Jump to content
NSPN Message Board
Sign in to follow this  

Orkney and Shetland Islands Adventure: Wind, Cliffs, Caves, Seabirds - June 2016

Recommended Posts


Wind, Cliffs, Caves, Seabirds:

A Journey to the Orkney and Shetland Islands

June, 2016





As if it weren’t enough to have paddled in Alaska, Wales, California and Mexico in the past twelve months, this year of wondrous water excess culminated in June in a three week trip to two sets of islands off the north coast of Scotland, where under never quite dark night sky, we celebrated the Summer Solstice in a country where mysterious stone circles speak – possibly - to ancient fascination with the solar calendar.

I met up with my two newest kayaking companions, Jane Hardy and Donna Sylvester – as well as a third, Donna McCready, whom I just met in Baja in April – at the Manchester England airport on which we had converged from starting points in northern and southern California, and Massachusetts.  I was the first to arrive in this distinctly rundown airport, where I found that events of dubious historical import had preceded me.


Connections made, the two Donna’s, Jane and I next travelled by train


to the home of our guide-to-be, Steve Banks, in the Lake District of England.  Over the next two days, we shook off traveling cobwebs taking a few lovely walks in this serenely beautiful countryside, and checking out boats and gear in preparation for the journey north.

We saw misty hills



and sheep



and grazing horses.



We saw one of the lakes that gives the area its name.



And when all that was accomplished, we boarded the Baden-Powell Boy Scout minibus that would be our mode of non-aquatic transport over the following weeks.



Aquatic transport would include ferries large and small, as well as our kayaks.  Five women, five men, four Americans , five Brits and one Indian comprised the crew.  But for the two Donna’s, the Indian and me, all had kayaked together on many journeys around the UK.

From Threlkeld, England, we drove north,


crossing the border into Scotland within two hours


then continuing on to Aberdeen on Scotland’s east coast, to catch an afternoon ferry to Kirkwell, in Mainland - the name of the largest of the Orkney Islands.



The six hour ferry ride landed us in Orkney at 11 pm.  We drove across the island to Birsay, in the northwest corner of the island.  We would be staying for the following week in what turned out to be a supremely comfortable and well-equipped Outdoor Centre – a kind of hostel on steroids…with excellent showers, unlimited hot water, free clothes washer and dryer, and clean bedding including fluffy down comforters.  (In addition, there was a large lawn, where tent campers and “caravans” aka RV’s came and went over the week.  In the Dept. of Small World, when I returned home I found out that NSPN’s Rob Folster had camped on the lawn when he was tramping about the island looking for his ancestral home, Folsetter, very close by and marked on the OS map.)  Although it was nearing midnight when we arrived, it was still light out.


Orkney Islands, Day 1, June 13- Bay of Skaill to Borwick and back

The Mystery of Orkney First Revealed…

While none of us had adequate sleep that night, we were eager to be up and out on the water.  Our first day would establish a trip-planning pattern that would remain with us over the next two weeks:  find a place with shelter from the omnipresent wind.  While summer normally brings wind from the southwest in this part of the world, the winter pattern of northeast winds hadn’t yet switched over.  And so our first day was a round trip paddle from a sandy beach on the Bay of Skaill, on the west coast of the island and only a few miles from where we were staying, to Borwick – a six mile round trip that would not tax us.

The beach was lovely, but a warning sign didn’t exactly inspire confidence…


We carried boats down a cobbled slope.  Red was the boat color of choice…


We headed south toward a headland at one end of the bay.  The first hole in a rock wall always signals good things to come!



And they did…  The cliffs featured slots and caves and all kinds of fun features.  Steve powered toward this opening, with Donna watching over.


As we proceeded, there were more and more openings in the rock faces – some you couldn’t go into



but many others you could.




The water was a bit gnarly,



but when we turned a corner into a bay, we saw that there were caves for everyone!



Nesting seabirds, which would be a prominent feature of this early summer trip, made their first appearance.



Rock faces were mesmerizing.




As beautiful as everything was, we ended up having lunch in the grossest, stinkiest place I’ve ever been in a kayak.  The slot leading to the rocky landing looked nice, but the water was filled with muck and stank to high heaven.  But it was the only option on this rock coast, and lunch was quick.


Oh, but after lunch, the amazing secret of Orkney began to reveal itself.  A most astonishing phenomenon…  Pausing at the top (I use the word advisedly) of a long slot into a cave, I realized that the ocean was clearly running downhill!  This picture doesn’t do it justice, but you can see that absent any waves, the person deep in the slot is downhill from where I took the photo.


