Fun things to do in Shetland

  • The Loch of Funzie with geology exhibit in front.
    The Loch of Funzie with geology exhibit...
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  • See how close the shoreline is to the wheelhouse
    See how close the shoreline is to the...
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  • The wheelhouse 'piers' helped support the roof
    The wheelhouse 'piers' helped support...
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    Visit Old Scatness Iron Age site

    by MikeBird Updated Oct 3, 2013

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    To the west of Sumburgh airport and just south of the runway crossing gates you will find the Iron age site called Old Scatness.

    There has been extensive excavation here and you really get a feel that there could easily be more to be uncovered were it not for the lack of funding. In fact sadly one of the tour guides mentioned that the site may not open next year for the 2013 summer season through lack of funds. I was lucky because I visited in it's last week before closing at the end of August 2012.

    My entrance fee of £5 also entitled me to a 20% discount on the entry fee at the Jarlshof site, only a mile away. I was given a personalised, unhurried guided tour by a very well informed woman who patiently answered my questions. She also was very kind when I became completely distracted by a rare, migratory, bird ( a Wryneck) hopping amongst the flagstones of the ruined chambers.

    There is a very good reconstruction of the stone house or Broch, fitted out with oil lamp, bubbling pot and peat fire. The smells add a certain level of reality to the place.

    In addition there is a small exhibition room and a demonstration of weaving, presumably Iron Age, for when it rains.

    I enjoyed the ruins and because its not all neat, pristine and tidy you really get a feel that it is unfinished business for the archaeologists. It's so clever what can be deduced from small finds. For example I was told how one flat stone was more likely to be used for grain drying purposes unlike a similar one because the former had a higher proportion of grains found near it. Obvious really, but you still have to make that interpretation.

    I really hope the site can find a way to stay open to the public. If it could find its way onto the itinerary of the cruise ships that dock at Lerwick then it will have a future. Unfortunately it's close proximity to Jarlshof probably counts against it and in truth parts of the Old Scatness site are mirrored by what can more easily be seen down the road at Jarlshof.

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    Jarlshof: a journey through time

    by MikeBird Updated Oct 3, 2013

    Located very close to Sumburgh airport, at the southern most point of the Mainland Shetland are the ancient ruins known as Jarlshof. The name is derived from Sir Walter Scott's novel called 'The Pirate' in which the ruined Laird's house on the present site inspired the author in telling the story.

    Jarlshof is managed by Historic Scotland and has been preserved to a very high standard to meet the needs and interests of the visiting tourists from the cruise ships that anchor in Lerwick some 25 miles away. On the day I visited a small party from a ship had completed their tour and were heading for lunch at the Sumburgh hotel which is situated next to the site. Indeed Jarlshof's toilets are found in the hotel. As a way of gaining an insight into Shetland's ancient cultures this site is a superb introduction.

    My entrance fee of £5.50 (with a 20% discount if you've retained your ticket from Old Scatness) included a very informative audio tour guide. The handset was easy to use and the commentary was just that; it didn't incorporate dramatic presentations of actors re-enacting the conditions of the various ages.

    One aspect of Jarlshof which I think could be almost unique and almost certainly a consequence of its superb location for settlements is the way the various layers of historical eras have been revealed. The tour starts with the evidence from Neolithic times dating back as far as 3000years BC, through to the younger Bronze and Iron ages to the Norse, medieval and recent times. Insights into the way of life of these communities comes from all kinds of evidence visible on the site with most of the tour focusing on the Bronze and Iron age remains as exemplified by the housing structures now known as Brochs and wheelhouses. Similarities shown between the structures here and those at Old Scatness are very evident and the two sites complement each other in this respect.

    The tour moves on to illustrate the remains of a Viking Longhouse of the Norse period before taking you to the foundations of the medieval farm house and then the Laird's residence first constructed around 1592.

