JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH LAURIE GOODLAD FROM LERWICK, SHETLAND ISLANDS!
Laurie Goodlad is a 32-year-old Shetlander, born and raised in the islands. She left Shetland to study history and politics at the University of Dundee before returning home and securing a job as curatorial assistant at the Shetland Museum & Archives. Whilst there she undertook a masters in museum & gallery studies through St Andrews University. After leaving the museum she edited a local lifestyle magazine and now runs her own successful business as tour guide and freelance writer as well as part-time curator of Scalloway Museum. She loves to explore and document her days on her blog and online via Instagram stories.
Lerwick is Shetland’s capital and only town, with a population of about 7,500. It is a fascinating town, built on fishing. It grew almost accidentally in response to the arrival of Dutch fishermen who began to arrive here from the 1500s. The town grew with the arrival of these fishermen as locals flocked to the foreshore in Bressay Sound to trade with the fishermen. Today Lerwick is one of the top fishing ports in the UK with a flourishing industry and new boats coming year-on-year to make up the fleet.
Life in Shetland is fantastic, never more than three miles from the sea, it is flanked by both the North Atlantic on the west and the North Sea on the east, giving rise to dramatic coastal scenery, sea cliffs, caves, stacks and geos. The freedom is incredible, with 1,700 miles of coastline to explore and low-population density, access to outdoor space is literally on your doorstep.
Lerwick is often described as rugged and wild and it certainly can appear to be so. The winters are long, dark and wild and the summers hang in a suspended veil of soft light as the endless days give rise to the Simmer Dim (midsummer), bathing the islands in almost perpetual light throughout June and July.
Shetland is still an unspoilt destination that many in the world have not heard of. Tell us something about Shetlanders and their life on the archipelago.
As a Shetlander, it’s all too easy to take life here for granted. Growing up surrounded by the sea is a privilege that I only came to realise as I grew older and left home for the first time to attend university in mainland Scotland. As a youngster the isolation, freedom, proximity to nature and sense of community was something that I very much took for granted – I never really considered how lucky I was to live in such a beautiful and inspiring place.
Shetland is still relatively unspoilt, although the march of modernisation has arrived here, as it has throughout the world, with a thriving oil and gas industry which has brought many jobs and relative wealth and prosperity to the isles. The quality of life here is fantastic and it has recently been voted one of the best places in the UK to live and grow up.
However, the unspoilt nature of the islands is under threat at the moment as plans are underway to build a giant wind farm in the centre of the islands – a proposal that has been met with much local opposition with fears for the environment, landscape and wildlife being brought into sharp focus.
What are the different ways by which one can reach Shetland? Any recommendations on flight connections to take while travelling to Shetland?
It is relatively easy to reach Shetland, although booking in advance is advisable and can result in cheaper fares. There are two ways to get to the islands – by sea or air.
The first option for getting to Shetland is by boat. This service is run by Northlink and bookings can be made via their website. Two boats operate this life-line service – the Hjaltland and Hrossey – running between Lerwick and Aberdeen daily, with each boat passing the other on their respective passages north and south. Journey times vary between 12 and 14 hours (depending on whether the boat calls in at our island neighbour, Orkney, 50 miles to the south-west).
There are a few benefits to travelling by boat: It is generally cheaper, it’s less stressful than flying, it allows visitors to take their car/motorhome with them and, there are kennel facilities on board for any pets who may be travelling with you. There are various options to suit all budgets from private cabins to budget travel pods. Travelling by boat is a relaxing way to start your holiday and there is always the chance of spotting some wildlife (birds, whales and dolphins) on the way. The downsides to the boat are seasickness if the crossing is rough, travel disruption due to adverse weather and the duration of the journey – the boat will add another two nights on to any trip.
The second option is to fly. Flights in and out of Shetland are fairly easy from all the major Scottish airports. There are daily flights operated by Loganair, to and from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Orkney, Manchester and in the summer, a weekly service to Bergen. Undoubtedly, this is the quickest option (if all goes to plan), as flights are between an hour and an hour and a half (compared to the 12-14 on the boat).
However, it’s not always the most reliable way to get here (or away) and delays and cancellations are common, especially during the summer when low-lying fog can close the runways for extended periods of time – often for several days. That said, the views flying into Shetland by air are breathtaking as the plane comes in over the spectacular cliffs of Sumburgh Head.
How to get around Shetland considering it’s an archipelago of 100 islands? Do you recommend renting a car or public transport does the job?
Undoubtedly the best way to see Shetland is with a car and there are many rental options available as well as qualified guides, who can take you on your Shetland adventure. Public transport in Shetland is great, with regular bus service throughout the islands but, many of the places you may wish to visit are a little off the beaten track so it makes life easier if you have access to a car.
If you plan on visiting some of the outer isles you will have to use the Inter-Island ferry service which is operated by the Shetland Islands Council. The ferries are reliable, frequent and very affordable. Booking, especially with a car, is recommended on all the inter-island ferries.
Which town or city should you base yourself in while touring the rest of Shetland?
