A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 3, Shetland to Orkney

After a whole day touring Shetland, we booked into the Queens Hotel in Lerwick, tucked away at the corner of the harbour. The coach was allowed to stop to unload, but the area was forbidden to other traffic. We were told that this was because there was to be filming in the area.

Queens Hotel, Lerwick. Behind the barriers.

One of the reasons I had wanted to visit Shetland was because I had watched the TV series “Shetland” based on the books by Ann Cleeves. A scene from the new (fourth) series was to be shot there the following day. We did wander back later to have a look, but although there was a lot of equipment lying around, we didn’t see any action. I’ll certainly be watching the next series – and reading the books.

I don’t know if it was to do with the filming, but when we went out for a walk that evening, we found a Viking longship moored just behind the hotel. It wasn’t very big, but it gave us a bit of a shock.

Queens Hotel and Viking ship – our room looked out onto this tiny beach.

We survived the night without being raped and pillaged and checked out next morning. Again the coach travelled south, but then took a road to the west coast to visit St Ninian’s Isle. We didn’t actually “visit” the island, which is attached to the mainland by a sand tombolo. Perhaps there wasn’t time, or we weren’t considered fit enough, but the view was enough. There is a ruined chapel on the island, dedicated to St Ninian. When it was excavated in the 1950s, treasure from the 9th century was found there. The collection of silver brooches and other objects is now in the Shetland Museum, which we visited later, so I suppose we didn’t really miss anything.

View of St Ninian’s Isle

Then it was back north, to Scalloway, the former capital of Shetland. We had a brief visit to the “Shetland Bus” memorial, before a visit to the Scalloway Museum, where there is a display telling the story of this WW2 operation. After the occupation of Norway by Germany in 1941, small fishing boats were used to transport men and equipment to aid the resistance.

Shetland Bus, memorial, Scalloway

Scalloway Museum, Shetland Bus exhibition

Next door to the museum was a castle, which we also visited. This was built in 1600, by the notorious Earl Patrick Stewart, who we had met the day before at Jarlshof. Patrick Stewart was the 2nd Earl of Orkney and illegitimate cousin of James VI. He was not much liked by the local citizens, as, amongst other things, he forced them to work on his castle for no pay. They complained to the King and eventually he was summoned before the Privy Council in 1609. He was imprisoned and eventually executed in 1615, in Edinburgh. The castle was abandoned. It is interesting for the graffiti that has been found in the great hall. Some bored visitor had carved pictures of ships that would have been visible in the harbour below.

Scalloway Castle

Scalloway Castle, Great Hall

Scalloway Castle, ship graffiti (very faint)

We returned to Lerwick via Tingwall Valley. The Ting was the old Norse Parliament. This was originally held on a small island in the loch, reached by a stone causeway. The coach stopped in a lay-by, already occupied by workmen, so we were unable to get out for a proper look. It would have been nice to have spent more time exploring the area. Perhaps we will come back another time, by ourselves. There is so much to see in Shetland, the tour can only cover the highlights.

View of the Ting, from inside the coach (with workmen’s van)

In the afternoon we had free time in Lerwick. We were dropped off near the Museum. After a lunch of scones (which had been recommended) we looked round the Shetland Museum. It was large, modern and had many interesting exhibits. We confined ourselves to the archaeology section; the St Ninian treasure and some beautiful stone tools. Plus a lifeboat from the RMS Oceanic, predecessor of the Titanic, which has recently been restored.

Shetland Museum, different styles, one amazing building.

We had had enough of the “museum shuffle” so set off to explore the rest of Lerwick. We looked round the shops and visited Fort Charlotte, originally built to deter the Dutch during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. It was rebuilt in its current form in 1781 and named after the wife of George III, but never used in anger.

