When Peter first mooted the idea of paddling in Shetland this summer I must admit the thought of going North rather than our usual South to Brittany didn’t really appeal to me. Looking at weather for Shetland didn’t do anything to encourage me to change my mind, with temperatures normally at least 10cº lower than here in the south of England.

However, several people we spoke to, raved about the place and looking at the guidebook there certainly seemed to be some interesting coastline to explore and so I was finally convinced and thank goodness I was. After spending three wonderful weeks there I am now a real convert and if you’ve talked to me since then you’ll have heard me raving about the wonderful caves, arches, cliffs, stacks, wildlife etc.

Luckily, August, the only time in the summer that I can have holidays, happens to be the best time of year to visit Shetland as it has the warmest and most settled weather then and we were lucky enough to get 16 days out of 21 on the water.


We drove up to Aberdeen and caught the ferry to Lerwick, a journey overnight of 12–13 hours via (or not) Kirkwall in Orkney. The ferry company is rather vague about the stop at Kirkwall as this changes according to weather and passengers. We had calm seas for the outward trip but weren’t quite so lucky with the return as there had been strong winds F6-7 blowing for a few days from the SW before our departure and the sea-state was rough. The girl serving in Boots in Lerwick knew exactly what to prescribe when we mentioned that we were soon to board the Aberdeen ferry and this did the trick for me and made things much more bearable for Peter who is prone to sea-sickness. As he said afterwards, it was only bad for four hours (!) and then we reached the shelter of Orkney. Little wonder then that regular travellers, without sea-kayaks to transport, opt for the plane.


With no particular plan we agreed to head to one of the few official campsites for the first night and found ourselves at Skeld on the Western mainland. Our first paddle was in low cloud, the fog which we’d arrived in had lifted to about clifftop level and there was only a light swell. Although we only went several miles from Skeld round to Westerwick and back, it took us most of the day as we explored every cave, arch, gulley, voe (inlet), geo (deep cleft in the cliff face) and stack, wondering at the amazing natural features to be found in abundance, and wowed by the profusion of seabirds and seals. That evening back at the campsite, I felt that if the weather deteriorated and we didn’t manage to paddle again I would be happy as I’d seen such a great stretch of coast. As I later saw, Tom Smith says in the Northern Isles guide “this is a magnificent stretch of coastline often overlooked in favour of the blockbusters like Papa Stour and Esha Ness.”

The evening was still grey and quite chilly so we were all happy to use the facilities, a warm hut with lovely hot showers and a communal kitchen area including a toaster, one of David’s favourite pieces of kitchen equipment as we soon found out! Jim who runs the place is a bit of an entrepreneur having made money from fish-farming and fishing and now keeps a close eye on the happy campers, from his bungalow on the hillside above. He was very enthusiastic about the coast and talked about every feature; had we seen this stack and gone through this arch and in his soft dialect he entertained us with various legends about mermaids, girls kept prisoner on stack-tops and baby-stealing eagles.


Next day we decided to go from Walls to try to complete the part of the coast around Culswick that we’d missed. However overnight the swell had increased and we now found ourselves unable to enter the west-facing caves and after lunch at Culswick bay we returned along the north coast of Vaila. Here it was sheltered from the swell as far as Stromness Point and we managed to get into some of the caves. The sandstone has a strong pinky colour which is often streaked with green and yellow algae and lichen. After a low entrance, one cave opened out into a large chamber, which had beautiful colours like an abstract mural, with another passageway to the sea. Further at the back was another passage and feeling brave I set off into the dark. Suddenly there was an unearthly wail and I really thought I’d heard a ghost. Andrew behind me was amused at how fast I could back-paddle. Peter tried to get further in and saw two eyes - a seal at the back of the cave that had warned us from coming in. After that we quite often met seals on the beaches and ledges at the back of caves and got used to the strange noises they made. However towards the end of the holiday, Peter still shot out backwards at speed from one when there was an almighty roar, magnified by the enclosed space, from a big bull grey seal – unfortunately I was too slow to capture this comic moment on video.

Papa Stour

Papa Stour is so well-known as a sea-kayaking destination that we had to go there, but unfortunately big swell meant that we had to be content with a circumnavigation of the island at some distance from the cliffs and enticing caves and the famous 300m long underground passage is on our wish list for the next visit to Shetland.

We did see some of the wonderful stacks and arches and Andrew and David surfed their way on a particularly big set through the N-S tunnel of Lyra Skerry. Peter and I had been preparing to follow but when we saw Andrew engulfed in a boiling maelstrom of white water bobbing from side to side in the passage we both decided that going around the skerry might be the better option! Cluck cluck!!

The bright lights of Lerwick

A brisk wind picked up, curtailing paddling for one day and we discovered that David’s other passion is shopping. He and Andrew went to the bright lights of Lerwick whilst Peter and I walked in thick mist along the clifftops where we’d paddled the day before.


