Up Helly Aa galley burning following the Viking procession. Photo: Jon Pulley.
Up Helly Aa is almost upon us and you can feel excitement levels in the town growing as people make ready for, what is to some, the social event of the year. Up Helly Aa, despite what is often believed, is not an ancient festival passed down from Norse times, but it is a festival with its roots in Shetland’s Victorian era. And like any proper Victorian soiree, theatrical pomp and ceremony were allowed unbridled power to shine.
Up Helly Aa’s roots can be found in the 19th-century tradition of ‘tar-barrelling’, a practice which saw the town’s young men rolling burning barrels of tar through the narrow streets of Lerwick. This was banned in 1874 as it was dangerous and caused damage to local properties and humiliated the law-enforcers who were often tricked by the rowdy youths and locked into an endless game of ‘cat-and-mouse’. It has been argued that following the Napoleonic Wars, the men returning had developed a taste for firearms and so began the tradition. In the past, Shetland followed the Julian calendar long after the rest of the world adopted the Gregorian calendar. Christmas was held on the 5th January, New Year on the 12th and Up Helly Aa (or Uphellia) was held 24 days after Aald Yule, on the 29th January. However, the act of tar-barrelling might occur on any of these occasions.
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.
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.
Commercial Street, Lerwick on a busy summer day.
A beginners guide to Shetland
You’ve read the travel guide? Great. You’ve seen the Shetland TV series, even better; now read a real guide from a local. Delve a little deeper into the fascinating culture of the place I call home: Shetland.
Our island’s culture and tradition is unique and distinctively ‘not Scottish’ – if that’s a thing? We’ve only been part of Scotland for 550 years so don’t expect to find any haggis, kilts or bagpipes here.
So, for those arriving here for the first time, I’ve compiled this little Survival Guide – a beginner's guide to Shetland, if you will. It’s by no means comprehensive and should be taken a little tongue-in-cheek, but here you go:
A sheep at Hermaness, Unst.
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to stand on the edge of the world? When I was little, I had big dreams. Dreams of sailing away to far-flung places in the world, but as I grew older, my career advisor told me that that wasn’t possible. “You can’t sail around the world,” she said. Despite this dream-shattering moment, I often find myself thinking about the vastness of the world, and our place in it, as I gaze out over the rolling North Atlantic. We are but one small cluster of islands – a rock – rising proudly from the sea. Standing on the point of Hermaness looking across to Muckle Flugga gives an incredible sense of place. With the Arctic to the north and Newfoundland to the west – it feels so much more.
Muckle Flugga lighthouse. The most northerly point in the UK.
The Lang Ayre, Northmavine. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
If a Munro is a small mountain, then a Marilyn is a small Munro. And a small-small mountain is exactly what we climbed (and some) a few weeks ago. I was invited to join a lovely group of folk on a hike to the Lang Ayre in Northmavine in Shetland’s North Mainland. The Lang Ayre was a bucket list goal of mine, the long walk which takes in the small-small mountain, Ronas Hill – the highest in Shetland – is one that I have been meaning to do for years.
The stunning Lang Ayre in Shetland's North Mainland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
Morning light in Shetland's west mainland.
I often read Peedie Peebles’ Summer or Winter Book by Mairi Hedderwick to my bairns. They’ve both loved it; and so did I when it was read to me as a child. This illustrated children’s book looks at the antics of mischievous toddler, Peedie Peebles, as he goes through the trials and tribulations of being little, following him through summer and winter. Importantly, it highlights the differences between the seasons – the endless summer light and sunshine masterfully illustrated in watercolour with clear blue skies, and gardens dripping in flowers and light, bursting with life and energy. It then shows the same domestic scene, played out in winter, with its darkness and storms, fraught tempers battling the realities of perpetual light deprivation.
A summer day at the Hams of Roe (note the hat!).
I’m always reminded of the words of my great-grandmother when thinking about what to wear; her words still echo in my head as clear as though it was yesterday. “Nivir cast a cloot, till da munt o’ May is oot” were the words she – and many before her – said. And it’s true; we still experience cool weather in May.
Wrapped up and layered up against the elements at Eshaness in winter. (Photo: Sea Kayak Shetland)
Looking down Whalefirth, Yell.
Shetland is peppered with beautiful old buildings, and none are more evocative and thought-provoking than some of our old church buildings that are found dotted around the islands. Once seats of spiritual worship and ecclesiastical power, many are now privately owned and have undergone refurbishment. Varda self-catering, situated on the island of Yell, is one of these.
All photos courtesy of James Irvine.
With summer just around the corner, many of us are dusting off our bikes and hitting the roads (or pavements). I spoke to James Irvine about his experiences cycling in Shetland. Many people ask me about cycling here, and as I’m more of the cycle-around-taking-Instagram-videos kinda cyclist, I thought I’d better consult an expert on this one.
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.