Bicycling the Shetland Isles 

This is me getting ready to leave Inverness on the public bus. Of course - never having backpacked- I had TOO MUCH GEAR. Cooking equipment which I found I didn’t need staying in Scottish youth hostels; and a tent, which I used only one night, and wooly jumpers and a neoprene diver’s suit (to stay warm while cycling..????) heavy cotton vest (horrible rain sponge)…but the Dahon folding bike with 20” tyres was superb - on and off ferries and buses no problem. It was just me legs….me poor legs…which hadn’t cycled in 20 years.  A few days before I left for the ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, the weather in Inverness was ghastly – hail and freezing rain in JulyI I was so terrified I almost cancelled my trip, even with the kids’ scuba diving suit I had bought and cut up to wear as protection while cycling. But - saved by that old fairy magic! - once I got to Shetland, it weather turned out to be the best weather in ALL OF BRITAIN that week! And I made it all the way to Unst! The most northerly island in the “British Isles”.

This is me getting ready to leave Inverness on the public bus. Of course - never having backpacked- I had TOO MUCH GEAR. Cooking equipment which I found I didn’t need staying in Scottish youth hostels; and a tent, which I used only one night, and wooly jumpers and a neoprene diver’s suit (to stay warm while cycling..????) heavy cotton vest (horrible rain sponge)…but the Dahon folding bike with 20” tyres was superb - on and off ferries and buses no problem. It was just me legs….me poor legs…which hadn’t cycled in 20 years.

A few days before I left for the ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, the weather in Inverness was ghastly – hail and freezing rain in JulyI I was so terrified I almost cancelled my trip, even with the kids’ scuba diving suit I had bought and cut up to wear as protection while cycling. But - saved by that old fairy magic! - once I got to Shetland, it weather turned out to be the best weather in ALL OF BRITAIN that week! And I made it all the way to Unst! The most northerly island in the “British Isles”.

Where is Shetland? It is not just a wee box in the top right-hand corner of the map of Scotland.

Where is Shetland? map

Shetland (from Middle Scots Zetland; Scottish Gaelic: Sealtainn) is a subarctic archipelago off the northeast coast of the Scottish mainland. The islands lie 50 mi to the northeast of Orkney and 170 miles southeast of the Faroe Islands. Shetland has 16 inhabited islands and covers 373 square miles,. The archipelago lies between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. In 2009 the population was 22,210. The largest island - called "Mainland" — is Scotland’s third-largest island. Shetland has an oceanic climate, complex geology, rugged coastline and low rolling hills.

The oldest version of the name Shetland is Hetlandensis recorded in 1190, then becoming Hetland in 1431. This Norse name became Hjaltland in the 16th century, and as Norn was gradually replaced by Scots, Hjaltland became Shetland. Most of the islands have Norse names, but the origins of some names may be Pictish or pre-Celtic. 

Human habitation dates from the Mesolithic period. The earliest written references to Shetland date from Roman times. The early historic period was dominated by Scandinavian influences, predominantly Norway. The islands were annexed to Scotland in the fifteenth century. In 1707 Shetland became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain and fishing continues to be an important aspect of the economy up to the present  day. The 1970’s discovery of North Sea oil boomed Shetland’s economy, because of Shetland insisted on controlling its oil revenue and using it for the developmental good of the islands and its people. Shetland’s way of life reflects the joint Norse and Scottish heritage celebrated at the Up Helly Aa fire  festival, and in its fiesty traditional Shetland fiddle music. Many of Shetland’s writers of prose and poetry use the local Shetlandic dialect. 

The name Lerwick comes from the old Norse Leirvik, leir meaning clay and vik meaning "bay" or "inlet". Old Norse evolved into Norn, spoken in Shetland until the mid-19th century.  Human settlements around Lerwick near the Clickimin Broch date back 3000 years.  The mainland town of Lerwick was founded in the seventeenth century on the west side of Bressay Sound. Its natural harbour made it a great seaport for trading herring and white fish.  But Lerwick was burned to the ground twice - in the 17th century by residents of Scalloway (the capital at that time) who disdained the “immoral and drunken” behavior of its fishermen and sailors, and again in 1702 by the French fleet.

The Shetland Council distributes fishnets to every household to protect the garbage bins from attack by the seagulls – huge herring gulls, which are everywhere, and omnivorous, and out day and night!

My folding Dahon - stopped for a lunch break at a gorgeous beach - but too cold for swimming!

