More Shetland by bus

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Connectivity across the islands between land and water-based transport is generally very good. JONATHAN WELCH

Continuing his journey through the Scottish archipelago, Jonathan Welch takes the short trip west to Scalloway, before heading south to the airport at Sumburgh

Continuing the journeys around Shetland that I started in part one of this feature last week, for part two I will join the short journey to Scalloway, almost directly west of Lerwick on the mainland, and conclude with a longer trip to the main airport at Sumburgh, where flights to and from the south arrive and depart.

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The geography of Shetland is something of an unknown to many who have never been there. Shetland Islanders are fiercely proud of their land, heritage and culture and in 2018 a law was passed by Members of the Scottish Parliament to prohibit public bodies from producing maps which depict the islands as being closer to the mainland for the sake of space and convenience. Shetland consists of around 100 separate islands, covering some 567 square miles with almost 1,680 miles of coastline. Sixteen of its islands are inhabited, but around half the population of 23,000 lives close to the capital Lerwick, from where my first journey would take me just a short hop across the mainland.

As with all Lerwick routes, we left from the town’s Viking Bus Station, aboard an anonymous long-wheelbase Enviro200, belonging to operator J & DS Halcrow. The £1.80 fare seemed entirely reasonable compared to similar distances on the mainland. Only two other passengers joined at Viking Bus Station and we followed the same route as my previous journey along the harbour, picking up no-one. This time though, we followed the road up and over the hill past the Lerwick Hotel and the island’s main Gilbert Bain Hospital, before pausing at Tesco to allow one person off.

Heading north to go south
We looped around Tesco in a series of left turns, passing a couple of blue Shetland Islands Council minibuses and the wonderfully-located and highly-recommended Fjarå Coffee with its views across the water to the Knab, before retracing our path past the hospital. We passed Leask’s T20 JLS on a route 1 town service, before regaining the same route out of town via King Harald Street and past the ferry terminal that my bus had followed on the way to Walls the previous day. I had expected our route to take us straight on past Tesco through Sound, but it seems that many longer routes do a full lap of the town too, allowing passengers from further afield direct access to and from places such as Tesco and the hospital to the south and industrial areas to the north, as well as providing a more frequent service covering more areas of the small island capital.

Our bus may have been older and longer than the Leask’s Enviro I had travelled on the previous day, but it was a lot more sprightly up the long hill north or Lerwick, at the top of which we turned left towards Scalloway. Around 20 cars were parked at a small car park by the junction, one of many across the island which serve as park and ride hubs for those travelling into Lerwick but who live far from a bus route. It is a short hop across the spine of the island to Scalloway and as we descended around a hairpin bend towards our destination, a short diversion took us to the small settlement at East Voe with its distinctly Scandinavian-looking houses, located directly across the voe from Scalloway itself.

As we approached our destination, we passed signs pointing to the castle and museum and advertising boat trips from May to September. Scalloway was once the capital of Shetland; its sheltered natural harbour combined with the surrounding good agricultural land made it attractive to settlers over 6,000 years ago, and it has continued to play an important role in island life. Today, its harbour still sees many fishing boats offload their catch to the local fish market, and salmon and mussel farming are increasing in importance to its economy. The ruins of the 400-year-old Scalloway Castle still stand as a popular visitor attraction, and those wishing to learn more about the area can call in at the modern and informative Scalloway Museum.

We eschewed the museum and castle and squeezed through the narrow streets, making a tight turn to run along the shore to our terminus outside the NAFC (North Atlantic Fisheries College) Marine Centre, part of the University of the Highlands & Islands, where we reversed into a small turning area in the car park. Our driver took the chance to quickly clean his mirrors during the short layover, before we headed back along Scalloway’s Esplanade to retrace our route to Lerwick.

Local amenities

Lerwick’s Viking Bus Station is a small but functional affair, with space for a few buses as well as a long shelter to protect waiting passengers from the worst of the Shetland weather. JONATHAN WELCH

On our way, we passed the local Village Hall, and then the swimming pool, and the observant traveller will notice the relatively high number of such amenities dotted throughout the islands. This is thanks partly to the discovery of oil in the North Sea: in the 1970s, the local council bargained hard with energy companies seeking to operate the new oil terminal at Sullom Voe, who as a result paid heavily for the privilege. That money was invested in a charitable trust, which ensures an excellent provision of public services such as leisure centres in Shetland.

Our return journey to Lerwick took us back past the colourful houses of East Voe, highlighted against the dark background of a quarry beyond. Few joined, and our driver had an easy run, picking up just two more on the outskirts of the capital. With a little time to kill, I checked out what was on at Mareel, an arts and entertainment venue with modern cinema, and went for a look around the excellent and highly recommended Shetland Museum & Archives. These islands have a lot of history behind them, having been pledged by Norway to Scotland in 1468. Although the Norn language died out in the 19th Century, the influence is still very apparent in local place names as well as local architecture, not to mention the Up Helly Aa festivals which draw crowds from across the globe.

