I went north to Shetland with two real preconceptions that turned out to be completely false.
The first was that we wouldn’t be able to escape the effects of the oil industry. Wrong! Despite the fact that the excellent NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick was busy with men who were obviously employed in the oil business once you reach the Shetlands there is little evidence to show that these northern islands are virtually the oil capital of the UK.
There are a few floating accommodation blocks in various harbours – the one in Lerwick harbour is particularly ugly and eyeball-searing due to its garish black and white stripes, and the Sullom Voe terminal isn’t pretty, but it’s virtually tucked away and you wouldn’t really come across it unless you were looking for it.
And a less obvious affect of the oil boom in Shetland is in the road infrastructure. The roads are unbelievably good, and I was told by several local folk that was because of oil money. I don’t think I saw a pothole for the whole time we were there. Compare that with the A9, the main trunk road north, which is like a slalom course as you try and avoid the potholes and subsidence.
The second preconception that was false was something I had been told by a number of folk – that the Shetland isles are covered in wind farms. Wrong?
True, there is a big fight going on over what could become the biggest windfarm in Europe but in the last few days we only saw one wind farm, a paltry five turbines on a hill close to Lerwick.
So wrong preconceptions apart what were the standout memories of Shetland?
We went for a walking holiday and a walking holiday we had – a superb walking holiday as it happened. I guess I could best describe Shetland as a cross between the Western Isles and Norway, and for virtually all of our time in the Northern Isles we felt we were in wild country. And yet at no time were we very far from a road. What was truly wild was the coastline…
The 1700 or so miles of the Shetland coastline offers some of the finest coastal walking I have found anywhere. Take Eshaness in North Mainland for example.
If you bring together the elements that are born in the wide expanses of the North Atlantic, wind, tide and waves, and then obstruct their gale-driven progress with an immovable object, like the cliff-girt coast of the Shetlands, then chaos is bound to ensure. Geological chaos.
The effect of millions of years of constant pounding by the North Atlantic waves on the Middle Devonian volcanic rock of the Eshaness peninsula of mainland Shetland has created a coastline that is dramatically ragged and broken and quite magnificent.
Wave cut cliffs and massive sea stacks rise up to 150 feet in height and blowholes erupt like geysers high above the turbulent seas. It’s as though the sea is trying to claim the land as its own, breaking it down slowly and deliberately.
It’s an age-old war of attrition, but take a walk along the cliff tops on a sunny day in summer and it’s as though a truce has been called. The visual drama is still there, but the dominant sensation is now one of beauty, a grandeur created by the raw power of nature.
The cliff scenery was astonishing and although we were a little too far into the summer to enjoy the spectacle of nesting seabirds there were still enough fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets and puffins to provide an ornithological spectacle. But what fascinated me most of all were the names of the various rock features. This stretch of headland is called the Villians of Ure, and we passed Moo Stack, Blackhead of Breigeo, Grind of the Navir and Head of Stanshi as we made our way round The Burr towards the hamlet of Ure.
With a ragged coastline of almost 1700 miles it’s not surprising that Shetland has more then its fair share of shipwreck stories. The White Wife of Otterswick commemorates a wreck on the eastern shores of the island of Yell.
In 1924, a German training ship called the Bohus set sail from Sweden bound for Chile but her skipper made a navigational error and the ship found itself floundering in fog and heavy seas off the east coast of Yell. Strong winds blew the ship into the rocks near the Ness of Queyon and four sailors were drowned. The ship’s figurehead was later recovered near Otterswick and was erected near the shore as a memorial to the drowned sailors.
A fine coastal walk visits the memorial, before visiting a lovely low lying headland where, on a summers day, it is hard to visualise the harsh conditions which led to such a disaster.
As on mainland Shetland, the east coast of Yell is considerably less wild and more low lying than the west coast where the cliffs tend to be higher and the coastline more broken. Nevertheless, the headland of Ness of Queyon and Salt Wick is very rocky and gets the full brunt of the north-easterly swells. On a windy day it can be very dramatic.
St Ninian is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland long before Columba and he was, for a time, the Abbott of Lindisfarne. A lovely little island, just off the shore of Shetland’s south Mainland, is named after him, although it’s unlikely Ninian ever travelled this far north.
