There is about Shetland an other-worldliness that is difficult to pin down; it’s certainly not ‘Highland’ Scotland, nor is it unswervingly Scandinavian, although they do like their Viking heritage, especially the annual fire festival, ‘Up Helly Aa’, held in the middle of winter to mark the end of the yule season. 

Up Helly Aa fire festival

I first got to know Shetland when I visited in the 1990s to research for a radio feature and found myself returning not long afterwards to work on my book ‘The Magic of Scottish Islands’. I can still recall that when I asked Jon Sparks if he would like to take on the photographic content of the book, he delayed for a full three nanoseconds before making his mind up…I was on the point of asking someone else!

This splendid subarctic archipelago lies around 110 miles north of the Scottish mainland, comprises about 100 islands, of which only 16 or so are inhabited, and has a coastline more than 1,600 miles long. The ‘Mainland’ (the third largest Scottish island) straddles the 60° North latitude, and on clear nights this makes Shetland ideal for viewing the Northern Lights, the Aurora borealis.

Among the uninhabited islands is Mousa, known for the Broch of Mousa, the finest Iron Age broch in Britain (and the best-maintained in the world). Noss, a short dinghy ride to the east of Bressay, has been a national nature reserve since 1955, and its east-facing cliffs, where thousands of sea birds nest, comes as quite a surprise. On the west coast, St Ninian’s Isle, is a small tied island connected by the largest active tombolo in the UK, and dedicated to Shetland's patron saint, the mysterious Saint Ninian of Galloway.

To the north lies Out Stack, the northernmost point of the British Isles, to which I was lured by late W. R. ‘Bill’ Mitchell book It’s a Long Way to Muckle Flugga’ and tales of a lonely black-browed albatross that was resident here for years. Go in the breeding season and this is very much a bonxie- and Arctic skua-dodging experience. But, alas, the cliffs of Muckle Flugga are as far as you can get without risking life and limb. The lighthouse at Muckle Flugga was manned, pre-1995, and for a time this was indisputably the northernmost ‘inhabited’ place in Britain.

The geology of Shetland is complex: a glorious mish-mash of gloups, sounds, wicks, steep-sided geos and deeper, wider voes, that penetrate the land. You struggle here to get as much as three miles from the sea. Indeed, at Mavis Grind, Magnus Bay and Sullom Voe are separated by little more than a hundred metres. It is this scenery, the bracing climate, and long-summer days are the main attractions. But the outdoor adventurer will find walking opportunity almost without limit, the scope for cycling is as good as any in Britain not least because for the most part the roads are wide and well-maintained, even in winter. The hills, such as they are, are more bosomy than craggy, the highest, Ronas Hill just about managing to reach 450 metres. But what the islands lack in altitude, they make up for in loch-filled, rippling landscapes.

The north-western part of Mainland is known as Northmavine, a panoramic region blessed around Eshaness with an Atlantic coastline without equal. All but a handful of lochs and lochans on the way are commandeered by red-throated divers; chambered cairns dot a landscape largely devoid of trees, and, curiously, every rural bus stop has an adjacent car park…car sharing is the norm here. Every bus shelter has a seat from a conventional bench to plush armchairs, and one, at Baltasound on Unst, is equipped with reading material, curtains, carpets, flowers and, for a time, served as a two-person cinema showing brief films made by the island’s school children. It’s all a far cry from the murderous complexities portrayed in Ann Cleeves’ crime novels set in the islands

You must visit Shetland expecting the unexpected. Along the seemingly innocuous road from Bixter to the tiny port of Voe and, overlooking East Burra Firth, is the most unlikely food outlet; a couple of fridges – Da Cake Cupboard – at the roadside offering home-made cakes, fruit loaves, tarts and bread, as well as local eggs during the summer months. Where the Burn of Lunklet feeds into the Firth, a short walk has been fashioned to an attractive waterfall that would never otherwise be seen, and where the road branches off to South Voxter, a pile of rocks has been roughly, well maybe over-imaginatively, shaped to resemble rock people – no-one knows why.

It can be windy here: after all, Shetland lies in the track of the Atlantic depressions, but is bathed by the relatively warm waters of the Slope Current, flowing north along the edge of the Continental Shelf, so the climate is classed as temperate maritime.

For airborne visitors, their first sight of Shetland is Sumburgh Head, standing proud above the sea swell; almost part of it. A lighthouse marks the spot, erected, like its sibling on Muckle Flugga, by the monopolistic lighthouse-building Stevenson family. 

Today, Sumburgh is famed neither for sea-defying Fitful Head nor its bleakly located but otherwise comely and efficient airport, by-product of World War II. Here it’s all about Jarlshof, one of the most remarkable archaeological sites excavated in Britain, a place that re-entered the world when violent storms exposed its stonework, rather in the manner of Skara Brae on Orkney. Prehistoric man, Vikings, medieval and modern man clamour for attention here; the dwellings of each virtually superimposed on each other: it is this timeline of humanity that hallmarks Shetland.

Go in Spring and you’ll find fields of gold, bright-eyed with golden flowers, and long days when the sun barely sets. This is the land of light nights, the ‘Simmer Dim’ as they call it, where anyone bent on seeing both a sunset and sunrise will get but a few hours’ sleep. When I visited once at the end of May; sunset was 10.13 pm; sunrise 3.52am, and it never really became totally dark in between.

It’s an odd but pleasurable sensation, as close as you get in Britain to twenty-four hours of sunshine. But slightly odd, and hugely pleasurable for me just about says it all of Shetland…why, they’ve even taking to distilling their own gin.

The main Visitor Information Centre is situated in Lerwick town centre at the Market Cross. Tel: 01595 693434; www.shetland.org.

Shetland is now better served by ferries than ever before, with departures seven nights a week in both directions on the Aberdeen-Lerwick route all year round, with three calls a week at Kirkwall, Orkney, en route. www.northlinkferries.co.uk.

Flights to Sumburgh Airport in Shetland are operated by the long-established Scottish airline, Loganair. Their direct services to Shetland, the scheduled flight times and the maximum frequencies are as follows:
Aberdeen 1 hour Up to 5 flights per day
Edinburgh 1 hour 30 minutes Up to 3 flights per day
Glasgow 1 hour 30 minutes Up to 2 flights per day
Inverness 1 hour 45 minutes Up to 2 flights per day; stops briefly in Orkney
Kirkwall, Orkney 40 minutes Up to 2 flights per day
Manchester 1 hour 35 minutes 1 flight on Saturdays