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.
A little about Laurie
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.