The Best Things To Do In Shetland
Bay of Scousburgh, Shetland Islands, Scotland | © Joe deSousa/Flickr
The otherworldly Scottish archipelago of Shetland has over 100 islands, only 15 of which are inhabited. Home to Fair Isle knits, soul-serenading accents and a colourful Viking past, the Shetland Isles sit almost as close to Norway as to mainland Scotland. Travel through 6000 years of history with our travel guide and get Shetland on that wanderlist.
Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement
Archaeological site, Ruins
is a goldmine of archaeological wonder with over 4,000 years of history. This patch of land was first occupied by Neolithic communities, and remained so until the 1600s. Much like its Orcadian neighbour Skara Brae
, the site was revealed after a series of ferocious storms battered the dramatic headland setting, which overlooks the West Voe of Sumburgh. Multiple ancient settlements dating back to the Bronze Age rest here, including an oval-shaped Bronze Age house, Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, Norse long houses, a medieval farmstead and a laird’s residence from the 1500s. A number of intriguing artifacts unearthed on-site await in the visitor centre.
Shetland Museum & Archives
History Museum, Maritime Museum
A must-visit attraction. Found at Lerwick’s historic Hay’s Dock, Shetland Museum and Archives beautifully illustrates the story of the Shetland Isles through the ages. The galleries are brimming with compelling exhibits and displays spanning all topics from geology and archaeology, customs, folklore, seafaring heritage, trade, industry and textiles. The Boat Shed, a star highlight where visitors can watch boats being beautifully restored, dates back to around 1900. Swing by Hay’s Dock Café Restaurant for a delicious bite, too.
Broch of Mousa
Archaeological site, Hiking Trail, Ruins
Scotland’s best-preserved broch (a tower or round house dating back to the Iron Age and found only in Scotland) has guarded the island of Mousa for centuries. Standing at 13 metres tall, the broch features double drystone walls — now favoured by the resident Storm Petrels — and a winding staircase leading to outstanding views. Located to the south of the island, it’s thought that Mousa Broch was built around 300 BCE. The broch, which also appears in Norse sagas, can be visited by boat.
The Croft House Museum
Building, History Museum
A portal to the past, the Croft House Museum is a fine example of a traditional 19th-century croft house, thatched roof and all. Wonderfully restored using traditional materials, this popular attraction in Dunrossness exists as it would have during the 1870s. The inside paints a fascinating picture of what life was like with its peat fire, box beds and traditional Shetland mouse trap. The knowledgeable custodians are always on hand to divulge the best stories about croft life, Shetland and its people.
Unst Boat Haven
Maritime Museum, History Museum
Filled to the gunwales with a compelling wooden boat collection, Unst Boat Haven
is a shrine for maritime lovers. Even if the thought doesn’t float your boat, this unique museum is guaranteed to impress with its wealth of information, photos, documents and displays that delve deep into the area’s rich social history. Open between May and September (although it will open for visitors during other months upon request), the striking assortment of expertly crafted boats each have their own individual tale, and were created in the Scandinavian style. Make sure to swing by the must-see Heritage Centre
Noss National Nature Reserve
Hiking Trail, Natural Feature
Ascending from the choppy seas like another planet, Noss National Nature Reserve is hailed as one of the greatest wildlife sites in all of Europe. The 180-metre-tall cliffs are home to thousands of seabirds, who every year return to this seabird skyscraper to nest. Visitors and bird enthusiasts can get a superb close-up glimpse of these mesmerising creatures (and the rest of the island) via a six-mile-long scenic coastal path strewn with wildflowers, starting from the visitor centre. To get there, take the hourly car ferry from Lerwick to Bressay and follow the Noss Signs before catching the SNH boat.
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve
Building, Maritime Museum, Natural Feature
A dreamy destination. Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve ticks every box and more. This world-class attraction details the history and natural heritage of Sumburgh Head, starting with the early geological days all the way to the Iron Age settlers, lighthouse keepers and vast array of wildlife known to reside in these parts. Make sure to keep an eye out for the many puffins and whales. Designed by the great Robert Stevenson (grandfather of famous Scots author
Robert Louis Stevenson), Sumburgh Head was built in 1821 with double walls to withstand the ferocious elements.
Archaeological site, Natural Feature, Ruins
A gateway to a different time, Old Scatness holds the key to a maze of medieval, Viking, Pictish and Iron Age remains. Although the site served as a settlement for centuries, it was only discovered in 1975 when Shetlanders building a road (through what they presumed to be a natural mound) stumbled across an ancient broch. Some years later, locals teamed up with experts to excavate the area, which is currently in the process of being transformed into a year-round five-star visitor centre. Highlights include a Broch and Iron Age Village, along with a selection of excavated and reconstructed buildings, living history demonstrations and tours.
Archaeological site, Ruins
Found on the fringes of Lerwick, Clickimin Broch
is a fine example of a broch. Its tower still stands reaching for the stars today, while a handful of various structures dating back to around 1000 BCE lurk close by. This striking stone structure reveals snippets of settlement over centuries, but perhaps the most curious of all is the causeway stone, with its funny sculpted feet. Many believe it dates from the late Iron Age or early historic period, and suspect it could have ties to kingship and inauguration rites.
The history of Scalloway Castle is riddled with drama and bloodshed. As the home of the tyrannical Earl Patrick Stewart, or ‘Black Patie’ (an oppressor notorious for his cruel and twisted mis-governance over Orkney and Shetland), the four-story castle was constructed in 1600 from a supposed mix of mortar, blood and eggs. Although executed in Edinburgh in 1615, it’s believed that Black Patie used forced labour to build his castellated tower house. Both a symbol of an abhorrent ruler and one of Shetland’s two castles, Historic Scotland now holds the keys to this intriguing building, which is open for visitors.
Peerie Shop Cafe
Cafe, Coffee Shop, British, Soup, $$$
You can’t visit Lerwick without dropping by the Peerie Shop Cafe, a converted lodberry behind the Peerie Shop on the Esplanade. (‘Peerie’ means ‘wee’ or ‘small’ in the Shetland dialect). This foodie institution is chock-full of homemade cakes, scones, soups, sandwiches and treats. Between the cosy atmosphere, medal-worthy staff and mouth-watering bites, this peerie gem is everything. Hot chocolate fans: brace yourselves for what’s in store.
Art Gallery, Shop
Bonhoga Gallery is one of Shetland’s many stars. Found in Weisdale Mill, upon a former 19th-century sheep farming site, this art gallery opened in 1994 after spending years as a meal and barley mill, butchery, tannery and derelict building. Bonhoga, which means ‘my spiritual home’ in the Shetland dialect, is run and owned by Shetland Arts,
and offers a wondrous programme of exhibitions showcasing the best in local, national and international contemporary visual art and craft, as well as smaller-scale exhibitions by craftmakers from Shetland and further afield. Like the rest of Shetland, all who stumble across this jewel are sure to fall head over heels for it. There’s great wee cafe and shop too.