Robin McKelvie in Shetland: The islands in autumn
‘Hairst’ is a word I’d never heard before I forged to Shetland on a NorthLink ferry in autumn. It soon became my favourite Shetland word. Hairst refers to the autumnal harvest, the time that can feel a little melancholic elsewhere in Scotland; depressing even.
The colours of the land give way to smouldering orange, burning ochre, and cool brown. Both sunrises and sunsets sear long into the soul and hazily brush the hues of the land with romance. Any wind that whips in just adds further drama.
Not on Shetland, where the land breathes through a sweeping palate of colours and the sky burns alive. And, if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights even come out to play.
Autumn may not seem like the ideal time to visit Shetland, with shorter days and less mild weather, but I’d thoroughly dispute that. Those shorter days give way to nights where the sky sparkles here at 60º North. Think not just stars, but meteors, the Milky Way sketched out in all its glory and those Mirrie Dancers – the name given in the Shetland Islands to the delight of the aurora borealis.
The colours of the land excel too as the velvet cloak of summer gives way to smouldering orange, burning ochre, and cool brown. Both sunrises and sunsets sear long into the soul and hazily brush the hues of the land with romance. Any wind that whips in just adds further drama.
Exhilarating clifftop walks are lifted further with surf bashing into ancient rocks, spray spurting high towards you. You’re never further than four miles away from the sea or ocean in Shetland and in autumn it really feels like it. The light on those voes really does take on an ethereal quality.
I have many favourite spots on Shetland in autumn. Standing atop Sumburgh Head, the puffins may be long gone, but it’s not a dead world as hulking cetaceans still patrol a world alien to us below. Migratory birds swirl – we’ll come to those soon – and the clear light often opens up snatched views of Fair Isle to the south.
The land tumbles down from Sumburgh Head to another of my favourite autumnal Shetland spots: Jarlshof. This unique historic treasure is a joy to visit at any time of year, but it comes into its own in autumn when any crowds that do gather in summer have drifted off. You often have the place to yourself. It’s quite something slipping from Bronze Age to Iron Age dwellings, and then delving into the remains of a Viking longhouse, as the surf bashes across a world in essence little changed since any of those times. This autumn is a particularly special time to visit Jarlshof as earlier this year it was announced that the site is under consideration for a place on UNESCO’s coveted World Heritage list.
In short, autumn in Shetland looks like one giant Ruth Brownlee painting. I went to school with Ruth and interviewed her in another of my NorthLink articles. Since she moved to join her late husband on Shetland, she has embraced the full drama of Shetland’s landscapes, capturing the deeply striking seascapes better than any other artists I’ve seen.
In autumn, you can check out her work at the Shetland Gallery on Yell. It’s a great season to explore the cultural side of Shetland with less people around and a warm welcome in studios that provide shelter on dreich days. Shetland indeed is alive with talented craftsmen and women who conjure up all sorts of delights, from those sweaters (Fair Isle and otherwise), through to beautiful pottery and quality handicrafts. The local wool is highly prized; not just sweaters, but also hats, scarves and gloves.
A brilliant wet weather experience is offered by the Shetland Museum in Lerwick. Here you delve all the way back to prehistoric Shetland and on to the arrival of the Norse peoples, who have left such an indelible imprint on the archipelago, then through to how seafaring has always been an essential part of local life. Next door, just along the waterfront, the Mareel is a superb arts venue, where you can take the cultural pulse of Shetland, and coorie up in their café.
Getting coorie – we are closer culturally in some ways to Scandinavian hygge on Shetland – is a joy in autumn. Take Lerwick – even in autumn it bursts with places to eat and drink. The local produce is very special – we’re talking world-class lamb and beef. How about reestit mutton, which is a delicious Shetland delicacy of salt-cured lamb? Or how about a fluffy Shetland Bannock, best served with just a little butter? Then there is that remarkable seafood – the plump mussels a mainstay of restaurants all over Scotland and well beyond. As with all of Shetland’s fresh produce it is best enjoyed right here. What better way to warm the cockles on a crisp autumn day?
Now on to that elephant in the room, or more accurately that should be a Sardinian Warbler, a Solitary Sandpiper or a Tennessee Warbler. Shetland is world-class for birding, and it always impresses me that many locals realise that and engage both with the impressive migrations and the rarer birds making Shetland home. Humans gel over birding on Shetland in a similar way as birds from different hemispheres find joy together here. Autumn is definitely the best time of year for birdwatching.
Fair Isle has long been the Mecca for birders heading to Shetland. It helps that it is home to the world-renowned Fair Isle Bird Observatory, which will hopefully re-open in 2024 after the dreadful fire. Shetland, though, in general is just brilliant for birding in autumn, whether you’re a rabid ornithologist, or just like watching birds now and again. The isles lie that bit closer to the Arctic Circle, so don’t be surprised if you’re in a local taxi and the driver chips in to show you a spot where a Snowy Owl has been sighted.
The autumnal wildlife doesn’t end with Shetland’s bird-kissed skies. This is also a great time to see otters and seals, who are busy with their pups. If you hanker after that viewing of an otter with its young, then this is a great time of year.
See what I mean about autumn in Shetland? It really is a brilliant time to hop on a NorthLink ferry and sail north to explore the wild and beautiful Shetland Islands.
Robin McKelvie is an award-winning travel writer and broadcaster who has been published in over 200 magazines and newspapers worldwide.