Getaway Fact sheets
You are here: ninemsn > Travel > Getaway > Fact sheets

Shetland Islands

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Shetland Islands lie beyond the horizon from Scotland. They are closer to Norway than to Scotland and closer to the Arctic Circle than to England. Out of the approximately 100 islands, only 12 are inhabited. The main island of the group is known as Mainland.

Since people first began to explore the North Atlantic, Shetland has been a stepping stone on routes between Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. People have lived there since pre-historic times, certainly from 3500BC.

Missionaries arrived around the seventh century and began converting the population to Christianity. Sometime in the ninth century, Shetland was invaded by the Norse and became a Norwegian colony for approximately 500 years. Ownership of Shetland, along with Orkney, defaulted to the crown of Scotland in 1472 following non-payment of the marriage dowry of Margaret of Denmark, Queen of James III of Scotland. Subsequent attempts to make good on the debt and reclaim Shetland have been ignored, including the last bid in the early years of the 20th century.

Scalloway Castle was built in 1600 by Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney. Its aim was to tighten his grip on Shetland. Scalloway was then Shetland's capital — it is surrounded by the sea on three sides and was placed to control the main access to Tingwall, the site since Norse times of the Parliament for Orkney and Shetland.

It was in good shape when used as a barracks for Cromwell's troops in the 1650s. By 1700 there were reports that the roof was leaking, and the shift of Shetland's capital to Lerwick a few years later confirmed Scalloway Castle's decline. The last straw was the removal in 1754 of much of the stone from the lesser buildings that originally surrounded the tower house, to build a nearby mansion. In 1908 the castle was placed in the care of the State, and is now looked after by Historic Scotland.

The tower house has been extensively restored over the past hundred years, but nothing remains of the walls and buildings. Visitors get a lovely feeling of 'ownership' when they get the castle key from the Shetland Woollen Company shop.

Most visitors to the castle during its active life would have headed directly up the main staircase on entering the tower. This is a grand affair of wide steps and square landings and leads directly up to the hall on the first floor. Today the hall is open to the elements. There were originally two more floors above it, providing secure accommodation for the castle's most important residents.

While the Union Jack still flies above Lerwick, the island's capital, Shetlanders doesn't always celebrate its association with Britain. Patrick Stewart is partly to blame. He deprived islanders of food and peat and used them as slave labour to live his elaborate lifestyle. To this day he is referred to as "Evil Earl Patrick Stewart".

The Shetlands are dotted with more than 6000 archaeological sites spanning 7000 years of human history from Bronze Age remains to Viking villages.

First settlers followed ancient flocks of migrating birds to the Shetlands, and there remains a deep connection, particularly with the North Atlantic puffin.

Sumberaugh Head on the southern tip of the island is home to more than 2000 breeding couples. Of the 24 sea-bird species found in the British Isles, 21 can be found in Shetland.

Lighthouses were essential for shipping safety around the islands. There were 34 of them, and life for the keepers was dangerous and lonely. Technology saw the last one close its doors in 1990.

To see the islands the way locals have been seeing them for thousands of years is to head out on an evening sail aboard a Fifie, an old Scottish herring lugger.

The Swan is the last one left and has a colourful history. She was launched at Freefield docks in 1900 and worked hard until the 1950s. In 1960 she was towed to Grimsby and was converted into a houseboat. The poor old thing ended up in Hartlepool in 1982 and lay neglected, sinking several times through lack of care.

Even though just her masts were showing, a local knew she was a classic vessel and brought her to the surface. After a major restoration, she was relaunched at the age of 96.


Off Scotland in the North Sea.


Swan Sailing Drifter evening sails are around $34 for adults and $19 for children.

Emirates has return flights to Glasgow. Validity dates vary according to departure city.

Fares from;
  • Perth, $2078
  • Melbourne, $2125
  • Brisbane, $2127
  • Sydney, $2144
  • Adelaide, $2445
  • Darwin, $2620

Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.

For further information

Visit Scotland
Ph: 44 1506 832 121

The Swan Trust
Shetland Isles ZE2 9JX
Ph: 01595 679 406
Website: :

Related links


Brochure Search

Free electronic brochures with information, resources and holiday ideas for unique getaways.

Select a destination:
Sign up nowTo Receive the free Getaway newsletter