The Shetland Islands are a subarctic archipelago comprised of some 100 islands, of which only 16 are inhabited. Sumburgh, at the very south tip has the main airport, and Lerwick, with the safe harbour and is the seat of Shetland Constituency of the Scottish Parliament, are both located on what is known as the Mainland. The Mainland is 373 square miles, whilst the entire Shetland Islands is 567 square miles. Animals associated with the Shetland Islands are the Shetland pony, Shetland sheep (for which I have a fondness since Jessica raised Shetland sheep for about six years before going off to uni), Shetland Sheep Dog, as well as pigs, geese, ducks, and chickens all having been naturally or purposefully selected for thousands of years to thrive in this rugged environment. Norse and Scottish heritage blend seamlessly here and evidences of both are found in music, prose, and signage. Fiddle playing is most associated with traditional Shetland music. The average high in winter will be 45 and lows around 34F, whilst summers may top out about 62F and lows around 50. Summer days are almost perpetual day, while the winter days are short indeed. The wind blows about 12 miles per hour everyday with usually a bit of showers. Average annual precipitation is 39 inches.
St, Ninian’s Isle is connected to the main Shetland Island by a tombolo, which is a narrow sand or gravel bar connecting two islands. St. Ninian’s is named after a small chapel which was discovered on the island, but more famously, the location at which a 16-year-old schoolboy discovered treasure which professional archaelogists had overlooked for years! A local farmer grazes his Shetland sheep on the island. Sadly, the peace is disturbed by a couple of four wheelers racing up and down the tombolo.
Driving a stick shift on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, on the ‘wrong’ side of the car on these lovely 2 lane paved roads (think oil money) wasn’t quite as daunting as expected, although driving in the city would be another thing altogether. Although most of the roads are single paved tracks, there are several passing points alongside to allow approaching traffic to press by. Keep to the left!
Our first full day (Sunday) started with a quick trip to one of the finest, albeit small, beaches in the Shetland Islands and it’s right here in Levenwick! Too cold for a dip and of course we were the only ones walking the sandy beach, but no doubt in warmer weather, this would be a popular spot to play in the quiet water.
As we made our way up from the beach, I spotted a family gathered about some sheep in a holding yard. I pulled over quickly and went to meet them. They kindly answered my questions about sheep production in Shetland Islands. We really had a good chat for about an hour! They were expecting the truck soon to load the lambs to ship to Aberdeen for finishing. Farming is fraught with the same obstacles as American farmers. I tried asking a few sheep farmers what grazing land sold for but they didn’t know! It simply is not for sale. A small lot for building a home is about £17,000 or $27,780. Not really out of line for a lot with stunning views of the North Sea!
Later. in the early afternoon, we made our way to Sandsayre Pier at Sandwick to meet our Mousa Boat ride to Mousa Island at which we hiked around enjoying the scenery and wildlife, as well as the highlight, the Broch of Mousa. This is the best preserved broch in all the world. Brochs are unique to Scotland and it is still unclear as to the purpose. It’s only about a mile across from the main island, but today it was cloudy, hazy, windy, and quite cool. However, we all had layered up well, so we were not uncomfortable. We enjoyed a chat with a few people in a group of Aussies from Sydney who were our boat mates.
Later tonight, I watched Downton Abbey, months before my American friends are able. Unfortunately, I’ll only see 3 or 4 episodes before we head back to the States which means waiting until late January – early February before watching the last of the season!
Next day, after a good rest, we headed south towards Sumburgh Head. The drive down the main road was stunning as usual and, as we kept hearing, the weather is unusually nice for this time of year. Shortly before arriving at Jarlshof, part of our drive included passing across the end of the Sumburgh Airport runway. Definitely a first for me!
‘Jarlshof; is a made up word for an area near the southern coast of the main Shetland Island which has been excavated to reveal several thousands of years of generations. Very interesting for us history buffs.
Next stop was beyond the airport and to the very end of the island at Sumburgh Lighthouse and Hotel at Sumburgh Head.
