention. Outstandingly beautiful, picture-perfect and flanked by the steep slopes of Lambhoga, it commands uninterrupted views across the Wick of Tresta and the North Sea beyond.
Not only is it outstandingly beautiful, but it is also one of five beaches in Shetland to have been awarded a prize in the Keep Scotland Beautiful beach awards in 2019.
The bairns had a ball playing in the crystal-clear turquoise water while we adults enjoyed the picnic benches and a cold beer just above the sand.
Whiling away an afternoon on the beach was no hardship as the wildlife provides a never-ending drama performance overhead. I was most heartened to see scootie Allans (Arctic skuas) – a cousin to the larger bonxie – swiftly flying around. They were chasing tirricks (Arctic terns) and bonxies – their agility, a real sight to behold as they danced above the ebb-stanes, keeping their pursuers at bay. I idly watched a family of dunters (eider ducks) gingerly make their way across the sound, avoiding detection and staying close to the shore. The mother keeping her young close as the acrobatic terns and skuas swooped and dived overhead – nature’s fighter jets fighting for supremacy.
Coastal walk from Tresta to Lambhoga peat shed
This was predominantly a hill walk rather than a coastal walk, although it could be done as a coastal (longer) route. The walk took us four hours but could be achieved much quicker – we stopped along the way to pick heather berries, admire the views and picnic.
Walk distance: 4.5 miles
For this walk, park at the Tresta beach and walk along the beach to the other side where you will find a path/old road that makes the steep passage up the side of Lambhoga. From here, there are spectacular views across the Wick of Tresta, back to Papil Water and Tresta Beach and across to Houbie – and The Lodge, our home for a few days.
The track that we followed continues for about two miles up the hill and inland. On the way, we were distracted by the glut of heather berries. Sweet little bursts of tangy delight, a proper taste of Shetland’s summer. (These are now at home soaking in gin for Christmas). We picked enough to satisfy our needs, leaving enough behind for the birds who depend on this essential late-summer food source.
Searching for heather berries in Fetlar.
As you scale the ridge of Lambhoga, spectacular views across to Yell – Mid Yell and Aywick – emerge. We tracked the passage of a sailing boat heading north through Colgrave Sound and marvelled at the beautiful flush of moorland colour as the bog asphodel transformed boggy depressions into carpets of vibrant, sunshine-coloured flower.
The track that leads through the hill is very boggy and wet in places. Long neglected, the former peat road weaves haphazardly through the bog. After a wet summer, even my Gore-tex hiking boots failed me as brown, peaty water soaked through to my toes, slowly warming in the heat.
The path is very wet in places on the walk to the 'Peaty Hoose'.
The reason for following this track was to see the “Peat Shelter” at the end of the road. Described by Peter Guy in his Walk Shetland series (1991) as a “derelict shelter” where “peat cutters could rest from their labours in the nearby [peat] banks, now disused. During the ‘flitting’ of peat (bringing home) workers of both sexes lived in such ‘peat hooses’ amongst the peat banks”.
My family were pretty unimpressed when I announced that I had found our target; a tumbledown shack, with nothing more standing than part of the corrugated roof and a few empty lemonade bottles. Peter Guy had more luck, saying that: “A plank covered bed-space occupied at least half the space at one end of the ‘hoose’. Thirteen such houses still existed here in the 1960s”.
The 'Peaty Hoose' in Fetlar that I dragged the family to. It has seen better days!
Nevertheless, it was a fantastic spot for a picnic, with panoramic views across the east side of Yell and mainland Shetland, with the Noup of Noss standing proud on the southern horizon.
I tried to wade through the heather that Peter Guy says “elephants could graze”, in search of the ruins of a croft, but the bonxies won the day, and we were forced to turn back to the safety of the ‘peaty hoose’.
It felt like a forgotten place, ruled by the bonxies that glided overhead, diving on us now and again, reminding us that this was their territory and we were trespassers.
It was lovely to bring Grandad along too. Even if he did insist on wearing his hankie on his head to protect from the sun!
Our three days in Fetlar came and went too quickly. The Lodge provided us with the perfect base for exploring and a relaxing place to kick off our boots and wetsuits at the end of the day, with sun-kissed faces and weary legs.
Despite having visited two years on-the-trot, there is still so much to see, do and explore. I left feeling, again, like we had merely scratched the surface of this tantalising little island, tucked away off the north-east coast of Shetland. Next summer, when we return, I will certainly be booking back into The Lodge.
If you too would like to stay in The Lodge, bookings can be made here.
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