Impossible but true.  I headed down, expecting my kayak to pick up momentum as it would on the face of the wave.  It didn’t.  How weird is this?  I turned around and look back – and up! – from where I’d started…


Strange and wondrous.  I prepared to have to power up the hill of water, but for some odd reason, it was no more difficult than paddling on a flat calm sea.  The Secret of Orkney:  the ocean surrounding this island runs downhill toward it.  Really!

Mind properly blown, it was time to turn around and head back.  Sporty seas were enjoyable.



We watched waves crashing over rocks, and Donna wanted to be surfing.  If there is a place, or a way, to get into fun kayak trouble, Donna is all for it!


That night, we talked about the day.  Steve tried to convince me the water wasn’t running downhill and that it was all an optical illusion created by the angle of the slabs of rock.  I would have none of this “rational” explanation.  I could only believe my eyes, and that water was, by god, running downhill!  No doubt in my mind.

That night, a beautiful sunset.  This photo was taken at 10:30 pm, and shows our next day’s destination.




Orkney Islands, Day 2, June 14 – Brough Head to Bay of Skaill

Where Sgt. Pepper meets Lord Kitchener

The wind didn’t let up, still blowing from ENE, and so we decided to cover a longer stretch of the same coast that we’d seen the day before.  It would bring us below the three hundred meter cliff on which stands the Kitchener Memorial.  Brough Head forms the northeast corner of Mainland, Orkney, and it would be about 10 nm to the Bay of Skaill, yesterday’s starting point.  With the bus and one car – brought by Graeme, who was planning to leave before the trip was over – we set up the first of what would be a number of shuttles.

The launch spot just below Brough Head featured aqua blue water between fingers of flat rock reaching out to the deeper blue beyond.


Our crew was an interesting one.  Alan: you gotta love a guy with lizards on his head!


Alan and Donna did some exercises – to what end I have absolutely no idea – before launching.


Steve did a beach briefing, then we were off.


Caves, caves, caves.  This one big enough for everyone.  Looking in and out…



I wish the focus on this one were sharper, but you can see what it looked like as we headed (downhill, of course) into the cave.


It was big and dark, and those who had headlights turned them on.


We continued on.  Caves, caves, and more caves.  This coastline puts to shame the cavy places I’ve seen before – Pembrokeshire and Santa Cruz Island, California.  Again, tell me the water isn’t running downhill.  It most certainly is!


There was room inside for all of us.


We looked outside,



exited, and continued on.  Have I already said that there were caves and more caves?  Well, there were!


The cliff face – almost 900 feet high – on which stands the Kitchener Memorial was dramatic.



So... Kitchener Memorial, what is that?  It is a memorial to Lord Kitchener, who is known to Brits as a 19th century soldier who became famous after winning a battle (I’d never heard of) for control of Sudan, and who later died when the HMS Hampshire sank in a gale off the cliff in 1916, killing 600 men.  He is perhaps better known to people of my generation, or Beatles fans at any rate, as the possible inspiration for both the costumes and statue on the cover of the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

We couldn’t see the memorial from below, but Jane did admire nesting guillemots lined up looking like miniature penguins on narrow shelves on the cliff face.


While it was not a day of greatly lively seas, the water did refract off the cliff, and that was fun.


Heading toward a lunch spot, Donna found a pourover that was just the right size, and powered on over.  We all watched in admiration.


This was a rare sunny day, and we stopped for lunch where low rocks made it easy to land



and the warm day (for the Brits at any rate) invited some to strip down for a postprandial nap.


And after lunch, yes, you can guess it, more cool caves,


and a stack around which we paddled.



Before we knew it, we had arrived at the Bay of Skaill once again, and landed on the sandy beach.  A sunny day meant that there were beach goers – at least walking on the beach if not swimming in the cool water.  (Have I yet mentioned the water temperature?  I think not.  It was cold.  Maybe 50.  Maybe a bit less.)  And there were enthusiastic dogs.  Here is one of the many border collies we saw in our time on the islands.  Lacking sheep to herd or other useful activities, he engaged whomever he could find in a game of catch.  It would have gone on endlessly if his human companion had not intervened.




Orkney Islands, Day 3, June 15 – St. Mary’s – St. Margaret’s Hope

World War II History – the Churchill Barriers

This was an interesting day.  The previous day’s sun was gone, and strong winds from the northeast once again determined our destination.  From the Outdoor Centre, it sure looked cloudy and cold.


