St Ninian's Isle tombolo.
Shetland’s jigsaw coastline has every sort of beach - sandy, stony and everything in between. At this time of year, the sea is a vibrant, turquoise green. It sparkles under the sun. After the cold, long, dark winter, there’s lightness and hope, caught in the smell of spring flapping in the warm breeze like fresh clothes hanging out to dry. I love heading to the coast at this time of year. It makes me feel alive, energised and free.
We have almost 1,700 miles of breathtaking coastline, the most well-known of which includes St Ninian’s. This, the largest active tombolo in the UK is breathtakingly beautiful, there’s no doubt about that – an ‘iconic’, picture-postcard image – but one that you’ll find in every visitor brochure and website (including my own) about Shetland. This 50-metre long expanse of pristine sand is pretty unmissable – so you can find it without my help.
I started off this blog post, intending to pick out my top five beaches, but have actually ended up with six – two of them are on the same island (Burra) so, I’m listing that as one!
A word to the adventurous: I’m not including out-of-the-way remote beaches (this may be a future blog post!). The Lang Ayre in Northmavine for instance – spectacular, but 99 per cent of visitors won’t have the opportunity to visit this secluded beach. Every place I’ve listed is basically just off the main road or a relatively short walk (under 10 minutes), so they are easily found and accessible to most – especially those who are limited by time or mobility.
Off-the-beaten-track beaches not listed.
But the reality is, I can’t choose a favourite. I can’t even come close to choosing. There are so many fantastic places – places I haven’t even mentioned yet – West Sandwick, West Voe, Levenwick, Norby and Skaw, all firm favourites too. And what about those hidden gems that are happened on while out walking or off in a boat exploring the coastline? Little treasures at the head of a geo or along an inaccessible piece of coastline.
The point of Bruna Ness – a hard-to-reach sandy beach – where I swam with friends on a long summer night, friends no longer with us, but never forgotten. The beach on the island of Papa – Granny Tam’s beach. Small and understated, but where my ancestors came from, where the family landed their boats and provisions. The beach which welcomed visitors and was where women watched from as the men went off to sea. The island is now uninhabited – women no longer wait expectantly on the beach for loved ones to come home, boats are no longer shoarded up against the might of Atlantic winter storms. All that remains are the remnants of a pier, and the gentle lull of the sea washing over pebbles as wading birds pick among the waar (seaweed).
These places all hold memories, dear to me, they have moulded my personal connection with this place I call home and continue to do so, every time I set foot on a beach and feel the wind in my hair and the salt on my skin.
Growing up here in Shetland, places become ingrained – stamped to memory – like postcards from the past; of long summer holidays as children, of beach bonfires and beer as teenagers, and now, as I raise my own family, of hope that they too can add happy memories to their own life tapestry.
So what I’ve done here – apart from stirring deep memories – is compile five of the best beaches, five that I go back to, year after year, taking my children too, beaches that I also hope you have the opportunity to visit and enjoy too.
Exploring islands. Photo: Stella Winks
Here they are:
Minn beach, Burra.
1. Meal or Minn beach in Burra
I’ve selected two beaches in Burra, the Meal beach and the Minn beach (not Bannaminn, as it’s often incorrectly called).
The beach at Meal is more exposed and is brilliant for building sandcastles and the peerie (small) hidden beach is perfect if you can stake claim to it on a busy day. But, for swimming with children, the undercurrent can be powerful and dangerous, so you need to be a strong swimmer and be aware of the undertow. Meal can also be linked into a circular walk which you can view here.
2. Easting, Sandwick, Unst
This beautiful, wide, sweeping bay is my favourite place to come and soak up our history and archaeology. At the head of the beach are the remains of a Norse longhouse, a nod to our Scandinavian Viking past, and out along the bay the historic graveyard of Framgord which has hogback ‘Viking graves’ dating from the 9th to 11th centuries. In a previous life, I studied this site, and explored how the roots of Shetland’s mainstay industry – fishing – had its roots in the ruins of this longhouse, and other like it, in Unst. Maybe this could be a future blog post?
On that note: Norwick, also in Unst also has very early evidence of Norse settlement and is often thought to be the first point of landing by the Vikings in Shetland (although the jury is still out on this point!).
Easting beach, Unst. Photos: Rachel Laurenson
This beach is stunning – the sucking noise the sea makes as it passes over the stones is mesmerising – and it’s the only stony beach that I’ve included in this list, which is a bit counter-intuitive as I actually much prefer exploring stony beaches. Stone beaches always have much more interesting beachcombing opportunities, and I love scouring the shoreline for treasure. Beaches like this always remind me of fictional character, Timmy Folster, from George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, who whiles away his days beachcombing and slugging back meths. There's a strange appeal about the mystery stony beaches hold.
