Travel: Heritage and wonder at Orkney and Shetland

A Shetland pony
A Shetland pony
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A warm welcome is assured on Orkney and Shetland, where thousands of years of history is never far away

HEADING for a land where Old Norse rather than Gaelic cropped up on everything from the name of our ferry to road signs was a clear signal we were off to a very different part of Scotland.

Lerwick town center under a blue sky

Lerwick town center under a blue sky

It is easy to forget that Shetland, often squeezed into the top corner of maps, is very far north – closer to Norway than the central belt.

So it was not surprising that on arrival we found the islands as reminiscent of their Scandinavian neighbour as other parts of Scotland. Scanning Lerwick from the top deck of NorthLink’s Hjaltland (Shetland in Old Norse) ferry after our overnight crossing, we saw the first of much Norwegian-style architecture – brightly coloured, weather-boarded homes and other buildings. Beyond the town there was barely a tree on the bleak heather and peat hillsides. But they do contain a welcome sight – those lovable Shetland ponies.

Hunting for a suitable photo opportunity after collecting our vehicle from Bolts Car Hire at the ferry terminal, we soon found the perfect spot, in a lay-by on the back road (B9073) to Scalloway, where the offer of tufts of grass quickly had them trotting over to say hello.

Another main attraction is the coastline, such as around Meal beach on West Burra, on the west coast just a few miles from Lerwick.

Skara Brae, Orkney

Skara Brae, Orkney

It was one of the many we could have chosen but among the handiest from the town. We marvelled at the force of the waves breaking on the white sand on even a relatively calm day.

Trying to cover as much distance as much as possible during our 24-hour stay, Shetland’s well-maintained roads worked to our advantage – with smooth surfaces and few potholes. We drove as far as the narrowest point on Mainland, Mavis Grind. Well, with a name like that, it had to be investigated. The quirky title – Old Norse for gate of the narrow isthmus – does justice to its nature. A strip just 100ft wide, it is possibly the only place in Britain where you can throw a stone overland from the Atlantic to the North Sea.

Returning to Lerwick, we stayed in the historic centre, its grand stone buildings belying a population of just 7,500. We stayed at the Rockvilla Guest House, which for our children was handily opposite the King George V Playing Fields, which has a wide range of play equipment in addition to being the site of the Viking ship burning during Up Helly Aa in January.

Owners Jeff and Anona gave us a warm welcome and useful advice for our stay after showing us to the spacious en suite family room. Our evening was rounded off in the relaxed, family-friendly Fjara (Old Norse for beach) Cafe Bar on the waterfront, for tasty burgers, mussels and scallops.

Ring of Brodgar in dramatic evening light

Ring of Brodgar in dramatic evening light

Our four-night Northern Isles trip, as guests of Serco, which runs NorthLink, had started in Aberdeen with a six-hour evening sailing to Orkney.

We were treated to armchairs and sofas in “first class”, as our ten-year-old son called it – otherwise known as Magnus’ Lounge. The ferry equivalent of an airport executive lounge also provided, to his delight, free soft drinks and snacks all the way. Alcohol vouchers are also included, which gave my wife the chance to sample the local gins, with Caithness-distilled Rock Rose declared the favourite.

Arriving in Kirkwall at 11pm, Albert and Aileen, our hosts at the Karrawa Guest House, had helpfully arranged a taxi as there is no rank at the ferry terminal, two miles out of town. Another spacious family room awaited us, with the couple’s friendly service extending to phoning to check places were open to visit.

Compared to Shetland’s rugged beauty, Orkney is more rolling farmland, not with ponies but cows – and lots of them. There’s also quite a contrast in Orkney between Second World War relics like the 75-year-old Churchill Barriers – concrete causeways blocking Scapa Flow from German submarines – and the Neolithic structures dotted round the islands which were built 5,000 years ago.

This is vividly illustrated at Skara Brae, a village on the west coast uncovered in an 1850 storm, with a time-travel countdown on the path from the visitor centre highlighting it’s older than the Pyramids.

Even more dramatic are the standing stones of the nearby Ring of Brodgar, built 500 years before Stonehenge.

However, the most memorable of the ancient sites was the Tomb of the Eagles, near the southern tip of Orkney on South Ronaldsay. This chambered cairn is well worth the mile-long coastal walk, with entry gained through its tiny entrance hole by lying back on what’s effectively a wide skateboard and pulling yourself in by rope.

The full gruesome story of how bodies were prepared for the tomb – complete with mock-up – is told at the visitor centre. Excarnation involved leaving the dead in the open air for the skeletons to be picked clean by eagles, and some of their talons were discovered among the bones.

Finding something nearby to get our own teeth into proved no problem – with the glass-walled Skerries Bistro boasting an amazing seascape across the Pentland Firth to match its delicious fish and seafood. However, even that was topped by their divine apple and strawberry crumble.

Our October visit came just days before the bistro shut for the winter, when several other top-rated cafes and restaurants were already closed, which is worth knowing if visiting out of season.

Also, if travelling to either Aberdeen or Lerwick by sea, the Lerwick ferry terminal doesn’t open until 9pm and you don’t board until after 11pm, so you’ll need to find somewhere to spend the evening. The Kirkwall Hotel provided just such a haven in its spacious bar.

On board, we had a comfortable four-person inside cabin with fold-down bunks and en suite including shower. Breakfast is served until 9am so you don’t have to disembark at the crack of dawn.

Our whistle-stop trip just scratched the surface of the islands, whose lure will doubtless soon beckon us north to explore further.

Twitter: @AlastairDalton

• NorthLink Ferries (northlinkferries.co.uk) sail nightly between Aberdeen and Lerwick, calling at Kirkwall en route 2-3 times a week. Adult fares £54-£82 return, range of berths from £112 return for a two-person cabin, cars £218-£292 return, Magnus Lounge adults £18.50 one way.

• Rockvilla Guest House (rockvillaguesthouse.com), 88 St Olaf Street, Lerwick, from £40 per person per night.

Fjara Cafe Bar (fjaracoffee.com), Sea Road, Lerwick.

• Karrawa Guest House (karrawaguesthouseorkney.co.uk), Inganess Road, Kirkwall, from £30 per person per night.

• Skara Brae (www.historic-scotland.gov.uk), Sandwick KW16 3LR, adults £6.10-£7.10.

• Tomb of the Eagles (tomboftheeagles.co.uk), Liddel KW17 2RW, open March-October, adults £7.

• Skerries Bistro (skerriesbistro.co.uk), adjacent, open March-October.

• Kirkwall Hotel (kirkwallhotel.com), Harbour Street, Kirkwall.