Cruising to Shetland

by frankbeswick

Recently I enjoyed a long-awaited cruise to Britain's northern archipelagos, Orkney and Shetland.

Great Britain is a long island fringed to the north by a large group of islands clustered into several archipelagos. I have made a point of visiting as much of my homeland as I can [while being English I count myself as British] but I had never visited our most northerly isles of Orkney and Shetland, so when my wife booked me a seventieth birthday holiday to these isles I was delighted.

All images by Maureen Beswick,unless otherwise stated

The Journey

The Borealis, speediest ship in the Fred Olsen fleet, moved silently out of Liverpool harbour while the delightful crew of this floating hotel were serving evening meal. I had soup for starters, salmon steak for mains and cheesecake for dessert, along with glasses of wine and prosecco.  As I looked out of the port window I saw Liverpool's sister town, Birkenhead, where I once worked, sliding quietly past us. It was evening and the shore lights were glowing, but we turned north and as our cabin was on the port side we were facing the darkness of an Irish Sea night. After a glass of wine  in the lounge we retired to our cabin, which had a luxurious double bed and slept.

During the night the ship glided serenely across a tranquil sea, passing the lights of the Isle of Man to the port and the Mull of Galloway to the starboard. Islay, traditional homeland of Clan Macdonald, with its whisky distilleries which give a brew flavoured by peat smoke [delicious] glided past in silence. The ship passed Jura, north of Islay, with the dangerous channel between the two isles safely to the port. When we awoke and flung open the curtains we found that we were travelling in the narrow channel between mainland Scotland and the Inner Hebrides, known to some as the Western Isles. It was a beautiful, tranquil experience.

The two great sights of that day were Fingal's Cave and the Sound of Mull. Fingal's Cave is a sea cavern in an isle which is composed of hexagonal columnar basalt lava once continuous with the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. The cave, which you can see in the photograph is celebrated in Mendelsson's dramatic music. We sailed round the uninhabited Isle of Staffa, on which the cave is situated, and then voyaged on, the benefits of  a calm sea. 

I loved the passage northwards through the narrow Sound of Mull, a deep water channel between the Isle of Mull and mainland Britain. We saw the Mull shoreline as we went north, Small, whitewashed houses stood amid fields which ran down to the shore in places, there were few villages; but at other locations trees spread down to the sea, creating a forested greensward, a small glimpse of Scotland as it used to be when the Romans named it Caledonia, a name derived from the Gaelic word for woodland. One building of note was Duart Castle [Dhu Art, the Black Height] still home to the McClean clan chiefs, as it stands guard over the Sound. Under this now silent sentinel dolphins play in the sheltered waters, yachts sail in a leisurely way and fishing boats still harvest their catch as they have done for ages.

With Mull passed we turned north west to pass through the expansive waters of the Minch, the seaway that separates the Western Isles from the Outer Hebrides. Here the sea was still calm, but the  islets to the port were few and were little bigger than rocky skerries, remnants of ancient lava flows. We did not see the distant Hebrides. We were truly at sea.

Fingal's Cave
Fingal's Cave


Borealis cruised into a night of light rain past the sheltering Hebrides and  we could feel the slight waves. We passed the 500 foot cliffs of Cape Wrath, a name derived from the Norse for turning point, and turned our bow to the east, heading for the choppy waters of the Pentland Firth, between Orkney and Scotland. To the West was the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. But we turned north heading towards Kirkwall,  Orkney's capital, where we were due to dock for a few hours.

We awoke in the morning  to a view of small, green  islets, but the view soon changed to Kirkwall harbour, where Borealis dropped anchor. The town was built of small stone houses, and I was reminded of Norway, a country that I have visited. This is unsurprising, for Orkney and Shetland were under Scandinavian rule until the fifteenth century when they passed to Scotland as a dowry payment. Their inhabitants often deny that they are Scots and claim strong affinities to Norway, a situation that displeases Scottish Nationalists. Britain is richer in local identities than maps reveal.

Covid regulations dictated that passengers could only leave the ship in an organised tour, of which there were several options, but some were booked up already and others were not suitable for one with mobility problems, and as I have Parkinson's disease several tours were not possible. We chose a 90 minute coach tour of major features. We confined ourselves to the main island, known as Mainland, but we saw key sites of Orkney  and we had an excellent tour guide to conduct us, a farmer's wife, Orkney born and bred, who knew and loved the land.

Of particular interest was the Ring of Brodgar,  a megalithic stone circle that is part of the rich Neolithic heritage of Orkney. It is a henge, a circular surrounding a ditch enclosing and defining a level area in which a ring of megaliths [ standing stones] stands silently defying millennia. You cannot enter the ring, but walk round it sensing the atmosphere of an abandoned temple once held in awe, but now a prehistoric reminder of a forgotten faith. It was, like Stonehenge, probably a temple to the sun, designed to track the solstices, the markers of the sacred year. I wondered what rituals were enacted there, but the stones were silent.

We toured this fecund isle with its rich sandstone soil enriched with millennia of seaweed, with its barley a-growing [no wheat at that latitude] and cattle and sheep happily grazing. We passed the megalithic  tomb of Maes Howe with its corbeled dry stone  conical structure that has stood unmoved for millennia. We passed the wide expanse of Scapa Flo, an inland sea at the heart of Orkney where in 1919 the German High Seas Fleet was scuttled and where in 1940 a U boat sent the battleship Royal Oak to a watery grave along with most of her crew.

