Adventures on the Orkney and Shetland islands

Stephen Dunnett visits the magical Orkney and Shetland islands and suggests that with a bit of planning, you can have an adventure on par with destinations much further away than our own islands

Although usually considered together, the Orkney and Shetland Island groups are very different in scenery and character. Both are a long way north but Shetland is considerably further north than Orkney, which probably explains why it is less frequently visited.

In fact, Lerwick is closer to Norway than it is to Edinburgh and on almost the same latitude as Bergen. I have often spoken to people and when Orkney and Shetland are mentioned, the response is frequently along the lines of ‘that is somewhere I would like to go but we have never got around to it’. This certainly applied to me and my wife, but once we made the effort, we were hooked and have visited the islands three times in the past few years.

We live in Suffolk so even a trip to Scotland is a fair distance and a trip onwards to Orkney and Shetland means that we do really need three clear weeks to do the trip justice. Our first visit was just to Orkney on our BMW Adventure motorcycle. Although we had toured most of Europe, Iceland and Morocco three times on our bike, this was actually our first UK tour.

Orkney is good for motorcycles
Orkney is good for motorcycles

We had always wanted to go to Orkney and Shetland! Orkney was more ‘do-able’ with the time we had and what a trip it was and the seed was set. It is probably not a destination that springs to mind for a motorcycle tour but riding our motorcycle onto the Pentland Ferries boat at Gills Bay, saw us on Orkney at St Margaret’s Hope, a mere 60 minutes later.

I had purchased the excellent Cicerone guide (Walking on The Orkney and Shetland Isles) and we had this with us, but the limited luggage capacity of two people on a motorcycle does not allow much in the way if walking gear.

We did tackle a few of the shorter walks and it was immediately obvious that this was the place to go for walks on the wild side and we expected that Shetland may be even more so. Here we go again – we had always wanted to go to Shetland!

In 2016 we were lucky enough to have finished working full time and to have been able to buy our dream campervan and since then, we have been on two trips to Shetland and Orkney in 2019 and 2021.

Did I mention that we always wanted to go to Shetland? We wanted to tackle walks in the Cicerone guide and these turned out to be so varied and the islands so captivating, hence two trips in quick succession.

On both occasions, we have driven to Aberdeen and then taken the very good NorthLink Ferry service to Lerwick on Shetland. This actually makes getting to Shetland an easier experience than driving to the far north of Scotland.

Unfortunately, there is no campsite in Lerwick since the land was built on with a new school but the well-stocked tourist information centre in the main town, has all the up-to-date accommodation details you could need.

NorthLink ferry
The NorthLink ferry in Lerwick – note the ‘Lerwick longboat’

Travel around Shetland in your own vehicle is very easy and the roads are surprisingly good, largely as a result of Shetland’s connection with the oil industry. It does take a bit more effort to get to the northern most islands of Yell, Unst and Fetlar but we find Unst fascinating and the two, inexpensive, ferries make it really feel that you are on the furthest outpost of the UK.

It was on our first visit to Unst that we (inexperienced!) learnt a valuable lesson in the art of campervans and how generous the folk of Unst are. There are no campsites in the north of Unst so we decided the old, disused RAF Skaw site might provide a nice piece of concrete to park up on for the night.

We turned off the small ‘main’ road and it looked good until we arrived at a cattle grid that looked less than solid. By now it was dusk and the rain was coming down so we thought a return to the main road was the best plan – just turn round and off we go.

The basic lesson – always get the passenger to guide you before you turn into a narrow area but it was raining and we didn’t bother. Shetland bogs are deep and the back end of our van was now finding out how deep – what an idiot!

Shetland and Unst in particular, now felt very remote but miraculously, we did have a phone signal. A random call to find a source of possible rescue, was answered by a gentleman who worked at the nearby Saxa Vord hotel. Within 20 minutes, he and his daughter arrived in their 4X4, extracted us from the bog and didn’t expect a penny. This is typical of the quiet, generous and supportive nature of the folk who live in these harsh conditions.

Apart from this mishap, both trips have been packed with good walking using the Cicerone guide and the numerous local walk leaflets that can be picked up in local shops and information centres.

I will not attempt to describe the walks as I fully recommend that you purchase a copy of the guide which gives all sorts of information in addition to the walks themselves. However, still on Unst, a walk that we have done twice is up to Hermaness as apart from being a dramatic walk with skuas, puffins (depending on the time of year) and huge gannet colonies on massive cliffs, north along the cliff top is the furthest north you can walk in the UK.