Photo: Stevie Catlin.
4. Maywick Beach, south mainland
Another reason for choosing this one is because it’s only a couple of miles from St Ninian’s Isle and while everyone is busy soaking up the tombolo, generally Maywick is empty. Total tranquillity, peace and freedom. It’s a real treasure of the south mainland.
Maywick beach. Photo: Ailish Parham
5. Tresta beach, Fetlar
This is the beach, on this list, which is best for getting-away-from-it-all. To get to Fetlar, you need to take two ferries, and a visit must be well-planned as ferries in and out of the aptly named, Garden of Shetland, are limited (if you’re interested, you can read more about Fetlar on my blog, here and here).
Tresta beach, Fetlar.
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Shetland, a rugged and exposed island group – or archipelago – sits about 200 miles north of Aberdeen. Its western seaboard is battered by the unbridled power of the North Atlantic, while, on the east coast, the North Sea challenges the ever-changing coastline. The 1,400 miles of coastline is an ever-changing landscape, at the mercy of the sea. Put simply, Shetland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to the UK's urban powerhouse, London.
Getting to and from Shetland is really quite simple - you can get here by sea or air.
A rail link is out of the question as there are no trains and the biggest risk to travel arrangements will always be the weather. Being the only land-mass in a vast ocean brings its fair share of difficulties with wind and fog being the biggest perpetrators of travel chaos for visitors hoping to arrive and depart from the northern isles.
One of the first questions that I always get (along with where should we stay) is ‘what’s the best way to get to Shetland?’ The next question is, ‘should we take the boat or plane?’ To simplify this for you and to make it easier to make an informed decision, I’ll go through the pros and cons of each, here on the blog so that you can choose the best option to suit your needs, budget and time.
I should also say that:
My Shetland readers may as well tune out now – you know all this inside out!
Photo courtesy of @shetlandadventure
The first option for getting to Shetland is by boat. This service is currently run by Northlink (although it’s up for tender at the moment and we all await the outcome nervously), bookings can be made via their website, here. Two boats operate this life-line service – The Hjaltland and Hrossey – running between Lerwick and Aberdeen daily – each boat passing each other on their respective passages north and south – the journey times vary between 12 and 14 hours (depending on whether or not the boat calls in at our island neighbour, Orkney 50 miles to the south-west).
The boat can be booked via Northlink's website.
Photo courtesy of Ronda Hill.
Now this is where I must try not to be negative as flying does have its benefits…
Flights in and out of Shetland are fairly easy from all the main Scottish airports. There are daily flights, operated by Loganair, to and from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Orkney, Manchester and in the summer we have a weekly service to Bergen.
Undoubtedly, this is the quickest option (if all goes to plan), flights are between an hour and an hour and a half (compared to the 12-14 on the boat). However, this it’s not always the most reliable way to get here (or away) and as any islander will probably confirm, if you want to avoid the risk of lengthy delays and cancellations – take the boat (and bang, there goes any chance of sponsorship from Loganair).
Flights can be booked via the Loganair website.www.loganair.co.uk
Benefits of flying:
This next point has absolutely no bearing on getting here or away, it’s just interesting. The east-west runway spans the entire width of that part of of the island so one end is flanked with the North Sea and the other by the North Atlantic, and in order to get to the airport, vehicles must drive over the runway – so remember to look both ways!
A few points to consider:
One thing I personally always take into consideration is the time of year which I’m travelling. In the winter the boat is more likely to be cancelled or delayed due to weather and in the summer the fog can bring the airport to a halt. It really is a gamble and the savvy islander will make sure that they have a backup ferry booking (just in case!).
One amusing anecdote I always tell people about is ‘Brussels Sprout Gate’. A few years ago we had some particularly stormy weather in the lead up to Christmas. This meant that the boat – which also brings in our food and fresh goods (turkeys and sprouts) - couldn’t get in for some days. People began panic-buying – a frustrating reaction to cancelled sailings – fearing that Christmas would be a lean one if the boat didn’t make it in time. And as the shelves emptied, tensions soared. What ensued was probably one of the most amusing headlines of the year. Two women in Tesco actually began to argue in the aisle over the last solitary bag of sprouts on the shelf. So, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they almost caused a riot in our leading supermarket (one other supermarket is available). And, in order to stop the escalating crime spree, Tesco chartered a military Hercules plane to bring in the much needed fresh supplies the islands craved.
