Pete Thorn’s account of an incredible adventure, with photos from Pete, Maria and Joe.
Every year, a group of experienced club sea kayak paddlers try to find a new location to explore. In 2022 it was Brittany. This year the allure of Shetland was irresistible. The most northerly of British locations, stories of cliffs hollowed out by Atlantic storms were told in The Northern Isles guidebook, (Pesda Press). We had been to the Orkneys, but much of it was low-lying. The ancient volcanoes of Shetland featured up to 90 metre cliffs.
Invitations went out to forty or so club paddlers, who had expedition experience and advanced skills. The final group was five, in two vehicles. Ferries were booked for the 12-14 hour crossings from Aberdeen to Lerwick, through Northlink Ferries. As the dates approached, kit was upgraded and long packing lists worked through. Ian was picked up by Clive in the Renault Trafic at Junction 27, while Maria, Joe and Pete crammed all their kit into the Vito. We could not expand the group without another vehicle, but five is an ideal trip number in what was likely to be advanced conditions.
It’s 620 odd miles from Barnstaple to Aberdeen and we completed this over two days, stopping over at the Metal Bridge Inn camp site, near Carlisle. We caught the ferry from Aberdeen the next day, where we played endless games of Gin Rummy before turning in. While the four men crammed into a tiny cabin. Maria tried to get sleep in the lounge area. In the morning, we were off the ferry at 08.00 and onto Shetland’s mainly single-track roads. There are frequent passing places and no potholes. We stopped at the Brae Co-op, for various essentials. The islands have few trees and quite a lot of sheep. Keen to make the most of the calm sunny weather, we headed for the put-in for Muckle Roe. This is an ‘only-just’ island, separated from the mainland by 100m of water, but it has a stunning array of features. We loaded our boats with kit for an overnight and were on the water for 11.00. The clock-wise journey passed a low coast line, past a string of farms and their smells. As we turned the south coast, the cliffs built up, featuring geos (steep-sided inlets, pronounced with a hard G) and some caves.
The water was calm and crystal clear. In a cave we looked at hundreds of tiny fish, sea urchins and anemones. It seemed to be a marine Shangri-la.
At the western lighthouse, we headed across a sound to Vementry. This is a small group of islands and they felt remote, attracting few visitors. A wind chop gave us more challenge on the north side. We set up camp on short grass, before walking up to WW1 guns, set up to protect against enemy incursions. They were never fired in action and the living conditions for the gunners looked dire. As it got gloomier, (but never fully dark at night), we enjoyed a tiny tot of whisky. There was a cold breeze and it was time for thermals, coat and hat. We watched Arctic Terns diving for tiny fish, just 20 metres away. As we turned in, I reflected that the winter sleeping bag was a wise choice.
Next morning, we crossed back to the lighthouse on Muckle Roe in calm conditions to continue our trip round the island. Then began a treasure chest of caves, passages, arches and stacks. It was as if all the most attractive and impressive coastal features had been crammed into one small island. The NW wind was light but cold. The chop from the day before persisted and made exposed corners more challenging. We lunched in a deep geo, guarded by large stack. Eventually we rounded a headland and went with the wind down the sound, back to the vans. A sunny finish for our first trip. A total of around 27km. Telephone mast coverage is now excellent in the islands so we soon found a campsite online at Skeld. It had nice facilities but was expensive so we stayed only one night. The trip from Walls to Skeld is described in the book and certainly worth doing. We left the next morning at 09.00 to drive to Walls. By the time we had shuttled the vans and got on the water it was 11.30. With a following breeze, we passed some of the many mussel farming systems in Shetland, comprising strings of large buoys, ropes and cords. Once past Vaila headland we crossed to the mainland side and features began to appear. Caves, arches and stacks were continuous. A slight swell made for more interest but was no obstacle to exploring tight spaces. The kelp beds swayed under the crystal-clear water, looking like a rain forest, but under very cold water. We were mostly wearing separates, so a capsize would have been pretty horrible. We carried a full set of winter thermals, just in case. We stopped three times on calm deserted beaches, gathering what plastic we could carry to recycle somewhere. We landed at Skeld at 18.15, having done 14km. After a short discussion we loaded the vans and headed for Sandness and Melby. The farmer let us camp on the short grass near the cliff edge. There was a public loo and taps.
Melby is opposite the island of Papa Stour. This promises the very best features Shetland has to offer, but is separated from the mainland by a sound with strong tidal flows. We had paddled for three days, so some rest was in order. We relaxed in the cool sunshine. Then a walk along the coast, where we briefly saw an otter. There was a series of ‘click’ mills, primitive machines driven by water to grind wheat or barley grains. Shetland gales are too strong for windmills! Ian raised a troublesome blister on the walk back. A leisurely afternoon of cooking, packing and prepping to get afloat on the evening slack. We were across in half an hour and camped on the island. We went to bed, still in bright sunshine. In mid-June, Shetland never gets properly dark. It’s over 1000 miles from London, less than 300 from Bergen in Norway.
