Planning for this trip to the Shetland Islands, I knew spring would be the perfect time for this nature-aligned photographer to explore these wild isles.

Not only does the landscape burst into life with an array of colour - from the yellow gorse to the iconic purple heather - it also marks the return of migratory birds. As puffins, guillemots and razorbills return to the Isles after a winter at sea. Plus, with longer days to explore and more light to play with, it makes it a great time to visit, especially for photographers. 

If you’re planning a trip to this northernmost region of the UK, here’s a guide for you to bookmark for your trip.

Scotland: A place close to my heart 

Scotland is a place close to my heart. My husband is Scottish and for the first decade of our relationship we mainly visited family in the central belt. Before gradually broadening our adventures to explore the Highlands. Venturing further north and on to the seemingly endless islands as the years went on. 

We've hiked Ben Nevis, paddle boarded around Skye and Wester Ross, seen the aurora and noctilucent clouds, had dolphins flank our ferry to Skye, been motorhoming around the NC500, soaked in the magick of St Kilda - the UK’s most westerly point and snorkelled with barrel jellyfish. Not to mention a special moment getting up close with stags one winter in Glen Etive. 

And that’s just the beginning. Big skies, stunning wildlife, chasing the aurora and finding magic light between the mountains. There’s so much beauty in Scotland, right here on our doorsteps in the UK. Every time I visit I fall deeper in love with this special place.  

Exploring the Shetland Isles

The Shetland Isles have been on our wish list for a long time and this week, we’re finally here for a two week adventure exploring the islands.

It’s no wonder this place captivates adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike. Tucked away at the northernmost tip of Scotland, this archipelago boasts a rugged beauty. With its dramatic cliffs, moors and beaches, the Shetlands look set to hold that heady mix of enchantment and humbling experiences.

On the way there, we drove from Ramsgate to Gretna after work on Friday. Got our heads down at a motorway hotel and then briefly went into Glasgow on Saturday morning to toast my brother-in-law in his new flat before continuing on to Aberdeen! We boarded the NorthLink Ferry for a 5pm night crossing from Aberdeen, via Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands,  arriving into Lerwick at 8am the next morning. Arriving by boat is something I’ll never take for granted.

Before I received my ADHD diagnosis, I suffered with terrible motion sickness, which meant I couldn’t travel by sea. Thankfully, by some miracle for me, this was cured when I started taking my medication. So you can imagine my panic about 2 hours into the trip, that unbelievably, I’d left my meds in the car! I went to the reception desk and was told that I wouldn’t be allowed down to the car deck because of the fog. I felt like the world was closing in on me, I had no idea how I’d survive the crossing. About an hour and a half later, a tannoy went out to say they would allow access for folk who had asked to go to the car deck and so I got my meds - PHEW!! 

When I am on boat, you’ll always find me on deck, with binoculars and a long lens on my camera. Hoping above hope to see some fin action in the water or some beautiful wings gracing the skies or bobbing along on the surface! And as luck would have it, we did see some fins and not much more. Since we travelled the whole way in thick fog that was kissing the surface of the sea! 

A rich tapestry of history and culture

Stepping foot on the Shetland Isles was like stepping into a mystery zone. The fog hid so much from view, with the immediate coastline just visible through the haze! 

Islands always remind me of the fragile boundaries between land and sea and how much water shapes the landscape that wraps around us. Never before had it been more true with it being completely covered in fog for our first 3 days! 

A man explores St Ninian's Tombolo Beach in Shetland Islands in thick fog, shot by storytelling photographer Rebecca Douglas

The Shetland islands have a rich history. Shaped by Norse settlers, Scottish lairds and centuries of maritime trade with each village and hamlet telling its own story. It was quite amazing to see so many Nordic spellings on road signs as we moved around, feeling very connected to Iceland and Norway! 

The capital, Lerwick, is a vibrant hub with narrow streets lined with beautiful old buildings and colourful bunting.  If you’re interested in delving deeper into the history of Isles, head to the Shetland Museum and Archives, where exhibits explore the islands' cultural heritage.

Venturing beyond Lerwick, you’ll discover historical sites scattered across the islands. From the neolithic standing stones of Stanydale Temple to the mediaeval fortresses of Scalloway and Muness, the Shetlands are a treasure trove for history buffs.

For me, it’s nature that steals the show with its raw, unspoilt landscapes. A paradise for souls who fill their cup being immersed in awe-inspiring scenes. I have never been anywhere quite like Shetland. The abundance of nature, the feeling and the closeness of it meant I had some incredible encounters.

Shetland beckons to wildlife and landscape photographers as an unparalleled dream destination. This remote archipelago, nestled in the embrace of the North Sea and the Atlantic, pulses with the raw energy of nature. Its untamed landscapes, shaped by the unpredictable interplay of weather and light, demand your full surrender of trusting in the alchemy of the moment and creating with the magick that unfolds around you. For me it is this unknown that I get such a thrill creating with. You can have best laid plans but in wild places like Shetland, nature so effortlessly reminds you, that you’re just part of it. I love how humbling and illuminating this can be. 

