Shetland by bus

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Shortly before the world was plunged into chaos and travel plans curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, Jonathan Welch was in Shetland to visit a number of local operators, and took the chance to try out the archipelago’s bus network while he was there.

When I visited Shetland, we were starting to see the first hints that the virus which had caused so much havoc in China was spreading around the world, but none of us could have foreseen what was to follow. Indeed, within a few weeks of my trip, the Shetland islands saw its first cases, and the sparsely-populated islands quickly became one of the worst-hit areas in the UK by head of population. I was lucky therefore to be able to complete the trip, which would have been impossible a month or so later. Thankfully, a swift lockdown and robust response meant that although the virus spread quickly across Shetland, it was contained quickly, with the islands not having had a reported case for over six weeks as I write this.

I don’t intend to dwell on the impact, however, as readers of any newspaper or magazine will be all too familiar with the effects of ‘the virus’. Instead, I would like to take readers back with me to early March, and on a journey around part of one of the UK’s most remote, scenic and close-knit communities: In contrast to some of the more serious articles in CBW recently, and in the absence of Alan Payling’s regular tales from the English Riviera, I hope readers will enjoy the light diversion.

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Many will already have seen features on two well-known Shetland operators – Leask’s of Lerwick and RG Jamieson’s – in CBW. Whilst the priority on my journey was to learn more about coach and bus operations on Shetland, from operators and the islands’ transport body Zetrans (which will be the subject of a future feature), it would have been a poor show had I not taken the opportunity to try out the islands’ public transport network. Shetland is in fact quite well connected and travellers have a choice of arriving by boat or by air. Convenience and timing meant that I found myself in the departures lounge at Aberdeen airport at 0630hrs, but I could have taken the regular overnight Northlink ferry direct to the islands’ capital, Lerwick.

A short flight away

Thanks to mapmakers’ tendencies to place Shetland in a conveniently located box in the Moray Firth or near Orkney, many Brits are often a little unfamiliar with the true location of Shetland, which lies around 110 miles north of the Scottish mainland, and 190 miles west of Norway. The flight from Aberdeen took less than an hour, the dramatic approach saw us circle around to wait time until the airport opened. My flight deposited me at the southern tip of the island, at Sumburgh airport. From here a regular, if not frequent by mainland standards, bus service is available to Lerwick. Sensibly and understandably, a lot of the bus routes, if not all, are geared towards taking people to Lerwick, the main centre for employment and shopping, which is situated around half way between the southern-most and northern-most points on the Shetland mainland.

Sadly, on this occasion, my need to meet one of the regular inter-island ferries for the short hop across to Yell and an onward journey aboard Jamieson’s demand-responsive minibus on service 24Y meant I had to hire a car to get me there in time. Not to worry, though, I shall report on the airport service later. For now, feel free to join me in philosophically musing whether a demand-responsive service is still a demand-responsive service when the only demand is from a journalist who is there to write about it?


Services from the more remote of the remote islands are good, and connectivity between the ferries and buses is good, with timetables arranged to make through journeys easy. As you might expect in a close community, this is achieved not only by co-ordination of timetables, but by the fact that everyone knows each other. Ferrymen know if a bus is due, bus drivers will wait for a ferry, people work together, and if there are delays, a quick phone call can tell them to wait, or go if there are no intending passengers. It’s a far cry from the apps and tracking and such like of major cities further south, a much more friendly and personal service, though even here in Shetland, technology is bringing benefits to public transport users. Another surprise as we headed across Yell towards Jamieson’s base was how often drivers wave to each other. Of course, locals know each other, and each other’s vehicles, and the local bus is a familiar sight on the roads.

Not a tree

Being a passenger gave me time to appreciate fully the local scenery. At first glance, it would be easy to call it barren. Low and devoid of trees, it must be bleak in winter. I timed my trip well, the sun was shining and gave the craggy hills a sense of life and drama. Having spent an enjoyable day with Lee and Robert Jamieson I made my return to my overnight base at Lerwick. The following day gave me a chance to head out on a couple of bus routes which radiate from the town’s small but functional bus station. My first journey was a number 9 to Walls, or Waas as it is locally known. Walls is a small settlement located at the head of the Vaila Sound set around a small harbour, sheltered from the worst of the weather by the island of Linga and it’s larger neighbour Vaila.

Route 9 is operated by Leask’s of Lerwick, and although our bus would start it’s journey from Lerwick’s appropriately-named Viking Bus Station, I had already been introduced to Phil, our driver for the trip, earlier in the day by Peter Leask. Phil, who would prove himself to be a highly competent driver with a great rapport with his passengers, seemed a little surprised at the interest in his journey today, but took it in his stride and with the same level of friendliness and enthusiasm that many Shetlanders had shown during my visit.

Heading out of town

As with all Leask’s vehicles, the Enviro200 was smartly turned out, well presented and clean, although unusually for the fleet, in plain white instead of fleet livery. The smart interior, with blue fabric and side panels, was pleasantly free from advertising and excessive notices. We left on time at 1220hrs, with just three people on board, one heavily laden with shopping. Turning right out of the bus station, past the harbour and fisheries office on our left, we ran parallel to Lerwick’s main shopping street, we stopped just past the inter-island ferry terminal on the Esplanade to pick up another four passengers at what appeared to be the other main boarding point from the town centre.

