Skua, Shetland

In our early years in Scotland, before the kids came along, we worked our way around the islands, visiting Orkney, Islay, Skye and the Outer Hebrides. But one group of islands always seemed just that bit too far away. Even from Edinburgh, it costs a fortune to travel to Shetland, either by plane or by ferry—as much as it would cost to fly to Canada or Greece. With two extra tickets to buy, it costs even more, and there’s always been more need to put the money towards trips home to visit family. It seemed like one of those trips that would never quite happen.

But my father-in-law (who also accompanied us to Islay and the Outer Hebrides) was keen to see it too, so during his latest visit in July we all went together. The overnight ferry there and back did cost a lot, but now that we have our own car we didn’t have to rent that, and a holiday home for our stay cost less than a typical B&B elsewhere. In the end the cost of the trip compared favourably with most family holidays, because once you’re in Shetland there isn’t a whole lot to spend your money on. Food, a few local ferries, and filling up on petrol a few times was about the extent of it.

Unst, Shetland

But what it lacks in shopping opportunities it more than makes up for in Photoshopping opportunities. During our week there I took a ridiculous number of photographs, which I then spent a ridiculous number of weeks sorting out and selecting for a gallery here (and there). It’s a spectacular place, all cliffs, coastline, voes (fjords) and islands; the beaches and trees are small in number and scale, but the rest makes up for it. Neolithic and viking ruins dot the landscape, small-scale ponies charm the passersby, and it’s where I finally got to see puffins in the flesh, only a few feet from where we were standing (behind a stone wall on the edge of Sumburgh Head).

Our holiday house was opposite the Mainland’s highest hill, a wonderfully quiet spot on a dead-end road, and a great place for the kids to run around. We watched Andy Murray win Wimbledon there, bumped our heads on the older doorways, and gradually unwound. Some days we went off to explore, and some days just wandered along the beach by the voe, dodging the Arctic terns nesting nearby as they dived at us.

Lerwick was bigger than I expected, twice as large as Kirkwall in Orkney or Stornaway in Lewis, and home to half of Shetland’s total population of 22,000. It even has a decent-sized Tesco. Beyond Lerwick, though, the towns are tiny—hamlets, most of them—and opening hours are few and far between.

RBS, Scalloway, Shetland

Apart from Lerwick and the old capital of Scalloway, the biggest town we saw was Brae, close to where we stayed and home to Britain’s most northerly fish and chip shop. It was a popular spot on a Friday night, we discovered, thanks to also being close to Europe’s largest oil terminal. On the northernmost island of Unst, we walked out to its northernmost point at Hermaness Nature Reserve, then mailed some postcards from Britain’s most northerly post office. At the nearby very (and almost certainly most) northerly playground, W. fell off a swing and broke his arm. The people at the nearby shop called the local GP, who had just gone home for the day but met us back at the northernmost health centre. She bandaged him up and gave him some painkillers, but the poor kid would have to wait until the next morning for A&E in Lerwick to open (hours, 9-5 Monday-Friday) before he could get it in plaster.

Fractures notwithstanding, it was a great place to take the kids. Shetland had dozens of quiet pleasures: the island of Mousa with its perfect broch; the crossing to Noss by zodiac on a perfect sunny morning; the views around Eshaness; spotting elusive otters and curious seals; passing the same hedgehog by the road twice on successive days; crossing an airstrip to reach Sumburgh Head; watching the kids run through 4,000-year-old passages at Jarlshof. The new Shetland Museum at Lerwick was a fitting end to the trip, while waiting to catch the ferry back to Aberdeen; it told a story of thousands of years of hardship followed by a few decades of oil, as also evidenced by the temporary presence of the largest crane vessel in the world just outside Lerwick.

We’d happily go back. But until then, here are three thousand photographs culled to eighty to remind me why: Shetland.

14 November 2013 · Travel