Shetland Islands

Boat off Shetland

The Shetland Islands are the most northerly archipelago in Scotland with over one hundred islands, of which fifteen are inhabited, around 160 km (100 miles) north of the Scottish mainland. Today, the local economy is very dependent on the fishing industry and public services. Although there is limited evidence of its presence, the declining North Sea oil industry is still important and tourism, agriculture and knitwear are also part of the economic picture.


Map of the Shetland Islands

North Isles

Towns & Villages



Other destinations

Tombolo to St Ninian's Isle

Prehistoric sites



Although Shetland is part of Scotland and therefore the United Kingdom, it is very much a world apart. With its Viking heritage, traditional fishing villages and fjords, Shetland's scenery and culture are more akin to Norway's than they are to the United Kingdom's. Shetland almost always appears on maps of the United Kingdom in an insert box, and is in fact closer to Bergen in Norway than to Edinburgh. Even the flag of Shetland (a white Nordic cross on a blue background) shows the close links between this part of Scotland and Scandinavia. The fact that this flag, rather than the Saltire or Union Jack can be seen flying from many houses shows the pride and sense of identity of the Shetland people; when Shetlanders refer to 'The Mainland' they almost always mean 'Mainland Shetland' rather than 'Mainland Scotland'. Although Shetland has been inhabited since prehistoric times and settled by Vikings by the 10th century AD, it has only been part of Scotland since 1472 when it was mortgaged by King Christian I of Norway in lieu of the dowry for his daughter Margaret and later annexed by James III of Scotland.


Puffin at Sumburgh Head

Shetland is of great interest to the naturalist and anyone who is keen to see wild animals and birds in their native habitat.

Otters 'Draatsi' are relatively common here, and you are far more likely to see this elusive animal in the wild here than anywhere else in the United Kingdom apart from Isle of Jura or Mull. Yell is supposed to be the best location, but any isolated piece of coast line (particularly with a source of fresh water running into the sea) is a possibility, and the best times are early morning or evening and/or at low tide. They have even been seen (and filmed) investigating boats in the working port of Lerwick. Other mammals to be found in Shetland are rabbits, mountain hare, hedgehogs and stoats; all of these are believed to have been introduced by mankind.

Birds are particularly prolific here, with Shetland being one of the main breeding grounds for a number of common and rare species. Particular centres for nesting seabirds are Sumburgh Head, Hermaness, Noss and Foula (with the second highest cliffs in the UK after St Kilda). Easily observed species are puffins, gannets, guillemots, kitiwakes, fulmars, shags, great and arctic skuas, storm petrels, oystercatchers, eider ducks, cormorants and razorbills. Inland, curlews, whimbrels, golden and ringed plovers, lapwings and redshanks can be spotted, with Fetlar being the breeding ground of 90% of the UK's population of the rare red-legged phalarope (though sadly Snowy Owls are no longer seen here). Shetland also sees a fair number of rarities which makes it a favourite location for twitchers. Probably the best known of these was the lost albatross which visited Hermaness for a number of years and appeared to be attempting to find a mate amongst the gannets. The best times to birdwatch are between April and July when the birds return to land to rear their chicks.

Marine mammals are also to be seen. Most prolific are Grey and Common Seals (constantly in evidence around the fish processing plants in Lerwick looking out for a free feed) which can be seen all over the islands. They are curious of humans and will often follow a party walking along a shore at a safe distance. Whales and other cetaceans can also be spotted, although this tends to come down to a question of how lucky you are. Minke whales are the most common, but other species of whale, together with porpoises and dolphins can also be seen. Orcas (called "killer whales" but actually a very large species of dolphin) are becoming more prolific around Shetland. One of the best places to see whales can be from the ferries.


The weather is very much a 'feature' of the area. Although Shetland is typically only a couple of degrees cooler than mainland Scotland, and the maritime climate does not lead to large falls of snow, high winds are very frequent. Whilst these make Shetland largely midge free (unlike most of Scotland), they add a considerable wind-chill factor, and when combined with horizontal rain you can be both wet and cold within minutes. Even more so than in mainland Scotland, the weather can change in moments and the entire landscape transformed from bleakness to loveliness by the presence of the sun. Locals refer to a calm day as 'a day between weathers'. Top temperatures in the summer are unlikely to go over 18C (64F), and while the wind can make this feel cooler, note that it is still perfectly possible to get sunburn.