This time we headed diagonally southeast across and down Mainland, ending up in a small town named St. Mary’s, at the start of the Churchill Barriers.  Because this was to be a historical day, we first took a detour to an excavated settlement overlooking a very windy bay.  Jane – who lives in San Diego, which perhaps explains her rather amusing outfit (!) – came close to freezing as we took the short walk from where we parked the bus to the excavation entrance.


On finding that it would cost each of us 5 British pounds to enter, we decided that our time would be better (and more cheaply) spent on the water, and so we proceeded on to St. Mary’s, parking by start of the Churchill barriers, erected during the WWII to protect an important naval base from U boats.


 Unless the U boats could fly, they weren’t getting over these huge blocks of granite.


This was to be another one way trip, necessitating the establishment of a shuttle to park a vehicle at our destination.  Some lounged and actually ate lunch (we tended to get late starts, and it was close to noon…),


while others of us (Donna and me) made art…  A simple little whale…


and a funny man.


Our route would take us past three islands, and would require multiple portages across the Churchill barrier.  The first leg was a quick downwind passage.  Here's Ashish.


We pulled off the water at the end of Churchill Barrier No. 1 (that’s actually its name),  and could see the first of the additional anti-U boat measures constructed – or rather sunk - on Churchill’s orders.  The waters were filled with sunken ships and other large and now rusty and barnacle colored objects.  This was our first view.


And once we had carried all the boats up and over the road - which runs along the top of the barriers - into the bay to the east, we saw more.


The wind was continuing to howl down from the north, and while the sea looked flat, it was hard to maintain position to fully investigate the partially submerged objects.  But we did…







I posed, too!


We headed down into the Weddell Sound.  As one who has been passionate about Antarctic exploration since I was 12 years old (when I was given a copy of Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance” by my father), I enjoyed being in a body of water likely named after the same explorer after whom Antarctica’s Weddell Sea – and seals -  are named.  (Indeed, these northern isles have a strong connection to polar exploration, as I was to discover the next day.)  This crossing was quick and sporty, with a quartering beam wind.



We landed on a sandy beach, occupied until our arrival by a family of gulls.


Another portage followed – an easy one across the road.  Simon looked pretty cheerful.


Alan and me, a bit less so…


We stopped for lunch, surveying more submerged boats.


More stuff to examine…


There was one more crossing


before we did another portage, this last one at Hunda Reef.



Altogether, we had made three portages, passed two small islands, and ended up on Burray Island, where we had a long calm passage down a quiet bay to our final destination at St. Margaret’s Hope.


There was one final carry off the beach,


before we loaded up the bus and headed home.  We were all cold and hungry.  When we got back to the Outdoor Centre, it was Jane and the Donna’s turn to prepare supper for everyone – Coronation chicken.  How very British!


One particular adult beverage had caught the fancy of several in our group, and its presence helped the food prep immeasurably…


Beer with tequila...flavor?  Wow weird is that?  Strange...but tasty!

While the ladies worked on supper, the ceaseless wind worked on drying our clothes…




Orkney Islands, Day 4, June 16 – Scapa Bay – Houton

This was indisputably the least notable day of our voyage.  We were running out of options for interesting paddles that would keep us sheltered from the ongoing northeast winds.  A 10+ nm paddle along this south face coast would allow us respite from the wind and an opportunity to see some seabirds nesting on the low rocky coastline.  I actually found it a relief to just paddle along, paying no attention to what I was doing on the water and keeping my gaze on the rocks and the birds passing by…  Few caves, no surf.  Just calm water, except when we crossed several bays, where the wind, funneled down across low hills and out to sea, picked up considerably.

Our starting point was a lovely beach with aqua water.  While we were well protected from the wind, it was the coldest day yet.


Scapa Bay is home to a small, high end scotch distillery.  If you like scotch and can find a bottle of Scapa, give it a try!


It was an easy carry to get the boats down.  Some of us milled about on the beach while others continued to get ready.


Sue, a recently annointed BCU five star, used the extra time wisely, showing that she’s not only a skilled paddler but also a very balanced person.


It was clearly going to be a pretty relaxed day…


The water was calm and it was easy to move together as a group.


While not nearly as high as some we’d paddled next to on previous days, the sandstone cliffs were nonetheless alluring.


And while smaller and fewer, there were some caves,  although none we could go into in our boats.


We went turned beside these interesting rocks. 


The day was gray and calm, Alan providing the only bit of color here.


Cows observed us solemnly.


The miles and hours passed easily until we were almost at our destination.