    It took me about an hour to be taken through the basic tour but there were plenty of other auditory diversions I could have taken with options to listen to further details should I have wanted it. Unfortunately the rain dampened my enthusiasm and I had a plane to catch from the nearby airport. I'd hoped to have had an aerial view of the site but sadly the rain had turned particularly heavy and I couldn't see anything of Jarlshof as I flew off to Aberdeen.

    My exploration of Jarlshof was a great way to end what had been a terrific trip to the islands of Shetland. I'm looking forward to my return visit especially to the Mousa Broch.

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    Shetland's beaches are amazing

    by MikeBird Updated Oct 3, 2013

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    If you like unspoilt, pristine, clean, white or silvery sand beaches then Shetland has several of these to offer. On each of the four larger islands I found at least one example of a beach that fits the description above.

    When I say unspoilt I mean that there is nothing available for the visitor, no toilets, no lifeguards and certainly no shops so you will need to be self sufficient if you intend to stay for long. The four beaches I found all had nearby car parks so at least you don't have to trek for miles carrying the usual beach stuff. I guess the biggest drawback to these beautiful beaches is the temperature of the water. I did go in but didn't stay in for long. I guess once in and acclimatised it's not so bad though.

    On the Mainland island there is the perfect geography textbook feature of a Tombolo beach. Apparently it is Europe's longest example. It connects St Ninian's Isle to the main shore near to the west coast village of Bigton.

    On Fetlar there is gorgeous sweep of Tresta beach in the south west of the island. Just behind is an enclosed loch which is popular with sea-birds. Take a stroll around the cemetery of the small Kirk next to the beach. Buried here are the remains of Sir Arthur Nicholson - a rather unpleasant sounding landowner who evicted many crofters with very little notice.

    On Unst, in the north of that island, are two lovely beaches; one at Norwick and the other at Skaw - which is also the location of Britain's most northerly habitable house. Both beaches had visiting seals on the day I was there and Skaw is apparently a good place to look for passing whales especially from the headland cliffs. You can take shelter from the wind in some of the WWII emplacements that are dotted around the area. Norwick has an interpretation panel that explains the significance of the rocks located in the centre of the beach. Interesting if you're into Geology.

    My favourite however must be the beach on Yell, again in the north of the island at the extreme end of the village of Cullivoe. This one is called Breckon Sands. Perhaps I was influenced by the perfect blue skies and bright warm sunshine but this one for me had the most inviting waters and is where I took the plunge. Have a look at the video and you'll see what I mean. It is truly tropical in the clarity of the water and the whiteness of the sand. I didn't see anyone the whole time I was there so take care if you decide to go for a swim. You're unlikely to be rescued if you get into difficulties.

    On each of these beaches I found some interesting wading birds and the seals were equally curious about me as I sat watching them.

    You may not associate golden beaches with Shetland but they do exist and are there to be enjoyed.

    I've also uploaded a short video of Breckon Sands. Look for it on my main Shetland page.

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    Birdwatching on Fetlar

    by MikeBird Updated Oct 3, 2013

    Back in the 1960s and 70s the Shetland island of Fetlar became famous as the only place in Britain where the Snowy Owl was successfully breeding. The same pair of large white owls, iconic birds with piercing yellow eyes and huge talons (Hedwig of Harry Potter fame), quickly became famous and drew stalwart birders to the small island to catch sight of these impressive predators. Sadly, after about a decade of nesting they failed to return. However they managed to raise the profile of the Shetland Islands and in particular Fetlar as a hotspot and destination for keen birdwatchers.

    Fetlar doesn't hold quite the same status as Fair Isle for twitchers - bird enthusiasts who travel widely to gain sightings of rare birds to add to their annual and life lists. The island is however still popular with birders particularly as it is now the UK stronghold of a much smaller and more diminutive species that can, fairly reliably at least for the time being, be found during the summer breeding season. A small, dainty wader called the Red-necked Phalarope, which is unusual in that the female sports the brighter colours( the red neck) than the more dowdy grey coloured male. There are several breeding pairs found at the small reserve called the Loch of Funzie (pronounced Finnie) which is located towards the eastern end of island. The birds arrive in early summer and by mid August they will have completed their breeding cycle and will have gone back to the warmer climes of the Arabian peninsula.

