"A wonderful place to land!" Sumburgh by leics

Sumburgh Travel Guide: 3 reviews and 17 photos

Sumburgh airport is tiny, set in stunning scenery and, if the weather is clear, offers a superb introduction to Shetland.

The weather may not always be clear, of course. When I landed it was blowing a near-gale, the clouds were low and the heavy rain almost horizontal. So I saw nothing much of Sumburgh then.

I returned later in my visit, once to explore the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve at Sumburgh Head and once again to explore Jarlshof before my flight home.

Sumburgh is a wild and open place, with vast skies...a small and spread-out settlement with no obvious centre, joining up with other, tiny, spread-out settlements such as Grutness and Scatness. There are wide and wonderful views across the south of the island, across the dangerous waters of 'The Roost' beneath Sumburgh Head and beyond, right out to the incredibly-isolated island of Foula if the weather is clear.

Sumburgh Head is a wonderful place to birdwatch, with its huge colonies of fulmars and puffins nesting on the cliffs and the myriad of other seabirds (and land birds) which pass by. It's topped by Sumburgh lighthouse, designed by Robert Stevenson (father of Robert Louis, who wrote 'Treasure Island') and built in 1821.

The lighthouse is automated now, so there is no need for a lighthouse keeper. But the cottages and other buildings still stand and can be explored from the outside...and you can actually rent one of them for a holiday stay. Perhaps a little too isolated and prone to fog for me, but a superb spot for people who want to birdwatch all week. Have a look at http://www.shetlandlighthouse.com/ for information.

I visited too late to see the puffins which abound at Sumburgh (another reason for me to go back!) but spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching the gannets and fulmars and the myriad rabbits who clearly have either no sense of danger or no fear of heights whatsoever...they ran up and down the near-vertical cliffs at terrifying speed!

Definitely somewhere to visit during your stay.

Wild and open though it is, the area around Sumburgh has been settled since prehistoric times. There are several sites nearby, the most famous of which is Jarlshof.

First exposed by a wild storm in the late 1800s, the site was later excavated and found to be a series of buildings dating from Neolithic Times (5000+ years ago) through the Bronze and Iron Ages and into the Viking and Medieval periods.

The site includes a broch (an Iron Age defensive tower structure) which, although partially eroded by the sea, is still a most imposing place.

The earliest houses are circular, with some excellent examples of the complex interlocking 'wheelhouses' of the later Pictish period. Even now, although their walls are much lower and their roofs almost non-existent (they were roofed with overlapping slabs of stone) the wheelhouses immediately take away the sound of wind and sea. You can imagine how cosy they must have been whilst wild weather raged outside...cosy, but also cramped, smoky and quite possibly rather smelly!

The Vikings arrived in the 800s and built their farmhouse in the rectangular style they had used in Norway. It only seems to have been one farmstead, rather than a larger Viking settlement, with various other structures built to house animals, for storage and workshops and so on.

The farm stayed as a farm for many centuries, but in the mid-1400s Earl Patrick Stewart (not a nice man) built the 'Old House at Sumburgh' whose ruins mark the final phase of this fascinating site.

Definitely worth visiting Jarlshof. You get a useful audioguide to take you round the site and explain what you can see.

A more recent excavation on a site discovered when the airport access road was built exposed another broch and associated settlement.: Old Scatness. I didn't manage to make a visit (the opening hours are not as long as Jarlshof). Again, this is a several-period site, including the Iron age broch and houses and Pictish wheelhouses. When it is open during the summer 'living history' re-enactors 'live' on the site during the day and will show you how to weave and spin, how to work stone and so on and so forth. Again, well worth a visit.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Lots of birds, lots of archaeology.
  • Cons:Can be very wild and exposed.
  • In a nutshell:For the birds and the archaeology (and the airport!)
  • Last visit to Sumburgh: Aug 2011
  • Intro Updated Sep 2, 2011
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Reviews (3)

Comments (2)

  • Trekki's Profile Photo
    Feb 12, 2012 at 2:02 AM

    I am not that much into bird watching, but I always wanted to see puffins :-) So another reason to go. Plus - I love this misty weather, especially for the excavation sites - makes it more... how to say.. atmospheric and imaginative :-)

  • Gillybob's Profile Photo
    Aug 21, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    Lovely photos and nice tip. Looks like a really nice place. Gillybob greetings

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