Close enough to Norway geographically and historically to make nationality an ambiguous concept, the Shetland Islands are Britain’s most northerly outpost. There’s a Scandinavian lilt to the local accent, and streets named King Haakon or St Olaf are reminders that Shetland was under Norse rule until 1469, when it was gifted to Scotland in lieu of the dowry of a Danish princess.
The stirringly bleak setting – it's a Unesco geopark – still feels uniquely Scottish, though, with deep, naked glens flanked by steep hills, twinkling, sky-blue lochs and, of course, sheep on the roads.
Despite the famous ponies and woollens, it's no agricultural backwater. Offshore oil makes it quite a busy, comparatively well-heeled place, despite drops in barrel prices. Nevertheless nature still rules the seas and islands, and the birdlife is spectacular: pack binoculars.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Shetland.
Nature ReserveHermaness National Nature Reserve
At marvellous Hermaness headland, a 4.5-mile round walk takes you to cliffs where gannets, fulmars and guillemots nest, and numerous puffins frolic. You can also see Scotland's most northerly point, the rocks of Out Stack, and Muckle Flugga, with its lighthouse built by Robert Louis Stevenson's uncle. Duck into the Hermaness Visitor Centre, with its poignant story about one-time resident Albert Ross.
This museum houses an impressive collection of 5000 years’ worth of culture, people and their interaction with this ancient landscape. Comprehensive but never dull, it covers everything from the archipelago’s geology to its fishing industry, via local mythology – find out about scary nyuggles (ghostly horses), or detect trows (fairies). Pictish carvings and replica jewellery are among the finest pieces. The museum also includes a working lighthouse mechanism, a small gallery, a boat-building workshop and an archive for tracing Shetland ancestry.
Old and new collide here, with Sumburgh airport right by this picturesque, instructive archaeological site. Various periods of occupation from 2500 BC to AD 1500 can be seen; the complete change upon the Vikings' arrival is obvious: their rectangular longhouses present a marked contrast to the preceding brochs, roundhouses and wheelhouses. Atop the site is 16th-century Old House, named ‘Jarlshof’ in a novel by Sir Walter Scott. There’s an informative audio tour included with admission.
IslandSt Ninian's Isle
A couple of miles beyond Bigton is the largest shell-and-sand tombolo (sand or gravel isthmus) in Britain. Walk across to beautiful, emerald-capped St Ninian’s Isle, where you’ll find the ruins of a 12th-century church where a famous hoard of silver Pictish treasure was found. The treasure is now kept in Edinburgh's Museum of Scotland, with replicas in Lerwick’s Shetland Museum.
Nature ReserveIsle of Noss
Little Noss, 1.5 miles wide, lies just east of Bressay. High seacliffs harbour over 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds, while inland heath supports hundreds of pairs of great skua. Access is by dinghy from Bressay; phone in advance to check that it's running. Walking anticlockwise around Noss is easier, with better cliff-viewing. There's a small visitor centre by the dock.
LighthouseSumburgh Head Visitor Centre
High on the cliffs at Sumburgh Head, this excellent attraction is set across several buildings. Displays explain about the lighthouse, foghorn and radar station that operated here, and there's a good exhibition on the local marine creatures and birds. You can visit the lighthouse itself on a guided tour for an extra charge.
LandmarkUnst Bus Shelter
At the turn-off to Littlehamar, just past Baltasound, is Britain's most impressive bus stop. Enterprising locals, tired of waiting in discomfort, decided to do a job on it, and it now boasts posh seating, novels, numerous decorative features and a visitors' book to sign. The theme and colour scheme changes yearly.
This enthusiastic modern museum by Scalloway Castle has an excellent display on Scalloway life and history, with prehistoric finds, witch-burnings and local lore all featuring. It has a detailed section on the Shetland Bus and a fun area for kids, as well as a cafe.
MonumentShetland Bus Memorial
During WWII, the Norwegian resistance movement operated the ‘Shetland Bus’ from here. The trips were very successful, carrying agents, wireless operators and military supplies to Norway for the resistance movement and returning with refugees, recruits for the Free Norwegian Forces and, in December, Christmas trees for the treeless Shetlands. This is a moving tribute on the waterfront, built with stones from both countries. The Norwegian stones are from the home areas of 44 Norwegians who died running the gauntlet between Norway and Scalloway.