Photographer Rebecca Douglas shooting landscape and wildlife images on the cliffs near Eshaness Shetland Islands with rays of sun bursting across the horizon onto the sea behind clouds

Exploring by foot along winding coastal walks

There are so many coastal walks to explore that wind their way around the islands. From the dramatic cliffs of Eshaness to the sandy beaches of St. Ninian's Isle, there's a trail to suit all levels of hiker. 

While I always prefer to take the less beaten trails, the famous St. Ninian's Isle Tombolo provides the chance to walk across the ocean on a natural sand causeway. I always spend time pouring over satellite maps and OS maps to get a sense of the pleasure and I am most excited to get to the white sand beaches and clear blue sea. Each time we went, we were often the only people there. Seeing it in heavy fog and as the weather turned to clear skies, we went there on our last day. The wind had dropped enough that I could I fly the drone and capture the beauty of the crystal clear sea meeting the bright white shell sand! 

A haven for birdwatchers

With thousands of seabirds calling the cliffs and sea stacks home, the Shetland Islands are brilliant for birdwatching. Visit Noss National Nature Reserve and RSPB Nature reserves at Sumburgh Head and Hermaness to spot cliffs teaming with seabirds. The puffins, guillemots, razorbills have all returned to the cliffs after winter out and sea and it is so amazing to immerse yourself on the cliffs and spend time, soaking in the chaos of these birds in their natural habitat. It doesn’t get any better than that! 

The biggest part of the trip for me was getting close to the gannets. To shoot them in a way I had long dreamed about. Snorkelling with them whilst they were diving into the water - it was a breathtaking experience. I’ll share more about that soon. I can’t believe I have images like this on my hard drive and I can’t wait to edit them!

Two northern gannets diving in the sea off Noss Island Shetland

Wander through wildflower meadows

In spring and summer, the Shetlands come alive with a riot of wildflowers. Exploring the meadows and moors are like a kaleidoscope of colours with heather, primroses and orchids painting the landscape. I absolutely adore the sea pinks that erupt across the cliffs and I am wondering if we might be a little to early to see this. It always amazes me where flowers appear from in spring and summer. The craggiest cliff face or rocky hill shows us that life finds a way, even in the most extreme conditions. 

Seal spotting

As a nature and wildlife lover, the abundance of birdlife and other wildlife here is some of the best in the world. From puffins and gannets to seals and otters, the islands are teeming with biodiversity. These islands offer a travel experience like no other. Head to one of the many rocky outcrops and sheltered bays around the islands to catch a glimpse of common and grey seals basking in the sun. You may even spot sea otters if you’re lucky. They are so elusive and inquisitive all at the same time. We snorkelled in front of our cottage and had three take interest in what we were doing, swimming maybe 10m away from us, but they didn’t venture any closer! As always in nature, the encounter is lead by the animal and they’re always respected!

Grey seal hauled out on the rocks on the coast of Shetland Islands

Whale and dolphin watching

Being this far north means there’s a chance to see even more magick and you don’t even need to head out on the water. Shetland is a significantly important site for Orca. With a semi-resident population, they often feed close to shore and so can be easily observed from land! I have followed a few Facebook groups about the orca and sightings have been close to daily and so my fingers are absolutely crossed that we get to meet them. Having only witnessed orca at quite a distance in Arctic Norway, I would so love to be graced with a close encounter one day! I saw Harbour Porpoise from Lerwick but I didn’t have any luck from land with the orca. There were sightings around the island while we were there. But we were always in the wrong place or it was too far away to get to. 

I highly recommend joining a wildlife boat tour to go out in search of whales and dolphins. If you visit during the summer months, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of dolphins orcas, minke whales, porpoises and even humpback whales. Can you imagine? Incredible.

Harbour Porpoise surfacing in the sea near Lerwick on Shetland Islands

Explore nature reserves

Understandably, with a place this wild and beautiful, there are nature reserves scattered across the islands. Including Noss National Nature Reserve, which is home to nesting seabird colonies and Loch of Spiggie, a haven for birdlife. Some of the nature reserves are on islands and so you need to take a short boat ride to reach the island. With a landing fee charged to support the conservation work on the island. I had hoped to visit Foula Island. Not least because the tiny port you land at is called Ham, but because they have globally important cliffs, home to so many nesting seabirds. However, wind and sea conditions were against us for the trip. Hermaness was somewhere I was really wanting to get to. But it was a 2 ferry trip and our time was running out, so I have left that for ‘next time’!

Northern Gannets at the cliffs of Noss Island

A visit to Sumburgh Head

As a photographer, I love looking at things from different perspectives. While I’m exploring somewhere new, I like to head to the highest vantage point so I can see far and wide. Visit Sumburgh Head at the southern tip of mainland Shetland to enjoy panoramic views of the coastline and explore the lighthouse. 

We went to Sumburgh head several times. Once in the fog and a few times in clearer weather and saw so many sea birds. The puffins were the talk of the town and there were not that many visible on the cliffs while we were there. This was earmarked high up on my sunset-dash locations list. As in spring and summer, puffins nest here and I was soooooooo hoping for a night of golden light. So I could wrap it around my most favourite birds! I’ve never spent time adoring them in golden hour. As most places I’ve visited run day trips that return way before sunset. As it is with nature, delayed excitement with the anticipation of how swept away with enchantment for the next time!

