A northern adventure in Shetland and Orkney

I’ve always thought about Shetland as very far from Scotland, and in many ways it is. And despite its closer geographical proximity to the mainland, I feel that Orkney also seems to have its heritage rooted more in Nordic culture than in Scots.

But despite the distance travelled, my first visit to the islands that lie to the North of Scotland didn’t feel like a trek at all. Sailing on Northlink Ferries MV Hjatland, I departed as the sun set over Aberdeen, heading for Lerwick. The ferry leaves at teatime and I’m due into Lerwick bright and breezy at 7.30am.

Farewell Aberdeen

My ensuite cabin is really comfy and I enjoy a hearty dinner on board, allowing me my first taste of delicious Orkney ice-cream as we headed North. I slept like a log, not even waking when we called in at Kirkwall to drop off and pick up passengers.

My time on Shetland was going to be busy, so I met with the inimitable Emma Williamson just after I arrived to start my adventure. Emma is an A&E nurse in Lerwick, and was one of the stars of the TV show, Island Medics. But she’s also a mad-keen wild swimmer and helped found the Selkies – Shetland’s Sea swimming club. Her underwater photos on social media had whetted my appetite and I couldn’t wait to get in the water with her.

Levenwick for a dip

We start off with a nice cuppa, a cake and a chat before heading out in the car to explore some of mainland Shetland’s top swim spots. Where Emma decides to take a dip is very often dictated by the wind, as are lots of things on this exposed island. But the golden sand and turquoise beaches all look tempting, despite the waves. We plump for Levenwick beach, a sheltered bay with a solitary seal bobbing around amongst the forests of seaweed. The water is crystal clear and of course, chilly. But that’s half the fun.

Swimming around the bay with a seal for company is a new one on me, but Emma reassures me that if the seal is there it means that there are no orca, which is certainly reassuring. She also tells me about a friend who inadvertently ended up swimming with a bull orca and at that point I’m enjoying the company of our selkie friend more than ever.

Morag and Emma enjoy a post-swim cuppa

I steel myself a few times to pop on goggles and stick my face in the water to see what lies beneath and I’m rewarded with views to the seabed with urchins and starfish lurking in the field of seaweed. I’m enchanted and need to be reminded that it might be time to get out and warm up. This is done with a hot cuppa enjoyed while strolling along the beach. It’s blissful. Emma regales me with more tales of skinny dipping and wonderful wildlife encounters. Our shared passion for wild swimming makes this the perfect way to kick off my island adventure.

I’m staying at The Lerwick Hotel, which is comfortable and convenient for the town centre but also looks out over Breswick Bay to the island of Bressa. As the wind picks up the waves leap impressively over the path that runs along the front, covering joggers, dog walkers and travellers from the south who are in awe of the power of the sea in salty spray.

Sunset at Breswick Bay

There’s lots of lovely wee shops to nosey around in Lerwick and I treat myself to a Shetland Wool Hat. I also find the Shetland Soap Company and buy treats to take home from this amazing social enterprise which works alongside adults with learning difficulties and autism to create a range of soap and skincare products. If you fancy a coffee or lunch, I’d recommend The Dowry – the soup was delicious and it was bustling with diners, even on a Monday afternoon.

Dinner in the Lerwick hotel was substantial and just what the doctor ordered, so fighting sleep I head off for an early night ahead of a historical and cultural tour of Shetland with Laurie Goodlad in the morning. I sleep like a log again and can only think that the sea air is having the desired effect on me. In Shetland you are never more than 5km from the sea, so there’s plenty of it to go around.

You’re never far from the beach

Laurie’s tour takes us to St Ninian’s Isle, the iconic sand tombolo that features on many a tourist pamphlet. It really is beautiful though and we wander over the sand to the ruins of the chapel where a Pictish treasure hoard was discovered. From here, on the hillside we watch the waves crashing in and I’m mesmerised by the beauty of the spindrift on this wild and windy morning. I hang onto my new hat for fear it might be lost to the waves, but being made here on Shetland it seems to be made of strong stuff.