My folding Dahon - stopped for a lunch break at a gorgeous beach - but too cold for swimming!

The Bronze Age in Scotland lasted from approximately 2000 BC to 800 BC. The oldest known remains on the Jarlshof site date from this period, but may date as far back as 2500 BC. The remains of several small oval houses with thick stone walls are similar to those of Skara Brae on Mainland, Orkney. They may have been partly subterranean for insulation and structural stability.

The Bronze Age in Scotland lasted from approximately 2000 BC to 800 BC. The oldest known remains on the Jarlshof site date from this period, but may date as far back as 2500 BC. The remains of several small oval houses with thick stone walls are similar to those of Skara Brae on Mainland, Orkney. They may have been partly subterranean for insulation and structural stability.

UNST is  as far north as you can go in Scotland. You have already travelled on a 15 hour ferry to  Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. Then taken a ferry from what is called ‘Mainland Shetland’ to the  island of Yell. Crossing this you then take another ferry from Gutcher Pier to the Wick of Belmont on  Unst – this is the most northerly inhabited island in the Shetlands (and therefore in the UK).

But the ferries are so well organized and coordinated! Each ferry is waiting for the bus, and each bus  is waiting for the ferry, so you island hop skip from one to another.  This has been created more for  the locals than tourists who must use these ferries all year long to get around the archipelago.

I had taken more gear on this trip than I would ever need. When I got to the Youth Hostel I discovered another wonderful kitchen with all the cooking facilities you could ever need. But what they didn’t have—and what I didn’t bring—was groceries! I thought there would be at least a shop nearby, but was horrified to learn that the nearest one was 15 miles away! So having lots and lots of daylight, given the 20+ hours of sunlight, I set off for Haroldswick, and on the way, learned about a Viking Feast to be held that night. I got the very last ticket for the feast, but by the time I arrived, sweaty and exhausted, having cycled 20 miles with an out-of-shape body, there was no time to buy groceries. I arrived at the Viking feast quite starved!


The Shetland pony is a breed of pony originating in the Shetland Isles, ranging in size from  28 inches  to  42 inches (10.2 hands,  at the withers. (11.2 hands for American Shetlands) Shetland ponies have  heavy coats, short legs and are considered quite intelligent. They are a very strong breed of pony, used  for riding, driving, and pack purposes.

 Small horses have been kept on the Shetland Isles since the Bronze Age.People who lived on the  islands probably later crossed the native stock with ponies imported by Norse settlers. Shetland  ponies also were probably influenced by the Celtic Pony, brought to the islands by the Celts between  2000 and 1000 BCE.The harsh climate and scarce food developed the ponies into extremely hardy  animals.

For its size, the Shetland is the strongest of all horse and pony breeds. It can pull twice its own weight under circumstances where a draft horse can only pull approximately half its own weight, as well as many being able to carry up to 9 stone – 130 pounds (59 kg). Shetland ponies are found worldwide, though mainly in the UK and North America. In general, UK ponies tend to preserve more of the original characteristics of the breed and are often stockier than their American cousins.

Shetland ponies were first used for pulling carts, carrying peat, coal and plowing  farmland. As the Industrial Revolution boosted the need for coal in the mid-19th century,  thousands of Shetland ponies were sent to mainland Britain to be worked to death as pit ponies, working underground hauling coal. Coal mines in the U.S. imported these cute ponies. The last pony mine in the United States closed in 1971.

Odd Scotland PowerPointFinal Tarpon Arts NANCY edit.163.jpeg

The Unst Bus Shelter is near the village of Baltasound on the A968, which runs between Belmont and Haroldswick. One day, after a particularly long wait for a bus, local schoolboy named Bobby Maculay decided to make the shelter a little more homey by decorating it. The local council planned to remove the bus shelter, but Bobby wrote to them explaining that the shelter was where he left his bike while at school. The Shetland Islands Council decided to keep and maintain the bus shelter. Every year the shelter is refurnished and redecorated to reflect what’s going on in Bobby's life. In 2009 it was decorated in pink to honor Bobby’s work for a Breast Cancer charity. Now the Unst bus shelter is the island's most popular tourist attraction - featured in  The Daily Mail, BBC Radio Scotland, The Press And Journal as well being voted the best bus shelter in Britain by Buses Magazine.  It has quite a panoramic view, of Muckle Hoeg with its chambered cairn, White Haggle to the north and to the east - Haroldswick Bay. 

TamsHorizontal.jpg