Exploring Shetland in Winter
Up Helly Aa – Shetland’s annual Viking fire festival – is a burning ball of fun and totally worth the long journey by road and ferry to get there. Despite the windy, wintry conditions, I quickly came to discover that Up Helly Aa isn’t the only reason you should grace Shetland’s shores in the middle of winter. Read on.
Has winter has left your complexion looking dull and dry? It’s time you went north for Shetland’s best kept secret; a rejuvenating facial provided solely by nature. A treatment guaranteed to restore your radiance and stimulate cell regeneration. My alfresco spa experience was at the dramatic Eshaness Cliffs.
Treatment is delivered standing up, a safe distance from the treacherous sheer drop. It began with a rinse of diagonal rain to flush away the dirt and impurities, before switching to a high-intensity combo of wind and hail, to exfoliate my skin in fierce, circular motions.
The blast of unpolluted oxygen unclogged my pores, before sealing them tight with the cold sea air. My face got such a fright, I would confidently sell this to you as a non-surgical facelift.
Just one of the many advantages of visiting Shetland in winter.
Our Haggis Adventures guide Dougie had said that Eshaness was one of his favourite places on Earth, and I could see why. The ancient display of volcanic rock is like Disneyland for geologists, while the coastline’s striking, untamed beauty is a perfect match for the wild weather and furious sea.
I absorbed the views, and frantically tried to capture the edge-of-the-earth scenes on my rain splashed lens. Soon, my ‘natural facial’ started to feel more like frostbite and my shaking hands were rendered useless in holding my camera steady. Back to the cosy bus I went.
I’m not complaining though. The weather was extreme, but I loved it.
I was on the Atlantic side of a remote northern isle, fully exposed to the elements, when I could’ve been back home in the city on my couch watching Netflix.
I felt pretty hardcore if I’m honest.
Reward your taste buds.
Anyone who withstands the wintry weather on Shetland has almost certainly earned a good hot meal for their efforts.
Indulging in Shetland’s larder is guaranteed to tickle your taste buds and warm you from within. Expect fresh, delicious seafood, quality island-bred meat and decadent homemade sweet treats.
For an award-winning fishy on a little dishy, Frankie’s Fish & Chips in Brae should be top of your list. The ‘No. 1 Fish & Chip Shop in the UK’ award is just one of its many accolades, and I can personally vouch for the small breaded haddock on chips.
It tastes even better when it’s raining outside. FACT.
For something a bit more carnivorous, tuck into the generous serving of lamb with all the tasty trimmings at the inviting Scalloway Hotel. Shetland lamb is famously flavoursome, thanks to its diet of sea-salted grass or seaweed.
Not knowing where to start with my mega plateful, it was like Christmas dinner all over again. Scheduling in a wee snooze for afterwards is wise.
Next up is Reestit Mutton, Shetland’s unofficial ‘national dish’. I was so intrigued by the ‘Reestit Mutton & Tattie soup’ on the board in Lerwick’s Peerie Café I couldn’t resist a bowl.
I discovered that it’s something of a winter speciality on Shetland; the meat is traditionally soaked in brine before being hung up to dry in the rafters, taking flavor from the peat fire burning underneath. Yummy!
It was a hearty and comforting dish, salted from the meat itself. I’m glad I didn’t add any additional salt before tasting it.
The Peerie Café also showcases a display of cakes so good I still don’t understand how or why I resisted. Idiot.
The past meets the present.
You can feed so much more than just your appetite on Shetland. Feed your soul, your imagination, and your curiosity.
Try Clickimin Broch; a perfectly preserved Iron-age defence structure which sits on the fringes of Lerwick. The interior holds impressive little passages and chambers, while the ancient and imposing stonework outside is juxtaposed by the nearby Tesco and residential houses.
The full extent of its former life and purpose remains a mystery.
Then there’s Jarlshof, Shetland’s (arguably more impressive) answer to Skara Brae. Not far from the island’s commercial airport, 4,000 years of history are layered within the intriguing ruins. In a prime location by the sea, the site was evidently a popular choice for many communities throughout time, from Neolithic settlers to Norse raiders.
Wandering around the partial structures and curious little cubby holes, it’s easy to imagine the site as home-sweet-home for tribes, Vikings or even Bilbo Baggins.
I love that remnants of the past are scattered all over Shetland, with modern island life and infrastructure now settled alongside.
Freak weather alert.
If my trip to Shetland taught me anything, is that it’s full of surprises. Expect the unexpected.
