Overlanding in Shetland gives you the perfect opportunity to explore rugged hills, empty beaches and islands packed full of history. The Shetland Islands are situated way off the north coast of Scotland, almost as close to Norway as to the Scottish mainland. Due to their remote location, it takes a dedicated explorer to make their way there – especially with a 12+ hour ferry crossing from Aberdeen. Alternatively, you can travel via Orkney. This cuts the ferry time in half and gives you the opportunity to explore these two very different island groups.
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Now if you’ve visited Orkney already you might expect Shetland to be quite similar, but you’d be very wrong. And here’s why. Shetland’s landscape is much more diverse. While the area around Sumburgh is reminiscent of Orkney with is low, rolling hills and farmland, elsewhere it’s quite different. Having driven across most of the Shetland mainland and some of the islands we came across spots that wouldn’t look out of place in the Yorkshire Dales, the Scottish west coast, and even the Norwegian fjords (unsurprisingly given the proximity). One or two of the beaches could even convince you that you’re much further afield in the Greek islands!
While Orkney’s coast is lined with beautiful beaches with ample parking where you can park your campervan along with twenty other people, Shetland’s beaches are much more secluded. Most beaches only have space for a handful of vehicles – and few have space for a big overlander like ours. But there are plenty of other options, if you know where to look! But first, here’s why you should go overlanding in Shetland.
Shetland’s capital town – Lerwick
This is the main hub of Shetland and if you’re getting the ferry in then this is where you’ll arrive. It’s a charming old town with narrow winding streets and small local shops. Not a single chain coffee store or fast-food place to be seen.
The Clickimin Broch
This site is a must-see while you’re in town. This Iron Age fortified roundhouse has been well-preserved and so has retained a lot of its height and original structure. It’s something special to be able to walk through such a complete site, plus it’s free to visit! I’d recommend parking at Tesco’s and walking from there as there isn’t really parking available at the broch.
Fortifications on this site actually go back to the 1600’s and the Anglo-Dutch wars. However what stands there today is a reconstruction of its 1780’s form, when it was re-established and garrisoned during the War of American Independence. Since then, the building has had many other uses including functioning as the local jailhouse and a coastguard station! You can visit the fort grounds all year round for free.
The Shetland Museum
Even if you’re not normally a ‘museum person’ you should definitiely visit this one. We went twice over the summer and could still go back and discover new things. With the islands’ complete history – from its geological formation right through to installing mains electricity, and from folklore to fishing, there’s something for everyone! The Shetland Museum’s free to visit and there’s free parking right next door. Any time we stayed in Lerwick we’d park down there.
Before leaving Lerwick take a trip to the Knab for some spectacular views across the town and out to sea. This is a popular spot for whale watching although there isn’t a huge amount of parking so choose wisely.
Must-visit historic sites when overlanding in Shetland
Visiting Jarlsof was a real highlight from our time in Shetland. This site is home to over 4,000 years worth of Shetland history. It was first settled in Neolithic times 2700BC and was inhabited throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. Brochs turned to longhouses, which turned to medieval farmsteads. The most recent ruins are of a laird’s house, inhabited in the 1600s! It was so interesting to be able to wander through the various ruins, like we were actually walking through history. There is plenty of parking on site. Visits cost £7 but you get an audio-guide packed full of information and stories to keep you entertained for hours. Anyone that knows us knows we don’t like paying to visit places but this one was truly worth it.