Up at 07.00 after a great night of 11 hours in the sleeping bag. Afloat by 08.30, leaving tents in place. Wild camping is widely accepted and the two houses I visited to ask permission were unoccupied. We set off counter clockwise round the island, noting the arrival of a small cruise ship. The Maiden Stack soon appeared. As we slowly explored towards the ‘Boardie’ headland, more and more delicious caves, geos and secret passages emerged. We had all day before us, before crossing to the mainland on the evening slack. We dawdled, in awe of the sea’s ravages of hard volcanic rock. It seems to fracture in blocks, so massive lumps seem to be hanging from the arches, in defiance of gravity. We stopped a few times for a stretch, snacks and pee. My aching behind was relieved by a shake up of the Sweet Cheeks cushion. Maria suffered from backrest problems. Clive had a persistent shoulder pain. Ian’s foot was sore. Only Joe seemed problem free.
Some of the caves narrowed down to a metre or less, though usually with great height above and apparently bottomless below. Careful backing was required. A tangled paddle and capsize would have been troublesome. At the headland, we searched a number of caves to find the one which went right through, allegedly 300m long. The Hol o’Boardie was very impressive, needing headtorches, but not as long as predicted? It was big enough to be negotiated by a tender. We were lucky the swell was slight. There are so many features round this island. Refer to the guide book for details! On this day the sea was glassy, there was barely any wind and the sun brought the kelp beds to life beneath us. Cold water though. We stayed with winter thermals and hats. We reached our tents in good time, cooked a meal and packed up to return to the mainland on the evening slack. The crossing took 25 minutes and we camped at Melby again. The total trip was just 18km. We needed to decide where to go next. The forecast was deteriorating.
In the morning we travelled to Braewick, where a pleasant campsite and café provided a good base for several days. First stop was a cooked brunch and proper coffee. There were fantastic views of the stacks off the Ness of Hillswick. Needing a short paddle, we headed for Ronas Voe, the one true fjord on Shetland. The put-in at Heylor would be a good wild camp. With a fresh SE wind, we explored the southern edge which gave more great features to explore. Battling back into the wind we nodded to two SOTs, heading downwind. They looked very novice and would later struggle to return. We did just 5km. Back at Braewick we revelled in the hot shower/washing machine/wash-up facilities.
It was windy overnight with a poor forecast for the day. We had paddled six days straight so a day off was called for. We walked to the Shetland museum at Tangwick, which gave an insight into the harsh and dangerous world of old Shetland. Some great displays and well worth a visit. We were led further on our walk by Maria, to the lighthouse and the impressive Calder’s Geo. A trek of 10km and pleased to get back to the campsite!
On Monday we headed for Fethaland and the Ramna Stacks. The trip would be 20km from Burravoe to Sandvoe, doing the trip in reverse to the guide. The shuttle was short, leaving the van at a small well-kept cemetery. The paddle up the coast of North Roe to the Fethaland Peninsula was pleasant but packed fewer features than other trips. We planned to cross the sound to the island of Gruney at slack and this took just 15 minutes, with no discernible tide. Skirting round the island we enjoyed watching the Fulmars swooping past us.
There were lots of guillemots and puffins. Many cormorants and a group of three great northern divers. Sue would have been in raptures. Out further to the impressive Ramna Stacks with a .5m swell. It was good to have some movement in the water. The stacks were ethereal in misty conditions, an oily swell and light winds.
We found passages through some of the stack arches. Joe took on one featuring crashing surf and slipped through at a quieter moment. The rest of us watched in anticipation of drama. As we crossed back to the mainland, we felt the ebb tide pulling left. The white water paddlers ferry glided, arriving some minutes before the others who paddled a graceful curve. Pete had three porpoises pass within feet of him, the only cetaceans seen in two weeks. We slowly explored the north facing coast before getting into a rhythm down to Sandvoe. Another great day.
The Eshaness trip was local to the campsite and encouraged by the easterly wind. This would help us at the start and the headland would provide shelter later. The Tangwick start was easy, with a shuttle in place to the small fishing port at Eshaness. The first objective was Dore Holm, a large stack with a monstrous sea arch. A smaller arch also cuts through the stack and the .6m swell gave it interest. Crossing to the Eshaness coast we ambled along, looking for and finding many features. There were lots of seals we tried not to disturb. The cliffs grew in size and led to the huge Calder’s Geo. At the back was a massive jumble of car sized boulders, all rounded off like pebbles by the energy of winter storms. It was coastline on a gigantic scale. We explored its caves quietly but there was a great commotion when Joe’s boat nudged a floating, sleeping seal in the darkness. After the Moo Stack we looked for the Holes of Scraada. Caves lead through to a hidden beach behind the cliffs, where we had lunch and picked over the abundant marine debris, washed in there by storms. More caves followed, made sporty by the swells. As we passed the top corner, the coast opened out more but with plenty of inlets to explore. We paddled into Hamnavoe in bright sunshine to find the fishing station just as deserted as in the morning. We had paddled just 14km.
