Winter can be a really special time to go for an adventure. On a cold, calm day, the air is crisp, and the low light casts dramatic shadows across the parched landscape. We’ve been fortunate this winter in that the ground has been frozen. If it’s not frozen, sticking to coastal routes can help keep feet warm and dry in Shetland’s (usually) wet winters.
The smugglers’ cave in Burra is a brilliant walk to do with children because there’s plenty to see and it’s not too far to walk. Once they reach the destination, there’s the added promise of smuggling and piracy to keep them curious and engaged.
For this walk, park at the Hamnavoe Marina in Burra and follow the coast beyond the marina and the Backaburn beach. From Backaburn (overlooking the marina), follow the rough grass path west, this path snakes its way around to the lighthouse. After a short walk, the path splits with one branch heading towards the Hurds and the lighthouse at Fugla Ness, and the other continuing west towards Pundsar and Biargar. We took the second path, sticking to a westerly direction towards Pundsar.
Once you reach the headland’s point at Pundsar, there are fantastic views towards West Burra, with the dominating Clift Hills beyond. From here, follow the coast north and look out for the small opening in the cliffs that leads down into the Smugglers’ Cave. As you walk this section, there are fantastic views across to Foula. When we visited in early February, Foula was dressed in white as the snowy spell continued. Helpfully, the cave entrance has been marked in recent years with a wooden sign attached to a nearby rock. This makes finding the entrance far easier as the access is not apparent or easy to find otherwise.
A rope ladder assists with entry into the cave, and with an eight-foot drop, it’s very welcome – I remember trying to get down as a child by a rope alone, and the fear that you wouldn’t get back out again was real!
Inside the cave, use either a torch or wait until your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Once your eyes do train into the darkness, you will be amazed at just how vast this cave is. Make your way down through the chasm towards the sea. As the cave sits on Shetland’s Atlantic coastline, it’s often quite loud inside the cave’s chamber as the swell rushes in before being noisily pulled back out to sea. I have to admit that it can be quite scary, although on this calm day in early February it was still and almost silent inside. Listen for the amplified call of seabirds who take advantage of the relative shelter the cavernous space provides.
The Smugglers’ Cave, like many of Shetland’s caves, was formed by the sea, taking advantage of a flaw in the rock face. Geologically speaking, the weakness lies along a natural fault in the rock and, following millions of years of storm-driven erosion, a long, narrow cavern has been carved out and created deep inside the rock.
Historically, caves have been vitally important and, as this one’s name suggests, were often used to smuggle and conceal illegal goods – particularly things like brandy, gin and tobacco. More importantly, they were important places of refuge from the Press Gang that patrolled Shetland, picking up men and boys for impressment into naval service in the early 19th century.
By the early 19th century, the world was in turmoil as the Napoleonic Wars wreaked havoc across Europe. These conflicts, which began in 1803, and ended with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, were led by Napoleon I of France. These wars were acutely felt throughout Shetland as the Navy’s Press Gang ventured more and more into northern waters searching for men to feed the Naval war machine.
The Crown employed the Press Gang to impress men into the Royal Navy. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the Press Gang threat was a very real one for many Shetlanders. Often using physical violence and brute force, the Press Gang, was feared continuously by families. Men and boys went to great lengths to remain hidden, and out of sight, many had innovative hiding places in caves and cliffs that they could escape to if a naval vessel were spotted. The Crown retained a permanent right to impress men with seafaring experience into the Navy and Shetlanders were highly sought after as they were known to be extremely able seamen.
During this time, Shetland gave a disproportionate number of men to the British navy through impressment. It’s thought that some 3,000 men were impressed. Most men who were impressed would never return home again.
Caves like the Smugglers’ Cave in Burra would have been an ideal place to hide. It’s hard to find, spacious enough to hold many men, close enough to get to quickly, and yet, far enough from the houses that the naval men would have struggled to find it. Shetland’s struggle with the Press Gang ended with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
Our walk to the Smugglers’ Cave didn’t involve the Press Gang or any illicit trade, but we did enjoy a mug of warm soup and icy sandwiches with uninterrupted views across to Foula.
We spent an hour-and-a-half exploring the area at a gentle pace, covering just over a mile. The terrain is uneven in places, and the descent into the cave is not for the faint of heart and should be taken at your own risk.
Until next time,
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.