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Island Holidays
Established 1987

Shetland, Fair Isle and Orkney

Exploring the Northern Isles of Britain

Fair Isle Observatory

This holiday has been specially designed for people who have an equal love of islands and of birds, and offers the opportunity not only to enjoy fantastic seabird colonies but also some of the northern specialities for which the islands of Orkney and Shetland are renowned – Red-throated Diver, Whimbrel and Red-necked Phalarope to name but three.

On Shetland we'll divide our time between Unst (the most northerly of the islands and, at the other end, Fair Isle where we stay at the famous Bird Observatory. We'll also have a couple of nights in Lerwick from where we'll explore Mainland (as the principal island is known) as well as taking a boat trip around the amazing bird cliffs of Noss.

We continue our holiday by taking the evening ferry to Kirkwall where we'll be met by our Orkney guide and taken to our nearby hotel where we'll stay for a couple of nights, exploring Mainland. Our last base will be down at the south of the county on South Ronaldsay.

As well as the natural history we'll also be taking time to enjoy some of the other aspects of the two archipelagos including a fascinating botanical site on Unst, learning something about life on Fair Isle (including its famous knitwear) and the archaeological wonders of both archipelagos in what is a delightfully balanced holiday.

Travel to and between the islands is with NorthLink Ferries with very comfortable en suite cabins. You will have three natural history tour leaders (not all at once!), each with their own local knowledge.

A Puffin on Fair Isle

Key facts

  • Shetland, Fair Isle & Orkney: Wildlife, Local Heritage & Archaeology with Specialist Local Guides
  • Fully guided group tour
  • Departure: 29 May 2017
  • Nights: 12
  • Fully inclusive cost: £2,385 based on sharing a twin room.
  • Single room supplement: £345
  • Deposit: £350
  • Meal Basis: Full Board
  • Activity level: Moderate
  • Tour leader: Phil Harris (Shetland), Deryk Shaw (Fair Isle) & Andy Mitchell (Orkney)
  • Maximum Group Size: 8
  • Travel: Northlink Ferries
  • Departs: Aberdeen
  • Included in cost: Ferry from Aberdeen (outside cabins with facilities), inter-island ferries, full board accommodation, transport, entrances and boat trips.
  • Not included in cost: Travel insurance, tips, drinks and items of a personal nature.
  • Shetland, Fair Isle & Orkney 2017 detailed itinerary

Your tour leaders

Phil HarrisPhil Harris first visited Shetland in 1997 as a member of the RAF stationed at Saxavord where he was based for 18 months. From then on he visited several times a year until finally settling in Lerwick in 2013. He has been a keen birder since childhood and now works as a fire fighter at Sumburgh airport. He is an experienced tour leader and know the islands like the back of his hand. Phil will be your leader in Unst.

Deryk ShawDeryk Shaw was Warden of Fair Isle Bird Observatory for more than 10 years, a post he relinquished once the future of the new Obs had been secured. He now lives on Fair with his wife and four children where he runs a croft and works as crew on the island's ferry, The Good Shepherd. His interest in natural history was instilled by his father at an early age who trained him as a bird ringer. Having graduated in zoology he undertook several short ornithological research contracts before moving to Fair Isle.

Andy MitchellFor 16 years Andy Mitchell was a career civil servant in his home town of Derby and then Leeds before realising that the outdoor life was calling him. He moved from Leeds to North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in Orkney for a year's training and ended up staying for nearly five years, as well as falling in love with Orkney. A spell of various expeditions abroad and jobs in conservation followed which gave him a breadth of knowledge and experience. He then joined the RSPB working on research into Song Thrush declines before moving back to Orkney to manage the reserves on Egilsay and Rousay. After ten years with RSPB he left to set up his own business advising on wildlife tourism and doing environmental assessment work based at his home on South Ronaldsay. Birds are his main passion - not in the sense of having to see every species but as conservation indicators. His other interests are all things Cuban, beekeeping, music (he's learning to play the fiddle) and seeing the delight on people's faces when they see those special wildlife moments.

Your itinerary

Day 1: Aberdeen – Lerwick
Your NorthLink Ferry leaves Aberdeen at 1900 hours. Dinner and breakfast on board are included in the cost of the holiday.

Day 2: Shetland's South Mainland
Our first day on Shetland will be spent exploring South Mainland and gives an excellent introduction to both the birds and the archaeology of this fascinating place. At Sumburgh Head we'll visit the RSPB reserve for its seabird cliffs – a good place for Puffins and we'll also be having a look around the ancient archaeological site of Jarlshof. There are several good places for a bit of birding and it will be good to get a feel of the atmosphere which is Shetland. We'll check into our guest house accommodation (rooms en suite of course) in Lerwick and have time to relax before popping out for dinner.

Day 3: Noss & Lerwick
This morning we take a boat trip around the island of Noss which is a National Nature Reserve and home to an amazing “sea bird city” of breeding seabirds. Right at the top are the Puffins and Fulmars while further down the cliffs host Gannets, Guillemots and Razorbills. Down in the “bargain basement” you find Shags. On the way to Noss and on the return there's always a chance to see dolphins or even possibly a whale. After lunch in the Shetland Museum's restaurant we'll have the afternoon free to explore both the museum and the town of Lerwick.