After a good climb up to Sumburgh Head and back down, we discovered Spiggie’s Bar restaurant located inside the Spiggie Hotel and Lodges at which, we not only had a scrumptious late lunch, but discovered that the young lady who rang up our bill had spent three months in RIchmond, Missouri as an exchange student way back in 1988! What a small world we live in! We had a fun visit and I think she enjoyed reminiscing about her time spent in the US. The Spiggie restaurant uses fresh caught fish and hand cut fries along with local sourced veggies for the salads. Beef and lamb are also from locally raised sources.
A great place to walk off some of that huge meal was at the Shetland Crofthouse Museum in Dunrossness. This venue is another must do if you are ever in the Shetland Islands. Free admission, though donations are accepted, this well maintained croft house, byre, shed, and water mill complete with stack of peat blocks stacked outside will make you truly appreciate our level of creature comforts.
Except for stopping in at a local supermarket for evening snacks on the drive back to Melstadr in Levenwick, the croft house was our final venue for the day.
Tuesday is our last full day and a special stop for me was to find something lovely for Jessica which i would find at Shetland Jewellery in Weisdale. However, first we drove up and over to Scalloway to tour the Scalloway castle and Scalloway Museum located next to one another with easy access and carpark. Incredibly! these venues didn’t open until 11am, so we walked down the main street and found the ‘places of interest,’ then with another half hour before opening, we opted to go sightseeing. We headed up and around to the islands of East and West Burra which are accessed via Trondra and all connected by single lane bridges which we could drive over and wound our way to nearly the end of the islands. Along the way, we pulled over for this picturesque landscape begging to be photographed. Still photos sure don’t capture the breeze with bite, the warm sunshine, or the sound of crashing waves.
As we came back towards Scalloway, we pulled in at a sign which advertised a working farm – Burland Croft Trail. However, once we arrived, the lady landowner came over and said they really weren’t taking visitors anymore, the season was over. Once i told her we were sheep and cattle farmers from Missouri and completely understood when she explained that they were busy with farm chores, she wouldn’t have it any other way than for us to take their tour on our own. So we did, they have a lovely farm touching the Burland Sea Shore and across from the foundation of an ancient broch. Afterwards, even her husband came over and we had a great chat about farming and all the challenges. She apologised again for not being very good hosts as they were in the midst of sorting through and selecting replacement ewe lambs. I assured her there was no reason for apology except from us for interrupting their work, but that we were mighty appreciative of the visit. I think they enjoyed the exchange of ideas and the encouragement we received from one another. Farming is often a thankless job and one with continual challenges. We all agreed that if we wanted to be financially rich, we wouldn’t be farming. But as she pointed out, there are many other ways to be rich – and so right she is! We were meant to stop in here and meet Tommy and Mary Isbister. This is a pasture walk – so wear appropriate footwear and enjoy Burland Croft Trail – but it would be better for all to stop in during their regular tourist season!
Wednesday is our final day in Shetland. Dallas and I walked to the local convenience store in Levenwick and I had only enough pounds to buy a couple Mars bars. We ate a bit of one and saved some for Nathan who was cleaning up the room a bit. Now with dishes done, towels piled up in the bathroom, luggage loaded, we headed out, only to get to the end of the drive and find road work being done. However, the workmen finished in about 10 minutes. We arrived plenty early in Lerwick to drop off the rental car, pick up our Northlink Ferry boarding passes, store our luggage, then off to town to find somewhere to get some cash which I would need to pay the taxi driver who would take us to our hotel in Orkney at 10:30 pm! We did exchange some at the Lerwick Post Office on Commercial Street, then we spent an hour in the Shetland Museum. It was time to head back to the docks and board. Our ferry left spot on time at 5:30 pm with an early arrival time expected into Kirkwall, Orkney Islands of 10:30 rather than the 11:00 pm stated time. By the time our ship was moving past Sumbrough Head, it was dark enough that the lighthouse was already announcing the danger of its location. Soon the Shetland Islands slipped out of sight and into our memories.