Scotland: the Shetland Islands, Viking archipelago

At 60 ° north latitude, the Shetlands are well closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. Sailing amid the rarely calm waters of the North Atlantic, the archipelago, made up of some 300 islands and islets (16 of which are inhabited), lies at the height of the southern tip of Greenland and the Norwegian city of Bergen.

It is from these areas that, around the year 800, the first Vikings landed. They enjoyed themselves so much on these fertile and relatively temperate lands - from their point of view - that they clung to it for six and a half centuries ...

Even today, the magnitude of the Scandinavian footprint is surprising. But should we really be surprised, knowing thata third of the 23 islanders descend directly from the Vikings ? The Shetland flag draws a white Scandinavian cross on a blue background. Balls and needles are lying around in cafes to occupy knitting hands.

And the streets of Lerwick, the capital, are adorned with names that are not very Anglo-Saxon: St Olaf, St Magnus, King Harald… Even the bus station, baptized Viking Bus Station, got down to it!

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The captain leaves little room for interpretation. "In Shetland, the day is rainy, ”he says in a routine tone. The good weather is a rare commodity here, despite the days lasting almost 19h at the time of the summer solstice ...

But soon, as the plane dives towards the southern tip of the Big Island of Mainland, here it is denied: the sun floods the ink-colored sea and the cliffs that try to tear themselves away from its hold. A perched lighthouse emerges. A very green field dotted with very white sheep. On the only road serving Lerwick, 40 km to the north, traffic has stopped: the highway crosses the track ...

Fifteen minutes later, it's raining. It sells on the tip of Sumburgh Head, to cliffs so often shrouded in treacherous mists. From the month of May, puffins, fulmars, gulls and murres return to nest here by the thousands, in a concert of screeching.

Oldest of Shetland, the Lighthouse, built in 1821 by the grandfather of the author of the Ile au Trésor, Robert Louis Stevenson, has been transformed into a museum, dedicated to the life of its occupants, to the sea birds and to the cetaceans that haunt these waters. It is not uncommon to see orca or minke's whale from the fully glazed tearoom, posted on the lookout, facing the immensity of the ocean.

A Neolithic layer, a Viking layer

No need to go far to dive into the history of Shetland : by fitting out the control tower, the local bridges and causeways uncovered dry stone walls that do not date from yesterday - from the Iron Age, to be precise. These few half-collapsed houses are based on the core of the Old Scatness broch, a conical tower with 4 m thick walls!

The hamlet was reoccupied around the year 700 by the Picts, the ancestors of the Scots, of which a house has been reconstituted, with its alcoves and its peat fire which takes by the throat. Garth, archaeologist and breeder of sheep of ancient breeds, details with passion the reconstruction.

Other brochs dot the archipelago, notably the Broch of Mousa, the highest (13 m) and the best preserved, planted on an islet on the eastern coast. Boats allow you to visit it once a day from April to mid-September and even climb to its summit.

Sheep leap from Old Scatness, the iconic site of Jarlshof testifies, him, of an occupation of nearly six millennia since the installation of the first men.

If the name, Nordic, indicates a mysterious "sanctuary of the count", one finds there especially a surprising village with the round houses of the Iron Age (from 500 before J. - C.), joined the ones to the others like to better protect yourself from sea winds.

Carved out of the sandy bank, reinforced with stone, these wheelhouses are the best preserved in Europe. On the ground, a few mortars for grinding the grain testify to a sedentary lifestyle.

Mill, crofthouses and picte treasure

The south of Mainland is undoubtedly the most interesting. Several sites reveal the rustic life of the islanders in the XNUMXth century. At quendale water mill, where the grain had to be dried first before it could be ground. In the bedroom with the closed bed Shetland Crofthouse Museum, where most of the furniture was made from driftwood… No mess here: the henhouse is made from an old upturned boat!

Past Scousburgh (pronounce Scosbra), a small road, bucolic under the returned sun, gently descends towards the Loch of Spiggie, with the banks planted with a few scattered farms and böds (huts). North side, a piece of track leads to the beach of Scousburgh Sands, closed by a rocky peninsula and high rolling dunes. A wild beach wonder. Deserted, if we except the periscopes of the seals, curious as cats.

The B9122, a small single-track road, caracole on the side of sloping meadows, without the shade of a tree. Then get lost towards the hills, while we descend towards another enchantment: the big islet of St Ninian's, clad in cliffs with birds and connected to the mainland by a tombolo - a long arm of sand outlining two handles back to back, with turquoise waters.

Now inhabited by sheep alone, the island retains the ruins of a chapel, where a priceless treasure has been uncovered including several chiseled silver cups and brooches from the XNUMXth century (originals in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh , copies in the Shetland Museum).