The following day the wind dropped a bit so we set off on an anticlockwise circumnavigation of Vementry getting a good push from the F4 south easterly from Brindister. We’d just stopped at Nouthra Voe on Vementry to visit some old naval WW1 guns when we heard a helicopter approaching. It was the coastguard who proceeded to put down, right by the guns on top of Swarbacks Head. We ran up the hill and realised they must have been doing a sightseeing visit, as a few passengers got out, the helicopter lifted off, circled and then landed to pick them up before taking off again. The views from the top were magnificent and together with the drama of the helicopter it was all very spectacular! Lunch was at Southra Voe where we stoked up and rested in the warm sunshine before the push back against the by now F5 headwind.

Spiggie’s Bay

Our next move was to wild camp in the sand-dunes behind Spiggie’s Bay, a wonderful white sand beach with turquoise water. That month it had been voted as one of the top ten bathing beaches in the world, an award that amazed the Shetlanders as the water is never above 10Cº and certainly even the hardy David and Andrew could only stand a few seconds’ immersion. Whilst staying at Spiggie’s we did a trip out to Sumburgh Head from Grutness but a strong tide and some swell deterred us from going all the way around and we stopped just below Shetland’s first lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson. Instead we paddled up the east coast to Troswick Bay ever hopeful of spotting the pod of Orcas that had been in the same area just a fortnight before us, but although we saw plenty of prey items (seals) the killer whales were hunting elsewhere. We also visited the beautiful St Ninian’s Isle circumnavigating it both on foot when the wind was F5-6 and by kayak a couple of days later. There is a lovely curving tombolo of white sand which has to be portaged to complete the tour.

Peter had noticed that Netweather forecasts for Shetland often had an optimistic ‘feels like’ temperature e.g.13Cº feels like 17Cº and we had laughed at this but now we were beginning to see what they meant. The forecast was for 17Cº but it was certainly starting to feel more like 20Cº in fact it was too hot to lie in bed in the tent one morning. This could also have been because dawn was at 4.30am and so the sun had already been shining onto us for 3 hours before we got up!! There were lovely long evenings too and this meant that we were under no pressure to finish a trip because of a shortage of daylight.

Muckle Roe

We then journeyed north to Brae and went around Muckle Roe, another spectacular island, under clear skies and bright sunshine. Here we had calm seas and very thoroughly explored the red granite caves and voes, finding several collapsed caves and numerous tunnels. We felt a bit cheated to find a large party of walkers on the beach where we’d intended to lunch, having previously had the coast to ourselves but were able to paddle around the next rocky outcrop to find an equally lovely but unpopulated beach. The circumnavigation is only about 18km according to the guidebook but we reckon we probably doubled that by investigating every crack and gulley and so were very happy to go for supper at the award-winning Frankie’s at Brae, the most northerly fish and chip shop in the British Isles. This was the first of quite a few tourist attractions and places with the distinction of being the most-northerly, that we came across as we travelled further north.


For the next few days we based ourselves at Braewick campsite, which being perched on the hilltop overlooking the sea, offers fantastic views but is very exposed to W and SW winds (luckily we had NE winds) and from here explored the spectacular Eshaness coast. We thought we’d already seen the best that Shetland could offer but the dramatic black lava cliffs, huge imposing arches and deep caves carved out by the pounding power of the Atlantic Ocean were truly breathtaking.

Ness of Hillswick

One day was spent paddling around the Ness of Hillswick, past the wierdly-shaped Drongs (surely these stacks have featured on an Channel 4 advert!) exploring a fantastic series of caves at the Heads of Grocken and then surfing with the strong east wind behind us from No Ness point across to the towering high arch at the end of Dore Holm, a large stack 1km offshore from Stenness headland. After lunch on a storm beach at Stenness littered with huge tree-trunks (there are no trees like this in Shetland, were they from North America?) we headed for two high islands, the Skerry and the Isle of Eshaness where there are thousands of seabirds and continued along unbroken high black barren cliffs which towered high above the sea with few places for seabirds to perch and virtually bare of vegetation. There were some tourists at the iconic lighthouse and we probably feature in quite a few photos as the sun came out at this point. They must have thought they’d got good views of the coast but we knew that what we were seeing was much better! We had been well-sheltered from the NE F4 wind until we rounded the Grind of Navir and turned E and it made the last couple of miles along to, and up Hamna Voe, a bit of a slog.

Beau Holland

Not finished with this coast we paddled the next day from Beauholland north to Ronas Voe. Once again we exhausted our supply of superlatives to describe this wild and exposed coast noting especially Warie Gill and the Geo of Ockran which both have cathedral-sized arches into collapsed caves with waterfalls pouring into them. However it was the wildlife that really impressed us. For some reason, the currents had focussed lots of plankton, microscopic life, jellyfish and other tasty items which in turn attracted herrings, gannets, basking sharks, porpoises and seals. So we had a feast of wildlife too. Passing through the huge arch called the Faither we now turned into Ronas Voe. Here the black andesite lava cliffs give way to red granite cliffs of a very different nature and there are lovely stacks and passages to explore but fewer caves. We landed at the Blade at Heylor which has a sandy beach behind a shingle bar, which was covered in moribund starfish and brittle stars perhaps washed up after a big swell had lashed the coast on the previous days. We’d paddled quite a distance and were tired but happy with all we’d seen.

This was only the first half of our holiday, look forward to the second instalment in the next newsletter! To see some of the Eshaness landscape watch this video .