Day 4: Fair Isle
After a leisurely breakfast we check out of our accommodation and head to Tingwall for our 20 minute flight to Fair Isle – a great opportunity to see South Mainland from the air. Upon arrival we're met by our local Fair Isle guide who used to be warden of the Observatory where we'll be staying. After lunch we take our first look at the island with flexibility to make the most of our time. We'll be staying in the Observatory for two nights – and we have both lunch and dinner here (and very good they are too).

Days 5: Fair Isle
Being based at the Bird Observatory means that we'll be have plenty of opportunity to see the work done here as well as meet some of the islanders and learn about their lives as we wander around Fair Isle. On the whole transport is not required although this can be provided for anyone who finds walking a bit difficult.

Day 6: Fair Isle – Unst
Time on Fair Isle always passes too quickly but we have a last morning to enjoy this remarkable place and to enjoy one more of their excellent lunches. Our afternoon flight gets us back to Tingwall just before 3 o'clock and we head north, our destination being Unst, the island which has Britain's most northerly everything! The journey involves two short ferry crossings (one 30 minutes and the other less than 10 minutes), the first of which takes us from Mainland to Yell. Today we won't stop to explore Yell but will simply drive north to connect with the ferry to Unst. Upon arrival we drive to Saxavord where our accommodation is in houses originally built for RAF families.

Day 7: Unst
There is much to see and do on Unst and we'll be spending the day exploring. The actual itinerary is dependent upon the weather and the ability of the group and may include a walk to Hermaness National Nature Reserve with its dramatic “Sea Bird City” cliffs. We'll visit the excellent Heritage Centre for an insight to the island's past and generally enjoy Britain's most northerly everything, including the only bus shelter in the world to have its own website!

Day 8: Yell – Mainland – Orkney
Having checked out of our accommodation after breakfast we head to the ferry to take us back to Yell where we'll have time to discover some of the delights of this island. We'll visit the fisherman's memorial at Gloup and learn about the disaster which hit that small community in 1881. We'll then call in at the Old Haa' Museum with its memorial to Island Holidays' founding partner, Bobby Tulloch. A very short walk takes us down to the pier at Burravoe where we have often in the past been able to see that most elusive of animals, the otter.

We cross to Mainland in the late morning and call at the islands oldest continually inhabited building, Busta House, now a very nice hotel. After soup and sandwiches here we continue to North-West Mainland and the spectacular cliffs at Eshaness. We'll probably see wild Shetland ponies and the scenery is superb. Our day ends in Lerwick where we board the NorthLink ferry which will take us to Kirkwall (dinner on board) arriving around 11 p.m. We transfer to the 4-star Lynnfield Hotel where we'll stay for two nights.

Day 9: Orkney's Neolithic Heartland
We'll have a relaxed start and then our day will be devoted to exploring Orkney's incredible Neolithic Heartland with its famous sites of Maes Howe, Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. At the same time we'll not be ignoring the bird life and, if we're really lucky, we might find a Scottish primrose in bloom. We'll have lunch in a brewery(!) and, if the weather's good, take a walk up to Marwick Head with its seabirds and memorial to Lord Kitchener. We return to the Lynnfield Hotel for dinner and overnight.

Day 10: West Mainland
Having checked out of the hotel we drive to the north of the Mainland. There is much to see here including the Broch of Gurness, a site where we hope to see Red-throated Divers and the ancient site of the Brough of Birsay – accessible only if the tide is right. Always accessible, however, is the excellent tea room where we'll have a light lunch. We then turn south, driving back through Kirkwall and then over the Churchill Barriers. We'll stop at the beautiful Italian Chapel before continuing to the island of Burray where we check in to the Sands hotel for dinner and a two-night stay.

Day 11: South Ronaldsay
We'll have a leisurely start before setting out to visit the Tomb of the Eagles where we'll begin with a visit to the interpretive centre following by a walk out to the shore and the site itself. We'll take a stroll along the cliff-top at Burwick with views across the Pentland Firth, the entrance to Scapa Flow with the islands (Stroma, Swona and Pentland Skerries) and John O'Groats in the distance. After lunch at the Skerries Bistro we'll take a boat trip (weather permitting) in Scapa Flow where we'll learn about both its 2nd World War and its natural history. We return to Sands Hotel for dinner and overnight.

Day 12: South Ronaldsay/Kirkwall
All good things come to an end and so it is as we check out of Sand Hotel. In the morning we head out to Deerness for a lovely, gentle walk. We then visit the Orkney Fossil Centre where we also have a light lunch before going back to Kirkwall for a town walk and free time to explore or indulge in a little retail therapy. There's a superb museum in Kirkwall and some interesting shops or you can simply go down to the harbour and enjoy the comings and goings. Our last dinner is at a very special hotel with a beautiful view over Scapa Flow. It will be a relaxed affair before we go down to the ferry terminal for our 2345 departure for Aberdeen.

Day 13: Arrival Aberdeen
The ferry arrives back in The Granite City at 0700 hours but you don't need to disembark immediately so you can have a leisurely breakfast on board (included in the cost of your holiday) before starting your homebound journey.

Please note that the itinerary can be changed without notice at the sole discretion of Island Holidays or your tour leader.