Scandinavian heritage

From the outset, the Shetland Museum, housed in a beautiful Scandinavian-style building opening onto the port, sets the scene. The tsunami that occurred 8 years ago. The arrival of men 000 years ago. A bas-relief of a picte bear. Another representing the evangelization of the archipelago around 6. The Vikings. The witches. Popular beliefs. The return to the Scottish fold in 000, when the penniless King of Denmark offered Shetland and Orkney Islands to Jacques III of Scotland to settle the dowry of his daughter Margaret ... With a clause, never extinguished: the possibility, for the ceding, to buy back the archipelagos at any time for the sum of 800 kilos of gold or 1468 kilos of silver (the best deal, at the current price of precious metals…).

At the time of the Scottish referendum, in 2014, the hypothesis made the rounds of the press: what if the Shetlanders demanded their attachment to Norway in the event of victory for the separatists? Or their own independence? The oil from the North Sea, exported at the rate of 10 billion barrels since 1978 (!), Would be more than enough to live ...

Au Town Hall (town hall), local preference is not in doubt. Upstairs in the neo-Gothic building, built during the golden age of the herring in 1883, the stained glass windows only illustrate the Viking history of the islands. And too bad if the gray stone houses lined up in the neighboring streets, with their tight little gardens, take on 100% Victorian airs ...

Lerwick, the sea air

In the port, at the foot of the old Fort Charlotte (not very scary), a junk drakkar drives the point home, awaiting the return of the Norsemen on the last Tuesday of January for the big Up-Helly-Aa, Britain's biggest fire festival ...

It's a carnival in fact, one of those times of the year when the whole community gets together, at the option of a dozen festivals spread over nearly two months, across the entire archipelago. Originally, it is said, the Shetlanders walked around with a barrel of hot tar to smear whatever (ux) they came across. Alcohol helping, the excesses pushed the authorities to ban the practice. It was then, in 1881, that the Up-Helly-Aa appeared.

For months, in the greatest secrecy, about fifty squads (units), each bringing together a maximum of thirty guizers (members), prepare themselves, choose their theme (pop stars, cosmonauts, nuns, puffins, Napoleonic soldiers ... ), sew their costumes, build a galley (drakkar) with the head and tail of a dragon.

On D-Day, everyone parades by torchlight (it is then night 17h per day ...), under the leadership of the Jarl Squad, dressed in Viking clothes, winged helmets in mind, false chainmail, shield and ax in hand, beard provided required. We sing to a fanfare background. Then we dance (country, preferably). We stuff ourselves with bannocks (rolls). Then the galley is set on fire, as it sails towards the horizon, like the boats of deceased Viking chiefs in the past.

Scalloway, at the foot of the castle

On the videos of Scalloway Museum, the sentences are riddled with obscure words, often of Scandinavian origin. Sixern? A boat with six rowers. Pirr? A light breeze. Tang? Algae. Skyumple? Foamy peat. Da Soaroo? The devil himself. The Shetlanders even coined a term for chatting "proper English" with non-islanders, to be understood: knaping.

At the Scalloway museum, we of course talk about fishing and the golden age. We talk about whaling and witch hunting (another Scandinavian influence, they could be cleared here, if 5 people testified in their favor…). We also evoke the Viking episode and, more extensively, the epic of the Shetland Bus - the clandestine connections by small boat between the archipelago and Norway to supply the resistance there during the Second World War.

Right next door, the old man scalloway castle, rough, still watches over this once essential port, where now mainly trawlers release. Built around 1600 by the Count of Orkney and Shetland Patrick (half-brother of Marie Stuart), it asserts a vanished power with its gutted roofs. The man was feared, even hated. And for good reason: administering (in) justice himself, he had appropriated all the Viking laws that had become obsolete in order to make his citizens pay and still pay. A frenzy that earned him the end of his head ...

Off shore, rafts and thousands of birds

Exploration continues towards voes (fjords) and isolated northwestern peninsulas, towards Eshaness, standing in front of the howling waves of winter. The lighthouse cries there almost constantly, in a setting of cliffs and rocky islets chiseled by the swell, wind and frost.

Off Mainland, sparsely populated rafts defy even more extreme conditions. So many pitfalls where you have to hang on to live, between fishing and breeding, without fear of isolation when ferry connections are interrupted on bad days.

Birds have established large colonies there. AT Noss, from mid-May to mid-July, tens of thousands of boobies, fulmars, murres and puffins pile up on the cliffs of Noup Head (180 m). We approach it on foot, after reaching the island by ferry and Zodiac, via Bressay.

À Fetlar (61 inhabitants), we go in search of rare narrow-billed phalaropes and… sea otters, not so rare (look for the “Otter crossing” signs!). West, Daddy stour (15 inhab.), Where lepers were once banished, is renowned for its pinnacles, sea caves and arches sculpted by the untamed force of the waves. Here, it is the terns that reign.

Further still, there is Fair isle, solitary, planted in the direction of Orkney and, to the west, in the middle of the ocean, Foula (“Bird Island” in Norwegian Norwegian), where you only land one day in three, with luck, after being shaken for 2 hours on a walnut shell. In winter, when it snowed, you'd swear a big iceberg drifting on the ocean ...