Fort Charlotte

Leaving Lerwick

Tired and footsore, we returned to the museum, in time to be picked up by the coach and delivered to the ferry. The ship sailed at 5.30 for Orkney. This was a shorter crossing, no cabins this time. We had dinner on board and arrived in Kirkwell about 11pm. It was a short coach ride to the Kirkwell Hotel, where the service was very efficient and we were soon heading for our rooms. We were on the third floor, so decided to take the lift. We had been warned about this, it was one of those old-fashioned types where you have to pull the gate across before it will move. We waited while someone else went up, it returned quickly. It contained three large suitcases – but no people. I’d had enough, we dragged our suitcases up to the third floor.

Viking ships, haunted lifts. What more did this holiday have in store for us?






A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 2, Shetland

We had a pleasant trip from Aberdeen to Shetland. Excellent dinner and breakfast, a calm sea and a good night’s sleep in our cabin. Unfortunately the weather had let us down and we arrived in Lerwick in a dull drizzle.

Landing in Lerwick ferry terminal – rain streaked windows.

Luckily it had stopped by the time we got on the coach and headed south and on to another ferry. This one was a bit smaller and the trip shorter; across to the island of Mousa.

Small ferry…

… and grey sea

We were to visit the iron-age broch that sat on the edge of the island. There was the remains on the mainland opposite, but the one on Mousa was almost complete; so complete that most of the interior survives and you can climb the (very narrow) stairs to the top.

Mousa Broch

Top of the Broch. Why do you need a torch? To see the stairs of course!

Don’t look down!

Interior of Broch.

As we made our way back to the ferry, the sun came out and things looked more cheerful.

Seal on a rock, watching the passing boat load of tourists.

There was a short drive to the Hoswick Visitor Centre for lunch. My other half was surprised to find a display of wireless equipment in the building ( he spent most of the holiday pointing his camera towards mist covered hilltops, thought to be the sites of old radio stations – he was not expecting this!)

Lunch with added wireless equipment at Hoswick.

Once we had dragged him back to the coach, we travelled further south, via Old Scatness, which wasn’t open, to the southern tip of the Shetlands, Sumburgh Head. We were there, not for archaeology (or radio stations) but birds. We were promised puffins, they did not co-operate, we saw none. There were other birds, flying to and from dramatic cliffs, and the sun was shining.

Sumburgh Head

Cliffs at Sumburgh Head – our coach beside the lighthouse.

Twitchers looking for non-existent Puffins.

We drove the short distance to Sumburgh Hotel for tea and biscuits and then walked to the nearby site of Jarlshof. For me this was the highlight of the trip. I had never heard of this site before, but it has everything; 4,500 years of settlement, on one site, all excavated and laid out in chronological order. You start with the remains of huts dating from 2500 BC or earlier. There is not much left as the inhabitants must have reused a lot of the materials. Beside them is a Bronze Age smithy (800 BC) and older houses. Next is an Iron Age village, from the final centuries BC. The sea has taken part of a Broch and its courtyard, also Iron Age. Tucked next to them are wheelhouses from the second and third centuries AD. Behind these earlier settlements are the Norse longhouses dating from the 800s and continuing over 400 years. Nearby are the remains of the Medieval farm that followed.

Towering over the site is the New Hall, built in the 1580s by Earl Robert, Lord of Shetland and expanded by his son Earl Patrick (we will be meeting him later.) Within a century this building was in ruins, but in 1867 a new Laird’s House was built. This is now the Sumburgh Hotel, where we started this visit.

It is a wonderful site to visit, but best take a knowledgeable archaeologist with you!

Jarlshof, The site from Sumburgh Hotel.

Archaeologist Alan Braby in the Stone Age. Looking into the future?

Looking into one of the houses. Think this is Iron Age. There were saddle querns all over the site.

Alan in a Norse house, pointing out the length? or towards the medieval farm, or Sumburgh Hotel?

After this we left, tired and sunburned, to return to Lerwick and to check into our hotel.

I was hoping to cover all of our stay in Shetland in one post, but we did so much (this covers just one day!) that I will have to leave that to the next post.