Shetland seems far away, but it was easier for me to reach than London, and well worth the effort. Shetland is one of the most authentic Scottish islands I’ve visited, very family friendly, with lots to do. The capital, Lerwick, is a busy bustling town, then there are unspoiled beaches and remote islands to explore – you can create the type of experience you desire. We were guests of Northlink and Visit Scotland, and here are the highlights of exploring Shetland with kids…
It’s a mini adventure. It’s also convenient. Board a ferry in Aberdeen at 5pm, wake up in Shetland at 7am the following morning. It’s as if the timetable was planned for parents. Read details about the journey here. Falling asleep on a boat is the height of excitement for wee ones. We had a smooth crossing but weather is obviously variable.
This was really memorable for me, taking us to a tiny, wee island just east of mainland Shetland. A 15 minute crossing on a small boat, manned by a local father and son team, full of character and comedy, sailed us over to Mousa.
Visitors spend 3 hours on the island – (we brought a packed lunch at the Lerwick Tesco). The diving gannets are mesmerising – our kids kept shouting ‘Wow, wow, wow’ as bird after bird plummeted into the water, at speeds reaching up to 60mph. The free range sheep also amused the kids. And there’s a circular walk around the island that we managed with a 4 and 3 year old (though Junior did get help on daddy’s shoulders).
The highlight of the trip is the famous Mousa Broch – a roundhouse dating back 2000 years. Once inside, a dark, circular staircase winds around the walls of the building. Torches are left for intrepid visitors to ascend the dark staircases – Mr Tot LOVED this. The steps are old and worn, perfect for little feet, not so good for my big size 7s, but we made it to the top and the boys sang ‘King of the Castle’ to the American tourists below. Discover more here.
Eat – After the boat trip back to the mainland, drive to the Hoswick Visitor Centre. Not only is there a rather lovely gift shop and cakes, there’s amazing Viking fancy dress for kids and bigs kids. It’s hilarious and the boys loved it. I kept laughing at them…
St Ninian’s Isle
This beautiful beach is simply breathtaking. With the tide coming in on both sides, the Isle of St Ninian is connected to the mainland by a thin strip (ayre or tombolo) of fine white sand. Kids can run free.
A local schoolboy found a horde of silverware hidden on St Ninian’s Isle, so even the history is relevant to mini visitors. FREE
The Shetland Museum
This free museum lets adults and children gain a thorough overview of the islands, covering everything from agriculture and emigration, to whaling and the Vikings. Tiny Viking costumes allow tots to get into character. A play-area allows children to amuse themselves, and adults get a moment to concentrate. FREE
Eat – The museum café (one of the very few places open on a Sunday) serves local produce in a relaxed setting, with great views over the water. Toys and games were also available – bonus! And the museum often has family friendly events running. When we visited it was Peerie Boat Week, so we got a chance to row around a small harbour for twenty minutes.
If you want to see 4000 years of social history whilst your wee ones run around, then Jarlshof ticks the boxes. It’s remarkable yet relatable archaeology, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. You can still actually enter many of the buildings, which is a privilege. And there are even little doorways (more the size of cat-flaps) that only wee ones can get through. Climb the tower to get views out to sea.
Eat – drop by the neighbouring Sumburgh Hotel for bar lunches and evening meals.
Sumburgh Head and Visitor Centre
The title doesn’t give much away, but this lighthouse on a clifftop has a lot to offer. In the Engine Room kids get to press the Foghorn – over and over an over again. The Radar Room reveals how Sumburgh Head saved the UK from the British equivalent of Pearl Harbour, and the Marine Centre is a colourful explanation of native sealife. A highlight are the life-size whale heads and fins that wee ones can measure themselves against.
[The lighthouse itself is operational so it’s not open to the public.]
Eat – For a café with potentially the best views in Shetland, if not Scotland, eat at the Sumburgh Head Café. Sublime vistas.
The Galley Shed
In the summer months it’s possible to visit the Galley Shed where the Up Helly Aa Viking longboat is constructed. A short film, longboat and lots of costumes are on display and, as the centre’s often manned by Jarls, you can ask any questions about the famous Viking festival. The kids relished the Minion costumes.
Mr Tot Whatsapped his friends about seal spotting in Lerwick harbour, such was his enthusiasm. Whilst there are lots of picturesque spots in Shetland to see these elegant creatures in the wild, nip round the back of the Lerwick fish market and you’ll find seals aplenty. Apparently they receive regular titbits from the fishermen so they’re particularly friendly. So much nicer than seeing animals in tanks or cages. FREE
Eat – Another nice Lerwick spot to eat at is Fjarå – a little out of town, it’s a short drive from the harbour to this small café (that also serves cocktails).
Attend a Shetland Pony Show
We rocked up at the Viking Shetland Pony Show where we could get up close and personal with these cute Shetlanders. There are several dates in the Shetland Pony calendar for breeders and hobbyists, and we were made very welcome. The owners were happy to answer questions. FREE
Another museum that also incorporates a play-area for children. I’d definitely recommend this museum if any adult or child has a particular interest in the WW2 bravery of the Shetland Bus. The town of Scalloway itself is nice for a wee mooch around as it’s photogenic and rich in history.
Eat – Dine at the informal Cornerstone Café in Scalloway.
Other activities that looked cool, but we didn’t try in person, include the Shetland Pony Experience, visiting Scalloway Castle and sailing on the Viking longship Dim Riv.
We ran out of time, rather than things to do. And this is just shining a spotlight on the Shetland mainland – there are so many other islands your peerie bairns can explore.