Rebecca Hay travels around Scotland’s most northerly region - the Shetland islands.
Small is certainly beautiful in Shetland. The famous ponies are tiny and sturdy as are the sheep.
But a big brave heart is needed if you live in this wonderful spot. For the islands are the most northerly point of the UK and exactly 60 degrees north of the equator. Infact a proud local has put up signs to make sure you don’t forget!
Pride is a big thing in Shetland, it is clear people love to live here and why not.
It really is a dramatic place, teeming with attractions and wild and birdlife and all amongst some very impressive and differing landscapes.
There are links by air and sea to Shetland and we were intrigued to learn that there is even a specially adapted aeroplane to transport the island ponies around the world.
We opted for the sea route and boarded the North Links Ferry from Aberdeen for the 12 hour overnight sailing to the capital Lerwick.
The ferry also serves The Orkneys and with a nod to the Viking past of Orkney and Shetland, there is a huge emblem featuring Magnus the Viking on the side of the boat.
It’s like a well oiled machine, the vehicles and passengers are boarded efficiently and bang on time and the cabins are comfortable for the long journey ahead.
There is no time to get bored, with a cinema and well stocked restaurant, bar and shop upstairs and it is a great start to any adventure.
Sailing in at 7-30 a.m. with Ruaridh (10) and Flossie (8) we were greeted by our first glimpses of the island and Lerwick.
Five minutes after docking and we were warmly welcomed in to The Queen’s Hotel which sits on the capital’s harbour and has fabulous views across to the island of Bressay.
It is not often these days that hotels allow you in before the allotted check in time, but no such problem at The Queens.
Infact we were greeted by the cleaners, receptionist and duty manager and a warmer welcome we could not have got. Our room was right on the top floor, the hotel has no lift, so the climb keeps you fit and the views are worth it.
The hotel is old-fashioned, but in a nice gentle way and I was impressed with our room under the eaves, it was a warm haven from the cold outdoors and had nice comfy beds, a well stocked tea and coffee making facility, television and good sized bathroom with piping hot water.
There was no rest for us though, we jumped in the car and headed 40 minutes up the road to Sumburgh Head lighthouse, visitor centre and nature reserve.
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To reach the furthest place south without getting your feet wet, you pass the airport and much to the children’s delight, drive across the runway!
After a steep climb up in windy conditions, we arrived and met Jane Outram, who first visited Shetland for three weeks and is still there 13 years later.
Millions have been pumped into this spectacular spot and RSPB nature reserve and the tour of the lighthouse and its rooms is fascinating and gives a real insight into the hard life the keepers and their families lived and also the important role Sumburgh played in keep Britain safe during World War II through its radar operations. And it is also famous for its big red foghorn!
The centre also has monthly artists in residence who are given a chance to enjoy the natural beauty of the scenery and boy what views they have from the café’s sweeping panoramic window.
In the summer the area is full of friendly puffins and seabirds and the cliffs covered with swathes of pretty coloured flowers and if you are lucky enough, you can stay in one of the lighthouses’s cottages and enjoy all from your bed. Not far from the lighthouse is the historic Jarslof settlement, which dates back 4,000 years and was home to Neolithic people until the AD 1600s. It was here my Didriksons Celine parka came in to its own.
It was a cold and windy day, but the parka, which is 100 percent water and windproof, was a match for the weather, especially with its fur trimmed hood.
The parka is the latest in the Swedish firm’s latest outdoor gear and comes in a variety of colours with other styles available for men and women. Now cared for by Historic Scotland, Jarslof is a well preserved site and has survived so far from falling in the sea and you can see oval shaped Bronze Age houses, an Iron Age broch and wheelhouse, Norse long houses, a medieval farmstead and a laird’s house dating from the 1500s.
More culture was to be found at the Shetland Museum and Archives which sits on the restored historic Hay’s Dock in Lerwick It is crammed full of lots of history and artefacts and is a fascinating insight into the life of the islanders. It was a good introduction too as the next day we were treated to a tour of the island by crofter James Tait of Island Trails.
James is proud of his roots and he was excellent company, taking us around the islands and stopping to show us the main sights.
Local knowledge is king and the tours are a brilliant way of getting a real feel for a place. We stopped off at Quendale Mill, built in 1867 to produce grain for the crofters.
Run by volunteers, the mill is a great place to enjoy a step back in time, looking at old farm machinery and the water wheel. Our favourite sights on James’s whistlestop tour, were to the former capital of Shetland, Scalloway, a lovely village with an ancient castle at its centre, the site of the Norse parliament, spotting seals basking on the beach and best of all, St Ninians Isle Beach, which has a natural sand causeway and was where several years ago a haul of Viking treasure was discovered in an old chapel.
James also took us to see a former oil rig, big and up close and which is the first to have been sent for decommissioning on the islands. Shetland, like Orkney has no trees, which means you can experience brilliant sweeping views of areas and no more so that at Eshaness, which has been blasted by the full force of the North Atlantic to reveal a stunning array of stacks, blowholes and narrow inlets. On the way to Eshaness we stopped off to see Mavis Grind, a 33 metre wide strip of land which divides the mainland between the Atlantic and North Sea.
Fishermen used to take advantage of this by fishing on both sides in one day without all the hassle of having to travel too far. Shetland and its people have enjoyed the benefits of the oil industry, with parts of the profits from the Sullom Voe refinery being ploughed back into the community through leisure centres and sporting facilities.
But as with many stunning places, it’s a mixture of beautiful landscape, happy locals and much to see which keeps drawing in the visitors and thankfully Shetland has this in abundance!
Transport: There is something exciting about reaching a destination by sea even when Storm Orphelia is in town. We survived the tail end of this storm thanks to the sturdy North Links ferry M.V. Hrossey which provided a smooth crossing from Aberdeen to Lerwick and back again. North Link Ferries provides the crossing to Shetland by sea and the ships with their magnificient emblem Magnus the Viking keep you safe and allow you to enjoy five star treatment onboard with well equipped cabins, restaurants, a cinema and shop and lots of public seating areas. For up to date fares and timetables, log onto www.northlinkferries.co.uk
Accommodation: There are plenty of options accommodation wise. We chose The Queens Hotel in Lerwick, perched on the edge of the harbour. Built in 1860, it started off life as three lodberries, an enclosed courtyard which leads into the sea. Now it is a great hotel to stay in, its old-fashioned and there is no lift, but the staff are lovely and welcoming, the rooms comfortable with great views and all the mod cons a traveller needs. Breakfasts are hearty too with lots of local produce available and its central location means it is a great place to stay. For latest deals, log onto: www.shetlandhotels.co.uk/queens.htm
Activities: One of the best ways to see a place when you are short of time is to visit with an experienced guide. We were lucky to gain the services of James Tait, crofter, accountant and guide all rolled in one! James is a mind of information and clearly loves his home in Shetland and his tour is well thought out and fun too. Check James out via: www.island-trails.co.uk
Tourist Information: There is much to see and do in Shetland and the friendly staff at the visitor centre in Lerwick are happy to help you plan. Also check out www.visitscotland.com; #Scotspirit, 2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology and 2018 Year of Young People.
Gear: One thing about Shetland is the unpredictable weather. It’s famous for its wind and rain, so I was lucky to be wearing the 100 per cent wind and waterproof Celine parka coat from Didriksons. And I was as snug as a bug in a rug. Brilliant coat to take with me and it certainly kept me dry in all weathers. Log onto www.didriksons.co.uk to find your nearest stockist.
This story originally appeared in our sister title, The Blackpool Gazette.