Unst, northern tip of the United Kingdom

Those who don't have a sea foot stick to the A968, the only sharp road to the north. A 1st ferry leads to theIsle of Yell, large aircraft carrier covered with moors. Some go straight on. Poets drift to Old haa museum, installed in a shack from 1672 where hurricane lamps, objects fished from wrecks and the jaw of a sperm whale are piled up.

The second ferry reached Unst. Bikers disembark from it. The island is the goal of a road trip that leads to the UK end, by 60 ° 45 '. The theme is successful and, like a treasure hunt, we go on to the northernmost tea room (Victoria's Vintage Tea Rooms), the northernmost hotel (the Baltasound), the grocery store furthest from everything (the Final Checkout), the most northern school (Baltasound Junior High), the most northern beach (Skaw) ... And the northernmost bus stop, Bobby's Shelter, furnished every year, with sofa and TV!

Very near there, the modest Unst Heritage Center examines the genealogical queries of the descendants of islanders expatriated to the four corners of the Anglo-Saxon world, and Unst Boat Haven collects local fishing barcasses, from Norway and the Faroe Islands. There is even, at the entrance of the village, a longship and viking house reconstituted ...

Then you have to face the elements, upwind, to reach the northernmost cliffs of Great Britain, in the Hermaness reserve. A wooden boardwalk rests on the spongy ground until it emerges into the void, filled with swirling birds.


Find all the good tips, addresses and practical information in Routard Scotland.

To prepare your stay, consult our Scotland guide

Scotland Tourist Board

Shetland Tourist Board

How to get there ?

There are no direct flights to the Shetland Archipelago. We must pass through Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness or Kirkwall (in the Orkney Islands) with the company Loganair, often having to spend the night there. Count a minimum of 320-400 € round trip from Paris.

The only other option: the boat, as long as you are not too sensitive to seasickness! The Shetlands are served by Northlink Ferries every evening from Aberdeen and 3-4 times a week from Kirkwall (the same boat adds this stopover) 14pm trip from Aberdeen and 30-5am from Orkney. The ferry has an advantage: it arrives at the gates of Lerwick and not at Sumburgh, at the southern end of the island, where the airport is located (a few buses / day, car hire or very expensive taxi).

In summer, a bi-weekly air connection allows those considering a grand tour of the north to fly directly to Bergen, Norway.

Find your plane ticket

When to go

In May, the sun returns and, with it, the hundreds of thousands of seabirds that nest on the cliffs and their ledges. The season is short: at the beginning of August, the puffins are already leaving, depending on the weather. It is in this short window that it is best to visit the Shetlands to fully enjoy the spectacle.

In August, northern gannets and gulls are still there, but silence quickly invades the coasts. Expect to be regularly humidified: it never rains less than 10 days per month on average (in May) and up to 20 days in winter. Mercury side: 1-5 ° C in January (it snows regularly), 10-14 ° C in midsummer.

Or sleep ?

It all depends on his budget. To travel economically, there are not a hundred solutions: you have to camp while preparing to wade regularly in the mud, or make use of the böds, these old little fishermen's houses converted into inns.

Some are quite comfortable (with heating, hot showers and kitchen), others have just a wood stove and a water point. You can book a bed there (£ 10-12), as in AJ, but also often the entire böd - which has the disadvantage of often finding them already occupied in season ...

On the camping side, as elsewhere in Scotland, you can settle anywhere, as long as the owner agrees. Organized campsites are not numerous, but they are well organized, often with small bungalows, useful when it rains.

There are also some real youth hostels, like the one in Lerwick, which is regularly awarded.

For the rest, many visitors stay in B & Bs, generally at a rate of between £ 70 and £ 90 per double room, including breakfast (Scottish or Shetland). The decor is sometimes a bit dated, but there is almost always a private bathroom.

Hotels are invariably expensive and fairly poor value for money. Even if it means spending as much, we recommend the lighthouses of Sumburgh and Eshaness, where you can stay for a few days in the footsteps of the old guardians. A rather extraordinary experience, especially if the mist or the storm invade everything! Count £ 70-125 / day.

A crush, finally, in the Chic category: the Busta House Hotel, north-west of Mainland, occupying a beautiful XNUMXth century building surrounded by an unusually green garden. There are even tall trees (a rarity in Shetland), a whiskey bar and a ghost!

Where to eat ?

Fish & chips, anyone? It should come as no surprise that fresh fish is often on the menu, as is the delicious smoked mackerel pâté, ideal for a snack with crackers, the cullen skink (a thick soup of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions), fish cakes and other fish pies.

At noon, we also eat bagels (with local salmon for example), sandwiches and burgers. Less frequent, (much) more expensive: island lamb. A few restaurants with more urban influences stand out in Lerwick, such as The Dowry, in Commercial Street, where the cuisine plays more on fusion notes. Another beautiful stopover: the Fjarå Café, with bay windows wide open on Lerwick Bay.


To organize your bus trips in the archipelago:

All inter-island ferry timetables and prices:

Ferry from Foula Island:

Audio Video Scotland: the Shetland Islands, Viking archipelago
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