The tomobolo at St Ninian’s

We drive by the isle of Mousa, where the most intact Iron Age Broch in Scotland stands. It’s impressive, even from the shore. Laurie tells me that it’s home to a colony of storm petrels and in the summer months you can go to the island and watch them return to the broch to roost.

We drive via Sumburgh Head, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea to Jarlshof, where a violent storm unveiled a multi-period settlement that guides us through from the Neolithic Period into the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and into the times of the Norse. Wandering amongst the remains of these buildings you get a real sense of history. There’s so much we don’t know about our ancestors and the people who for centuries called this exposed and beautiful spot home, but here you really feel connected to the past.


A stop-off at Hoswick Visitor Centre provides a warm welcome, shelter from the wind and delicious soup served with Voe Bannock, a delicious local bread. We wander around the gift shop before heading over the way to visit Karlin Anderson, who makes gorgeous jewellery from her workshop, which must have the best views in the country. I loved the collection that she’s working on using stones from Shetland and the gold and silver pieces inspired by the wildlife and culture of the island.

Laurie is a Shetland native and is massively knowledgeable about the history and culture of her home. As well as being a great guide, she’s a lovely person who I really enjoyed spending a very special day with.

I have a hankering for fish, not battered, although there’s nothing wrong with that! I book myself a table at Fjara for dinner. It’s only 5 minutes’ walk along the shore from the Lerwick hotel and even in the dark, its elevated position perched above the crashing waves of Breswick Bay is enviable. It’s really busy for a weeknight and I can’t wait to try the grilled Shetland hake with lemon butter, greens, toasted pine nuts and sauteed new potatoes. I sit with my nose pressed against the glass watching the sea boil and sip a glass of chilled white wine as I wait for my fish. It doesn’t disappoint. The slab of hake is huge, flaky and tender and I devour it with gusto. The staff are so friendly that I stay for a pudding that I really didn’t need, before facing the gale force winds on the short walk back to my hotel.

The morning brings an early start and a ferry to Yell, to meet James Rogerson, a wildlife guide on the island. James shows me around the shoreline where we find evidence of otters in the form of spraint, the carcasses of seabirds with only the breasts eaten (otters are fussy) and footprints. It is thought that Yell has the highest density of Eurasian otters in the world. A pair of seals spot us on the clifftops from the waves and follow us around the shore, their big, bovine eyes watching our every move. Here the sea seems to be everywhere and I’m not surprised when James tells me that spotting wildlife has become a habit that is hard to break for him. When you spend your days with your eyes peeled for animals, taking a relaxing walk isn’t always easy! Sadly, I have to beat a hasty retreat back to Lerwick (which I discovered is one of the descriptive names given to areas on Shetland by the Norse, meaning muddy bay) to catch a tea-time ferry to Orkney.

Seal by James Rogerson

As I depart the harbour in gale force winds, I know I’m going to miss Shetland, its incredible wildlife, history, culture, but most of all its people.

The crossing to Kirkwall is a bouncy one, but despite eating a delicious dinner on board I arrive with the contents of my stomach intact. I check into the newly refurbished Kirkwall Hotel and briefly marvel at the size of the beautiful bedroom with huge windows overlooking the harbour, before cleaning my teeth in the equally huge ensuite (making a note to self that I must get into the beautiful copper slipper bath) and falling into the huge comfy bed.

The morning brings an impressive breakfast buffet and smoked salmon and scrambled eggs to set me up for a day exploring Orkney with JP Orkney tours. The lovely Paul picked me up in his brand spanking new all electric tour van and we head off to discover the island. Paul asks me what I want to see and I tell him everything!

In fairness, Paul did a very good job of showing me all of the island’s highlights. Although a return trip is high on the agenda as he also told me about lots of gems that we didn’t have time to visit.

