The rural island of Bressay holds pretty much everything there is to love about the Shetland Islands in northern Scotland. It's just minutes from lively Lerwick but has an almost tranquil feel to it. It's a place of lochs and sea caves, arches and migrating birds - perfect for peaceful hikes and great panoramas. For a touch of culture, there's a good number of historical sites around too.
Most people come here to enjoy the lovely landscapes and great wildlife.
Car ferries cross over from Lerwick once per hour in summer, and leave from the Albert Buildings in the centre of Lerwick. They arrive at Bressay next to the Bressay Heritage Centre. They usually run until midnight or so, but check in advance. In low-season, there are fewer crossings and they don't run as late. It's a 7 minute journey and it costs ₤5.30 per person and an extra ₤13 for a vehicle (both are return tickets).
Most of the inhabitants of Bressay live on the western side of the island, and the eastern parts are clearly less developed. Roads are rough and the east side of Bressay is therefore best explored on foot or -if you enjoy off track mountain biking- by bike. With no need to walk long distances you'll have plenty of opportunities to see some of the excellent bird life around and enjoy peaceful yet stunning vistas.
On the west side however, there are several good, single-track roads, making large parts of the island well accessible by car.
The tombolo to St.Ninian’s Isle, Shetland
A few notes on a recent visit to Shetland: There were no flights the day before or after, due to fog. But we were lucky – and so began our first trip to these magical islands last week. Approaching the Arctic circle, with most of its territory above 60 degrees North, we flew from a sunny 30C in Lewes to a bracing 11C or so. After that exhilarating feeling of being out in a wild landscape, with the sea always near at hand, we retreated each evening to the Northern Lights Holistic Spa – an absolute delight to stay in, with incredible food and a whole range of treatments available, from lying in a flotation tank to steaming in an aromatherapy box.
In the south of the island (where you drive across the airport runway!) there is an extraordinary site – Jarlshof – where 4,000 years of human habitation can be seen – from neolithic houses to the ruins of the 17th century laird’s house. The earliest ones were inhabited for 2,000 years – the entire stretch of modern history that has seen so many changes. Unlike Skara Brae on Orkney, which is more well-known, Jarlshof is remarkable for its overlapping examples of housing from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Pictish, Norse and Medieval eras, right the way through to the 1600s.
A little further North, on the western coast, is the site of St.Ninian’s chapel, reached across a bar of sand known as a tombolo. Although St.Ninian never actually visited the chapel, its setting is glorious. There is a real sense of peace here.
We were warned that the best food might be found in the harbour vending machines, but this is not true: if you eat at the Scalloway Hotel, Northern Lights Spa on Bressay, or in the very smart-looking Shetland Museum in Lerwick you’ll be eating some of the best meals you’ve ever tasted.
A Taatit rug from Shetland
And the great find for us? Taatit blankets and rugs, and their story. Have a look at the examples here and at these two blogs if you want to read more about them: Woolwinding and Donna Smith Designs. The photos are from their blogs.
Taatit rugs are unique to Shetland, but all across the Nordic world and Ireland you can find their relatives. Taatits were placed faced down on the bed (which was often in a wooden box to keep out draughts) to hold in the warmth, and to protect the sleeper from the dangers of bad spirits, such as mischievous trows and maras (hags) who could sit on your chest and suffocate you. These blankets were often given as gifts to newly-weds and were then handed down as heirlooms. They were made in two sections, which were unstitched to wash, then re-stitched, which accounts for the misalignment you see in some examples. Later, people starting making rugs with similar designs as the bedcovers. Nobody seems to be making taatits any more, which is a great shame.
A Taatit blanket from Shetland
Detail of a Taatit rug from Shetland on display at the Shetland Museum