Photo courtesy of Ronda Hill.
So, there you have it! Two sides to every coin and two options – both with pros and cons – on how to get to Shetland.
I hope that this has maybe given you some answers – I still don’t know the best way to get here and I’ve been coming and going from my island home for 32 years now.
The night was dark and the wind whistled around, screaming like a banshee as it forced an icy draft through every crack and crevice in the stonework of the small thatch clad house… This is the home of the storyteller.
Stories can evoke memories of childhood, of times past, and bring together people who have a sense of shared experience.
Have you ever become lost in the pages of a book and the threads of a story? I love this escape from the world. I need and crave it in equal measures, and lately I’ve been finding myself lost in old Shetland folk stories, enchanted by their magic, dipping in and out of their pages and wondering at their meanings. I keep returning to them and thinking about the storytellers behind the lore, the folk tales they tell us and the place of the storyteller in society today. It’s sad to think that so many of these stories - the very fabric of our society, the cloth that we are cut from - risk being lost to history forever. Should we grieve that the seasonal patterns of life that went hand-in-hand with the storyteller are under threat in our modern world. In a culture where everything is found at the click of a mouse, are we more disengaged than ever?
Locking people into their magic for millennia, folk tales were at one time an integral part of the lives of our ancestors here in Shetland (and beyond), passed down through generations from one-to-another, woven into the very heart of our culture with family lore, love and legend. It was cosy and intimate, warm and reassuring. It involved the meeting of eyes and the exchange of words. It was not an email trail, or a flurry of messages, likes and emojis on social media. It was real. It was tangible.
Shetland, as anyone who has been here between November and January will appreciate, endures a very long dark winter. In its slow and wintery depths, the sun will merely lift its head above the horizon, nod an acknowledgement - a reminder that it’s still here, still present - before sinking once more below the horizon, plunging the islands into a shadowy darkness. And it’s in this shadowy darkness that the tales of time are spun, stories webbed and mapped out as the storyteller nestles into his easy chair for the evening.
Hands at work, making horse hair fishing lines.
Winter here was characterised by hard work, but a different kind to that of summer, it was a time of preparation, of planning and making ready for the coming year. Of hope and anticipation, of waiting on weather and light. Yet, it was a sociable time, the bitter cold and incessant wind was softened, the sharp edges dulled by time spent in the company of friends and neighbours. So, as the fishing lines were made, the yarn spun, and the kishies formed, people chatted, whiling away the long dark hours in the company of friends.
And as legs tired, and the lamp dimmed, stories - the telling of a good yarn - was invariably the end result of these friendly nocturnal gatherings. It’s not surprising that many a good storyteller has come out of Shetland, equipped with tales able to challenge even the most highly acclaimed Booker prize winner. Stories which have been passed down through the generations and told around a glowing peat fire.
Lawrence Tulloch, one of Shetland’s most loved storytellers, wrote that “good stories did not have to be epic folk tales, it might be no more than someone telling of a trip to the shop.” But it was the way in which they could tell a story, spin-a-yarn and captivate the imagination of the audience, no matter how insignificant the event or topic might be.
I’m no storyteller. I’m happy writing, but I’m not sure I can tell a story, weave magic and drama, mystery and suspense, the way a storyteller might. My stories lack the drama, the mystery and the suspense that a storyteller might evoke. So, in this digital age, what and who are the new storytellers? Are they bloggers, social media users or writers, or are we on a path to losing this part of our heritage altogether?
When I began writing this (a while ago…) I was stuck on the freight boat (of all places!) outside Aberdeen thinking about this blog. I began talking to one of the other passengers, a lady, who told me she had been in Shetland researching storytelling. I turned my laptop around to show her what I was writing ‘What’s in a Story’.
Through the window. Shetland Crofthouse Museum.
And in that serendipitous moment, against the humming drone of the crippled engine, and under a fractured mackerel sky I realised that actually, as long as we still love a good story, as long as we still enjoy getting lost in the magic of the unreal – there will always be a place for the storyteller in whatever form that may take.
For anyone who would like to find out more about our storytellers, there are a few whose books and work I can recommend:
Lawrence Tulloch from Yell
Andrew Williamson from Mid Yell
Jessie M Saxby, originally from Unst
Jeemsie Laurenson from Fetlar
And for general folklore information and inspiration:
James R, Nicolson’s Shetland Folklore
John Spence’s Shetland Folklore
Ernest Marwick’s The Folklore of Orkney & Shetland
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