In the evening, we drove to Hillswick where a local Shetland music group practises on Tuesday evenings. Entrance was free and coffee and biscuits promised. There were six fiddle players, plus guitars, keyboard and bass, thirteen in all. There were no announcements. It was an organic process. One of the fiddle players would play a few notes, be recognized by the group, which swung into a well-known number. The music had a jaunty toe-tapping tempo, played well. It was impressive. Though each number was rather similar to the last. After an hour we were hoping for a break when we could slope off to the pub. After 90 minutes the bass player needed a toilet break so we slipped out, applauding vaguely and smiling. Community spirit is strong in Shetland.
With fresh southerly winds forecast it was logical to do the Ronas Voe trip, heading north to the island of Uyea. As it happened, the sun came out, the winds died away for another sunny day. With southerly air it was warmer and cags could be dispensed with. To Heylor to offload before a longer shuttle to Sandvoe again. These took up forty minutes each time. A fresh breeze took us down Ronas Voe and then died away. At the Roodrans Stacks we found passages through. The coast was as dramatic as any, interspersed with red sandy beaches which would dump in bigger swells. Some excellent narrow arches with .5m swells. We stopped for lunch near Hevdadale Head which normally has an impressive waterfall, now dried up in the drought. An exceptional feature of the whole trip was the lack of dew, dry grass and no midges. At Uyea island, the recommended portage across a beach was spurned as the calm conditions made paddling round less challenging than the guide suggested. In bigger swells, the underwater rocks create sudden breaks onto lee shores. The north coast kept its interest as we cruised to the finish at the quiet cemetery take-out after a 23km paddle. That evening, there was a group hankering for fish and chips. We rushed off in the van for the 19 mile drive to Brae, the UK’s most northerly fish and chip shop, arriving shortly before closing time. Suitably full of greasy food and sugary drinks, we had a deep feeling of well-being.
Tangwick to Hillswick was the trip we had been looking at all week from the campsite. It was an easy launch after a 30 minute shuttle, into calm and warmish conditions. Few of us had brought summer paddling kit, so were struggling to stay comfortable. We followed the coast closely so as not to miss anything. There were lots of crannies and stacks to find round Braewick Bay. Then the Heads of Brocken, with more arches and stacks. We crossed to the Hillswick peninsula for more great features. Cameras kept clicking. We stopped for a break at the Pund of Grevasand. Then out to the Drongs, a collection of precarious perforated stacks, defying storms and gravity. On further for the headland and lighthouse. We finished at Hillswick, where ice creams were sought. Pete suffered with a smudge of sun cream in his eye. A lesson relearned. Maria visited the wildlife recovery centre, where injured otters and seals were cared for before release.
We packed up and moved to Bridge End where a tidy harbour and outdoor centre was well placed for a final paddle south. Camping was on flat grass with great views down the sound towards South Havra, an island we wanted to visit. Basic showers and loos were available. Our tents were under the sails of an apparently defunct wind turbine. Not so, as at 03.00 we were woken by ghastly groaning and whining with occasional shuddering noises. The northerly wind had got going and the sails were whirring round. No more sleep. In the morning we decided not to pack the boats but were clear there would be no more camping at Bridge End. Setting off with a following wind we passed more mussel farms, towards the Stacks of Houssness. A short passage brought us to South Havra, an island previously occupied but evacuated in 1923. On the south side is the ruined village atop a low cliff facing south. In a gale this would have been completely exposed. The return paddle was into F3-4 headwind, picking up choppy conditions. It’s possible to portage across a sandbank into the sound between East and West Burra, so we struggled up the sand slopes with the boats. There was ideal camping, with no turbines, but no road access. On return to Bridge End, three opted to pack boats, return to the sandbank site to camp and return in the morning. Clive and I lazily opted to sleep in our vans, playing cards and finishing off the whisky.
Reunited in the morning, we headed off to Lerwick to kill some time before the evening ferry to Aberdeen. While I kept my coat and beanie on, the hardy Shetlanders believed it was actually summer, favouring T shirts and summer dresses. In the morning we were off the ferry shortly after 07.00 and home by 19.00. It was truly a great trip with fine friends. No cross words and we all forgave each other’s little oddities. We were outstandingly lucky with the weather. Claire at the Braewick campsite said we were very welcome again if we could arrange the same weather….
Shetland is a high-risk trip in terms of cost and weather, but what rewards it gives, if you are fortunate.
Pictures can be viewed on the club FB page…..https://www.facebook.com/groups/116968430325
Footnotes: Many of the names are derived from old Norse, from the ancient times the islands were part of Norway.
Ness is a headland or peninsula
Voe is a deep inlet or fjord
Wick is a small open bay or beach
Geo is a steep sided inlet, usually dramatic
Kit we used:
Joe: P&H Cetus MV, Euro blades
Maria: NDK Pilgrim Expedition, Euro blades
Ian: Headland Finisterre 17, Greenland stick
Clive: Tiderace Pace 17, Euro blades
Pete: Tiderace Pace 17, Wings