Go Wild on Shetland

On Shetland you certainly can go wild; wild weather, wild camping, wild scenery and excellent wildlife. The Shetland Islands are the most northerly in Britain and stretch well inside the arctic circle. Parts of the islands are inhospitable and extremely bleak especially in poor weather or the darkness of winter. Even in summer the temperature rarely reaches the low twenties (Celsius) and the islands are exposed to strong winds from all directions. Travelling to Shetland is difficult and relatively expensive, particularly with a motor caravan. The ferry crossing from Scotland is either achieved directly from Aberdeen or from Scrabster (near Thurso) stopping off in the Orkneys.

The Shetlands are not geared up for tourism, when we visited in 2001 there was some debate on the local radio about the lack of tourist facilities and what should be done about it. We even had difficulty parking at one of the better publicised attractions. The islands havenít needed to rely upon tourism for an income since oil has brought great wealth to the area. It is mainly due to the oil money that the roads are in excellent condition, there are two good airports and the inter-island ferries are fantastic, a thirty minute crossing with camper van and two people costing just £4.40 is exceptional value for money. The islands are large being approximately 80 miles from south to north. The time taken to travel this length is greatly increased by the need to catch ferries between the islands even though these ferries are regular.

It wonít be obvious, so far, why it is worth taking the trouble to head to such a remote place but if you are at all interested or at least a little curious then read on.

Shetland is made up of four main islands and hundreds of smaller ones, many of them inhabited but even more are not. The contrasts between the islands and between the days can be very marked but the good days can be very rewarding. Picture a sunny day, the blue sky broken only by small white clouds ending in deep blue sea on the horizon. At your feet, the untouched white sand of a shell tombolo bridges the mainland to an uninhabited mysterious and deserted islet. Around you the sound of waves breaking onto the beach is broken only by the calls of Arctic Terns. This magical place could be one of several but as I write I am thinking of St Ninianís Isle on the south west side of Shetland mainland. This location typifies for me the beauty and variety that Shetland has to offer. As well as wildlife and scenery there is archaeology here aplenty.

Further to the south on mainland there is Sumburgh Head. This has a busy airport and is home to the most well known of the archaeological sites called Jarlshof. This fascinating location has a wide range of archaeology including Bronze Age dwellings, an Iron Age broch, Norse long houses, a medieval farm and a 16th century Lairdís house. For me the most impressive structures were the Iron Age wheel houses which comprise a central living area with several cells radiating in a wheel-like fashion around its edge. Nearby at Sumburgh Head itself is a lighthouse and seabird colony. This is the most accessible place on Shetland to see Puffins, Gannets, Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes amongst others. It is also a good viewpoint to observe passing cetaceans, though a good pair of binoculars is essential. We saw a couple of Minke Whales from the car park but we could not claim that the views were very good.

The lighthouse can attract migrant birds since the light is obvious to them as they fly over at night, on our visit we saw a good sized flock of Crossbills here. Crossbills usually feed on pine cones and these birds would have originated from Scandinavia. Occasionally they disperse from their regular breeding areas to find new ones, particularly in mid summer, and this often leaves them out of their typical habitat. Of the other birds to be seen in the area make sure to look out for Twite, this small finch is the northern equivalent of the Linnet and can be seen quite easily here.

After spending the morning at Sumburgh we decided to take the short boat crossing to Mousa on the eastern side of south mainland. Again, we found ourselves split between archaeology and wildlife. Mousa Broch is a world heritage site and is the best example of a broch in Britain. Its walls are intact to a height of 13 metres and the staircase contained between its two outer walls lead you to the top. Another debate being given air time on the local radio station was whether to erect a hand rail around the top of this broch. At the moment there is no safety feature at all but, evidently, there havenít been any serious accidents. I suspect that there will soon be a grey coloured rail around the top, grey is to be chosen because "that will blend in best with the sky"! I must say that on our visit the sky was deep blue and a hand rail was not required, we managed to cling safely to the stones and didnít dare look over the edge. Not only is the entrance to this nationally important building unmanned and admission free but also the kindly locals have left torches inside the door for the public to borrow. This typifies the trust and friendly attitude that can be found on the islands.

