Before moving to Scotland, I will be honest. I never gave much thought to the country’s northern islands. However, one day while on one of my walks, I saw a large advert for the NorthLink Ferries that sit across from the Union Square Mall in Aberdeen. Intrigued, I looked them up and found out that I could take the ferry straight out of Aberdeen to either Shetland or Orkney and it was cheap! I immediately booked a trip.
With my normal travel plan of leaving Tuesday and coming back Friday, I planned to try and make the very most of my trip by going up to Shetland – staying for two days and then going across to Orkney and staying for two days there as well before making it back. Two amazing islands, one trip. Unfortunately, however, that didn’t work out.
So- if you ever decide to ride the ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland (or take any trip with NorthLink Ferries) here is what to know: Be there an hour early! I did not and I missed my first day on Shetland. Boo. But! I got there the next morning and planned to power through.
Taking the Northlink Ferries to the Northern Isles
The ferry ride from Aberdeen to Shetland is a 12-hour overnight trip. For only 22 pounds sterling, you can travel reserve a ticket. You can get a regular seat (similar to that on a plane but with more legroom) for no extra charge or you can upgrade to a sleeping pod or an actual room with a bed. Being the frugal traveler that I am – I went for the free seat.
In the times of the Coronavirus, you gotta sanitize, gotta wear a mask, gotta stay socially distanced, all that jazz. Covid makes everything a pain in the butt, but we press on and make the best of it. If anything, it majorly reduced the number of people, and I’m always happy to have less of a crowd. Despite the restrictions, the trip was nice. After I found my seat, I took a walk around the ship and went out onto the back and upper decks. We had left around 1700 (5 pm) and the sun was still up, but lowering over the horizon. I stood against the railings and watched the sunset across the ocean with the Aberdeen Bay Wind Farm spanning out in the distance. It was absolutely gorgeous.
Once inside, I splurged and had a nice fish and chip dinner before heading back to my seat to try and read and sleep. Did I sleep well? Maybe not that great… there were people getting seasick and children crying. The ship swayed and the waves crashed with ferocity against the side of the ship but somehow I did manage a few hours of shuteye. Grateful as ever, I reminded myself that it was a new experience and one I enjoyed having.
Arriving in Lerwick
After a 12-hour ride, we arrived in Lerwick at 5 in the morning. Obviously, there wasn’t much open, and I was hoping to get myself a rental car. However, being the impulsive and chaotic person that I am… I hit a few snags. Not only had I missed my original ferry, but I also couldn’t get a refund for my Airbnb that I had originally booked. Then, when I got there, I realized something was missing from my wallet… My driver’s license! So, no rental! So far – it didn’t seem like this trip was going to work out for me at all! But, keeping my optimism in place, I pressed on.
I was on Shetland by golly, and I was going to make the best of it! I had limited time because of missing my first day. This means I was cut down to just a few hours on Shetland. Now that I didn’t have a rental, I was going to be relying on public transport, but it was still very early in the morning and not much was happening yet. I decided to do one of the things that I do best: Take a walk!
Heading away from the port, I spent the first couple of hours exploring Kirkwall by walking up and down the empty streets, looking in shop windows, walking along the waters edge and enjoying the sunrise. I walked downtown, around the port, and found plenty of beauty to enjoy. As an American, just taking in the sites of the area was enough. I take in the different types of architecture, styles and imagine what life for the locals must be like. I found a wonderful seaside walk where I meandered along a cliffside, along the coast, and onto beaches getting fantastic panoramic views of the port city and the area surrounding it.
Taking the Bus North and Making Friends
I walked around Lerwick for a while and then hopped on a bus heading north. It was me, the bus driver, and one other woman that had been living on Shetland her entire life and whose family went back generation after generation on the island. She became almost like my tour guide! Let me say this… The people of Shetland are the KINDEST PEOPLE I HAVE EVER MET. Everyone was so gracious and kind.
Myself, the bus driver, and the woman chatted our way from Lerwick up to Toft. As we passed the rolling hills of mainland Shetland, the woman told me all about the Shetland ponies and how it had become rarer and rarer to see them on the island. She told me all about her life on the island and the different jobs she had. She explained to me how the mussel and salmon farms worked as we drove past the inlets of seawater that weave its way in and out from the folds of the natural landscape. Human connection is my favourite part of travel. Talking to this woman and the driver (originally from London and super cheeky!) was the absolute best part of my day and made this whole trip and all of its hiccups so far totally worth it.
As I rode the bus and talked with the two others, I gazed longingly out of the window as the countryside passed by. The Island is nearly treeless and made up of rolling hills and valleys covered with Shetland sheep. The coastlines curl inward and out again in deep-cut indents. The Island is nearly treeless and made up of rolling hills and valleys covered with Shetland sheep. Crofting- which is farming small portions of land for small-scale food production, is a major and normal way of life there. Locals will usually own a small patch of land as well as work for the North Sea oil industry. Fishing is another important way of life on Shetland as well. With over 100 islands, seafood plays a major part in the economy. The woman pointed out to me all of the mussel and salmon farms floating inside the inlets.
She told me that she regularly saw orcas, dolphins, seals, and tons of seabirds like puffins. She said living under the aurora borealis was something she knew she didn’t truly appreciate, but talking to outsiders like myself always made her realize how lucky she was to have grown up there.
Back in Lerwick and Finding History
I stayed on the same bus the entire trip up to Mossbank and back. There was so much more I wanted to see, but I had to be on the boat headed for Orkney by 5 pm. When we got back to Lerwick, I still had a bit of time to kill so I went ahead on another walk. Shetland, I learned, holds close to its long and rich Scandinavian history. Many locals still treasure their original Norse and Scottish heritages. With over 5 thousand historical sites dating back to the Mesolithic Era.
In Lerwick, I found the Clickimin Broch which is a stone-built round house that is over a thousand years old. I walked through it and watched some local children play there. They twirled and danced and played tag all around the stone walls. How neat it must be to grow up with so much history I thought. Funnily, that night I wrote a piece on the difference between American and European history and how it affects our societies.
I made it back to the ship just in time to climb onboard with a backpack full of store-bought snacks and sandwiches for my dinner and breakfast the next morning. Onward to Orkney!
I didn’t get to hike or explore. I didn’t get to see even half of what I had planned, but I got to enjoy Lerwick and talk to some of the folks that lived there. I smiled and laughed and talked and gazed out the windows of the bus in awe of the rolling hills covered in heather and dotted with sheep.
So, Shetland didn’t work out. Or… did it?
Thanks for your reading!