At this northerly latitude there is a marked difference in daylight hours between summer and winter, even more so than in the rest of Scotland. During December there are little more than six hours of daylight (and on a dreary day it can seem as though it never truly gets light), during June on the other hand it hardly gets dark, and the brief twilight between sunset and sunrise is locally known as the 'Simmer Dim'. Midnight games of golf are even possible!


Shetland has a diverse and thriving culture all of its own, which has been enhanced by isolation from the rest of Scotland. Traditional crafts and pastimes include:-


Shetland's fortunes were to some extent transformed by the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s. A huge oil terminal was constructed in Sullom Voe near Brae in the north of the Mainland, though fortunately this has been well-managed and has not had a great effect on local wildlife. Oil revenues both halted population decline and have caused Shetland to be a prosperous community considering its size and location. Infrastructure (roads, leisure centres, communications) are very good, and unemployment is generally very low at about 2%. As oil stocks decline, Shetlanders are falling back on traditional occupations such as fishing (there are many fish farms in the more sheltered voes) and crofting. Tourism is also becoming increasingly important; Lerwick is transformed (not necessarily for the better) when one of the regular cruise ships come in to port and the local shops are packed with the visitors.


There is a weekly newspaper (published on Fridays) The Shetland Times. There is also a good Shetland Times bookshop in Lerwick which has books of local interest as well as mainstream titles. There are two monthly magazines, Shetland Life and i,i Shetland. UK National newspapers are available on the day of publication.

Local radio stations are BBC Radio Shetland and SIBC. The latter is rather eclectic and well worth a listen, as the local news tends to sum up what makes Shetland different (and endearing) as a location.

Terrestrial television has the usual UK channels and satellite is available.


As elsewhere in the United Kingdom, English is the official language and is universally spoken. Native Shetlanders have a unique accent and dialect which reflects the mixed Scottish and Norwegian influences on the islands. It is common for locals to speak standard English (with a Shetland Scots accent) to visitors, and a more deeply inflected version of the language between themselves. The official website of the Shetland Dialect group gives some audio examples of Shetland speech from different areas Shetland ForWirds. Note that the former language of Shetland was Old Norn (spoken in some areas into 19th century) and that Scottish Gaelic has never been part of the local linguistic tradition.

Many dialect words heard in common use reflect local wildlife and conditions, and some, such as 'bonxie' for the great skua have slipped into mainstream English. Many other dialect words are similar or identical to mainland Scots.

Here is a short list of expressions peculiar to local dialect.

Get in

The main transport links to Shetland are to and from the Scottish Mainland.

By boat

Ferry Leaving Aberdeen

Northlink Ferries provide a daily passenger and vehicle transport service between Lerwick and Aberdeen which also calls in at Kirkwall in Orkney up to twice a week depending on the time of year (when calling at Kirkwall, the ferry leaves Aberdeen two hours earlier than usual to accommodate this). The ferry service is an overnight crossing, leaving Aberdeen at 7pm (or 5pm) and arriving in Lerwick at 7:30am. Although the boat is large and stable, this is an ocean crossing and at times it can be rough; do not be too alarmed if you are handed a disclaimer on boarding stating that you are travelling at your own risk!

If travelling by car, follow the signs to 'Aberdeen Harbour'. The ferry terminal itself is not clearly signposted, but you should see a large blue and white ship on your right as you enter the harbour area. If cars are queueing (as they probably will be unless you are very early), join the end of the queue to your left. Do not drive right up to the terminal gate or you will have to turn round which is not particularly easy. Photo id has been required for the last couple of years.

If the ferry is full and you are travelling to Lerwick, you will be boarded on the lower car deck if you arrive at the terminal early. It goes without saying that if you are boarded on the lower deck and you are intending to disembark at Kirkwall, you should inform staff immediately, otherwise you are likely to visit the scenic Shetland Isles sooner than you were intending.