After finishing our brief sample of Orkney we returned to the ship and enjoyed the lounge and later a three course meal. While we relaxed Borealis set sail for Shetland.   

At Brodgar

At Brodgar
At Brodgar


We were blessed with favourable sailing conditions, and during the night we sailed quietly past Fair Isle, one of Britain's remotest inhabited islands, set between Orkney and Shetland. We were heading for Lerwick, capital of Shetland. This time we did not dock by the harbour wall, but anchored and were to be taken ashore by tender. The ship's tenders were suspended near my cabin, so I was wakened by the sound of a tender being lowered. It did not disturb me, for you have to accept the noises of the ship. We waited in the lounge until we were called for our tour. Being limited in my mobility I was nervous about boarding the tender, but the crew were superb, lending willing hands to help me safely board the speedy boat. I was helped ashore and went to the waiting tour bus.

Shetland is geologically more complex than Orkney, as it shares the sandstone rocks to its south-east, but has old, Precambrian metamorphic rocks in the north-west. The resulting landscape is less fertile than Orkney is, and there is more heathery moorland than is present in Orkney. Moreover, the ever-scouring wind makes tree growing nigh impossible, save for one sheltered plantation on an estate, which we saw. The land is low-lying, but generally undulating in small rounded hills. There are several small lakes.  The economy is based on fishing, sheep, oil and tourism, though the oil is declining. It is said that while the Orcadian [Orkney man] is a crofter [small scale farmer] with  boat, the Shetlander is a fisherman with a  croft, and the economic difference results from the soil and wind conditions. 

I stood overlooking the seascape below, discussing with the guide the tale of Patrick Stewart, nephew to Mary Queen of Scots and the vicious and venal earl of Orkney  and how he plundered his  domains in Shetland and Orkney and defrauded the Scottish treasury of tax revenues. When hiding from the king's vengeance he gave himself away because he could not resist tobacco, and he paid for his addiction with his life.

The most memorable part of the tour was a visit to a Shetland pony stud, where these much loved diminutive horses are bred. This was the high point of the tour for many of us and there was clicking of many cameras as we were introduced to different breeds. We had a talk on the history of this pony and how a breed that is a now much loved pet was once used as a pit pony, pulling waggons down  coal mines. 

Then the tour bus returned us to Lerwick Harbour, a free drink of orange juice courtesy of the cruise line and the waiting tender that sped us back to the anchored Borealis. 



Shetland Pony

Shetland Pony
Shetland Pony


Shetland Seascape
Shetland Seascape


A day's sailing took us back to Liverpool and home. On the last night we enjoyed a formal meal with free prosecco. A lovely experience!

But holidays [vacations] are made by the people you go with and meet. We had a delightful crew, who were ever helpful. Great support came from our dining table companions, one a fellow Parkinson's sufferer, who gave me much emotional support and advice.

Thanks must go to my son Peter, an expert  travel consultant with a leading company, who organised the trip.

But the greatest companion was my lovely wife, Maureen, who arranged the cruise. Having her with me was the greatest joy of the voyage. Without her it would have been incomplete.


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Updated: 09/21/2021, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/15/2024

The MacDonalds were Lord's of the Isles and had their base on Islay where the clan was at its strongest. Staffa is in the southern part of the Isles.

Yes the growing system used by the MacDonalds is very popular among the Irish.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/15/2024

Thank you!

Might bridge-and-trench, rig-and-furrow agriculture also be practiced among Scots growers?

English Wikipedia seems to suggest MacDonald ties with those scattered Staffa growers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

frankbeswick on 02/15/2024

Rig and furrow is bridge and trench.It is when the soil is piled up in long ridges to make it deeper for crops. You may note that this system is common among Irish growers.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/14/2024

Thank you!

English Wikipedia describes Staffa as 18th-century dwelling place for one family whose members fought to make their niche there permanent. Perhaps their descendants gave up in the 19th century.

That article identifies extant lodgings for 19th-century travelers and indicates "rig and furrow" agricultural legacies.

What is involved in "rig and furrow" agriculture?

frankbeswick on 02/13/2024

The ship circled Staffa but therevwasvno landing facility, so I could not see the land close up.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/13/2024

The third paragraph to the first subheading, The journey, describes Staffa as uninhabited.

English Wikipedia identifies Staffa as free of livestock since 1997 even as it is home to such bird life as breeding fulmars, puffins and shags and to nesting great skuas and gulls.

Was any such life visible during your passage?

frankbeswick on 10/28/2023

I do not know what it is, maybe a jet trail.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/28/2023

Your wife is a beautiful photographer. All the images look so inviting, with the last one looking additionally intriguing.

What might be that jagged, thick line across the sky in Maureen's Shetland seascape?

frankbeswick on 12/28/2021

I wanted to include a map, but the option is no longer available.

Orkney is an archipelago, as is Shetland. Each is a cluster of islands. Lying between the two archipelagoes is isolated Fair Isle.

Danes and English are ethnically close to each other, but the last bout of Danish settlement in England occurred in the ninth century. Also, both the Angles and the Jutes were Danish, even though in the nineteenth century ancestral territory of the Angles in Denmark was swallowed up by Germany.

dustytoes on 12/28/2021

My Danish grandmother came to New England directly from Denmark when she was young. That is not to say I couldn’t also have Danish relatives who settled in England. I’m still learning my geography of that area and now I know that Orkney is an island, correct?. I don’t know if Wizzley still has a map section to add to a page, but it might be helpful for this article.

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