This was especially true one morning before breakfast, when I saw something strange. For fear of jinxing the day, I tried to forget it. The vision reappeared later however and my suspicions were confirmed.
The sky was an unusual colour and the land was illuminated by light. We were all shocked by this entirely unexpected phenomenon, and wondered how long it would last.
Blue skies and sunshine, on Shetland, in January? Aye, I know.
Dougie was as shocked as we were. He described it as “freak weather”; as nice as he had ever seen it in his ten years attending Up Helly Aa.
We were a tour group, holidaying on an island, and the sun was out. There was only once thing for it…
TO THE BEACH!
Life’s a beach on Shetland.
Scottish beaches are my favourite in the world, and there’s a lot to be said about going for a strut along the sand in the middle of winter.
We drove from the main island over a causeway to the small isle of Trondra then onto Burra. Pulling over by a sign for Meal Beach, we followed the sandy path down to a secluded bay.
We also visited a stunning stretch of sand on the south-west for a glimpse of St Ninian’s Isle. We had planned to stroll over the super-photogenic tombolo which links it to the mainland, however the tide had other ideas and the natural causeway remained under the lapping waves.
This didn’t dent my happiness, not one bit. After all, it was a Monday afternoon, and I was free as a bird on a beautiful beach; I felt a million islands away from the fatiguing hustle and bustle of the city.
Just to sprinkle some extra magic dust on the whole experience, a rainbow emerged from the sky and hovered over the surface of the sea.
I do love to be beside the sea.
Ah, the sea. The number one perk of being on a wee island is that you’re never far from it. Even if you can’t see it, the scent of salt in the air and the brisk bite of the wind will remind you of its presence.
Being somewhere so tightly encircled by water is the optimum remedy for all things stress-related. It calms and uplifts me, both consciously and subliminally.
The day after the Up Helly Aa festivities, our guide Dougie prescribed us a visit to the ever-peaceful Lunna Ness peninsula. Silent and secluded, and home to the island’s oldest kirk, it is the perfect spot to empty your head of Viking shenanigans and initiate your comeback to reality.
Another good spot to (quite literally) blow away the cobwebs after a night with the locals in ‘Da Lounge’, is Sumburgh Head Lighthouse.
I love being by the sea so much, that I’ve long dreamt of restoring and settling in an old lighthouse, complete with a rounded bed (I saw it on TV once!). That plan clearly hasn’t materialised, and the closest I’ve been to a lighthouse was on our guided tour of Sumburgh Head.
Admittedly, I’m often so distracted by the nautical charm and aesthetical appeal of lighthouses, that I shamefully give little thought to the vital role they play and what goes on within their walls.
Behind the scenes at Sumburgh Head, we learned about the clever mechanics of the lighthouse – which has been in continuous use since 1821 – the families who lived and worked there, and its significant contribution to WW2.
We were also told about the abundance of wildlife that like to hang out nearby; it’s the best place in the UK to see killer whales, and puffins in their masses take up residence in the cliffs during the summer.
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse wasn’t the only nautical property I had my eye on during my visit. Meander through Lerwick, past the charity shops, pubs and cafes along Commercial Street and you’ll find a particularly picturesque wee spot.
I would challenge anyone who stumbles across this this attractive cluster of little residences, not to immediately reach for their camera.
Known collectively as the Lodberries, they were purposely built into the sea and their name is as cute as their appearance. I want one.
Farewell to the North.
Shetland was my first adventure of 2017, and what an epic way to start. The islands are dreamy in summer, but should absolutely not be overlooked in winter.
Nature does not close for the winter, and if you’re looking for warmth, look no further than the island hospitality. If that’s not enough, there’s always Up Helly Aa, deserted beaches, taste bud treats and fresh ‘freak’ weather.
Oh and don’t forget the natural facials on offer, and the fact that you heard it here first!
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to experience Shetland’s wild beauty in the sunshine and the rain, in winter and in summer.
Now I know for sure that my love for Shetland has no seasonality.
- The Up Helly Aa tour with Haggis Adventures is aimed at backpackers and 18-35s (though not exclusively!) with dorm style accommodation on the ferry and on land.
- Alternatively, you can check out the Highland Explorer Up Helly Aa tour which includes more comfortable lodgings (a twin cabin on the ferry and a guest house in Lerwick) and a full Scottish breakfast in the morning.
My Up Helly Aa experience was courtesy of Haggis Adventures in exchange for social media and blog coverage. All of my opinions – and attempts to put my unique experience into words – are my own.
Book early to avoid missing out!