An insider’s guide to Shetland, Scotland’s wild and captivating islands

"Ваше сознание – мелкий безбилетник на трансатлантическом лайнере, который ставит эту поездку себе в заслугу и не обращает внимания на все громоздкие машины под ногами." Дэвид Иглмен ©
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The lonely muckle flugga rock – buffeted by sea-crash, topped by a little lighthouse – is simply there. This is the northernmost point in the British Isles, visible up close only on a little boat or via a two-hour hike across the Hermaness headland – where bleak peat bogs and circling bonxies give way to hulking Middle-earth cliffs, glaikit sheep tottering on precipices, terns springing like boomerangs over waters churning with a steady basso profondo.

There’s an epic beauty to it all – but try the words ‘Muckle Flugga’ on most Brits and watch the blank expression. There are no postcards of the lighthouse, no cheery guides in branded fleeces. Just a laminated sign on a wooden post at the edge of the crag, informing visitors that beyond there’s nothing but grey sea until the North Pole.

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    This understatement is typical of Shetland, the subarctic archipelago that includes 16 inhabited islands that largely sit unadorned, unfertilised, unsold, untouristed. It is a lonely walk across a few muddy fields to the Bergman-esque stacks at Silwick, where vertical cliffs are pocked with nests like an avian Hong Kong. Yell’s white-sand Breckon – probably my favourite beach on the planet – usually sits as empty as a Hollywood dream sequence. The appeal is less about seeing anything in particular than simply being and feeling; waiting for ferries and otters, watching the shifting light and bobbing seals, surrounded by a capricious and unknowable sea, curiously at peace.

    Pictured: The bridge at Muckle Roe to the west of the Mainland

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    I’ve been coming here since I was young. My stepmother Shona has family connections with Cullivoe, a fishing and crofting village on the North Isle of Yell, known for its four-day weddings and terrifyingly liquid Hogmanay, which culminates in a New Year’s Day tug o’ war between the Uppies and the Doonies from either end of the village. Her father, Adam Robson, a charismatic man who played flanker for Scotland and painted wild seas, grew up in Hawick but would visit often with his Cullivoe-born mother, amusing the locals and free-roaming sheep by running up and down the hills. His Shetland blood could be discerned in both his gentle egalitarianism and bone-crushing handshake.

    Pictured: Ninian knitwear and gift shop in Lerwick

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    We used to stay at New House, the ‘but and ben’ two-room croft house that had been in the family since the 1850s and which Papa Adam renovated in the 1990s. We’d drive around in Dad’s Saab convertible, listening to Sade, Meat Loaf and Annie Lennox, shouting ‘Basta!’ at the top of our lungs every time we passed the sign for the little voe where famously plump mussels cling to ropes in the face of roaring tides – still a strictly enforced tradition, and a test of nerve for first-time visitors.

    Pictured: Commercial Street in Lerwick

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Before Papa Adam died, Dad and Shona’s retirement plan was to move from St Katharine Docks to the Languedoc for a life of Grange des Pères, foie gras and watching Narbonne play rugby. But every time my artist stepmother came to clear out New House for sale, something would stop her. On the 90-minute drive back to the airport, she’d find herself weeping. To cut a long story short, they moved here in 2010 – leaving Dad staring blankly at his Anderson & Sheppard suits and Shona wondering if she’d ever wear her Chanel pumps again.

    Pictured: A Shetland pony, a native breed adapted to the harsh climate of the islands

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    They built an extension to New House, with glassy views across the Bluemull Sound to the cliffs of Unst, the northernmost island – a hundred feet high but dwarfed by the fiercest winter swells. A few years later, they opened The Shetland Gallery, Britain’s northernmost art space, showing Shona’s free-machine embroidered seascapes alongside works by other artists and makers drawn to the island seas and skies. They bought two beautiful Shetland ponies, Fortnum and Mason, who soon had their own little hut, were cuddled daily but couldn’t be induced to cross their field without treats. Up at the pebbledash village hall, where even the most generous round rarely exceeds a tenner, Peerie Brian the ship captain rechristened them Aldi and Lidl. Dad and Shona did their best to be amused.

    Pictured: Belmont House mansion on Unst

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Aside from Dad’s ill-fated run for a council seat and a few minor spats conducted via the pages of The Shetland Times, they have been welcomed like family, as have we all. Shona is actually related to half the village, but on one Famously Groused Hogmanay my sister had a de facto marriage to Lee the bus driver, about which his actual fiancée seemed only faintly unamused. Netta, the late twinkling, mischievously formidable Queen of Cullivoe, became a surrogate granny. The charming Lawson children could soon remember not just our names but how we took our gin and tonics, and who was best at the cereal-box game.