One elderly passenger travelled just one stop, using the bus to travel to the top of a short hill, after which we turned right along King Harald Street, again running parallel to Lerwick’s main street, but this time back down the other side, completing a U-shaped lap of the town centre. Turning left, with the harbour now on our right, we passed the Toll Clock shopping centre, which looked to have seen more prosperous days, but still appeared to be serving the vital needs of islanders, along with the Co-Op, one of the larger supermarkets hereabouts.

A slow climb

The Enviro200 struggled on the long climb out of Lerwick, but otherwise seemed well-suited to the roads on the Shetlands. JONATHAN WELCH

Heading out of town on the A970 past the Aberdeen ferry on our right, car dealerships and light industrial areas, we struggled up the long slog towards Tingwall, where the Shetland Golf Club nestled within the sweeping curve which pointed us northward, before the route strikes out west. After descending again, we turned left into the hamlet of Veensgarth, before resuming the main road, this time the A971. Like most places in Shetland, Veensgarth appears little more than a cluster of houser, and for the enthusiast of road infrastructure, there is sadly little of note bar the bus shelter and mini-roundabout. No doubt, however, that like everywhere else I travelled, the sense of community spirit is its biggest feature.

Despite warning signs, we were not buzzed by low-flying aircraft as we pass Tingwall airport – one of three on the Shetland mainland – and the delightfully-named Plantiecrub Garden Centre. A spectacular descent took us through Whiteness, where we pulled over outside Anderson’s Butchers and one person alighted to be met by a waiting car. At Hellister, another passenger left us at the forecourt of the Robinson & Morrison petrol station, before we looped around the end of Weisdale Voe, climbing steadily as we headed back along the opposite bank. Roadworks impeded our climb, but the brief stop did at least mean more time to enjoy the view across the sound.

Island park and ride

The view became even more dramatic as we rounded the long right hand bend which would turn us westwards once more, and down into Tresta. At Bixter, one more left us, and I wondered if the white Ford Transit with a board showing it’s destination as the nearby settlement of ‘Aith’ in the windscreen was a connection, or a school bus. Alongside the stop was a small car park, something I’d noticed at a couple of places already, which appeared to serve as small park-and-ride facilities for those living further from the main road. Parking in Lerwick is limited, and the small car parks we passed seemed well-used. A sign for a place whose name has featured in many internet memes marked a junction to our right, but we continued straight ahead, away from the shores for a short while.

The views around Weisdale Voe were spectacular, helped by the clear March sunshine. JONATHAN WELCH

The story of Bobby’s Bus Shelter on Unst is well-known, and it has featured in the pages of CBW before. Route 9 has nothing so exotic, but I was amused to pass one shelter which had two swivelling leather office chairs inside, allowing passengers to wait in comfort as well as swivel around and enjoy the view in every direction! Of course, it would be unthinkable to have two office chairs in an open shelter, where any Tom, Dick or sheep could just walk in, and a wooden gate had been provided to ensure only the first two could do so.

Some operators advertise the leather seats on board their buses. This bus stop provides leather chairs for waiting passengers! JONATHAN WELCH

Narrow roads

No luxury seating at Walls bus terminus, residents here have to make do with a wooden stool. JONATHAN WELCH


The core road network on Shetland is surprisingly good, the main roads well maintained and wide, but from this point on, our journey was along narrower single track roads. Nearing our destination, a low causeway took us across the tip of the sound, providing dramatic views over the water and the low green hills beyond in every direction. A middle-aged couple in a Dutch-registered Audi seemed rather surprised to meet a bus coming the other way, and gave our driver an enthusiastic wave as they pulled into a passing place to let us through.

As we arrived in the small coastal settlement of Walls, we stopped by the Public Hall, where all but one of our remaining passengers alighted. A left turn over a narrow bridge takes us to the second stop, where our remaining passenger alights. Passengers here are obviously much more hardy than those a few miles back up the road, as the shelter here is equipped only with a wooden stool. Being a Thursday, we then retraced out path back over the bridge and made a left turn onto Pier Road; our journey extended down to the jetty at the harbour to connect with the twice-weekly passenger ferry to the remote island of Foula, some two hours and 20 minutes away.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, route 9 connects with the small passenger ferry to Foula, seen just in front of the bus. JONATHAN WELCH

Smooth and quiet

The descent back into Lerwick offers a view over the harbour and industrial estate at Grimsta. Leask’s depot is in the centre of this image. JONATHAN WELCH

After a short layover, and the chance to grab a few photos, it was time to head back. We picked up a couple of passengers in Walls, but our early afternoon return journey was to be much quieter. I was impressed that although the Enviro200 struggled on the long climb out of Lerwick, and the equally long hill over Weisdale Voe, the ride was smooth and quiet on the open road, and it felt to hold the road well. Speed elsewhere was maintained with relative ease, driver Phil having no problem sitting at 50mph where it was appropriate to do so, although the journey was not hurried. We whisked back along the dramatic shores of the West Shetland in what seemed like quite short order. Waiting at a junction for for a resident in Veensgarth, who had clearly not expected our arrival for another couple of minutes, cost us no time but gained Phil many thanks, and having retraced our U-shaped loop around the town centre, we arrived back at Lerwick’s bus station right on time at 1445hrs.

For now, we shall take a break from our journey; please feel free to join me as we wander across to the café at the local museum for a coffee and cake. The second and final part of my trips around Shetland by bus will appear in a few weeks time.