Last year my brother, father and I went on a road trip to the Shetland Islands. We’d all been keen to explore and to visit our friends who had moved there some years previously. They’d been tempting us with stories of epic scenery and wildlife. I packed my sketchbook, plenty of jumpers and warm clothes (it was May but I wasn’t taking any chances!) and booked us into a series of ‘Böds’ – buildings once used to house Fisherman’s equipment – now turned into basic accommodation for travellers.
We had such a brilliant adventure! I didn’t keep a journal at the time, so will share some highlights with you here, as well as sketches and photos made along the way…
Before taking the ferry to Shetland we visited the ruined, Medieval fortress of Dunnottar Castle near Aberdeen. Perched on the headland, it has serious Game Of Thrones vibes to it! The many crumbling windows and arches gave incredible views of the sea and coastline and provided plenty of inspiration for drawing.
We then took the overnight ferry to Lerwick, the main port in Shetland. It made me realise that I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ for drawing modern fishing boats! Something about all the criss crossed lines of the ropes, the symmetry of their cranes and pulleys, the bold strips of colour and chunky iron fittings…Spending a night on the ferry was pretty exciting too. We had fantastic views of the choppy sea as we made our way north. And enjoyed several intense games of Canasta with beers and hot chocolates.
Arrival in Shetland
It was snowing when the ferry pulled into Lerwick. We spent the next few days staying in a Bod near our friend’s house. They were wonderful tour guides and hosts and took us to some of their favourite spots. At Sumburgh Head Lighthouse (foghorn pictured below) we were blasted by icy winds and saw puffins. A stones throw from our friend’s home we saw the washed up spine of a whale and spotted otters but the big treat came when we visited the lunar-esque cliffs of Eshaness…
Just as we were about to leave the cliffs, our friend bolted from the car and pointed out to sea. She had spotted a pod of Orcas! We were extremely lucky to have seen them on our first visit to Shetland and luckily had a pair of binoculars with us (nature nerds) but we could even see them with the naked eye; the tall dorsal fin of the male and a baby orca keeping up with the pack.
Coldest I’ve ever been whilst sketching
Though I made some drawings I was very happy with during our trip, there were several occasions where I was thwarted by the weather and had to admit defeat. Snow one minute, torrential rain and howling winds then beautiful, warm sunshine the next, quite tricky to keep up with! But I was determined to finish my drawing of little coloured houses across the bay and these fluffy Shetland ponies (chalk pastel sketch at the very top of this post).
We moved on from the mainland to stay in Yell. This involved another ferry crossing, though this one was so quick there was barely time to finish a Mars bar. On Yell we stayed in a Bod next to a ruined, haunted house. There were a few eerie buildings during our stay which was exciting – until you turned off the lights and let the fires go out!
From here we made little expeditions around Yell to see ‘The White Wife’, the figurehead of a German ship that wrecked near the island, some secret beaches and to drink in the Northern-most pub in Shetland (or so claimed the pub). We also travelled to neighbouring Unst for a day trip.
A grey day on Unst
Unst is one of Shetland’s North isles. We took another little ferry over to explore. It was a very grey and foggy day. On a quiet winding road, a Viking Longboat suddenly appeared from the mist! A complete replica perched next to a reconstruction of a turf covered Longhouse.
Later we took a walk to the cliffs at Hermaness Nature Reserve. We stuck to the wooden path to avoid falling into the saturated ground – very reminiscent of Tolkein’s ‘Dead Marshes’ – until the path ran out and disappeared into the fog. Knowing this was pretty close to the cliff edge, we decided it would be a smart move to turn back!
At the Keen of Hamar nature reserve we hunted for Edmonston’s chickweed. A small, yellow flower that can only be found in this little stretch of protected land. On a chilly, seaweed covered beach we were eyeballed by a large male seal from the water. We posed in the decorated bus shelter, an attraction straight from Craggy Island and marvelled at one of the moss covered Standing Stones.
It was a calm sunny evening when we took the ferry back to the mainland. There was a beautiful pink sunset and the sea had a milky quality to it. We stood on the deck for quite some time watching Shetland shrink into the distance.
There’s a lot more that we did and saw on this trip that i’ve missed out but these are some of my favourite memories. If you’re a nature lover that’s sturdy enough to withstand the constant weather changes and seeking somewhere untouched and remote to explore, then I highly recommend visiting Shetland. Don’t forget your binoculars!