Ring of Brodgar

We started our day crawling into a chambered cairn, a 5,000-year-old communal burial chamber and then wandering around the standing stones at Stenness, which are thought to be the oldest in the UK. They pre-date Stone Henge and the Pyramids of Giza by some margin and also their more intact neighbour, the Ring of Brodgar, which we also visited. There’s something magical about ancient monoliths. For anyone who is a fan of Outlander, touching such ancient stones carries a certain amount to romantic risk. But you’ll be pleased to hear that I wasn’t whisked away to a parallel life with a hunky Orcadian, as was my hubby!

We wander round the cliffs and I marvel at the sea stacks and caves, carved away by the sea. It’s certainly putting on a good show for me today, crashing relentlessly into the craggy shore.

There’s still time to see Skara Brae before lunch and we’re lucky to enjoy plenty of sunshine to illuminate this wonderfully preserved neolithic settlement and its interesting visitor centre.

Skara Brae

Lunch is a picnic by the beach and gives me the opportunity to try some of JP Orkney’s home-made treats. As well as tours, Paul and Jane run a business that makes lots of local delights including an awesome rhubarb chutney and my new favourite, fatty cutties – imagine if shortbread and a garibaldi biscuit had a baby and you’re getting close!

Fatty cuttie

Feeling comfortably satiated we headed to Deerness Distillery, where I was lucky enough to sample some of their gin, vodka and Orcadian Moon (a coffee liqueur that even appeals to non-coffee drinkers like myself). There’s lots of expansion afoot at Deerness and I look forward to trying out a dram of their whisky in a few years’ time. In the mean time I’ll settle for their Seaglass gin, perfect for a gin purist like myself.

Whizzing past the beautiful Italian Chapel, which is closed for refurbishment (another reason to return) we head to the Churchill Barriers and Scapa Flow. It’s beautiful, the wrecks of German ships that were scuttled here in the aftermath of the First World War jut skyward from the turquoise waters and it’s a haven for wildlife and swimmers alike. I try to imagine what a sight it must have been to see the might of the Royal Navy fleet which used these sheltered waters as a base during both world wars. It was here, also, that the Vikings anchored their longships on arrival in Orkney.

Scapa Flow

My day was drawing to a close and dinner at The Kirkwall Hotel awaited. The hotel has undergone a major refurbishment recently and looks fabulous for it. I was mesmerised by the gorgeous light-fittings in the dining room. We had driven past Grimbister on our travels, so it felt right to sample their cheese as a starter. Panko crusted and served with apricot cream it was deliciously creamy and salty. Orkney beef is world-renowned and my steak certainly lived up to its reputation. Perfectly cooked, it was a monster and rendered dessert impossible. The bar has, I think, the best range of gins that I have ever seen. So, choosing was tricky, but I knew that a wee Seaglass gin would see me well ahead of wending my weary way up to bed, in the knowledge that the following day would mean a return to mainland Scotland.

The weather meant that instead of catching a ferry back to Aberdeen I had to go via Stromness to Scrabster. But Northlink quickly sorted these changes in plan out for me without any stress or worry. The crossing is short, at just 1 hour 30 minutes and smoother than the last. I enjoy watching the mainland come into view and hope that I can return soon and bring my family to show them all of the delights that I discovered on Shetland and Orkney. We are keen campers, so perhaps we’ll brave those island winds and pack up our camping gear when the summer comes and the days are impossibly long.

NorthLink Ferries sail daily from Aberdeen to Shetland and from Shetland to Aberdeen, sailing every evening and arriving the following morning. These ships call in at Orkney frequently, arriving in the late evening before sailing on to Aberdeen or Lerwick. NorthLink Ferries also sail from Scrabster on the north coast of Scotland to Stromness in Orkney. This is the only ferry crossing to take you past the breathtaking Old Man of Hoy. The 90 minute crossing takes place up to three times a day. www.northlinkferries.co.uk