Apart from the broch, Mousa has a lot to offer. The south end of the island is home to a large colony of Common Seals which haul out of the sea at low tide. Around the island and flying over head you can see plenty of Arctic Skuas, these piratical birds assault terns and gulls in mid air to rob them of their hard caught fish. Breeding in the nooks and crannies of the dry stone walls is the Shetland Wren. This Wren is a sub species of the common garden Wren and is slightly larger and darker as well as being more easily observed. Along the rocky coasts it is possible to see Black Guillemots, or Tysties, as they are locally named. Watch out for Porpoise on the crossing to and from the mainland, the waters here are probably the best in Shetland to see this species, sightings are usually restricted to the dorsal fin as Porpoise rarely jump clear of the water.

The main reasons for me to return ten years after my first visit lie in the northern most islands of this group. When I think of Shetland I think of Unst. Geologically Unst is the most varied and interesting of the islands and this is reflected in the greater diversity of wildlife and scenery. From the rugged north and west to the more gentle south and east Unst has great appeal. The RSPB reserve at Hermaness in the far north west offers a wildlife spectacle second to none in the UK. The cliffs are home to thousands of Puffins, Gannets, Razorbills and Guillemots with a backdrop of sheer cliffs and vast seas. Slightly further to the north is the islet of Muckle Flugga, the rocks here form the northern most point of the British Isles.

On top of the cliffs is a large area of blanket bog which might not sound attractive but it is an important habitat. Here Great Skuas are present in large numbers forming the greatest breeding density in Britain. They mob unwelcome visitors ruthlessly just as they attack auks, terns and gulls to take their food. Scattered around the bog land are breeding waders including Dunlin and Golden Plover resplendent in their summer finery. Bog Asphodel, Butterwort, Cotton Grass and Sundew are some of the more interesting flower species to be seen here.

At the Keen of Hamar nature reserve it is possible to see many rare plants, for example, it supports the worldís only population of Edmonstonís Chickweed. It was Dr Edmonston who first set up the nature reserve at Hermaness in 1831. Nearby is a visitor attraction of a very unusual kind. The bus shelter between Baltasound and Keen of Hamar has been kitted out by the locals with carpet, sofa, net curtains, TV, hamster cage and much more. I have never seen a better place to wait for a bus, mind you I donít remember seeing many buses! If the weather is poor then the leisure centre is an excellent refuge, there is a pool and sports facilities but if you would rather just have a shower then that is allowed. Each of the main islands has a leisure centre and they are all very modern.

It is always worth spending a little time sea watching from this northern outpost. On my first visit to Lamba Ness in the north east of Unst I saw a pod of Killer Whales. There are two species of Seal around these islands, both the Common and Grey can be found. The Grey Seal has a much heavier head and Roman nose whereas the Common Seal has facial features which resemble a puppy. Otters are also relatively common particularly around the Island of Yell and Shetland offers the best chance to see this species in the wild.

On the way back from Unst we detoured to Fetlar, this is an island with a very small population and only one shop. Unlike Yell and Unst, there is a campsite offering a shower and toilet. To the east of the island is the RSPB reserve of Loch of Funzie (pronounced ĎFinnieí) which has breeding Red Throated Divers, Whimbrel and Red Necked Phalaropes. Tresta beach is a most attractive area and the walk up to Lamb Hoga can be quite productive for seeing breeding waders, there are also Manx Shearwaters around Lamb Hoga at night. The Interpretive Centre at Aith is worth visiting for local information but donít be caught low on fuel here because there arenít any petrol stations!

I have barely scratched the surface of Shetland in this article. The islands offer many untouched and beautiful locations and the long summer days are broken only by brief periods of half-light. The light is clear, the air is fresh and the sunsets are stunning. I can thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone that is keen to experience wild places. You must be prepared to make the most of occasional bad days in order to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the good days.

Useful Information:

All of the ferry terminals have toilet facilities and telephones. The Official Tourist map of Orkney and Shetland by Estate publications is useful for route planning but Ordnance survey maps are a must for walking, you will need Landranger maps 1,3 and 4 (only get map 2 if you want to visit Whalsay).

Inter-island ferry service: 01957 722259 to enquire about services but generally booking is only advised for the crossing to Fetlar the crossings take 10 or 20 minutes, a little longer to Fetlar.

Shetland Islands Tourism: 01595 693434 to book campsites, to enquire about ferries to the islands (P&O ran this ferry crossing in 2001 but this may be changing for 2002) and anything else you need to know.

Shetland Today website: www.shetlandtoday.co.uk for news, travel and visitor information.