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by Jamie Ross
for Travel Writers' Tales

I sit on the stone wall that protects Burrastow House from the sea, looking out over Vaila Sound. The beautiful twilight Shetland sky of the Summer Dim is blood red, and reflects off the shimmering ocean waters. "Back home we have a saying, red sky at night, a sailor's delight," I say to a young islander who has stopped for a chat.

"Here it is a little different," she says. "We say red sky at night, hopefully the Orkney's are burning."

Such is the rivalry between the two remote island archipelagos that lie adrift off the north coast of Scotland in the North Atlantic. Still, they are of a singular mind when you call either Scottish. They are Shetlanders or Orcadians. That is unless Scotland is beating England in a football match, then Scottish they become.

[1. Burrastow House B & B]

Whatever their allegiance, the Shetland Islands are a wild and wonderful escape, remote and mysterious, full of ancient history and nature. From this barren land one never ceases to pluck strangely rewarding experiences. The country is uncluttered by houses and trees. At first one misses the forest, but soon the starkness of the landscape exerts its fascination. Roads curl through the valleys and follow the rugged shores, past rock homes, stone walls, and neat paddocks.

[5. Croft House]

From Burrastow House, my guest home on the West Mainland, I set off on a sheep track that winds its way over the moor and along the ragged coastal cliff-tops. It is sheer beauty, and peaceful, a silence broken only by the stirring of wind, the crash of waves and the cry of the kittiwakes. After dining at my seaside accommodation on lobster caught in the Sound and served up fresh by Belgian Chef Pierre, I wanted the exercise of a short walk along the rugged, rocky shoreline. Each new bay and craggy outcrop draws me onward, however, and the late summer light has me walking well into the night.

I had travelled to the Shetlands the night before aboard a Northlink Ferry from Aberdeen. I was out of my berth and up on deck in the early hours, ready to shout "Land Ho!" but the islands lay shrouded in a thick fog. We dock in Lerwick, Shetland's capital, and a busy port that once provided shelter for Viking fleets, and now harbours glamorous yachts, cruise liners and fishing boats. At the heart of the town is the picturesque Market Cross and Commercial Street, a stone-flagged, narrow lane flanked by tall granite buildings.

Six miles to the west of Lerwick is the ancient capital Scalloway, a pretty village with pastel coloured buildings. Scalloway Castle looks down on the harbour, and the Scalloway museum tells of the "Shetland Bus" operation in the Second World War, where the town became a secret base for Norwegian resistance.

[3. Fishing Boats]

I drive 40 kilometres south along the coast road, past Shetland ponies, sheep, and old stone croft houses, following a narrow peninsula to the Sumburgh Head Nature Reserve. Here I see Puffins, Gannets, Guillemots and Kittiwakes that roost on the sheer cliffs which rise from the Atlantic in steep-sided splendour. Out to sea I see whales breeching, and in the bays and inlets otters and Grey seals frolic.

[6. Sumburgh Head Nature Reserve]

On my return journey north, I stop to witness Shetland's long and colourful history and its archeological wonders which date back to Neolithic times, when the first island settlers arrived in fragile wooden boats over 6,000 years ago. The village of Jarlshof near the Sumburgh Hotel, spans 3,000 years of continuous settlement, from Neolithic to Viking times, from the late Bronze Age through to the Middle Ages. It was only recently discovered, when a series of severe storms washed away the protective layer of sand and exposed the site in 1905.

[4. The village of Jarlshof]

Over 6,800 sites of archeological interest can be found peppered all across Shetland; ancient houses, burial chambers, standing stones, brochs and early chapels. The Iron Age broch at Mousa stands impressively 13 metres high above the sea, the only complete broch in the world.

The 6th Century saw monks arrive from Ireland and West Scotland to spread new religion. The Norsemen arrived in 800 AD, the geographical location of the Islands was great as a stepping stone for North Atlantic voyages. In 1469 Christian 1 of Denmark, Norway and Sweden pledged Orkney and Shetland as a dowry for his daughter on her marriage to James III, and the Shetlands became part of Scotland. Just don't tell them that.

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Getting there:

There is a commercial airport at Sumburgh on the South Mainland, with several flights daily from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Travel by sea is easy and allows you to take a car. I took a NorthLink cruise style ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, booking a nice berth for the overnight voyage.

Accommodation and information:

PHOTOS by Jamie Ross

1. Burrastow House B & B
2. Sumburgh Head Nature Reserve Lighthouse???
3. Fishing Boats
4. The ruins of Jarlshof
5. Croft House
6. Sumburgh Head Nature Reserve


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