It totally depends on what you want to see or do, some people want the total solitude of the country and others want the convenience of staying in town. If you want to enjoy the facilities of a town I would recommend Lerwick, or its smaller neighbour Scalloway (six miles to the west) as both have good local amenities, transport links and are centrally placed to explore the whole island.
There are also various accommodation options for those who want to enjoy a more rural, secluded experience.
What are the must-visit places in Lerwick? What is so special about them?
Like I mentioned earlier, Lerwick was built on fishing. Alongwith the legal trade that took place between Shetlanders and the Dutch fishermen who came ashore, there was a high proportion of trade that was of course, illegal. Evidence of this can be found under Commercial Street, from Harry’s Department Store to Leog at the south end of Commercial Street are a series of underground tunnels – many of them are still there, some have collapsed, and others have been filled in during building works. Illegal goods – gin, brandy, tobacco – were unloaded from the ships and squirrelled away underground to avoid customs. There is no doubt that trade – legal or otherwise – formed the foundations of the town. This is why the waterfront is one of the best places to explore as you can still see evidence of the town’s growth all along the shore, from the 18th-century buildings, built with their foundations in the sea, to the winches on the buildings, used for unloading boat’s cargoes.
A firm favourite is The Lodberrie; instantly recognisable by many visitors as the home of Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in the fictional TV crime drama Shetland. This building, dating to about 1772, was one of 21 lodberries that lined the foreshore in Lerwick by 1814. The word lodberry comes from the Old Norse hladberg and means ‘a landing place, or a landing stone’ and describes the type of use these utilitarian – yet beautiful – buildings were designed for. Ultimately these were trading booths, equipped with winches to unload boats berthed alongside. Legal goods were sold from street-side shops, and illegal goods were taken into the maze of tunnels that ran underneath the street – and feet – of the customs men.
Another favourite is the Tolbooth. The Tolbooth, overlooking Victoria Pier, was built in 1770 and designated for collecting taxes. Over the years it has had a colourful and varied past. Of its numerous uses it has been; a jail, ballroom, museum, archive, seaman’s mission, post office, and more recently, the headquarters for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute).
Another favourite is Bain’s Beach. This is the only part of virgin foreshore that remains in Lerwick’s town centre. The golden sand is a surprise in the middle of town, and it always takes me right back to my childhood, conjuring up memories of eating fish suppers on a summer night when the tide allowed access to the beach. Because there was so little available land for building on the shoreline, much of the centre of town, including the Esplanade and everything that stands east of Fort Charlotte, has been reclaimed from the sea, drastically altering the natural shoreline.
Over the years there have been many changes and improvements to the town – some better than others. Drainage and sewage systems were introduced in the 1870s; at that time the town was described as filthy and diseased, with open sewers running down the lanes to the sea.
One of my favourite places to show visitors the changes is Church Road – leading up from the Tolbooth towards St Columba’s Kirk. At one time Church Road was known as Sooth Kirk Closs and was lined with overcrowded houses. It was densely populated and the houses in poor condition. In the 1960s the houses were torn down to allow the new road to go in, allowing better access to the town centre. At the same time, the graveyard that sat between Sooth and North Kirk Closs was removed – and turned into a car park – with the council advertising in the local paper, asking people to kindly collect their relatives. If you walk around the area, there are still paving slabs marked with a simple cross, indicating the spot of a previous grave. Whatever the rights and wrongs, it did allow much-needed access to the town centre.
By the 1880s the town had reached the top of what is now the Hillhead; it was a busy, overcrowded, squalid mess. There was no urban planning, just entrepreneurial locals trying to carve out their corner of this new town which had so much offer and promise to the rising middle classes. Finally, in 1883 Lerwick’s Town Hall was built, immortalising the town as the capital and main seat of power in Shetland. Built in under a year, the Town Hall is a grand sandstone building with ornate carvings, stained glass windows. The clock tower dominates it – an addition not on the plans that were drawn up by architect Alexander Ross, but added by local builder John Aitken who had his vision for the town’s most famous landmark.
Although it’s never enough, which Shetland Islands would you recommend tourists to visit in order to call their trip complete? How should one reach them?
To complete your Shetland experience it would be foolish not to visit the North Isles, Yell and Unst, and try to make it to Hermaness, the most northerly point of the UK. At Hermaness you get views across to Muckle Flugga lighthouse that stands on a rocky outcrop on the northern fringes of the UK. If you visit during the summer seabird breeding season you can also watch the puffins, known locally as Tammie Nories, busying themselves around the cliff tops.
If you want to really get-away-from-it-all then Fetlar, the third in the trio of North Isles is a must.
Are there any events or festivals in Shetland around which tourists should plan their holiday to feel the local culture?
Up Helly Aa is probably the biggest festival that we have in Shetland. It is a Viking inspired fire festival that takes place on the last Tuesday of January every year and attracts thousands of visitors every year. A torchlit procession, led by the Guizer Jarl (chief Viking) weaves its way around the streets of Lerwick with over 1,000 men carrying burning torches. After the procession, the guizers (as participants are known) heave their burning torches into a replica Viking longship before a night of celebration commences. The festival lasts for 24 hours and is the highlight of the social calendar for many in Shetland.