Hidden from view, tucked into the hillside this ancient temple structure is a bit of a mystery. They don’t actually know if this was an ancient temple, but due to it’s similarity to Maltese and Mediterranean temples from the same time period that’s their best bet. There isn’t much parking – just a small layby on the roadside so park carefully before taking the marked path. Alternatively, you could do what we did on our first visit and drive past the turn-off, park on the other side of it on the rough ground and wander about on the heather until you spot it down below…
At the very south of the Shetland mainland stands this vital landmark. Guiding ships away from the dangers of the coast it is also home to the early warning radar system that helped keep the isles safe during World War Two. It’s quite a walk up from the large car park but the views from the top are stunning. Plus, depending on the time of year, there’s a chance you’ll see some puffins! They frequent the cliffs just over the outer wall of the lighthouse perimeter so you can watch them flying in and disappearing into their burrows if you’re lucky. A major bonus about visiting the lighthouse, and Jarlsof is that the road actually goes across the Sumburgh Airport runway! Of course, they do close it off for air traffic when required.
Shetland’s top beauty spots
St Ninian’s Isle
This little island is connected to the Shetland mainland via a narrow strip of sand – a tombolo. The beach itself is lovely and a perfect spot to play in the sea (if you can handle the cold)! You can walk across to the empty island, usually with only sheep for company, and there are the ruins of St Ninian’s chapel just off to the right of the path up from the beach. There’s plenty of parking and it’s not uncommon to see campervans or local caravans pitched up for the weekend. There’s even a toilet block and local shop back up the road a bit so it has everything you need!
At the end of the road passing through West Burra is another spectacular location. On one side is a golden sandy beach in a sheltered bay, a perfect spot for a sunny summer’s day. The other side is rather different with a rocky shore and views across to dramatic sloping hills that disappear into the sea – very reminiscent of the Fjords. The connected island is scattered with abandoned old houses and makes for some great exploring. The parking is quite limited, with space for only a handful of small vehicles. We’d recommend heading back up the road to Meal beach if you intend to overnight in the area.
It would be easy to miss this pretty little beach if you weren’t looking for it as it’s not really visible from the road. But from the spacious car park (with loos) it’s only a couple of minutes down to this secluded little spot. The soft sand and clear waters make this a perfect place to relax and maybe go for a dip – although we never braved it as it was a little too chilly whenever we visited. With limited parking options on Burra we found it an ideal spot to explore the rest of the island from.
Uyea is an uninhabited tidal island in the north of Shetland. The route there passes through possibly one of the most remote parts of the whole Shetland mainland. If your plan for overlanding in Shetland involves a bit of off-roading this might be just the place for you! Only during low tide you can explore this little island. But even from the ‘mainland’ the cliffs are impressive and the passage between the island and the mainland is very picturesque. We timed it right to watch the sunset into the sea from the cliffs, but wrong for getting across. However, we did see a couple of seals swimming about in the crystal-clear shallows below. The secluded sandy bay stretching out below the cliffs is an added bonus.
To get near Uyea there’s a long dirt/rock track that takes you to an empty croft house, passing a couple of small hill lochans on the way in. The road in has a few holes where it’s been washed away so take it steady. Depending on your vehicle I’d advise either walking from the main road, walking from the lochans, or possibly stopping at the grassy area before the croft gate. You might be able to park at the croft house, but we found the stream crossing and the gate a bit narrow for us without going off the edge of the road. We managed but would stop before this point if we went again. From there you’re only a couple of fields away.
We parked at the lochans for the night but be aware that there can be rare birds (red-throated divers) nesting there from Mid-May to August that should not be disturbed. And remember to close the gates!
Whether it’s a clear, calm day or blowing up a storm these rugged cliffs look pretty spectacular. At the end of a long, winding road through open hill-ground you’ll arrive at a large carpark by a lighthouse. You can walk along the clifftops in either direction although I wouldn’t recommend getting too close to the edge, especially on a windy day! If you walk passed the lighthouse there’s a blowhole where you might be able to see the waves pushing upwards through the gap in the rocks! This would be an amazing park-up on a calm night, although we always had elsewhere to be and never stayed.