    Pictured: Sumburgh beach

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Over time, I’ve become soaked in a place which is really British only in name. Closer to Bergen than Inverness, the islands were Viking-conquered and under Norse rule until the 15th century. Shetlanders have voted Liberal/Lib Dem at every election since 1950, and oil-driven public funds have helped deliver folk and wool festivals, shiny roads and remote leisure centres. It feels more Scandi-socialist than two-party British. Place names reflect the Norse mash-up: Cunnister, Wadbister, Huxter, Cuppa Water, Twatt. The local dialect, virtually impossible to imitate, can sound almost Icelandic – long-vowelled, with ‘o’ drifting towards ‘au’ and ‘i’ turning to ‘u’ (‘Dunna chuck bruck’, read the anti-littering signs). But the people are no insular separatists. A history of seafaring has fostered an outward-looking perspective, a resourcefulness, a gentle humility and a broad-church tolerance. It’s just that the islands haven’t much needed the rest of the world. Unlike the Western Isles or the more manicured Orkneys, Shetland’s healthy economy relies much more on fishing and oil than tourism.

    Pictured: Eshaness cliffs

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Hence there are smart stays, but also grotty hotels that were built in the 1970s for oilmen who wanted little beyond a bunk and a Tennent’s tap; a slowly growing number of places to sample the wonderful seafood, if not as many as there might be, given that more fish is landed here than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Flights remain expensive, though passengers are rewarded with Tunnock’s wafers and tea, and thrilling views as the tiny propeller plane swoops over the lighthouse and the Jarlshof pre-historic settlement at Sumburgh, on the Mainland’s southern tip.

    Pictured: Sumburgh lighthouse

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Adding to the sometime assertion that this is a Marmite destination, Shetland’s rolling, largely treeless interior doesn’t fit some Romantic ideals of beauty. Yet I adore its peaty bleakness – a landscape of sinking bogs, ancient bones and ferocious winds; a great moss-green canvas for the sky. The sense of space leaves room for imagination, which helps explain all the artists and poets; makers of fiddles, fine tweeds and impossibly delicate lace shawls; why so many gatherings tend to end with impromptu jams, a tradition that dates beyond Peerie Willie Johnson, the ‘dum chuck’ guitarist who combined Django Reinhardt licks with classic folk.

    Pictured: 18th-century lodberry stone store in Lerwick

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    The ultimate creative space is the sea, which is like a god, albeit one you’re never more than four miles from. It crashes and caresses, and shapes everything: the stacks at Eshaness, one of which looks like a giant horse supping the sea; or the hourglass-shaped tombolo leading to St Ninian’s Isle, which disappears with a whimper at high tide. Up at Hermaness, great Arctic swells rip into the cliffs, before dementedly swirling down the Bluemull Sound.

    Pictured: Diving off Scousburgh, South Mainland

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    The sea also provides Muckle Flugga’s mythology. The story goes that the giants Herma and Saxa fell in love with the same mermaid, hurling rocks at each other, one of which became Muckle Flugga. Eventually, the mermaid offered to marry whichever giant could follow her to the North Pole. Neither could swim, so both drowned in pursuit. I often think, too, of the poor young couple who died at Hermaness on New Year’s Day in 1992, caught by a 200mph storm that shattered the lonely bird hide they were sheltering in. Nature at its most ruthless.

    Nothing and no one will tell you these stories. Hermaness, like much of Shetland, isn’t a place for explanations, let alone soupy endings. It’s a place to watch the blues and whites of waves that growl like thunder, or the brief glide of a gannet before it swoops and kills. It is what it is. A place to wonder.

    Pictured: Cliffs at Sumburgh Head

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Where to stay

    The best hotel has long been the waterside Scalloway Hotel, in the eponymous old capital, six miles from Lerwick, with cosy tweed-clad rooms – though its owners recently put it up for sale. Seascape artist Ruth Brownlee’s Airbnb Sea Winds is the one to book in Lerwick, with its spiral staircase and view over Jimmy Perez’s cottage in the Shetland TV show. The most elegant stay is Belmont House, on Unst, a Georgian country pile with landscaped gardens. Twelve guests can cosy up in the light-dappled drawing room, watching the little ferry drift in while perhaps looking up from a game of Cluedo.

    Pictured: Ruth Brownlee’s Airbnb

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Where to eat

    The best of Lerwick’s new breed of restaurants is The Dowry, a Scandi-minimal deli/bar that does local scallops, lobster and Scotch eggs; while, up in Brae, Frankie’s has won national awards for its fish and chips, with the menu showing the boats bringing in today’s catch.

    Pictured: Tacos at The String in Lerwick

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    what to do

    Founded by naturalist Brydon Thomason, Shetland Nature lays on everything from otter- and orca-spotting expeditions to week- long trips. Sea Kayak Shetland in Lerwick offers tours around the South Mainland cliffs, also great for coasteering. Serious anglers head out from Cullivoe on Oberon, skippered by hail-fellow-well-met Glaswegian Kenny Graham, and Compass Rose runs fishing day trips from the same pier to see the Muckle Flugga lighthouse up close.

    Pictured: The Dowry in Lerwick

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  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Pictured: Bressay lighthouse

  • An insiders guide to Shetland, Scotlands wild and captivating islands

    Pictured: Puffin