To Sumburgh
My next and final journey on Shetland would be to Sumburgh airport aboard what was then John Leask & Son’s route 6. This late afternoon peak hour journey was clearly a busy time of day in Lerwick, and there were a number of buses lined up, including two on route 6, one on a short journey to Sandwick with owner Peter Leask at the wheel and ours – a DAF SB220 – going all the way to Sumburgh at the southern tip of the mainland. We left on time with around 16 passengers on board, the other number 6 being similarly loaded.

Yet again we followed the Esplanade, passing below Fort Charlotte to the main stop, where around a dozen people were waiting, of whom three joined us, followed by one more at the hospital and another five outside Tesco. This time we did head straight on, taking the most direct route south along the A970, the first of our passengers alighting as we climb through Sound. We struggled up the hill as we left the civilisation of Lerwick behind, but our Wrightbus-bodied DAF got into its stride down the other side.

In summer, days here are up to 19 hours long, but my trip saw the nights starting to draw in much earlier. Although still daylight, the moon was already high as we headed south and the sky glowing a dramatic orange between distant hills as we descended into the settlement of Quarff. The main road swings inland away from the coast, and just after passing the junction for Sandwick and Hoswick, where the other number 6 would turn off, we passed Leask’s Wrightbus Streetlite heading in the other direction.

Door to door service
Five more left us at the junction for Bigton, where a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter belonging to Nicolson’s and operating route 7 was waiting to connect with our bus. Clearly a regular occurrence, the minibus was waiting in a layby to our left, facing towards us, and our driver drew up door to door to allow passengers to step straight from one bus to the other. Despite the cold, it was a dry evening – on the more wet and wild Shetland days, this easy transfer is no doubt much appreciated!

At Levenwick, we dived off the main A970 onto a single track road, where a dog walker stepped onto the grass verge to allow us to pass. The bell rang, and our driver continued a short way past the marked bus stop to pull in a short way further along the road outside Midway Stores, the village shop, where three people alighted. Two more left us a little further along, outside a couple of houses. Notable was the smooth road surface and freshly painted edge lining; all the roads on the islands seemed in reasonably good condition, and during my travels I encountered a number of roadworks where repairs were being carried out.

The light was starting to fade as we dropped off a few more on our way south, and the lights of the airport came into view in the distance. It would be a while yet before we arrived though, as we made a detour off the main road to serve the settlement of Toab, where more alighted. Our last leg then took us back onto the A970 for a loop around – and across – the airport to the terminal. There cannot be many bus routes which cross an active runway, and certainly not in Great Britain. Gibraltar is probably the one that will come most readily to people’s minds. Like a wide level crossing, it is protected by flashing warning lights, and immediately the other side we passed the remains of the Old Scatness Broch and iron age village, incongruously right alongside the airport. Signs of their heritage are everywhere in these islands. Looping around the runways, there is nothing but a thin wire and post fence between the road and the airport, and with the windsock flapping gently in the breeze we arrived on time just before 1800hrs, in good time for my flight, and giving me time to enjoy a bowl of soup and a mug of tea at the small café in the terminal.

Overall, although someone used to a frequent turn up and go service might find Shetland’s public transport sporadic, after getting to know more about the network and the people and communities it serves it appears well designed and well operated and represents good value to the islands’ inhabitants and visitors alike. At the time of my visit, there was no overall map available, which I found made the network harder to access, and I had to check timetables against online maps to work out which buses served which parts of the islands, but I was assured that a network map will be put in place to help visitors unfamiliar with the islands’ geography. Whilst travel is at the moment still restricted, I would recommend a visit to Shetland once tourism returns to normal and such trips are again welcomed, and seeing it by bus allows a much greater connection with island life than being cocooned in a car as well as giving the traveller a better opportunity to sit back and enjoy the scenery.


After leaving Viking Bus Startion, buses serve a long stop on the esplanade before heading out of Lerwick. JONATHAN WELCH

On Sunday 16 August John Leask & Son’s operated its final journey, a service to Scalloway, as owners Peter and Andrew retired. It was seen off by a crowd of well-wishers, representing the end of an era stretching back 101 years.

Andrew told the Shetland Times he was sad to see it go but felt the time was right. “There’s been so many good memories,” he said. “It’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing for the past 52 years.”

The company, founded by Peter and Andrew’s grandfather John in 1919, was featured in CBW in March.

“Being involved in transport all these years has been great,” Peter told the newspaper. “You meet so many people, from both the public and the school services, as well as tourists in the summer time. There’s always something different going on.”

Fellow operator RG Jamieson posted a video on its Facebook page of the last journey. In suitably funereal weather, a convoy of buses from operators across Shetland joined the last bus and followed it back to Viking Bus Station, where the buses lined up together as a tribute to the 101 years of service by the company.