If you drive through Busta and over the bridge you will arrive at Muckle Roe. This connected island is absolutely stunning and a great place to go hiking. At the end of the main road is a small carpark and from there you can walk out to the lighthouse and continue along the rugged coastal path to the Hams of Muckle Roe. It’s quite a tough walk so be prepared and go carefully. You can also walk along a rough track before the parking which takes you directly out to the Hams. The dramatic cliffs and sea stacks make it worth the trek.
Our favourite island to visit
If you’re going to visit any one island while overlanding in Shetland then we would 100% recommend Unst. This island literally has it all. The Viking Unst Project in Haroldswick is home to a reconstructed, traditional Viking longhouse. It was built using authentic, historical building methods and completed with a turf roof. On the same site is The Skidbladner – a replica traditional Viking longboat, constructed in Sweden, and sailed to Shetland. You can walk around on the ship and imagine you’re sailing across the oceans seeking discovery or glory. There are also lots of other Viking remnants scattered across the island.
Unst also holds the title for being the Most Northerly inhabited island in the UK. This gives you the chance to tick off lots of fun little visitor sites. There’s the most northerly house, road, post office and beach in the UK. And if you hike out around the Hermaness National Nature Reserve (which I strongly recommend) then you could become the most northerly people in the UK! As a bonus, depending on the time of year, you might get to see puffins, plus a huge gannetry (gannet colony) covering the cliff face on the west side of the reserve.
For a great little park-up right by the shore check out Norwick beach. The geology here is also super interesting – if that’s your thing! On the beach you can see where a section of the Earth’s crust from beneath the ocean collided with an ancient continent and was pushed against and over it about 420 million years ago!
To get to Unst you need to take a ferry from Toft to Yell, drive through Yell and catch a second ferry to Unst. You can only buy a return, combined ticket but it was under £30 for us and the truck – not bad! Rumour has it that there’s a bit of a funny time limit where you have to catch the second outgoing ferry within two hours of the first, or risk paying again (but not on the way back). We decided not to test this theory and drove straight though, exploring Yell a little on the return journey instead.
Why else should you go overlanding in Shetland?
Cake Fridges and honesty boxes
While overlanding in Shetland you might notice a random box, microwave, or fridge at the side of the road. Sometimes it’ll contain some fresh farm eggs or vegetables with a little honesty tin so you can buy some local produce directly from the locals. But, even better than that, you might find cake!! The Cake Fridge near Aith is the most well-known and also has a little tearoom to go with it. But there are others scattered about so keep an eye out for those tasty treats!
Up Helly Aa
Maybe you’ve heard of this Viking Fire Festival that takes place in Shetland. But what you might not know is that it actually lasts about two months! Each small parish has it’s own individual festival. While the first one is held in Scalloway in early January and the ‘famous’ one in Lerwick happens at the end of that month, the celebrations are ongoing right through until mid-March with Delting Up Helly Aa (DUHA) rounding off the season.
The main event is always the torch-led procession of Viking warriors culminating in the burning of a hand-built Viking longship! Arguably DUHA is the best one and that’s not just because we are friends with the current 2023 Jarl (the specially chosen leader of the squad for the year – or three years in this case thanks to Covid). And it’s not because Stuart has been chosen to be part of their squad (Viking attire included). It just has a great community atmosphere and is always good fun.
Being so far north it’s unsurprising that there’s a good chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis when they come out to play. It can be really hit or miss if you’re going to see them and there’s no definite time of year when they’re guaranteed but if you keep an eye on the Aurora forecasts or the local photography pages you’ll quickly find out when they’re active. On our final weekend in Shetland we were treated to a spectacular show – a perfect ending to our time there.
Shetland is packed full of talented musicians of all different genres. Whether you’re into rock and metal, or traditional folk, or watching a lively Aussie bloke jump around hitting himself in the head with a tambourine (no joke) there’s something for everyone. The Shetland Folk Festival in April draws in musicians from around the world. And you’re almost guaranteed to find live music on any weekend, somewhere on Shetland mainland. While we never found a dedicated noticeboard (online or otherwise) listing these events if you check out local venues such as for the Mid Brae Inn, the Lerwick Royal British Legion and the Mareel you might find something to your taste. Most venues, especially in rural areas also have a reasonable sized parking area so you may be able to park up overnight if it’s very late or if you’ve chosen to partake in an alcoholic beverage or two!
