Even in winter, Scotland’s northernmost Shetland Islands dazzle

Shetland, for most people, is a place they have yet to visit. It is a place that exists as a synonym for remote beauty, distinct from the mainland, and unique.

That feeling is a good one. The Scottish islands are just as close as Aberdeen to the Norwegian capital of Bergen, and proudly display their merged culture. The archipelago is located 60 degrees north, in the crosswinds between the Atlantic and North Sea. Winter really drives this latitude home.

It’s winter in Shetland, and I can’t recommend it enough for adventurers. It’s clear that the dark months can be a hard slog for Shetlanders (who live on 16 of the 100 islands), but it’s an amazing, challenging environment for tourists.

My February trip was filled with amazing moments, such as seeing the magic light of the Cliffs of Eshaness and the tranquility of Jarlshof’s purple salty dusk. You will never feel bored or alone in this place with its intense and unpredictable weather.

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Promote Shetland’s tagline is “Find your true North” and it brought me to this place. Despite sounding cheesy, magnetic theories are not necessary to experience the truth.

Shetland should be visited in winter to…

Amazing wildlife encounters

Brydon Thomason/Shetland Nature

The winters in Shetland are the best time to see Arctic visitors in Britain, as well its most hardy residents.

You might be lucky enough to see a pod or two of orcas, but booking a guide to wildlife will ensure you have the best chance of seeing one amazing species.

My highlight was exploring the coast of Unst with Shetland Nature’s Brydon Thomason. Brydon Thomason, Shetland’s expert on their behavior, is the place with the highest concentration of otter population in Europe. Two of them were seen in a loch just minutes after we met off the ferry. They were sleek and deeply interested in their prey.

“Feathered, flippered, or finned it is from the regions of frozen north that our hopes are for an unexpected arrival.”

Brydon Thomason Shetland Natural

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Wildlife tours don’t mean you have to see every animal on your list. Brydon and other good guides will help you see the ecosystem from a different perspective. They’ll point out the holts (mothers build multiple dens in rocks, roots, and banks), the crumbles of crab shell and the spraint (dung), which otters leave to each other as messages.

Brydon says that winter is the best time to see otters in action due to their diurnal feeding patterns. This is an upside to the short days. Shetland is now one of the most popular places to spot humpback whales and orcas. Birders who are keen on birding will enjoy the sightings of snowy nomads at this time of the year, including Ross’s Gull, Gyrfalcon and Ivory Gull, as well as the bright-faced King Eider.

Magnificent sky views

Wild skies in Shetland are equally unpredictable and even more amazing. The night sky is lit by the ‘Mirrie Dancers, or the Northern Lights as they are called here, with dazzling colors of fuschia, green, blue, orange, and orange on a regular basis. It’s not hard to see why it’s the best place in the UK for them to be seen. Your chances of seeing them over a week are good. This is made even better by AuroraWatch and being flexible on clear nights.

Robbie Brookes

There are many reasons to gaze skywards from the islands. Unst is home to a sky trail that showcases the year-round phenomena of the dark sky, including stars and storms as well as the ‘da simmer dim,’ which is the long, cool evenings.

Jane Macauley, cofounder of Wild Skies Shetland says that it’s an opportunity to allow people to do something very simple that they may not have the chance to do in their home environments. The group installs audio posts and benches in 13 of Unst’s most beautiful locations. Each location has a different sky-related theme.

According to Fabian Kunst, meteorite hunter, stargazing is a “USP” of winter. “We always have something exciting going on that can you enjoy regardless.” Fabian Kunst said that even though it was cloudy, we were able find a 22-degree halo around my moon. This optical illusion is made of ice crystals in our atmosphere.

Viking history in vivid detail

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Shetland is an archaeologist’s paradise. There are layers of Viking, Pictish, and prehistoric remnants all over the islands. History feels incredibly present in this area, from the mossy ruins of human life at Jarlshof, south, to the fine reproduction of a Viking longhouse on Unst.