On board the ship, you can either sleep in the reclining 'aircraft style' seats in the lounge, stretch out on the couches in the bar (once it has closed), or book a cabin. The latter is by far the most comfortable option as even standard cabins, whilst small, have comfortable bunks and a private toilet and shower. If you choose to dispense with a cabin, note that although comfort would dictate taking a sleeping bag and pillow, staff are fairly strict about not leaving them unattended in the lounge and you will have to carry them around with you.

The ferry is fairly plush and well equipped. There are two bars, a self-service restaurant, a cinema and a silver-service restaurant which serves a rather good take on Shetland and Orkney specialities. There is also a cinema, though if it is rough, be warned that watching a film in a darkened room is a good recipe for sea-sickness. The internal areas of the ship are non-smoking, but there is an outside area on deck which stays open all night where you can smoke. Dependent on the weather, there may be access to the upper deck until late at night, and it is generally opened again in time to view the entrance to Lerwick in the morning. On the return journey there are particularly good views of Fair Isle from the outside decks.

Arrival into Shetland is normally announced at 6:30am and breakfast is then available in the self-service restaurant. The ferry is normally exactly on time at 7:30am, and drivers have to leave promptly to move their cars, but (with their boarding pass) can then return on board for breakfast if they wish. They, along with non-drivers and foot passengers, can remain on the ship until 9:00am. The ferry terminal is near the centre of Lerwick and pre-booked hire cars can be picked up from within the terminal building.

Arriving in Shetland by ferry makes the journey part of the travel experience, and helps you to appreciate how remote the islands really are. Fares in the winter are considerably cheaper than at peak season, and as car fares are far more expensive than foot-passenger fares, it may make sense to rent a car rather than taking your own. Some travellers have reported having difficulty in changing their ferry bookings as their plans change, so be aware that Northlink hold a monopoly on scheduled sea travel to the islands and may not be particularly flexible about changes, especially during busy periods.

By plane

Sumburgh Airport (IATA: LSI) in Sumburgh is located 30 miles south of Lerwick. Loganair provide the only scheduled passenger air service from there to the Scottish Mainland as a franchise of Flybe. Flights operate to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Kirkwall. Unfortunately, due to lack of competition on the routes, fares are relatively expensive, even when booked well in advance. Whether it is cheaper to travel by ferry with your own car, or fly and hire one very much depends on the time of year and other factors such as how close you live to Aberdeen.

Depending on which runway you land on, you should not expect to see much of Shetland as you land, because the airport is on the extreme southern tip of the Mainland, and the best you will get is a brief view of the lighthouse on Sumburgh Head. One runway at Sumburgh is somewhat unusual, in that the main road goes right across it, and when a plane is due, level-crossing gates are closed across the road. The terminal itself is small, but has a cafe/bar, shop, wi-fi internet and ATM. Security here is also not nearly as oppressive as in large mainland airports.

Car hire is available within the terminal from Star Rent a Car or Bolts Car Hire will pick you up and take you to your car at their near-by depot. In both cases advance reservation is advisable. The airport information page has details of local taxi companies who can meet you at the airport and again, it is advisable to book in advance. The Service 6 bus calls at the airport at fairly regular intervals (see South Mainland timetable), and takes you to Lerwick in around 40 minutes.

Get around

ZetTrans is Shetland's transport partnership for all modes of public transport. Additionally, Shetland Travel Information has timetables for buses, inter-island ferries and inter-island plane flights.

Taxis are also available. Cycling is also a possibility and can be wonderful in good weather but awful in driving wind and rain. This is also fantastic walking country, but note that distances between main attractions are surprising long. As places go, Shetland is probably about as safe a place to hitchhike as you will see, but the usual warnings apply.

