Travel Blogs

Shetland Isles and Up-Helly-Aa

Written by Lynsey Oxton

If you love being outdoors in vast landscape filled with rugged cliffs, sweeping countryside and remote beaches, then the Shetland Isles might well be the place of your dreams! Located 60° North in the Atlantic Ocean, the Shetland Isles is one of Scotland’s lesser known gems….

‘By law shall the land be built up’ – old Norse

Shetland comprises over 100 islands with only 15 inhabited. It has almost 900 miles of coastline, perfect for walking, cycling, climbing, kayaking, fishing and a spot of geology. It’s little wonder it was voted as one of Lonely Planet’s ‘Top Ten European Destinations’ in 2019. Not only that, but 2020 is officially designated the year of Scotland’s Coasts and Waters.

Unoccupied beaches

The Shetland Isles have many unspoilt, unoccupied beaches, all of which boast sandy shorelines with brilliant blue waters. Even on the coldest and windiest of days like those we encountered, the beaches still can’t fail to impress with crashing waves that draw you in.

St Ninians Isle and beach

We were fortunate to stay with family, just down the road from St Ninians Isle in the Bigton area. A unique stretch of beach (known as a tombolo) leads to St Ninians as a sand path, whilst the ocean laps from both sides. Only on the windiest of days will the path be unusable, otherwise it’s a short walk across. Nearby Spiggie Beach is also a must-see, especially if you want to spot grey seals bobbing in the water and lazing on the shore.

Spiggie Beach – can you spot the seal?

Tourism

Shetland has a population of just 23,000, which despite being so small, is still far greater than it was before the early 1970s discovery of North Sea oil. With scenery like this and beaches as golden as these, there’s no doubt that if Shetland could offer a warmer climate, it would almost certainly be spoilt by the tourism industry. As it stands, hotels are few, guest houses are minimal and the largest town (and capital) – Lerwick – has just a handful of independent restaurants, shops and cafes. But that’s plenty. Any more would detract from its charm.

Cobbled streets and artisan products – Lerwick

Anyway, let’s face it, tourists who choose Shetland as a holiday destination do not do so for great weather! Rather they go to enjoy walking for miles in the wilderness, cycling on never-ending roads and generally escaping the rat-race for a short while. In the Winter months Shetland can be bitterly cold, extremely wet and dramatically windy. However, with these chilly days and frosty nights came the possibility of seeing an Aurora (the ‘Northern Lights’) due to the islands latitude. Unfortunately we were not so lucky on this occasion, however the night skies are still super-impressive at this time of year.

No filter needed!

Come Summer, however, you can reasonably expect temperatures to reach a pleasant 20° – so tourist levels do increase slightly as the requirement to pack waterproofs and thermals lessens! You can also expect extended daylight hours, again due to the latitude. Nonetheless, Shetland never quite hits those high temperatures that bring in the crowds of beach-loving sun-worshippers – thankfully!

Whatever time of year, you’ll always see stunning sunsets!

Fauna (and Flora)

Those who love wildlife will delight in what Shetland has on offer; wild Shetland ponies, otters, seabirds, puffins, sheep in their masses, dolphins and orca whales – all in their natural habitat. Of course, it depends on what time of year you visit as to what you can expect to see; if you want to spot puffins, time your visit for the Summer months. Equally, you’re more likely to see orcas when the sea is warmer (late Spring into Summer).

The only orca we spotted during our stay….!

A great place to spot wildlife is from Sumburgh Head. Here you will find the towering, sheer cliffs and panoramic sea views – so take your binoculars if this interests you. Visitors to this part of the island can also visit the lighthouse for a small fee (£6 per person) to learn about its history and get the best views of the ocean from the foghorn tower.

Sumburgh Head

As far as flora goes, although I spotted very few flowers during my stay, as soon as Spring arrives, the isles will burst with the colour of wild flowers and heather – only adding to the already stunning landscape.

And yet, for a set of isles that are usually so calm and tranquil, there is one night every year that turns Shetland into a giant fire-fuelled fun-fest….

Up-Helly-Aa: A Viking Fire Festival

The early history of Shetland is dominated by the influence of Scandinavia and the vikings. No wonder as parts of its coastline are closer to Norway than to the UK. Shetland (and it’s neighbouring Orkney Isles) were ruled by the Norse for 500 years before becoming a part of Scotland in the mid 1400s.

Up Helly Aa is the spectacular, annual fire festival held in Lerwick every last Tuesday in January. It marks the end of a dark winter and celebrates the islands Viking history. Winter celebrations on Shetland date all the way back to the early 1800s, with the earliest shenanigans involving drunken men rolling burning tar barrels down the street (clearly before ‘health and safety’ came into play).

Around 1870, the Lerwigians decided to celebrate in a more controlled fashion, introducing a Viking theme and a torchlit procession involving local, working class men (in fact, to this day, women do not take part in the Up-Helly-Aa procession!). It was then that Up-Helly-Aa got its title and the long-standing tradition began.

Each year, a Shetlander is given the prestigious honour of being the Guizer Jarl (having been on a waiting list for 20 years!). He is responsible for planning the following years Up-Helly-Aa celebrations – not a light task. This involves building his Viking longship from scratch and making the impressive outfits for he and his men.

Money and hard graft are not spared when it comes to Up-Helly-Aa! And of course, every festival needs a set of rules, so these are carefully crafted and posted on a board in Lerwick centre on the day of Up-Helly-Aa – and as this years stated, “defacers of our bill will get their bits sorted and cremated”.

But it is in the evening when the real fun starts! At 19:15, the street lights are turned off and the torch bearers ‘light up’. At 19:30, amongst the cheers and chaos, the Guizer Jarl begins his procession in the longboat, surrounded by his Squad.

Lights out….

Other Squads also join the procession, taking the number close to 1000. These groups dress up in a variety of weird and wonderful costumes and perform comedy, musical and dramatic acts throughout the day and night. This year saw group themes of ‘Strictly Viking Dance’, ‘Boris Dancer and the Theresa Maypoles’ and ‘Oh What A Knight’ (amongst another 44). It may be a fire festival, but it’s not without humour!

After around 40 minutes of parading through the street, singing, dancing and chanting, the longship is taken to its final destination, where all of the procession throw their torches onto it, sending the flames flying high!

Despite this grand finale, the Up-Helly-Aa fun doesn’t end with the boat burning – in fact, it only just begins! Everybody spills into the nearby halls to eat, drink and be merry until the following morning! Yep, the Shetlanders know how to party!

Watch my Up-Helly-Aa torch procession footage below!

How to get to Shetland:

So now that I’ve tempted you….

There are two ways to get to Shetland from the UK; you can fly for a premium – or you can take the NorthLink Ferry from Aberdeen. We opted for the latter – not only was it half the price, but we felt it would be more of an adventure!

Tip: If you do go by boat, expect a long journey of 12 hours – so it’s important to be as comfortable as possible. Although you can travel as a foot passenger, treat yourself to a cabin – you’ll be glad you did. They may be basic, but they are clean and you have a private bathroom. Furthermore, having a cabin gives you instant access to a private lounge with newspapers, nibbles and drinks. Well worth it. Make sure you take some travel sickness pills with you too; the crossings can be pretty rough!

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