The following article is written by Heather and was previously published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…
…Shetland is the best Sea Kayaking destination in the UK
There! I’ve said it. I’ll even repeat it: Shetland is the best Sea Kayaking destination in the UK. Now, before you spit in horror and say something like, “Well she obviously hasn’t been to (insert your favourite spot here)” and flick past these pages in disgust, please just pause. What is it you like about sea kayaking? What makes you keep on loading that boat onto the car and going down to the sea? Make a quick list…let’s see how many of your boxes are ticked, as I give you some flavours of the five weeks I spent exploring the nooks and crannies of Shetland’s 900 mile coastline, earlier this year.
Arriving at the ferry port in Shetland’s capital Lerwick, we drove north-west to Braewick campsite through damp grey weather and bleak countryside. As we reached the western shores, the barren-ness was replaced by dramatic views of precipitous cliffs and steep cobbled beaches. Pitching our tent looking out to sea, our first paddle was obvious. We looked out to a cluster of tall sea stacks and spires called Da Drongs, battered by a westerly swell.
Parking the car beside Hillswick Seal and Otter Sanctuary, we watched a baby seal follow his yellow dungaree clad ‘mum’ around, begging for fish. On the water, we paddled past increasingly steep cliffs pocked with caves that invited further exploration, and then around the headland of Hillswick Ness into the Atlantic swell. A large lazy rolling swell, of the kind that on a windless day glides sleepily and glassily beneath you, its peaceful heaving only interrupted by reefs and cliffs…awakening waves of turquoise and white foam whose roars drone through your body before they collapse in a froth of fizzing bubbles.
We struck out to The Drongs themselves, sitting like spires from a Wild West canyon. Sea birds wheeled around; fulmars gliding stiff winged across wave tops and gannets plunging with sudden splashes. This was just day one.
Location, Location, Location
Maps of Britain very rarely show Shetland in its true position north of Orkney. Instead, it is generally stuck in a box somewhere east of Inverness. Shetland is actually 130 miles north of John O’Groats, the most northern extremity of the British Isles. It takes an overnight ferry journey from Aberdeen to get here, and the journey to Aberdeen is an undertaking in itself from most places south of the border.
Getting to Shetland certainly requires an investment of time, but once you’ve arrived, the entire multitude of paddling possibilities are within easy striking distance. It’s only an 80 mile drive (including two short ferry crossings) from Sumburgh Head in the south, to Hermaness at the north tip of Shetland. The location puts the islands right out there. Atlantic Ocean to the west. North Sea to the east and south. Head north and there is only some pack ice to stop you paddling across the North Pole and all the way to Siberia. Norway is closer than Edinburgh.
Swell can come from any or every direction. Tides, although not huge in range, in some places create substantial races and flows. Despite the very real exposure that this location implies, the fact that the Shetlands are a chain of islands means that there is generally a sheltered option to be found. A number of long inlets – ‘Voes’- also offer sheltered paddling.
The culture of the islands is one of a life lived intimately with the sea. For a Shetlander, commuting to work by ferry is often a way of life. As a kayaker, you will find yourself having endless conversations with people whose life has for generations revolved around the sea and who are genuinely interested in the antics of sea kayakers. The rich waters are full of life and have sustained 5000 years of continuous human occupation. We might think of these islands as being on the extremity of things, yet archaeological sites on a dramatic scale suggest otherwise! Mousa Broch is a perfectly preserved 2000 year old tower, one of at least 120 around the islands. These stand out as landmarks along the coast; navigational aids and great picnic spots.
Shetland belonged to Norway until 1469. The Nordic influence is still clearly felt in place names, family names and the local dialect. In recent times, North Sea oil has brought communal wealth via the Sullom Voe oil terminal; this has funded eight sports centres for a population of 22,000! There are numerous museums and interpretive centres where, we were welcomed by friendly and knowledgeable Shetlanders who were proud to share their heritage with us.
Let’s Rock and Roll
Shetland’s geology is of international importance and has European Geopark status. Some of the oldest rocks in Britain can be seen, 2500 million year old Lewisian Gneisses. The major faults which created mainland Scotland’s landscape continue here. This complex geology is reflected in the complex coastline. Erosion wears away softer rocks, slices up through fault lines and undermines even the hardest of rocks. The result is, steep cliffs riddled with caves, geos, inlets, hidden channels and mazes, guarded by stacks and arches.
The most dramatically eroded coastline is that of the isle of Papa Stour; every few hundred metres of paddling brings another cave into view! Some are tiny crevices studded with sea anemones. Others snake back endlessly to open into vast caverns and amphitheatres, dramatically booming with swell and ringing with the calls of seabirds. To the north-west of Papa Stour, Fogla Skerry and Lyra Skerry sit exposed to tide and swell, riddled with tunnels. Lyra Skerry has two passages intersecting at right angles. Sitting underneath an island at a crossroads between two streams of flowing water is an experience which will stay with me. These are phenomenal places to explore, yet there is always a tension between the wish to linger and the anxiety about building tide and wind…
Walk on the Wild Side
Shetland has the highest concentration of otters in the UK, and we met them regularly. The squeaky baby otters who swam around our boats were a standout moment! Seals, common and grey, are ubiquitous, although they tend to be shyer than those in other areas. Perhaps they are wary because they are the main prey of the local pods of killer whales. Twenty-one of the twenty-four species of British seabirds breed there; we met our favourite, puffins, on most of our paddling trips. They nest in burrows and whirr in and out with beaks full of small sand eels, or stroll pompously along the ledges, cawing for all the world as if they had just heard a particularly juicy and shocking piece of gossip. The sea cliffs at Noss and Hermaness are home to vast gannet colonies. These birds, with two metre wing spans, glided en masse in dizzying circles over our kayaks. Combined with neck-achingly high cliffs, deafening croaks and the stench of fish, this spectacle made me feel quite queasy.
Here Be Monsters
Paddling back over glassy seas from the Out Skerries to Whalsay one morning, we were surrounded by hundreds of porpoises. This area is well known for sightings of cetaceans, congregating to feed on fish funnelled up through the strait by the tide. Porpoises are known as neesiks (meaning sneezies) in Shetland, due to the snuffle sound they make as they break the water’s surface. After half an hour we became quite blasé about their numbers and presence. Suddenly, a much larger ‘porpoise’ emerged…but kept on surfacing. We were looking at a minke whale! I cannot describe the awe that I felt being within touching distance of this, one of the smaller members of the whale family but nevertheless at least seven metres long and rearing significantly higher than us.
So, have I worn you down and convinced you? Perhaps your favourite paddling spot can supply you with some of the experiences I’ve described. But can it provide all of the above? If so, let me know, I want to go there too.
The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland Sea Kayaking by Tom Smith and Chris Jex. Yet another winner from Pesda Press, this indispensible guidebook includes masses of tidal flow data alongside knowledge from local experts to help you get the best out of your trip.
Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas – Orkney and Shetland Islands. Your best bet for visualising what the tide flows are doing.
Clyde Cruising Club Sailing Directions and Anchorages: Shetland Islands by Arthur Houston/ Shetland Islands Pilot by Gordon Buchanan. These are the two options if you are looking for a nautical pilot book. In truth, neither book is of much use to paddlers; they simply list sheltered anchorages. If you have to buy one (to look the part), the CCC one looks prettier.
Shetland: Island Guide by Jill Slee Blackadder and Iain Sarjeant – published by photographer Colin Baxter, the pictures in this guidebook will inspire you before you even start on the text.
www.shetlopedia.com – as usual, the internet knows everything. This website is an amazing source of information about everything Shetland.
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk – useful information and advice.