By boat

The inhabited islands are served by regular ferries operated by Shetland Islands Council. Routes to Bressay, Yell, Unst, Fetlar and Walsay operate at least eighteen hours per day, although some early and late sailings will only run if there are pre-booked reservations. Places may be reserved for vehicles on all these routes (except Bressay), and pre-booked vehicles take presidence over unbooked ones. Sailings to Out Skerries and Papa Stour are less frequent and require reservations for all vehicles. The ferry to Fair Isle is by reservation only and is not ro/ro (it can carry vehicles but they must be craned on and off and there would be no real reason for a visitor to take a car).

The ferry to Foula runs twice weekly and is operated by BK Marine Foula Ferry.

Note that in case of inclement weather, ferries may sail from an alternative port e.g. normally ferries to Walsay depart from Laxo, but in high winds depart from Vidlin. In this case (or if the weather is so bad the ferries are not sailing at all!) information is displayed on electronic notice boards on the main road out of Lerwick heading north.

Crossings by Route
Route Crossing Time
Gutcher (Yell) to Belmont (Unst) 10 Minutes
Gutcher (Yell) to Hamarsness (Fetlar) 30 Minutes
Belmont (Unst) to Hamarsness (Fetlar) 30 Minutes
Toft (Mainland) to Ulsta (Yell) 20 Minutes
Laxo (Mainland) to Symbister (Walsay) 30 Minutes
Vidlin (Mainland) to Symbister (Walsay) 45 Minutes
Vidlin (Mainland) to Skerries 90 Minutes
Symbister (Mainland) to Skerries 75 Minutes
Lerwick (Mainland) to Skerries 2 Hours 30 Minutes
West Burrafirth (Mainland) to Papa Stour 40 Minutes
Lerwick (Mainland) to Maryfield (Bressay) 7 Minutes
Fair Isle to Grutness (Mainland) 2 Hours 40 Minutes
Fair Isle to Lerwick (Mainland) 4 Hours 30 Minutes

By plane

Inter-island flights are operated by Directflight (+44 1595 840246 for booking) on behalf of Shetland Islands Council, and depart from   Tingwall Airport (IATA: LWK) which is 7 miles/10 km north of Lerwick. Routes operated are to Fair Isle, Papa Stour and Foula (flying is the only way to have a daytrip to Foula). In summer (around May-Sep), Directflight also operates a flight between Fair Isle and Sumburgh. Flights with Directflight cost between £36-44 (or £70-84 for return tickets), and reduced fares for youth (12-24years) and children are available.

There is no bus to Tingwall airport, but you can get a private taxi, or book a Dial-a-Ride taxi from Viking Bus Station in Lerwick on 01595 745745 (before 16:30 the day prior to travel).

By car

The roads are kept in an excellent condition which most of the rest of UK can only envy. The main road is the A970, which runs from Sumburgh Airport in the South mainland, right up to Isbister in the north. For the majority of its length it is a fine two lane road (with even a short stretch of dual carriageway coming out of Lerwick to the north), although once it enters Northmavine it becomes partially single track. The same can be said for the main roads in the North Isles, but even if a road is designated as 'A' on the map, it may still be single track and unfenced. Traffic is sparse (except for a brief 'Lerwick rush hour' which lasts all of 15 minutes around 9am and 5pm on the A970) and once off the main roads, it is polite to wave at drivers approaching from the other direction, particularly if they have pulled into a passing place on a narrow road. Note that if you are driving slowly and admiring the scenery, it is also polite to pull over to allow locals in a hurry (who know the road conditions far better than you) to get past.

There are no fixed speed cameras, though hand-held radar or, rarely, a mobile camera, may sometimes be seen. The police presence is generally light in Shetland, but note that national UK speed limits and rules on drink driving apply here as much as anywhere else.

Petrol and diesel is widely available (although petrol stations are smaller and less frequent away from Shetland) although is more expensive (roughly 10p/litre) than in mainland Scotland.

Car hire

There are two local rental firms in Shetland: Star Rent a Car and Bolts Car Hire who have branches in Lerwick and Sumburgh Airport. In addition to taking reservations, the two companies also operate as agents for most of the international car hire networks.

By bus

There is a reasonable bus service around Shetland. See ZetTrans, Shetland's transport partnership, for timetables (phone: +44 1595 744868).

