Shetland’s Up Helly Aa with Kate Humble
An exciting, informative and culturally diverse winter holiday with Kate Humble and local naturalist, Jon Dunn, exploring Shetland, our wildlife and unique Viking heritage, culminating with an unforgettable night at Shetland’s world-famous Up Helly Aa fire festival.
- Hosted and jointly led by Kate Humble & Jon Dunn
- Headlining Shetland’s world-renowned Viking fire festival
- Exclusive stay in the grand, beautiful & idyllically situated Voe House
- Five nights full board accommodation and four days in the field itinerary
- Enjoy the wildlife of the winter season seals, sea ducks and Otters to Orca (maybe!)
- Evening entertainments through multiple tour leaders: wildlife, cultural heritage & music
- Small, sociable and enjoyable group size of only 7-10 guests
- Friday 26th January to Wednesday 31st January 2024
The Shetland Islands’ unique blend of isolation, stark beauty and exotic wildlife is justly renowned, and especially in summer – but the rewards for a winter visit can be just as plentiful: evocative wildlife, friendly people and a compelling island way of life; rich cultural heritage, and the wild and beautiful winter landscape.
This insightful itinerary perhaps explores Shetland’s unique heritage more than any other we run. We meet local naturalists, archaeologists, musicians, historians, crofters and more, each sharing their own knowledge, expertise and perspectives of life and work on the islands. We will also search for some of Shetland’s most iconic winter wildlife, exploring our winter landscapes that although may not be as densely populated as summer, the inhabitants are every bit as rewarding; from Mountain Hare on the moorland to Otters on the coast, winter is a season that definitely has a feel of less being more.
And for your accommodation, for this tour we are offering something very special. We have exclusively booked Voe House, a recently renovated three-story property with private catering. Expanding on the friendly and fun social dynamic of our spring tour collaboration with Kate, with this wonderful to ourselves, this is the perfect venue for entertainment in the long winter nights. Set in 2 acres of grounds in the picturesque fishing village of Voe, just 20 minutes north from Lerwick, the three-story property is surrounded by mature trees, with a front lawn stretching a hundred metres to the seafront road, affording unhindered views out over the sheltered inlet known as the Voe of Olnafirth. The house has been newly renovated to a high standard and comprises seven en suite twin/double and family rooms, two kitchens, a large dining room and spacious lounge and even has a spa, equipped with a six-person hot-tub and four-person steam room.
Up Helly Aa – Shetland’s Viking Fire Festival
Taking place annually on the last Tuesday of January, the world-famous Up Helly Aa fire festival is a tradition that originated in the late 1800s and celebrates our Viking heritage. Since then, the festival evolved into the main event in Shetland’s cultural calendar and the biggest fire festival in Europe.
The day involves a series of marches and parades throughout Lerwick, Shetland’s town centre, with proud Shetlanders dressed head to toe in the finest of Viking regalia, and culminates in a flaming torch-lit procession and the burning of a Viking long-ship, a spectacle that attracts visitors and media attention from all over the world year after year.
Making the most of the long dark nights
It is indeed true that the days are short and the nights long at this time of year, so we have the perfect chance to delve further into the islands’ cultural heritage. Each evening you will be joined by a new member of our team for an entertaining insight into their respective areas of expertise. Winter is a time for communities to come together after the busy days of summer and each evening we will be making the most of our exclusive use of Voe House with film, music and storytelling with islanders steeped in these traditions bringing the day to a convivial close.
Although a Shetland winter might not be for the faint-hearted – short days, long dark nights and the occasional wild storm notwithstanding – for the brave and more adventurous visitor Shetland is a truly inspirational place during the winter months. Not only is the landscape fantastically and often dramatically transformed by the weather and low winter light, but there is a whole wealth of wildlife to enjoy.
The wildlife and the islands
For birdwatchers, winter in Shetland is far from bleak and, although the density of species is much lower than in the summer months, a little effort can often reap great rewards. Sea ducks such as the very handsome Eider and Long-tailed Duck can be found in good numbers round much of the coast along with Great Northern Divers, Slavonian Grebes, and Red-breasted Merganser, especially in some of the more sheltered bays and scarce wintering gulls like Glaucous and Iceland Gulls can usually be found with relative ease, typically frequenting the harbours, fish farms and factories.
A good mixture of winter wildfowl can also be enjoyed, mainly on a few of some of the larger lochs. Round the coast good numbers of both Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper can be found along with Black Guillemot or ‘Tystie’ as they are locally known.
And of course, no Shetland nature would be complete without time spent in search of and learning about Otters. The ‘Draatsi’, as they are known here is a key target species and winter is actually a very good season in which to watch them. With their diurnal feeding preference, they make best use of the available daylight, and hence are especially active during the day. Another favourite during winter months is the Mountain Hare, in their snow-white winter coats. Sharing this same moorland habitat, we will also look for Red Grouse, listening out for their evocative calls.