The coastlines are dotted with overgrown brochs, which are circular, drystone structures from the Iron Age. Retired lighthouses can also be accessed remotely from Edinburgh and offer a glimpse into the islands’ maritime past.

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History is not just written on rocks. It is written in the hearts, minds, and souls of all people. Norway gifted Shetland to Scotland during a dynastic marriage in the 15th century. The islands’ famed fire festivals were only established in 1881. A winter spectacle called Helly Aa, which is a nod to their Norse roots, sees Shetlanders lead a torch-lit parade through the streets and then set fire to a replica longship.

Warmest greetings and hospitality

Half of Shetland’s 23,000 inhabitants live within 10 miles from Lerwick on the mainland. It is home to the largest number of shops and eateries along its narrow lanes. Despite being vegetarian I was convinced by the location to try delicious scallops at No88, a vibrant restaurant located just above Lerwick harbour.

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Ortolan House was my first night in a B&B. It is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever stayed at. Although there are fewer options in other areas, the quality of Ortolan House is unmatched. Bonhoga Gallery Cafe is a beautiful lunch spot. It’s located in an old watermill. Busta House Hotel, further north, is a great place to stay. It’s practically a museum of history but offers a comfortable night’s rest. For soup, giant scones, and hot drinks, Victoria’s Cafe in Unst is the best place.

People are open to hearing about your plans, and will give you tips and time as an exception in winter. This makes it a unique and authentic tourist experience. Some places are only accessible by appointment due to the low footfall. Before my visit, I was the proud owner of a Nielanell “snookie” and was delighted that she opened her shop in Hoswick for me.

A glimpse into the world of crofting

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Garth’s Croft is a place that weaves together Shetland’s history and archaeology with animals, food, land, and hospitality. It is located on the island of Bressay, just a few minutes by ferry from Lerwick. Chris Dyer is a professional archaeologist, crofter and farmer. The smallholding promotes sustainable farming using native and heritage breeds. The Shetland sheep, which are smartly fleeced, are the real stars of the show.

Here you can also curate your own visit. Chris will give a brief overview of his holding and offer tours to nearby places of natural and historical interest in Bressay. This would be a rewarding and more colorful trip in spring or summer, I have no doubt.

The Shetland Pony Experience at Burra is another thing they have to look forward to in the warmer months. I was able to see the barn and meet Skerrie. A mane brushing session and an obstacle course followed. However, you would need to be there between April and September to see the entire event, which includes a stunning shot of you and your pony on the beach.

Beautiful, empty beaches

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It was 10 miles from the airport that I stood alone on St Ninian’s Beach. That was when I felt like this holiday really clicked with me. The wind suddenly changed to a great, bright sun and I was able to enjoy an amazing seascape by myself. Tombolo is a sandy strip that connects St Ninian’s Isle to the mainland. The two sides were crashing into each other that morning.

Drew Ratter, another multi-credible guide, was the second time I was struck at the sheer size of the islands. You can’t help but feel rearranged high up, with the Atlantic crashing below and the sea spray curling up the rock faces and pouring rain horizontally.

How to travel to Shetland by plane from Europe

Brydon Thomason/Shetland Nature

It is possible to travel to Shetland by plane or ferry from mainland Scotland. Northlink Ferries operates the boats and it takes approximately 12-13 hours to get from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Most people prefer to travel overnight. Fares range from PS18 (EUR222) for a sleeping pod up to PS110 (EUR1322) for an executive cabin in low season.

Flying from Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow and Inverness takes around an hour. Some flights stop in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands. In the summer, planes fly to Bergen, Norway – please see Loganair for further details.

Shetland is also visited by cruise ships, which dock in Lerwick harbour. It takes a few days to see all the island’s wonders, but a day is not enough.

Although buses can be taken to key locations (including the regular bus from Sumburgh Airport, Lerwick), renting a car is the best way to travel. Driving was actually one of my favorite parts of the trip – there were many open roads and hills, as well as the sea and lochs all around.