Scotland’s hidden treasure

If you’ve never experienced Shetland, then you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s always a dark, cold, wet, treeless and barely habitable spot. And you’d be wrong, so very, very wrong. Even in the depths of winter, Shetland has a lot going for it. Lonely Planet’s experts ranked the islands in the top ten world destinations in 2019, praising Shetland’s rugged beauty, welcoming locals, towering cliffs, whales, otters and amazing wildlife. 2020 also marks Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, so Shetland should definitely be on your travel radar. Throw in some great pubs, a lively arts programme, surprisingly good restaurants that make the most of the local seafood and January’s annual Viking fire festival that puts anything on HBO to shame and it’s a great choice for a short winter or spring break.

The big winter draw is Up Helly Aa, Lerwick’s Viking Fire Festival which takes place on the final Tuesday of January  each year, but preparations to make the Viking galley and fabulous costumes have been taking place for eleven months beforehand. The daylong celebration culminates in a torch-lit procession with around 900 guizers and a replica Viking ship being set ablaze, as well as songs and performances at a series of halls across Lerwick. Count yourself fortunate if you can score tickets to one of these events. The tourist office may be able to get you on a waiting list. The Jarl’s squad are joined in procession and the evening celebrations by almost fifty male squads in fancy dress. Given the amount of cross-dressing and occasional blackface, it’s clear that political correctness hasn’t quite reached the islands yet. Previous years’ squads have been costumed as anything from Aussie drag queens to Hawaiian dancers and hotdogs. Dark nights give rise to vivid imaginations!

If you miss Up Helly Aa, many of Shetland’s villages have their own local fire festival celebrations from January through to March, so it’s worth checking with the local tourist organisation. There’s also a fascinating exhibition where you can discover more about the festival, the guizers and the sagas which provide inspiration for their characters. It’s open from May to September each year.  Alternatively, head north to Unst which has about sixty Norse sites, including a replica Viking longship and longhouse at Haroldswick. 

Shetland is also a great place to see the Northern Lights on a clear winter’s night with a high level of solar particles. There’s never any guarantee that you’ll spot the merrie dancers as they are known locally, but an outstanding display is a one-in-a-lifetime experience to treasure. If the heavens are disobliging, then head to the pub for something to warm you up again.

Lerwick is known for salted mutton, quality fish and superb seafood, but vegans and vegetarian are also well catered for. Try Fjara, The Dowry or The String in Lerwick, the fine dining Scalloway Hotel and Da Haaf in Scalloway, or Frankie’s Fish & Chips in Brae for a seafood fix. The Peerie Shop Café in Lerwick regularly offers reestit mutton at lunchtime, alongside Cullen skink. If you’re a cooked breakfast fan, try Sassermaet, a spiced sausagemeat served in a roll with cooked onions, or as part of a fry up. Possibly a good plan if you’ve popped in to Busta the night before, where the island’s only whisky bar boasts a 225 strong selection of Scotland’s finest. Before you head home, visit Mackenzie’s Farm Shop & Café to pick up some local delicacies.

Lastly, check out Shetland’s lively arts venues, Bohoga and Mareel. There’s always something interesting going on, no matter when you visit! Plan your trip at shetland.org and shetlandarts.org.

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