Hermanes, Isle of Unst, Shetland
Landscapes and seascapes that make you feel as if you have found one of the most remote coastlines in the world; superb wildlife and a history that stretches from the last war right back to the dawn of civilisation - you can experience all this on the Orkney and Shetland Islands.
The islands that make up the Northern Isles lie far out in the North Atlantic. They are geographically and historically closer to Norway than to Scotland.
The landscapes of the fertile agricultural islands of Orkney, thanks to its base of Old Red Sandstone, contrast with the more rugged Shetland islands 100 miles further north with its poorer soil and therefore depending much more on the wealth of the sea. Hence the well-known saying that ‘an Orcadian is a farmer with a boat, while a Shetlander is a fisherman with a croft’.
Orkney is a place of big open skies, rounded hills, beautiful beaches and well kept farms. Only on Hoy does the landscape take on a wilder feel, with rolling hills and towering cliffs.
Orkney is also notoriously rich in archaeological remains. It is said that if you scratch the soil it bleeds archaeology. Above all, in visiting Orkney you get a feeling of continuity, the sense that for thousands of years people have worked the land and left their mark.
The number and quality of ancient Neolithic monuments testify to Orkney’s pre-eminent position at the centre of Neolithic Britain.
Later the Vikings came, first visiting in the summers to fatten their livestock and later, colonizing the islands, occupying and reusing farmsteads that had stood for millennia. And today, farming continues. Beneath many of today’s modern farms are the remains of Viking farms and, beneath that, layers of occupation stretching even further back in time.
Shetland is an archipelago of islands 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland. At 60 degrees north, Shetland enjoys almost 24 hours of daylight during the summer, and the sun, low in the sky, brings a quality of light that is quite unlike anywhere else in Scotland.
The geology of the islands is ancient and complex. That, together with the erosive effect of the North Atlantic and the North Sea, has created a landscape characterized by dramatic cliffs, long fjord like ‘voes’ and beautiful sandy beaches.
Orkney and Shetland are a haven for wildlife. The islands are a birdwatchers’ paradise and one of the major seabird breeding and feeding areas in the North Atlantic. More than a million birds breed in very large colonies. Nowhere else in Britain, and hardly anywhere else in Europe, can you get so close, so easily, to so many seabirds. You can sit on a cliff top watching puffins just a few feet away from you, or you can savour the spectacle of thousands of gannets diving into the sea.
We will certainly see common and grey seals. There are frequent sightings of harbour porpoises and occasionally dolphins and whales.
Shetland is one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, so there’s a good chance of seeing otters too.
The islands have over 600 species of flowering plants, including 21 species of wild orchid. Other botanical attractions include rare arctic-alpine plants, wildflower meadows, mosses and lichens.
The programme will be tailored to your wishes and interests, but this is an example of how the holiday may look like.
We will meet in Aberdeen where we will board the ferry to Kirkwall on Orkney, where we will stay 3 nights.
We will visit several important Neolithic sites on mainland Orkney, from the Ring of Brodgar, to the Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe, which is Britain’s largest chambered cairn. This, the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney,’ which also includes Skara Brae, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We also visit the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve that surrounds the Ring of Brodgar. Its wild flower meadows and wetlands attract waders, ducks and raptors.
About 2 miles/3.2 km, flat
This morning we will take the ferry to Hoy. Our walk will take us along spectacular cliff-top scenery, through another RSPB reserve, to the world famous sea stack known as The Old Man of Hoy that has attracted generations of climbers, not to mention nesting seabirds. This is quite a hard day’s walking, but very much worth the effort.
6 miles/9.5 km, 550ft/170m of ascent
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
We start the day at Skara Brae, possibly Orkney’s most exciting archaeological site, which was buried by a sandstorm in about 2450 B.Cand then revealed by another storm in 1850.
We will then walk south along spectacular Old Red Sandstone coastal cliff scenery with geos, natural arches, caves, and sea stacks.
Afterwards we visit the characterful and historic town of Stromness to take a walk through its winding main street all the way to the ness, or headland, of Stromness, where we get good views of Hoy. Stromness was the home Orkney’s most notable poet and writer, George Mackay Brown. It was also where ships of the Hudson’s Bay Company took on water, stores and recruited local men before heading out to the Canadian Arctic.
Up to 5 miles/8 km, 245ft/75m of ascent along undulating coastline
We board the overnight ferry to Shetland in the evening.
We arrive in Lerwick in the morning and head south to visit Jarlshof, which was occupied for more than 4,000 years. The site boasts a remarkable sequence of stone structures: late Neolithic houses, a Bronze Age and an Iron Age village, a Norse longhouse, a medieval farmstead, and a 16th-century laird’s house.
Hiking to Cuilswick Broch, Mainland Shetland
In the afternoon we take a boat to the uninhabited island of Mousa, another RSPB nature reserve. The wildlife includes harbour seals, arctic skuas, arctic terns and storm petrels. The island is also famous for its Iron Age broch, with 44 feet the world’s tallest and best-preserved Pictish broch.
4 miles/6.5 km, minimal ascent
On our first day on Shetland we'll go to the Westside for one of the finest walks in this part of Mainland. Our first stop is Stanydale Temple, a Neolithic hall, heel-shaped externally, and containing a large oval chamber. Around it are ruins of houses, walls and cairns of the same period.
The walk at Culswick follows the track through a dramatic valley, which narrows and rises when we reach the cliffs. The valley was once a sea loch. It is now separated from the sea by a shingle bar, creating a fresh water loch. At its lowest point, the track passes between high peat banks.
Near the coast, the track rises and Culswick Broch and ramparts appear ahead, above the Loch of the Broch. The green valley ends in pebble beaches fringed by sea stacks, cliffs and caves. The Pictish Culswick broch looks out on an awe inspiring view over Gruting Voe and Vaila Sound.
From the broch we head southeast along the cliff tops. There are remains of a monastic settlement on one of the sea stacks and a tiny dwelling on another. We continue following the shore back to the start of our walk.
We have a good chance to see lapwings, curlews, ringed plovers and mountain hares.
6 miles/9.5 km, 330ft/100m of ascent
Unst consists of a block of oceanic crust thrust, which is very much out of place. These enormous masses of thrust rock (called ophiolites) give a rare glimpse into the Earth’s deep interior. Along our way we will encounter some very interesting botany, a Viking longship and replica longhouse, and the northernmost cliffs of the British Isles, which are home to over 100,000 breeding sea birds.
4 miles/6.5 km, 560ft/150m of ascent
Gannets on the Isle of Noss, Shetland
The Eshaness peninsula tells a fascinating story of a long extinct volcano. The spectacular cliffs we see today show the best section through the flank of a volcano in the British Isles and it is a geological ‘must’. The sea has carved out a dramatic array of stacks, geos, and blowholes. Another highlight is an active storm beach still being shaped by hurricane force winds from the Atlantic in the winter.
4.5 miles/7.5 km, 200ft/60m of ascent
After having been on top of many seabird cliffs during our holiday, today we will view them from the sea. Our boat takes us around the islands of Bressay and Noss. Noss - ‘nose’ - is a National Nature Reserve. The old red sandstone cliffs of Noss are carved by the sea into thousands of ledges. These are ideal sites for seabirds’ dream-houses and competition is intense. We will get a close look at the cliffs packed with seabirds and our senses will be assaulted by the sight of thousands of birds, their deafening noise and the overpowering smell.
Finally you will have a chance to explore Lerwick, its shops and its excellent museum, before we board the overnight ferry to Aberdeen.
We arrive back in Aberdeen in the morning.