I can't believe it's Day 7 already. This trip started out a bit of a challenge because of the stormy weather but I have to admit it has finished fabulously. Now we were tired! All this fresh air and running around has made even Ewan travel-weary so where did that leave his old man? We drove down to the southern tip of the island, one extreme to the other, to reach our final encounter.
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse
If you want to get up close and personal with Shetland’s birdlife, this is the place to do it. Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve is a load of attractions all wrapped into one at Shetland’s most southerly tip. The cliffs surrounding the lighthouse are fairly teeming with birdlife during the summer breeding season and the big bonus is, if you’re feeling weary from all your other Shetland hikes, there’s very little walking to do from the car park to the edge of the cliff. Plus it’s safe with lots of fences and lookout points! Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars all swirl around or make a beeline for their burrows with a beak full of fish. The cliffs themselves are adorned with wildflowers such as Spring Squill and Sea Pinks.
You might also catch a glimpse of ocean-going by-passers from this lofty vantage. Dolphins, Porpoise, Killer Whale and Minke are regularly spotted. The Lighthouse itself was designed by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson. Constructed in 1821, this was the first lighthouse in Shetland and it’s in here you find the Sumburgh Head Visitor Centre.
But it was the puffins we’d come to see and it was easy to see why. You can get so close to them at this time of the year, you can literally reach out and pat one on its bonny wee bonnet. Close-ups are guaranteed! They don't have their full mating colours at this time of the year - they’ve done all that stuff and chicks are snuggled up in the burrows.
Feeling all puffed out, Ewan and I set off for Jarlshof, a drive and 6-iron away from the Head. Jarlshof is the primary prehistoric site in Shetland. It seems Shetland wasn’t as popular with our Neolithic ancestors as nearby Orkney but over the aeons several groups occupied and modified the Jarlshof site so today, it offers multilayers of archaeology.
Bronze Age settlers were the first to built small oval houses here with thick stone walls. The Iron Age people added a broch and a defensive wall. The Picts decorated the place with various works of art in a hippy-like manner and The Vikings no doubt stormed in and bullied everyone then added their graffiti and longhouses. Finally, The Scots came along and built a fortified manor house which is the main edifice you see today surrounded by more ancient works.
It was Sir Walter Scott though who gave the name ‘Jarlshof’ to the place. He completely made it up for one of his novels. He’s an interesting phenomenon, responsible for fabricating so much of Scottish culture as we know it through his writing and also through the staging of the visit from King George IV in 1822. All those bagpipes, military music and knee-length kilts - yup - set up by Scott just to please the Royal patron. But more on him later when we cover Edinburgh.
St Ninian’s Isle
We were ticking off boxes from the prodigious list the tourist board had given us at the start of the week and there were only two items left. Next was St Ninian's Isle a few miles up the Atlantic side. It’s a small rocky outcrop connected to the Shetland mainland by the largest tombolo in the UK (as opposed to a tombola which is some kind of raffle in a Bingo Hall). You can walk across the 500-metre long sandy stretch during the summer months when it’s above sea level. During the winter, maybe not such a good idea! In 1958, an important early medieval treasure was discovered under a church floor by a local schoolboy.
We breezed back up to Lerwick again and I had to take a nap. Honestly, this fresh air’s not good for you. Another stroll along Commercial Street followed by lunch in the Peerie Cafe. The cafe looked promising but my order of salad, turkey and trimmings I think came from the 70’s; three or four small bits of lettuce with a scraping of turkey on the side and a wee pot of pickle - and not a lot else. It’s these little things that a small, isolated community can suffer from. There’s perhaps not the cosmopolitan selection and service you get in Madrid, Montpelier or Milano but hey, you can forgive them because this is Shetland and it has something all those other places just don’t have.
Shetland Museum and Archives
As our cultural day, as well as the trip, drew to an end there was one, the final stop before we queued up for the ‘da boat’ and it was the award-winning Shetland Museum and Archives by the harbourside in Lerwick. Museums are generally becoming so impressive these days, even I tend to go into them. Officially opened in 2007 by HM Queen Sonja of Norway and the Duke & Duchess of Rothesay (aka. Charles & Camilla), Shetland Museum is a pretty impressive installation taking you all the way back to when Shetland was part of Antarctica. Isn’t it amazing how the earth’s crust is afloat in a sea of hot magma like soap suds in a washing basin? I believe we have such a narrow view of things but museums like this brings our world and regions into perspective.
And this one is free which is even better - although, the bearded curator hastened to tell us, they do accept donations as you go out. Besides a fascinating insight into Shetland’s earliest days, there’s a three-storey boat hall and state of the art archive storage facility and search room. There is also a rather nice looking cafe which we might have fared better in than on Lerwick's Commercial Street.
It was time to head back ‘sooth’ and we were first in the queue for the Northlink Ferry. It wasn’t that we were desperate to get away or anything… we’d simply had enough. We’d had a ‘belly-full’ of Shetland but in a very good way. There’s so much to actually see and do on these islands, so many ‘different’ experiences, there comes a point when you realise you have to ‘come back down to earth’ and return to your normal world. I actually fantasised about living here again, that’s how much the place got to me. I’d go for Scalloway I reckon for all that fresh, delicious seafood. Or maybe a croft near Haroldswick on Unst. I’d then set about reclaiming the Unst Golf Course from the sheep. Then it really would be the very last golf course in Britain.
Northlink Fact Box
Northlink is the best way to get to Shetland as far as I’m concerned. You could take a plane from Aberdeen and rent a car at Sumburgh but how prosaic would that be. Northlink put on a superb service all the way so it’s like your holiday begins by getting on board.
We had tickets for the Magnus Lounge for our return trip. The food’s the same as in the ‘Feast’ but it’s brought to you in a rather more sedate setting where you can enjoy watching the ship slip out of Lerwick. I think it’s great that they promote local produce - salmon from Orkney, Lamb from Shetland, that sort of thing.
After dinner, you can watch a movie but having a 12-hour overnight sail gives you a chance to stroll around the boat and enjoy the passing scenery. Perhaps you’ll see dolphins and porpoises then have a very pleasant sleep in one of their finely appointed cabins.
The return fare for a vehicle and 2 adults is £456 and a further £18.50 per person to access the Magnus Lounge. The pre-booked 3-course dinner and breakfast is £26.35 per person each way and cabins can be booked from £84 - £139 each way depending on the grade.
www.northlinkferries.co.uk or telephone +44 (0)1856 885500