The beach facing Sumburgh Head on a sunny day on Shetland Islands

Chasing the aurora

Folk know me as someone who chases the aurora, it’s my favourite way to spend an evening. And when I’m this far north, it’s always high on my activity list. For optimal aurora spotting, I always choose accommodation with a north facing view. When I set off, I knew there was a small chance of seeing the aurora while we were there. As the first week had a new moon, so the sky would be as dark as possible. But I was bearing in mind that it was never really getting ‘dark’. As each day arrived with a slightly longer day on the ascent to midsummer! 

It is an exciting time to chase the aurora across the UK. As we are approaching the solar maximum, the peak of the current 11 year solar cycle. This means there will be an increasing chance of seeing and shooting the aurora across the UK for the next 2-3 years. 

However, I never knew it would be this exciting! The biggest geomagnetic storm to hit our atmosphere in over 20 years and with it, it excited the gases in our atmosphere to create the most documented aurora show in history. The main auroral arc was overhead in Kent. My family seeing it from the garden in the suburbs where there was a lot of light pollution! My phone was going wild with folk sharing photos of it. And I was watching out on sunset. Willing the light to fade to see if I would be in with a chance of capturing it. 

At 22:22, I got the first photo of it. Shooting south and by 22:58 the whole of the sky was glowing pink. I stayed up for the whole of the ‘twilight’ that Shetland has at this time of year. To capture some really gentle photos, with the aurora colours softened by the twilight skies. I feel so lucky we got a window to the show that far north at that time of year! A week later and I was unable to capture any aurora as it was too bright! 

If you want to get yourself ready to chase the aurora, you can dive straight in to my instant access online course here.

Be prepared for all nature throws at us

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. And this particularly applies on a visit to Scotland. A place where you can experience all the seasons in a day. So before you venture north, make sure you’re well prepared to be able to make the most of your trip. 

These islands, nestled amidst the tumultuous rendez vous of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, are remote and offer a landscape like no other. Rugged cliffs meet sweeping moors and ancient ruins whisper tales of times gone by. But to truly embrace the essence of Shetland, you have to prepare to face its ever-changing weather head-on. 

Radically authentic female photographer Rebecca Douglas taking photos on a cliff edge at Eshaness Shetland Islands as the sun is setting she is wearing sunglasses and holding the camera to her face

Here's how to equip yourself so you can explore the beauty of the islands without constantly running inside:

  1. Layer up: The key to surviving - and thriving - in Shetland's unpredictable climate is layering. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer. Followed by insulating layers like fleece or wool to trap heat close to your body. Then, top it off with a waterproof and windproof outer shell to shield yourself from rain and gusts. Remember, it's easier to peel off a layer if you're too warm than to conjure one out of thin air if you're shivering!
  1. Waterproof everything: When it comes to exploring Shetland, "waterproof" should be your mantra. Ensure that your backpack, camera gear and even footwear are equipped with waterproofing. Or, better yet, housed in waterproof bags or covers. The weather here can change in the blink of an eye. You wouldn't want to be caught off guard with soggy equipment.
  1. Sturdy footwear is a must: Whether you're traversing windswept cliffs, soggy peat bogs or cobblestone streets, sturdy footwear is non-negotiable. I opt for waterproof hiking boots with excellent grip to safely and comfortably navigate Shetland's varied terrain. And don't forget a spare pair of socks - dry feet are happy feet!
  1. Protective accessories: In addition to your trusty layers and waterproof gear, don't forget to arm yourself with essential accessories. A wide-brimmed hat or a waterproof cap will shield your face from rain and sun alike. While gloves will keep your fingers nimble in chilly conditions. And of course, don't leave home without a reliable pair of sunglasses to fend off glare from the sea and sky.
  1. Respect the elements: Finally, remember to approach Shetland's weather with respect. It’s an integral part of the islands' character and charm. Embrace the rainbows that follow the showers. Revel in the drama of stormy skies and cherish the moments of serenity when the sun breaks through the clouds. After all, it's the interplay of weather and landscape that makes Shetland truly magical.

So, pack your bags, grab your waterproofs and prepare to be enchanted by the wild beauty of the Shetland Isles. With its stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife, the Shetland Isles are a photographer's dream. With the right kit and mindset, you'll not only weather any storms but also capture the essence of this extraordinary corner of the world. 

I’m already so excited to share my images with you. I’ll make them available in my Print Shop - an online collection of images. Curated from moments in nature shot across the world. As well as printed on sustainably sourced papers at the UK's first carbon negative lab. 10% of profits are donated to the Marine Conservation Society. 

If you’d like to hear more of my nature stories, I’d love to invite you to enjoy my digital exhibition ‘40 frames for 40’. Head to the online gallery, here.

Have you ever been to the Shetland Isles? If you have, share your highlights with me in a comment. I’d love to know what you adored most about your visits.

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