    I visited the reserve at the end of August and much to my disappointment, the birds 'had read the books' and had flown off two weeks earlier. But I was not downhearted because I was rewarded with excellent views of some other Fetlar 'classics' such as Red-throated Divers in their full summer breeding plumage. The four birds were on the main Loch and very handsome they were too.

    There is a small hide overlooking the smaller ponds that the RSPB have developed on the reserve. It's here that you can take shelter from the wind and the rain.

    There is another area of Fetlar that has been designated as an RSPB sanctuary but access is more difficult though only because it's along a footpath towards the north of the island. I was running out of time after my excitement in seeing the Divers so I had to leave the other reserve for another trip in the future.

    It had been a major hope of mine for many years that I would one day visit Fetlar. It's not as remote as I imagined and I could happily have stayed a couple more days but my schedule was tight and I had to get back to my hostel on Unst. Maybe on my next visit to Shetland I can arrange to stay for longer?

    You can find out more about the Red-necked Phalarope by visiting the RSPB website at:
    http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/r/redneckedphalarope/index.aspx

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    Explore Central Mainland

    by leics Updated Mar 17, 2013

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    Scalloway, a busy fishing port, was once Shetland's capital...that's why Earl Stewart built his castle there. It still stands over the picturesque harbour. There's a new museum in the process of being opened (only a temporary display at the moment, but by summer 2012 all will be in place) and strong links to the Shetland Bus. My Scalloway page will have more detail.

    And Tingwall...at the north end of the loch, near Tingwall kirk with its ancient graveyard, lies Lawting Holm, where Shetland's ancient parliaments met.

    The pretty islands of Trondra, East and West Burra are joined to the mainland by bridges. Wonderful walking country, superb for birds.....and with the tiny-but-exquisite white-sand Meal Beach.

    And there are wonderful views over the sea and the islands from Weisdale and Whiteness.

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    Walk and walk and walk....

    by leics Written Aug 20, 2011

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    Drive to get to places, of course...or take the bus.

    But Shetland is made for walking. Unlike Orkney, it has very few cows....it's sheep country....so you need not worry about crossing fields full of nursing cows or bullocks here!
    And Scotland does not have the public footpaths you find in England, so you can walk anywhere...but sensibly, of course.

    Don't walk through growing crops (remember grass is a crop, for hay); walk round the edge of the field.

    Leave gates as you find them and, if you must climb a gate or fence (because it is otherwise un-moveable) then make sure you climb nearest the hinged gatepost, where it's stongest.

    Don't leave litter of any type. Not only is it ugly, it can (and does) also kill wildlife.

    Avoid frightening sheep (it can make them abort when pregnant, it can lead to them breaking limbs at other times) or seals (they loll because they need to do so, not because they are lazy).

    Avoid frightening birds too: many birds will abandon their nests if frightened, but the skuas and fulmars (especially the bonxies) will make very sure they frighten *you*!. Even though they rarely hit you, being dive-bombed by screaming, angry skuas or fulmars is remarkably scary and unpleasant...put your hand above your head and beat a hasty retreat.

    When you are walking you'll see birds and flowers, wonderful geology and landscape, superb views around every corner. Along the coast you'll see seals, maybe porpoises.....maybe whales if you are seriously lucky!

    There are more than 6000 archaeological sites in Shetland. Many are not signed in any way, but you'll see them marked on the Ordnance Survey maps (well worth buying these before you come). Walking is the only way to visit most of these......Iron Age brochs, Neolithic barrow tombs, Bronze age 'burnt mounds', ancient standing stones...

    So.....wear the right clothes, wear the right footwear, pack something to eat and drink (shops are few and far between), remember your binoculars and your camera... and set out to explore. If you are exploring wild country, such as Northmavine, take Ordnance Survey map, compass and emergency supplies with you.