The ruins of a 12th century church are to be found on the island but what makes this place so special is the double curve of cockleshell sand that links the island to the mainland of Shetland. Technically this feature is known as a tombolo. Tides and currents sweep around the island and meet on either side of this golden strand, constantly washing sand up from the seabed.
Apparently this is the only tombolo in the British Isles that has been formed by sand. Other tombolos are shingle, or pebbles, although it’s likely that the St Ninian’s tombolo has its origins in shingle.
A car park and picnic area below the hamlet of Bigton offers access to the ‘sand road’ and once through some marram grass dunes you can enjoy the walk across to the island with the unusual aspect of waves lapping on both your left and your right. Arctic terns are very territorial hereabouts and will swoop down very close to you, screeching and sniping at you for invading their territory.
Once across the tombolo a sandy path climbs up onto the island itself. The remains of the old church lie to your right but leave that exploration to the end of the walk. Head south around St Ninian’s Bay and enjoy the prospect of the island’s ragged coast, culminating in the cliff girt islands of Inns Holm and Coar Holm. Although the cliffs are sheer and rugged the sheltered waters tend to be calmer here and you may see, or hear, a raft of eider ducks crooning gently or seals basking on the low lying rock ledges.
Follow the coastline west, crossing a stile over a large wall, before turning north with views across a broad expanse of ocean towards the distant outline of Foula. Pass Longa Berg and the seabird haunted island of Hich Holm, before negotiating your way round the big cove of Selchie Geo. Beyond, a stone built wind-break follow the cliffs out towards the long nose of The Neapack and its trig point. A narrow grassy ridge leads on towards the bare rock of Loose Head.
From here the views north take in the area of Walls and Papa Stour. To the west lies Foula and away to the south, beyond the big lump of Fitful Head, lie the distant shores of Fair Isle, midway between Orkney and Shetland. And dominating everything the continual, elemental cries of wheeling seabirds.
Virtually every cliff had its own population of young fulmars – downy, fluffy lumps with two eyes and a gaping, hungry beak. Cooried down, each on its own ledge, the chicks wait patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, for their parents to return to the ledges and regurgitate some food for them.
Natural history tends to dominate most walks on Shetland but there is human history here too! Plenty of it. It’s thought that man has used this island since the earliest mists of time. The ruins you come across as you make your way back towards the tombolo are the remains of a 12th century church but it’s believed the site was previously used by Norse settlers and before that as a pre-Christian burial site dating to the 3rd century. During excavations in the 1950’s a local schoolboy found a larch box containing 28 items of Pictish silver ornaments. They are all on display in the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, a long way from their place of discovery. How much better if they were displayed to the public in a museum in Shetland.
Possibly the walk I enjoyed most was to the very north of the most northerly island. I fell in love with Unst and its ‘northness”. Here lies the most northerly RSPB reserve in the UK. Here lies the most northerly lumps of land in the UK, and here you’ll find the most northernly brewery in the UK – the Valhalla Brewery, and their White Wife pale ale is wonderful!
On a bright and windy afternoon we risked the attacks of bonxies (great skuas) and made our way along the duckboards of the wonderfully named Burn of Winnaswarta Dale to the Hermaness coast where we sat and gazed through binoculars at the antics of at thousands of beautiful gannets. Beyond lay the lighthouse of Muckle Flugga and the tiny island of Out Stack, the most northerly stretch of land in the UK. We then climbed the most northerly hill in Britain – Hermaness Hill, all of 200 m in height! It was simply wonderful.
We travelled to Shetland with NorthLink Ferries, leaving Aberdeen at 7pm in the evening and arriving in Lerwick exactly twelve hours later. The two-berth cabin was exceptionally comfortable and it was a real treat to go to bed at your normal time and wake up in Shetland. The staff looked after us well and a big thank you to Angela in the St Magnus lounge who went out of her way to make us welcome.
If you haven’t been to Shetland I would strongly recommend it. The coastal walking is phenomenal, the birdlife is rich and everyone we met was welcoming. We took our campervan and stayed in a few camp sites and had an equal number of wild camps in some absolutely glorious spots. Look at the photo of our wonderful sunset near the Eshaness lighthouse.
Earlier in the evening we had enjoyed a terrific barbecue. Then came that superb sunset and at 2am I had to pull down the pop-up roof of the van, and batten down the hatches. The wind and rain threatened to blow us halfway to Greenland. But hey, that’s Shetland.