Robin McKelvie in Shetland: Embracing winter in the northern isles
Winter in the Northern Isles. Isn’t that when Shetland goes crazy for Up Helly Aa? It most resoundingly is, making winter a great time to visit. But – and it’s a huge but – there are myriad reasons to hop on a NorthLink Ferries’ ship and set sail for a winter break in the Shetland archipelago.
It can get windy on Shetland, but for me that often just adds to the drama. Some say that Shetland is too cold to visit in winter, but it rarely dips below freezing and snow never sticks around for long when it does fall.
Across Shetland, winter is an ace time for life-affirming strolls. There is nothing like yomping across a wild moor, or a white sand beach, in the Northern Isles on a crisp winter’s day. Chances are you will be all alone, bar the ghosts of the Vikings, the whistle of the wind and the occasional call of the bountiful birdlife.
Shetland stars too in winter. You can see the Northern Lights regularly here in winter, known locally as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’. There is nothing like seeing the green – and orange and pink too – lights sparkle across the heavens. It is one of travel’s great experiences, and the Northern Isles are the best place to savour the epic drama of the aurora borealis in Britain.
I sometimes get told that Shetland would be too cold to visit in winter. That is just not true. Nowhere in Scotland is balmy in winter, but Shetland is actually much milder than it should be at a latitude it shares with the likes of St Petersburg and the Yukon. It actually rarely dips below freezing and snow is a relative rarity that doesn’t tend to stick around for long when it does fall.
It can get windy on Shetland, but for me that often just adds to the drama. I like being out at Eshaness – a safe distance from the edge of the cliffs – enjoying a weird and wonderful largely volcanic landscape that has geologists in a froth. Watching the cobalt Atlantic thrash ashore is truly spirit-soaring. Sumburgh Head is another great spot to witness the wildness of Mother Nature in all her glory. Look out for passing marine mammals here too and Shetland, of course, is of course no stranger to bountiful birdlife too.
Winter is also ideal if you want to get coorie, or maybe it should be hygge with the archipelago’s strong Nordic traditional and cultural influences? Tuck into the famous seafood with those plump mussels from the clean voes always a treat, alongside the likes of Shetland lamb and the warming joy of Shetland Reel Gin and local beer from Lerwick Brewery, the UK’s most northerly craft brewery.
What could be more cosy after a bracing winter walk than fish and chips? And not just any fish and chips. I’m talking about Frankie’s Fish & Chips, the UK’s most northerly chippie and definitely one its best, as its numerous awards are testament to. The focus here is on fresh, sustainable local Shetland seafood. Their website handily lists some of their impressively local suppliers, including the likes of Shetland Crab, Scalloway’s Blydoit Fish and Shetland Sea Salt.
A more local speciality is Reestit Mutton, which was created to help Shetlanders get through winter. The sheep meat is soaked in a salty brine and then hung up to dry, traditionally using peat smoke, which fuses in even more flavour. If done right Reestit Mutton can last for up to four years, but it’s unlikely the meat you come across will be anything like that old. It is not something I like on its own as such, but worked into other dishes, like a hearty soup, it packs in a lot of flavour and that sense of local place that adds to the experience of a cosy meal in winter.
Winter in the Northern Isles is a creative time of year too. It is inspiring to have Nature wrapped all around you with far fewer people around. As you slow down the creative juices start to flow. You can pick up local arts or crafts in Lerwick, or in any studios open in winter. There are also creative residencies at the likes of the gorgeous Fair Isle Studio, or at The Booth in Scalloway.
I’ve given you a taster of why you should visit Shetland in winter. And, of course, you still have the deservedly world famous delight of the fiery joys of Up Helly Aa to savour at this deeply special time of year in a deeply special part of the planet.
Robin McKelvie is an award-winning travel writer and broadcaster who has been published in over 200 magazines and newspapers worldwide.