    Enjoy! :-)

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    Take a boat-trip

    by leics Written Aug 20, 2011

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    If you haven't arrived in your own boat a boat-trip will show you a side of Shetland which is otherwise inaccessible.

    There are several trips operating out of Lerwick, including the 'Seabirds-and-seals' trip which I took (see the Lerwick page for the review). Well worth the money.

    Or you could take the Mousa ferry from Aithsvoe (see my Mousa page), probably seeing porpoises on the way and certainly giving you 3 hours or so on the island to explore its wonderful birdlife and its magnificent Iron Age broch, the best-preserved example in existence.

    Or you could take the regular ferry from Lerwick to Bressay and/or perhaps drive across that island to take the ferry (an inflatable boat) to the Noss National Nature Reserve.

    Or you could drive up to Toft and take the ferry to Yell, and perhaps onwards to Unst.

    Ferry options and timetables can be found on the link below.

    Lots and lots of options, whether you have a car or not. But, definitely, take some sort of boat trip whilst you are visiting!

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    Visit St Ninian's Isle

    by leics Written Aug 20, 2011

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    Certainly for its unique and beautiful tombolo..........a crescent of white sand, lapped on either side by the sea, allowing access to the island in all but the highest of tides or stormiest of weather.

    But also for the island itself. The tiny Celtic chapel there was excavated in the late 1950s and a hoard of 'treasure' was found...wonderfully intricate silver bowls and ornaments dating from around 800AD. You can find the excavated chapel, and perhaps find St Ninian's Well too (I didn't).

    Walk the island cliffs, watch the seabirds and the sea, enjoy the views...if you are lucky you'll be entirely by yourself.

    More details will be on my St Ninian's Isle page

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    Wander Nesting, Lunnasting and Delting

    by leics Written Aug 20, 2011

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    These three districts in Central Mainland offer a slightly gentler landscape in some parts, with rolling hills, hummocky moorland and tiny lochs, narrow voes (inlets) and scattered settlements. Sullom Voe is there too, a huge voe on which the Sullow Voe terminal stands (and, remarkably, is not the eyesore I thought it would be).

    There are wonderful views from every bend in the road, standing stones and cairns, hamlets and lighthouses. A lot of history too, with WW2 sites and, most especially, strong links with the 'Shetland Bus' (which smuggled spies, radios and supplies into Occupied Norway and brought back refugees).

    Lunna, where the Shetland Bus first started, also has the oldest kirk still in use...and a headland superb for walking and watching the thousands of seabirds passing by.

    There will be more detail on my Lunna and Sullom Voe pages.

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    Explore Northmavine

    by leics Updated Aug 20, 2011

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    Northmavine is almost an island...it's only joined to Shetland mainland by a narrow strip of land separating the Atlantic from the North Sea, 100 yards or so wide (Mavis Grind). Sop narrow that, until the 1950s, fishermen carried their boats across to save themselves time!

    It's the most northerly part of mainland Shetland, the wildest and the least settled.

    It is magnificent in its wildness, with stunning cliff scenery, unique geology, thousands and thousands of birds to watch and miles of empty space to walk and explore.

    Most of Northmavine has no road access, and you really need a car to get there anyway because bus services are very limited.

    Eshaness (pronounced 'ayshaness') is just one part of Northmavine, a most wonderfully wild place. Drive to the lighthouse, park and then just walk the cliffs....for miles, if you like. Magnificent geos and blowholes and arches, the wild Atlantic sea hundreds of feet below, birds to watch and maybe even whales to spot.

    I'll write in more detail about Eshaness on my Hillswick page (Eshaness is not in the VT database).

    If you have a car, a visit to Eshaness is a *must*.

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    Visit Sumburgh

    by leics Written Aug 20, 2011

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    Unless you arrive by boat, you'll land at tiny Sumburgh airport, to the far south of Shetland mainland and about 30 minutes' drive from Lerwick (there are regular buses).

    It's in the most wonderful spot, with sea either side and magnificent views over the surrounding voes (inlets, rather like fjords) and landscape.