But if coming to Shetland in the depths of winter is unappealing there are many other festivals that you can take part in. Wool Week is probably the second largest to Up Helly Aa and takes place at the beginning of October. Wool Week is a world-renowned celebration of Britain’s most northerly native sheep, the Shetland textile industry and the rural farming community on these islands. The buzz Wool Week brings to Shetland is incredible as people with a passion for yarn travel here from every continent on the planet.
Other festivals include the Shetland Folk Festival in early May where you can listen to Shetland music, Boat Week, Nature Festival, Fiddle & Accordion Festival and many, many more!
What is the local food of Shetland, sweet and savoury? Which are the best places to try them?
Shetland is renowned for its fish and shellfish as well as lamb. Shetland is the second largest fishing port in the UK and the quality and freshness of the products are second to none. The waters around Shetland are within some of the richest fishing grounds in the world so fishermen don’t have far to go to bring home fish of exceptional quality and flavour.
The aquaculture industry – the commercial growing of salmon and mussels – is one of the main industries here so you can’t visit Shetland without trying some of the locally produced salmon and mussels.
Lamb is also a must-try, much smaller than other breeds, the Shetland sheep is a hardy variety producing exceptionally delicate meat. The varied grazing the flocks enjoy mean that the meat takes on the flavours of the landscape, from the heather moorland and salt-kissed hills to the sweet tang of the foreshore. Probably the best-known dish in Shetland is reestit mutton tattie soup and bannocks – basically, salt mutton and potato soup with traditional flatbread. If you get the chance then try it! But, be warned, you’ll have a drought on afterwards as this is a very salty dish.
Shetlanders are great knitters. What other local crafts and souvenirs one can learn or collect from the archipelago?
Shetland is certainly most famous for its knitwear and you can pick up lots of fantastic examples of the locally-produced knitwear throughout the shops and community museums. The knitwear on sale in the community museums and heritage centres are all made by locals and are very good value.
Shetland is also an artist’s dream, the inspiring landscape and ever-changing light means that there are many artists living and working in Shetland. You can check out the Shetland Craft Trail and for the opportunity to visit artist’s studios and buy some of their art or just check out their creative spaces.
Perhaps you could collect some sea glass and do a jewellery making workshop to make your own Shetland keepsake? Red Houss Shetland offers jewellery making classes from his studio in Burra and you can make that special beach find into a treasure that you will cherish forever.
Where should one head for shopping in Shetland? Are there any popular weekend/night/flea markets that one must visit?
Shetland is probably most famous for its Sunday Teas. If you are visiting during the summer months, you’ll see signs advertising Sunday teas in village halls around the islands. There are usually several teas open on any given Sunday and, if the opportunity arises, they’re not to be missed.
They represent tremendous value and offer some of the best locally-baked cakes and traybakes around, all for a nominal fee of a couple of pounds per head. And if sweet treats are not your thing then you will also find an array of soups, sandwiches, quiches and all sorts of other savoury dishes, all washed down with as much tea and coffee as you can hold. It’s all done by volunteers to raise funds for charity and it’s a great way to get under the skin of the community.
Would you recommend any apps for food, transport or hidden gems in Shetland that can be helpful for tourists?
We’re a bit slow on the technological front in terms of apps – the only one I would recommend is Discover Lerwick, an app that details the history of key buildings throughout the town.
There are websites that are useful – especially shetland.org which is provided by Promote Shetland.
How frequently do Shetlanders experience Northern lights? Would you say Shetland is a great location for anyone wanting to see Northern lights considering Norway is only 300km away?
The Northern lights – known locally as the mirrie dancers – can be seen frequently throughout the winter months although visiting in the winter is no guarantee to see them as we experience most of our storms in the winter and low cloud will reduce any chance of seeing them. I probably wouldn’t advise coming here just to see the Northern lights, they are always an added bonus to a winter visit!
Tourism brings its own trash. Are there any do’s and don’ts which Shetlanders would like the tourists to know? Any tips on how to leave back a clean and healthy Shetland for locals.
I suppose the same rules apply here as anywhere. If you go on a walk, take your rubbish away with you. Respect the countryside and leave gates as you find them. If you have a dog, keep it on a lead and try to keep away from livestock, particularly during times of lambing (April-May).
Another thing to bear in mind is where you may be camping – either in a tent or motorhome – as Shetland has a significant breeding population of Red Throated Divers and they are easily spooked from their breeding sites on inland lochs. If you are aware of these birds then park-up or pitch-tent elsewhere. Once these birds are spooked from their nest, they don’t return and more and more breeding grounds are being abandoned in response to human activity.
Lastly, one thing that will annoy Shetlanders more than anything is when people refer to visiting ‘the Shetlands’. We are not the Shetlands – it is Shetland (just Shetland) or the Shetland Islands, but never the Shetlands.
I’m planning on a visit in September, is this a good time to visit?
Hi Bruce ! The best time to visit Shetland is between May and August. September is okay but the weather can sometimes get windy.
If you want to know anything else about Shetland, please contact Laurie on her Instagram handle https://www.instagram.com/shetlandwithlaurie/