As our Up Helly Aa holiday itinerary spans six days we are able to take our time to fully explore the islands and the wildlife. Throughout the itinerary we need to remain relatively flexible so as to maximize our chances for the best wildlife encounters, and make the best adjustments to suit the prevailing weather.
Each day we will target a different set of species and locations and of course may well revisit the most popular. On Tuesday, the festival day we will be centred in or around Lerwick. In addition to various opportunities to see and photograph ‘the vikings’ and the galley there will also be time to explore the lovely town and its tourist attractions, as well as the fascinating urban wildlife in and around the harbour.
Day 1: Friday
Guests arrive on Shetland by plane or ferry ahead of their transfer to Voe House. As we get acquainted over dinner we will enjoy discussing the plans for the days ahead.
Day 2: Saturday
Today we delve into Shetland’s Viking past, heading north and back in time for a tour of Unst’s Viking heritage sites, accompanied by local archaeologist Chris Dyer. Unst is thought to be the first place Vikings landed in the North Atlantic and has a wealth of archaeological sites from this period. We’ll visit some of these, alongside the Unst Heritage Centre and Boat Haven, with Chris on hand to bring this fascinating period of Shetland’s past to life for us. At the end of our day’s exploration we’ll return to the comfort of Voe House for dinner and a relaxed evening, watching an Otter film and talk about the wildlife we may say over the tour, in preparation for tomorrow.
Day 3: Sunday
This morning we will head out for an exploration of north-west Mainland, looking for Otters in the bays and voes of this magnificent and rugged part of Shetland. We will spend time walking along the beautiful coastal headland of Eshaness, taking in the dramatic scenery created by the unique volcanic geology of this part of Shetland, designated as a UNESCO global geopark. Our walk will give us a chance to appreciate the power of nature and the resilience of the wildlife which overwinters in Shetland; exposed to the full force of the north Atlantic, fulmars nevertheless ride the updrafts with ease. These curious and inquisitive birds seem to enjoy windy days, hanging in the air or gliding past to check out visitors. Less hardy than the fulmars, we’ll take some time out during the day to enjoy the warmth and good food on offer at St Magnus Bay in Hillswick, calling in for a lunch of soup and sandwiches before we head out again into the winter landscape. In the evening we will be entertained by an evening of music and storytelling and an insight into the origins of Up Helly Aa and our Viking heritage with Maurice Henderson and friends.
Day 4: Monday
We begin the day with another foray into north and central Mainland, searching for more of the wildlife adapted to the challenges of a Shetland winter including seaducks such as Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Common Merganser, hopefully encountering some more uncommon species such as wintering Slavonian Grebe, always with the chance of something even more special. On the hills we will look for Mountain Hare, now in their white winter coats, and Red Grouse before heading towards Lerwick for lunch and a more leisurely exploration of the town. We also hope to visit a local boat-builder to find out more about the history of the Viking longship and the boat-building traditions that developed in Shetland. After dinner we will welcome a more peaceful Viking visit than the inhabitants of the islands could have expected in the past, meeting with members of a previous Jarl’s squad, dressed in full Viking festival regalia.
Day 5: Tuesday
The culmination of the trip, Tuesday will see us in Lerwick to enjoy all that Up Helly Aa has to offer. We’ll watch the Jarl’s squad procession through the town in full regalia, visit the Galley and make the most of the opportunities to see the Squad throughout the day at different venues. In between we will take the time to explore the town further and spend some time urban wildlife watching. Sheltered spots along the length of the harbour area give us a chance to get closer views of seals and many seabirds than may have been possible earlier in the trip and we will visit the diverse range of habitats that exist within and at the edges of the town. After an early dinner at Voe House, we will return to Lerwick for the main event, the dramatic torchlit procession through the streets of Lerwick culminating in the spectacular burning of the galley.
Day 6: Wednesday
After a whirlwind tour that encompasses all that is special about Shetland in winter, it’s hardy wildlife, dramatic scenery, invigorating weather and a wealth of cultural traditions rooted in a history played out at the boundary between Britain and its northern neighbours, we’ll say our goodbyes. Over breakfast we’ll reminisce about the highlights of the trip and the memories we will take with us, before heading south for onward travel home.
Booking – Holiday Dates
|Friday 26th January to Wednesday 31st, January 2024
Private Tour Options: This holiday can also be arranged exclusively for private booing for couples, families or small groups.
Additional holiday information:
- Read about the hotels we use – view our hotel providers.
- All meals, accommodation, guiding fee’s and excursions as well as ferry fares and transport are included in package cost.
- All boat trips are subject to weather availability.
- Not included in cost are items of a personal nature or hotel bar tabs nor is travel to and from Shetland included.
- No single supplement charged.
- On booking please advise of any special requirements medical or dietary.
- Throughout the holiday some of the activities will potentially involve walks of up to three or four miles (maximum in a day) and at times over uneven terrain. A reasonable level of fitness is advised however this is run at a leisurely pace. We can also provide holidays at an even more leisurely pace; please contact us for details.