Stretching off Scotland’s north coast are Shetland and Orkney, two very special archipelagos where Scotland meets Scandinavia.
Recently hailed as one of Lonely Planet’s Best in Europe for 2019, the ruggedly handsome Shetland Islands comprise around 100 different islands with just 15 inhabited. On Mainland the capital, Lerwick, has a good range of shops, restaurants and pubs as well as the outstanding Shetland Museum and Archives and a thriving music scene. In nearby Scalloway an excellent museum tells the story of the top-secret WWII Shetland Bus operation.
Further south on Mainland is Sumburgh Head, an ideal spot for twitchers with unobstructed views of the seabird colonies; Old Scatness, a recently excavated Iron Age village; and the Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse settlements, with archaeological treasures from over 4,000 years.
Half way between Orkney and Shetland is Fair Isle, a jewel of an island owned by the National Trust for Scotland and famous for its birds, knitwear and historic shipwrecks. Other Shetland highlights include Unst, boasting a plethora of fabulous walks and golden beaches; Foula, designated as a Special Protection Area for birds; Fetlar, known as the Garden of Shetland while beguiling Whalsay inspired some of Hugh McDiarmid’s poetry.
Enchanting Orkney is a smorgasbord of must-see sites and cultural attractions scattered across 70 islands. On Mainland, is the capital Kirkwall whose sights include St Magnus Cathedral, the Bishop’s and Earl’s palaces and the Orkney Museum. The nearby seaport of Stromness is famed for the Pier Arts Centre which showcases the work of artists and sculptors from Orkney and beyond.
In West Mainland, don’t miss the hauntingly beautiful Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. This area of great archaeological significance includes Skara Brae, Europe’s best-preserved Stone Age village; the Ring of Brodgar; the Stones of Stenness and the Maeshowe chambered tomb.
Other notable islands include Hoy for the dramatic Old Man of Hoy sea stack and Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum; the Brough of Birsay with its Norse ruins; Rousay for over 100 archaeological sites; and North Ronaldsay which has a unique heritage and history.
Both Shetland and Orkney offer a good chance of spotting the Northern Lights, particularly in autumn and winter. You will also find no end of delicious local produce to tempt you and a busy programme of annual festivals.