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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