Tags: bressay, broch of mousa, crude oil, fair isle, fetlar, foula, lerwick, mousa, muckle roe, norse, out skerries, papa stour, scalloway, Scotland, Scottish islands, Shetland, st ninian's isle, sumburgh head, tombolo, trondra, unst, Up Helly Aa, vaila, walls, west burra, whalsay, yell
You know that bit of Scotland that the BBC weather forecast maps never know how to squeeze in and Sky News forecasts chop off all together? Well that is Shetland. I bet those forecasters have no idea that there are 100 isles in the archipelago and over 100 sandy beaches. Did you? Or that the capital Lerwick is closer to Bergen in Norway than Aberdeen? Welcome to Shetland, perhaps Scotland’s least known corner, the distant isles I am writing this blog from.
I flew into Sumburgh in the south of the ‘mainland’, a fitting arrival as I swooped in over the remarkable old Viking settlement at Jarlshof, a sweeping sandy beach and Sumburgh Head, an RSPB reserve alive with all manner of seabirds, before bouncing down on to a massive runway that was built when the isles’ oil and gas boom kicked off.
This was Shetland in a nutshell, a land of ancient Vikings, puffins and modern oil fields, but what also struck me leaving the airport was the epic beauty. Ok so there are no Munros or massive lochs, but you are never more than 4km from either the North Sea or the Atlantic Ocean. At Mavis Grind you can throw a stone between them! This semi-submerged land of rugged hills, moody moorland and brooding voes (the local sea lochs) boasts a charm that instantly beguiles.
Beyond the natural attractions the imprint of man comes across strongly in the vibrant local cultural scene, never more so than in this Year of Creative Scotland. The annual Up Helly Aa festival in January is a well-known celebration of the islands’ Viking heritage. Lerwick’s waterfront also boasts the strikingly modern Shetland Museum. I spent a whole morning at this brilliantly conceived and curated space that really brings the Shetland story alive with myriad exhibits covering over 6,000 years, from period costumes through to hulking full size fishing boats. Their Hay’s Dock Café is my favourite place to eat in town and I enjoyed local smoked salmon and a steaming bowl of Shetland mussels with a view of the island of Bressay.
The Mareel, an ambitious new arts space next door, is set to take Shetland’s already lively music and performance arts scene to another level. It has been much delayed, but is finally set to open later this summer.
Already open is the Craft Trail. The islands are dotted with all manner of creative types and this brings them together. I spent a day popping between the galleries and workshops. One of my favourites was on the dreamy isle of Burra. Here Burra Bears started off as one woman band Wendy Inkster. She recycled Fair Isle wool off cuts and unwanted clothes into strikingly patterned bears. Her business today is a larger and slicker affair, but the same attention to detail remains.
In the south in Sandwick is another talent whose attention to detail comes through her paintings. Painter Ruth Brownlee’s epically dramatic landscapes bring out Shetland in her mightiest colours and moods. When I was in town the ever creative Brownlee also had her paintings in a cosy wee pop up gallery in Lerwick. All very Shetland.
From Sandwick I took the Mousa Ferry to the Isle of Mousa. After circumnavigating an island alive with seals, gannets, artic terns and fulmars I am here now settled into Mousa Broch. This ancient fortified dwelling is the best preserved of its kind in Scotland and also boasts a colony of storm petrels. Local rumour has it that it inspired the broch in Disney-Pixar’s Brave!
As the night draws in the broch has come alive with the calls of the young chicks in the cracks and crevices as their parents sweep back in with their dinner. This is just one of the sublime experiences on offer in this sublime archipelago. If you’ve never been or just fancy going back I’d thoroughly recommend a trip to Scotland’s most distant isles.