Sitting on the clifftop looking out to the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga and the tiny Out Stack, the last UK land, is a magical experience, provided you are lucky with the weather! When we did the walk in the Autumn of 2021, the RSPB had begun to re-instate the path over Hermaness Hill, which has been closed for some years, so hopefully a circular walk will be possible again in the near future.

Muckle Flugga and Outstack
Muckle Flugga and Outstack

Gloup Memorial

Yell is made up of a lot of moorland but the walks around the Gloup Memorial and the White Wife are reminders of how dangerous the sea is off Shetland. Haaf fishing involved small boats being rowed up to 40 miles off shore to the fishing grounds and getting caught in storms was common.

The Gloup Memorial commemorates 58 men who were killed in a single storm. Back on Mainland, we decided to camp at North Roe which feels as remote as any of the islands. We wanted to do the ‘Point of Fethaland’ walk as Graham Uney says ‘this is a superb walk that should not be missed’ and it visits the well preserved old haaf fishing huts of Fethaland. This was the largest fishing station in Shetland and up to 60 boats and crews were based here between 40 mile trips to the fishing grounds which they repeated throughout the fishing season.

Skeld was another place we loved, for the wonderful campsite complete with otter viewing hide and the absolutely stunning walk along the coast. It is tempting to say this is one of the best walks we have done anywhere but then on Shetland, there are several contenders for that title.

Perhaps the walk at Esha Ness is a contender and what about the walk from West Burra that we found by luck when we needed somewhere a bit more sheltered for our campervan from the forecast 80 mph winds. You will just need to go to Shetland and decide for yourself.

The superb coastal walk from Skeld

Apart from walking on Shetland, it was an aim for our 2021 trip, to take part in the Bressay parkrun, the most northerly Parkrun in the UK, and requiring a ferry trip across to Bressay from Lerwick. We assembled on the quay for the 9am ferry along with hardened local parkrunners and a fair few tourists.

The strong wind and threat of an imminent downpour didn’t dampen the spirits and the short ferry crossing was my idea of a good warm-up! Note that you do not have to be a serious runner to do a parkrun and I really do recommend that you investigate this if you visit Shetland.

Oh yes, I almost forgot the best bit – bacon rolls in the community centre before the ferry trip back to Mainland. It is worth mentioning at this point, sometimes confusingly, the main islands of Shetland and Orkney are both called Mainland, as opposed to mainland Scotland – someone thought it was a good idea!

Kirkwall harbour
Kirkwall harbour

The NorthLink ferry between Lerwick and Kirkwall on Orkney does take a little bit of planning as it arrives in Kirkwall at around 11pm which is not so much of a problem with a campervan. It is possible to book ahead and get access to the campsite and there is now a free area for motorhomes for 24hr stays close to Tesco. Both the free area and the campsite are perfectly located for the Kirkwall parkrun and we couldn’t resist another parkrun.

The UK’s most northerly Parkrun on Bressay

The walking on Orkney, although still wild, feels a bit less harsh than the walks on Shetland. That said, I did the Noup Head walk on Westray in strong wind and rain and the cliff tops in wind and rain are places that demand respect but I love the feeling of walking in wild conditions.

Orkney is an archeologist's paradise and several of the walks we did take in amazing sites. We took a short ferry trip to Rousay and walked all the way round the island. There are several chambered cairns to explore including the stunning Mid Howe chambered cairn and Mid Howe broch.

All these sites are free to enter. We also parked our campervan at Kirkwall Airport and took advantage of the very cheap flight offer to North Ronaldsay, provided you stay on the island for at least one night.

The bird observatory provided good accommodation and the coastal walk following the 13 mile sheep dyke is one not to be missed. The dyke keeps the rare North Ronaldsay sheep on the beaches where they eat the seaweed. There is even a sheep dyke warden who monitors the condition of the dyke and it is possible to be part of voluntary work parties to carry out repairs.

Seaweed eating North Ronaldsay sheep

Although the walks are not that long, we have finished our trips with a visit to the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. I think these are atmospheric, magical places and above all else seem to me to sum up in a nutshell the unique character of Orkney.

These sites are on the way to Stromness and from here, the NorthLink ferry runs to Scrabster back on real mainland Scotland. It is then a long drive south to Suffolk, but each time we have arrived back, we are sure it is a journey that is worth it and from a selfish perspective, long may Shetland and Orkney remain a true escape from the crowds. We might see you there.

The Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar

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