Adventure Cruises in Shetland Islands

About Scotland cruises

In Scotland, cruises can take you to some of this beautiful country’s remotest and most beautiful corners. Many cruises around Scotland take in the diverse and numerous islands that are spread along the country’s long and dramatic coastline. To the far north, one of Scotland’s most isolated and unique regions is the Shetland Islands. The archipelago is renowned for its impressive beaches and the rich bird and marine life that can be seen from a small ship cruise. Whales, dolphins, seals, and many curious sea birds, such as the adorable puffin, can be seen not only on the main island but in the isolated islets, which are easily accessed on a Shetland Islands cruise.

The archipelago also has a wealth of archaeological sites to visit. The islands have been sites of human occupation for around six thousand years, so many of these sites are prehistoric and well-preserved due to the lack of development in this part of the world. Many ancient customs remain on the islands today, with traditional buildings and farms still operating. A visit to the smaller islands of the archipelago allows travelers to experience the unique lifestyles, traditions, and lively folklore of the tiny communities that still live on the land here. Cruises around Scotland are bound to satisfy the archaeologist, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer in everyone.

Best Scotland cruises and areas to visit

Over a third of the twenty thousand people who live on the Shetland Islands reside on the main island around the town of Lerwick. Lerwick is a quaint and sheltered port with many historic buildings and museums where you can learn more about the rich and colorful history of the archipelago. The town is the perfect overnight stop on a small ship cruise of the Shetland Islands, with fine cuisine and bustling pubs and bars. The town is also home to one of Scotland’s largest fire festivals, Up Helly Aa, where locals celebrate mid-winter with torchlit processions and the burning of a replica Viking longship followed by night-long parties.

One of the perks of being on a small ship cruise in Scotland is island hopping with ease, and having soaked in the hustle and bustle of Lerwick; it is a short stop to the more remote island of Yell. The island is a paradise for wildlife with fewer than a thousand human inhabitants. Nicknamed ‘the otter capital of the UK,’ this is a fantastic place to spot these cheeky characters and hopefully capture some impressive photographs of them on the shoreline. It is also possible to spot porpoise, orcas, and their prey seals from the boat. On land, there are several prehistoric archaeological sites and a small museum where you can learn about the curious island’s inhabitants and folklore. A short journey north of Yell sits Unst, where there are a variety of historical sites from the Viking period as well as more recent sites, including Muness castle.

Further out from the main archipelago lie several smaller islands known for their impressive wildlife displays. Foula, to the west of the Shetland Islands, is known as "Bird Island" and is also home to around thirty Scottish farmers known locally as ‘crofters.’ The population here is famously outnumbered by both the wild birds and sheep that live here. Keen birdwatchers on a cruise of the Shetland Islands will find Auks, Kittiwakes, and Great Skua swooping and diving around the island’s dramatic coastline.

One of the most famous and remotest of Shetland’s Islands sits between Orkney and Shetland archipelagos, the Fair Isle. Wind-battered and exciting, this island has had an intriguing history for such an isolated location. Small ship cruises can dock in the island’s sheltered harbor, and visitors can visit the museum and learn about the settlement of people during the Iron Age, the unique folklore of the inhabitants, and the tale of a shipwrecked galleon full of Spanish soldiers who were stranded here after a lost battle in England. There are also a number of places to purchase the island’s special woolwork, which is unique to the Fair Isle.

Best time to cruise in Scotland

It is a beautiful country at any time of the year, but the best time to visit Scotland on a small ship cruise depends entirely on your personal tastes. The late spring and summer are the best for fine weather with long days and short nights, perfect for exploring and hiking. The weather can be wetter during the autumn months. Still, there is so much to see with the many people traveling to Scotland in October and March to see the spectacular show put on by the Northern Lights, known to local Shetlanders as ‘the Merrie dancers.’ The celebration of Up Helly Aa, which attracts huge numbers of visitors, gives you plenty of reason to visit Scotland in January and December. It is well worth taking a small ship cruise to Shetland at this time as the hotels and guesthouses on the archipelago are usually completely booked out during the Up Helly Aa celebrations.

How to get to Scotland

Despite the country’s small size, getting to Scotland is relatively easy, with three international airports in Glasgow, Prestwick, and Edinburgh's capital city. Flights to these airports are regular from Europe and larger hubs such as Dubai and London for those traveling from outside Europe. It is easy to fly north to the more remote islands from these airports by a propellor plane with airports in the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos. It is also possible to reach Lerwick from Bergen in Norway or further South in Manchester, England.  It is also possible to access the islands by boat, whether directly on a small ship cruise or by taking the ferry from Leith (Edinburgh) or the Glasgow area. For those hoping to include a drive through Scotland’s mainland, it is also possible to take the overnight ferry from further north at Aberdeen. The shortest ferry route can be found at Scrabster on the northern coast of Scotland, where a short hop of an hour to Orkney can be taken before taking the inter-island ferry to Shetland.

Scotland Cruise Tips

Whether you are taking the ferry or flying, the inter-island transportation can be canceled for weather, although this is less common during the summer. It is wise to plan to arrive a few days before your small ship cruise in Shetland to allow for any delays in arriving on the islands. Sunscreen might not be the first thing that comes to mind for northern Scotland, but the cool winds and long days mean plenty of sun exposure, especially if you are outside hiking and sightseeing. Scotland is fortunate to be without mosquitos; however, a repellent against a tiny local insect called a ‘midge’ can be found in local shops. These are rarely experienced on boats but can be seen and felt on land trips.  The local weather in Scotland is usually fair but can be pretty unpredictable, so packing a good range of clothes, whatever the season, is a good idea. Booking well in advance is highly recommended for any of the peak seasons. This includes spring, summer, and the mid-March and mid-October show of the Northern Lights. Up Helly Aa dates vary, but it is worth noting that accommodation in Shetland is booked extremely far in advance during this period.