Shetland: 5 things to know before you go

Ever since I was a little girl, I have wanted to go to Shetland. My grandmother was born in Lerwick and we can trace her ancestry to the Islands from some of their earliest records. Although she passed away when I was 10, I can still remember her soft voice and its distinct accent as she told me tales of beaches, moors, trows and selkies.

Baby me with my grandmother and great grandmother.

In May 2019, my mum and I finally took the trip up to Shetland. After years of saying, ‘we must go’ and ‘maybe next year’, we bit the bullet and booked our tickets. We had the most amazing time and although I felt we had done loads of research before we went, I still learnt so much whilst we were there, and I thought I would share that here. Links to places mentioned are at the bottom of the post.

1. It takes a long time to get there

Despite it being part of the United Kingdom, it still lies 110 miles north of the Scottish mainland. If you live in Aberdeen, Shetland is easy to get to, however if you live in the South of England or the rest of the world, it can be a little trickier.

My journey went as follows.

Midnight Monday, caught the bus to Bristol Airport, (2 hour flight delay). Flew LoganAir, Bristol to Aberdeen and arrived early Monday morning. Bus from Aberdeen airport to Aberdeen city centre. Kill 8 hours in Aberdeen waiting for the ferry. Monday evening, catch the NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Arrived in Lerwick Tuesday morning. Door to door, it took 32 hours to get from South West England to Lerwick. My mum, to take advantage of cheap rail fares, left her house for Aberdeen on Sunday morning, nearly 48 hours later. You can get to Australia in the same time it takes get to Shetland.

Me and my mum in our pods on the Northlink Ferry

I am sure if you are lucky, depending on location and budget, you could just take two flights in one day and you’d be done, (for example London to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Sumburgh, but you still have to get to London, wait for your connecting flight, travel up from Sumburgh to Lerwick). Also bare in mind that just as it takes a long time to get to Shetland, it can take a long time to get home. I can’t give exact times as we flew Sumburgh to Edinburgh and then had a 2 night stopover in Edinburgh to see some family, I then flew Edinburgh to Exeter.

Bottom line, be prepared for hours of travel, and factor this into your time off. If you only have a weekend then chances are you won’t be able to go and actually see anything before its time to turn back around again, however don’t let that put you off, its amazing and well worth it.

Beautiful Shetland, view from Lerwick harbour

2. Hire a car

We were unsure how good the transport links around Shetland were going to be. We knew there were buses and also a lot of ferry links between the Islands, and we thought it might be challenging, but once we actually got to Lerwick and were about to move on to stay for a few days in Yell, we decided that hiring a car would be easier, and I am so glad we made that decision. By hiring a car, it completely took away the time restraints of relying on public transport, and it also meant we could stop off at little places and beaches that maybe if we were using buses we would have had to miss. Honestly it was a game changer. We explored every nook and cranny of Yell and Unst and spent as long or as little as we liked wherever we were. The car also provided a welcome shelter from the unpredictable weather.

Gorgeous West Sandwick beach, which was sunny when we arrived, but that front absolutely soaked us in minutes!

On recommendation from my third cousin, we hired a small car from Bolts Car Hire. They were comparatively and reasonably priced, and allowed us to end our hire at Sumburgh as opposed to handing the car back in at Lerwick. Tip- there are not many petrol stations on Shetland so keep an eye on your fuel tank, and watch out for the wind!

Shetland is a windy place!

3. Plan your meals

This may sound ridiculous, and trust me there are some amazing places to eat in Shetland, but you just need to be aware that Shetland does not have the same 24 hour culture you might be used to.

In Shetland, if you’ve had an amazing day exploring Unst and head back to your accommodation on the small island and then start planning what you’re going to eat, unless you’ve prepared, you’re going to go hungry. There are a couple of restaurants but they may be closed off season, or you may find yourself unable to get a seat in one of the small number of cafes open during the summer months. We were hoping to go to Victoria’s Vintage Tearooms but it was closed on our visit, we just made it to the Final Checkout Cafe in time to nab the last table before a coach load of tourists arrived.

We also spent 3 nights in Yell, and to my knowledge there are only 3 places to eat in Yell, and only one of them is open in the evening. We were lucky, we stayed at Quam B&B in West Sandwick and they provided evening meals (at an additional cost) to residents if requested the day before. On our first night there we enjoyed a roast lamb dinner, which although delicious, was a little hard to stomach after we had spent the day watching the lambs leap around in the surrounding fields! Our second two nights we bought some picnic supplies and had sandwiches at the beach. It’s also worth reminding you that there are not a lot of food shops on Yell to actually buy produce from, in fact, and though I may be wrong, I think there is only one in Aywick.

The best homemade bread and butter pudding with white chocolate and raspberries I have ever eaten in my life, from Geoffreys Cafe, Gutcher, Yell.

Basically, just plan your time and your meals. Check opening times of places you want to go to, make a reservation somewhere, or make sure you’ve bought something you’re going to be able to eat in your accommodation or out and about. Lerwick is a bit easier, it has restaurants, a Tesco and take aways, but if you’re leaving Lerwick, be prepared.

4. Pack for all weather

Here’s a genuine conversation I had with my husband before I went.

Me, “I’m going to buy a new waterproof coat for my trip to Shetland.” Him, “Don’t bother, take you’re winter coat, it’s warm and waterproof.”

It was May, I took my wintercoat, I didn’t regret it.

Winter coat and woolly hat, in May, in Shetland

Now I know Scottish weather. I spent every holiday of my childhood visiting relatives in Scotland and travelling around. As my friends holiday photos showed sunny Spanish beaches, mine were rainy days in the highlands. I lived in Edinburgh for 3 years in my twenties. I know Scottish weather; it’s wet, windy and unpredictable, but it can also have amazing days of sunshine and warmth in the spring/ summer months. I expected the same of Shetland, but following the conversation with my husband, I remembered it’s an island in the North Sea, 100 miles north of mainland Britain.

We did have some wonderful days with clear skies and beautiful sunlight. However we also had wet and windy days that made you feel cold to your core.

St Ninians tombola in the gorgeous sunshine

Pack layers that can be taken on and off with ease. If you are interested in taking some Shetland wool products home with you, there are plenty of jumpers, hats and gloves you can buy in the shops so maybe leave some room in your suitcase. My new green hat pictured above was bought from the museum gift shop in Yell, (in the village my ancestors once lived). We also didn’t bother with any ‘high fashion’ clothes, not that Shetlanders don’t appreciate fashion and a good night out, but Island life isn’t exactly the West End. Shetland is Scandinavian in its approach to life, think hygge, warmth and comfort, over dresses and heels.

5. Don’t stick to the mainland

Shetland is more than Lerwick, in the same way that England is so much more than London.

The mainland has amazing historical sites, walking trails and wildlife, not to mention beauty spots. In addition, the other Islands all have their own distinct charm and identities. If you’ve travelled all that way, you’d be silly not to make sure you didn’t miss a thing by getting out of Lerwick and having a look around.

I am writing another post on my top ten places to go in Shetland, so watch this space.

Shetland ponies, because it wouldn’t be a blog on Shetland without a picture of these beauties!

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