Unsurprisingly Shetland is absolutely teeming with wildlife, both on land and around the coast. If birdwatching is your thing you can find thousands of seabirds including graceful gannets and iconic little puffins. The islands also play host to the rare, red-necked phalarope and the occasional snowy owl! Meanwhile, otters and orcas (killer whales) are a regular site, although as with all wildlife there’s a lot of luck involved in catching a glimpse of either. Seals on the other hand are almost guaranteed to make an appearance at some point during a trip to Shetland. You’ll often see seals hauled up on the rocks around the coast, or bobbing about just offshore. They’re usually as interested in you as you are in them.
While Shetland doesn’t have the vast array of food and drink to export that Orkney has, what it does have is top quality. As an island that holds strong to many of its rural traditions, living off the land is still the norm. Most folk will have a friend or family member with a fishing boat or a few sheep, willing to swap food for a favour or a bottle. While that doesn’t mean much for those passing through, there’s still plenty of produce that makes it onto the local shop shelves or the aforementioned roadside honesty boxes.
If you’re a meat-eater then sassermaet (a type of spiced square sausage) and reestit mutton (salted, cured mutton) are worth a taste. We make a point of taking some of the mutton away with us after any visit. There’s plenty of fish too. Mackerel is a popular choice, and if you’re so inclined you could catch your own off one of the local piers. The coastal waters around Shetland are some of the most productive in the world so between caught and farmed fish and shellfish there’s no shortage of amazing seafood available.
As mentioned in the beginning it takes a bit of commitment to make it to Shetland in the first place. There are generally daily (overnight) ferries back and forth from Aberdeen to Lerwick. These take between 12 and 13.5 hours depending on if it stops off in Orkney or not. An alternative option would be to travel up to Caithness, get a ferry to Orkney and then a second ferry to Shetland from there. This way it’s 1.5 hours to Orkney then about 7.5 hours to Shetland. This route also allows you to spend time overlanding in Shetland and Orkney! Either way, they can get booked up well in advance so plan ahead and book early just in case. Visit the Northlink website to sort out ferries.
One key thing to keep in mind when overlanding in Shetland is that while the main road is brilliant and wide and smooth – the side roads are not. Many of the side roads are quite narrow. We found some where there was only a couple of inches of road on either side of our tyres! These roads generally have plenty of passing places so keep an eye out on where they are, and on the road ahead so you can reverse back when necessary. The islands are rather hilly so be prepared for some long, steep roads.
You will also need to watch out for sheep on the road. A lot of the rural land is dedicated to crofting and Shetland’s famous little sheep like to hang out on the quiet country roads, and sometimes the busy ones too. They’re generally unphased by traffic so watch out and take it steady.
Surprisingly there are lots of great facilities for when you’re overlanding in Shetland. This seems to be down to the fact that lots of Shetland folk love touring about on their own island with their caravans. The preference is for traditional campsites but there are also a few aire-type facilities on the island at marinas, hostels and community halls. Generally, these sites cost around £20 per night. We never stayed at any of the sites as we had a regular park-up and found free park-ups while exploring on weekends but if you ask nicely most will allow you to deal with waste and water (sometimes for a small fee) even if you decide not to stay. For a handy list of sites click here.
If you get to meet any Shetland folk on your travels, you’ll discover them to be a rowdy but lovable bunch. Always up for a good time, never without an intriguing tale to tell and happy to help anyone they can. Having spent six months living and overlanding in Shetland we really had the chance to be part of the community and truly fell in love with the place. Honestly, if the winters weren’t even worse than in Orkney we might have been tempted to stay!
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