By train

There is no rail service in Shetland.





Annual events


Shetland cuisine is heavily based on the prolific and excellent local seafood, together with local lamb. Milk and dairy products are produced locally, as is some beef. One of the best known local specialities is reestit mutton which is salted, dried meat often served with bannocks or as part of a potato soup. Some vegetables and fruit are grown in the islands, but this can be difficult due to the climate, and much is imported.

Most places to eat out are in Lerwick, although there are a number of other good locations, mostly country hotels. Individual recommendations are listed in their respective location pages.

There are two good supermarkets in the islands, both in Lerwick, together with a number of local shops.

During the summer months there is a local tradition of Sunday Teas being offered in local village halls. This is a wonderful opportunity to sample local homebaking and proceeds generally go to charity.


Locally produced beers from the Valhalla brewery in Unst are served all over the islands. The Shetland Distillery Company in Unst produces gin (Reel Gin) and released the first single malt whisky from Shetland in 2015.

There are a number of lively bars (and even a nightclub) in Lerwick which are listed in that article. Outside the capital, bars tend to be in local hotels.

There is an off-license in Lerwick and alcohol is sold in supermarkets and local shops.

The legal drinking age is 18 (16 for accompanied minors drinking beer or cider with a meal). Proof of age is increasingly required for those who appear to be under 25.


Camping Böds provide very basic self-catering accommodation. There are nine of these facilities across Shetland. You must book through the Shetland Amenity Trust in Lerwick (+44 1595 694688). Costs between £8-10 per person per night.

Stay safe

For emergency services (police, ambulance, fire brigade, coastguard) ring '999'.

As part of the United Kingdom, Shetland is covered by the National Health Service (NHS Shetland) with free health cover for British and other EU nationals. The main hospital is the Gilbert Bain in Lerwick which provides most healthcare services including accident and emergency. In the case of a real emergency, anyone, regardless of nationality would be provided with first line assistance free of charge, but would have to pay for an inpatient stay if not covered by the NHS.

From a crime perspective, Shetland is an extremely safe place. If you are mugged, robbed or treated with anything other than courtesy during your stay, you can consider yourself extremely unlucky. Outside Lerwick, it is common for doors to be left unlocked, and it is perhaps some indication of the general lack of crime that the theft of someone's wallet from an unattended house in Yell made the number one spot on the local radio news for three days. Drug use is reputed to be on the upturn, and CCTV cameras have recently been introduced in Lerwick, but Shetland is still a very quiet and peaceful place when compared to other locations in the United Kingdom (and the rest of the world).

The main hazards in the islands tend to be environmental rather than human derived. Bonxies (great skuas) and other sea birds can be aggressive if you approach their nests during the breeding season, and will attempt to dive-bomb you. The best solution is to keep to the paths, but holding an arm or a stick above your head will generally keep them off. Take care next to clifftop areas, as outside the main tourist locations there are no warning signs or fenced-off areas, and these can be unstable. At Hermaness there are warning signs telling you not to wear waterproof trousers, as the consequences of falling over while wearing them and then sliding could be very severe indeed. Coastal waters can be very rough and tides strong, so you are better accompanied by a local guide when kayaking unless you are very experienced and know the area.

Tap water is safe to drink. There are no endemic diseases requiring special vaccinations. In areas frequented by sheep, watch out for ticks which can occasionally carry disease. There are no poisonous snakes or other creatures.


All major mobile phone networks are available in Shetland, though coverage for most tends to be a bit patchy (or in some cases non-existent) outside Lerwick. If your mobile does not work there are telephone boxes in most villages, and cards for these are available in newsagents and supermarkets.

Fast broadband is available over most of the islands, although in remote areas it is restricted by distance from the telephone exchange. Pay for use internet access is available in the Tourist Information Centre in Lerwick and some hotels and other locations.


Local government services are provided by Shetland Islands Council.

Electricity voltage and adaptors are UK standard.

Go next

Orkney Islands, Faroe Islands or mainland United Kingdom by ferry or air.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, January 31, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.