    Like most Shetland settlements Sumburgh is spread out amongst the surrounding area rather than having an obvious village 'centre'. But it does have two fascinating archaeological sites (Jarlshof and Old Scatness) and the magnificent Sumburgh Head reserve where you can watch thousands of birds (including puffins in season) and keep and eye open for whales, seals and porpoise.

    Again, I'll write in more detail on my Sumburgh page.

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    Visit Lerwick

    by leics Updated Aug 20, 2011

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    Lerwick is the capital of Shetland, with stone-flagged streets and many narrow 'closses' (alleyways), shops, cafes and a couple of supermarkets...and a population of less than 8000, although almost half of the whole Shetland population (totalling 22000) live nearby..

    So, as you can imagine, it's not really a huge capital city. It's just a small town, where people know each other, where the community is strong but visitors are welcomed.

    I'll write in more detail about the town on my Lerwick page. It has a really excellent (and new) museum, a lovely (and busy) set of harbours where you can watch boats and birds, several interesting bits of architecture and lovely walks along the Knab.

    It is from Lerwick that most buses and boat tours around the island operate...seabirds and seals and stunning cliff scenery. The ferry to Bressay leaves regularly (every 30 minutes or so, a 10-minute trip) so it's easy to visit there too. A car helps hugely but you can still see a lot of the islands by bus.

    If you visit Shetland you'll almost certainly visit Lerwick, and definitely so if you come on a cruise: it's Shetland's cruise port. You'll enjoy it! :-)

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    Botany

    by kathymof Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    There is a wide variety of wild flowers growing in Shetland. Some are very common while others, such as Frog Orchid and Oyster Plant, are rare. A good place to see rare plants is the Keen of Hamar which is a wind-swept glacial area that has special designation. There are places where there is such an abundance of wild flowers, that I called it the "Shetland Bouquet". As to be expected, the vegetation is quite lush where the sheep can't access it - this happen only in the more remote sections of cliff faces. The sheep are pretty good climbers.

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    Tiny Plane that lands in a field!!

    by Rainman24 Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    Have to go to Fair Isle for a visit :o) People are all very friendly and the community spirit is fantastic as they all help one another out. There are only 75 people who live on the island, some who croft, make boats, knit and hand spin garments, make fiddles and chairs to name a few trades!, diverse and open to people who visit the island I had a really relaxing time.
    Fair Isle is a national reserve too, being the home to many different bird species. There are other cool things too about it being remote... no wasps!! (dont like them-lol) It is good for a weeks break, flights cost around ?35 from the mainland and travel 3 times a week.

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    Jarlshof

    by margaretvn Written Mar 23, 2008

    This is a truly extraordinary place and walking around it takes you back 4000 years. The various walks take you from the early 17th century AD laird's house through Medieval and Viking times to the prehistory. That really shows that the first dwellers in 2400 BC had the ability to choose a good site otherwise later generations would never have gone on building on the site. Jarlshof lies on the southern tip of Shetland beside a shallow bay known as the West Voe of Sumburgh and on the lower slope of the sandstone promontory of Sumburgh Head. This was an ideal place for sheltered fishing, a good place for boats and it was fertile well-drained land with fresh water springs. A added bonus was the beach which provided good quality building stone for the settlement. It was Sir Walter Scott who gave the laird's house the name Jarlshof. This house was built on top of an artifical mound, the accumulation of earlier centuries. It was a series of severs storms at the end of the 19th century that exposed the Iron Age buildings below and excavations then and later in the 1930s and 1950s showed the extensive buildings that can be seen today. It is likely that there are still more prehistoric houses under the laird's house and the medieval farmhouse and that coastal erosion has destroyed a large part of the prehistoric complex.
    The bone and stone tools found here are similar to finds at Skara Brae and they suggest that Neolithic farmers may have settled at Jarlshof around 2400BC. A lovely musuem explains these ruins that sprawl along the sea front and date back 3,000 years. You will find the settlement not far from Shetland airport. Watch out for crossing planes when driving in the area!

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