By now, it was even colder and it started raining.  Because a shuttle had been set up, we had to wait for the bus to be retrieved.  Nothing to do but sit around the picnic table, eat snacks, and drink what was left of hot tea from thermoses.  The measure of a good trip is that when conditions are unfavorable, the smiles don’t stop.


Steve had a treat in mind for us on our way back, turning off the main until we were on a narrow road running between two lochs.  Our destination, the standing stones of Brogan - an ancient stone circle overlooking a beautiful land and water-scape.




This one was hit by lightning.


They were bigger than they seemed from a distance, and you just gotta love ‘em.  Or I did, anyway.


That night, we took a break from home-cooked meals (which had all, by the way, been excellent thus far!) and drove to Stromness, an old city on the southwest side of the island, where Steve treated us all to fish and chips.  It was still cold and windy, which seemed appropriate for stepping back in time onto these stone streets.


We peered down narrow alleys to the sea beyond.


The town’s historical connection to polar explorers – some whose names are familiar to the casual polar fan – was marked everywhere.





But even as we stepped back in time, we couldn’t escape US politics.


The fish and chips were from a small storefront, and we ate while we strolled along.  Cold walk, hot delicious vinegary greasy fried food!  Yum!


We got to the end of town, overlooking Hoy Sound, where a good tide rip forms between Mainland and the island of Hoy across the way.  Cold and windy.




Orkney Islands, Day 5, June 17 – a day off the water…

…for sightseeing in Kirwell, shopping, and giving kayaking bodies a break.  It spat rain intermittently and the wind blew.  Cold.  Break days were built into each week, chosen to avoid the worst conditions.  That night, several of us went to see the Kitchener Memorial, to look down at the sea we’d paddled three days before.  It was a long walk up through cow pastures.




The memorial itself was on the promontory,


surrounded by a newer memorial to lives lost when the HMS Hampshire sank in 1916, killing 600, including Lord Kitchener himself.


The wind blew fiercely.  The cliff, almost 900 feet high, dwarfed everything.


We sat on the edge watching birds dancing in the wind.  Watching them made me appreciate the effort and skill it took for these small creatures to land on inches wide platform when the wind could not be fought.  We watched birds right below or across from us making repeated attempts to land, being thwarted by the wind, and coming back in for another landing.  We cheered at their success.


Small purple flowers bravely grew.


It was a lovely walk on a cold evening, a good end to a quiet day.



Orkney Islands, Day 6, June 18 – Biggins – The Gloup

This Saturday was to be our last day on Orkney.  We had a ferry to catch – at 11 that night – for the overnight ride to Shetland.  This allowed for a full day of paddling.  We launched from a cobbly beach.



Once again, we were in the land (and sea) of tall cliffs and caves.  Ashish negotiated this passage,


and Donna a taller, narrower one.


More caves to disappear into.


This one a long dark passage into the earth.



We surfed in for a quick lunch on a small beach.


We were ready to turn around and head back, but Donna – perusing her OS map – saw that there was a named cave around another small headland, and so we continued on. Turned out to be worth it!  A passage leading to an open area and another cave.


In and out.



We investigated more caves on the way back.


Inside, it was red and green.


Birds everywhere, and Ashish gazed up at these guillemots.


A good paddle on our last Orkney day.  We went back to the Outdoor Centre to pack up, eat up leftovers for dinner, and then drive back to Kirwell for the ferry.  We watched the sky flaming as we sat in the bus awaiting our turn to get aboard.  11 pm it was…


A few more words about Orkney before we move north…  I was predominantly on Mainland Orkney, although our group passed by several small islands and landed on another (Burray) reachable by road (over the Churchill barriers).  Orkney is an almost completely treeless place.  I am told that the soil is excellent for crop cultivation, but now the main crop seems to be very lush grass, and unlike the others part of Scotland I’ve seen, that grass is being mostly consumed by cows, not sheep.  Sure, there were sheep, but there were an astonishing number of cows.  Again, I was told that this beef on the hoof is special stuff.  For one thing, isolated as these islands are in their Galapagos-esque  way, the islands have remained free of BSE (aka mad cow disease).  Combine that with their being grass fed and free range and all that - well, I guess a steak of Orkney beef would taste pretty darn good.

While the bare, green and lush islands that I saw certainly felt out there and isolated, the constant reminder of the presence of humans (cultivation, towns, houses, ancient stone circles and several major archeological digs that we were unable to see for lack of time) kept the islands from feeling either wild or really Out There.  For one wanting wildness or Out There-ness, read on…



Shetland Islands, Day 1, June 19 – Hillswick – The Drongs

Few slept very well on our eight hour overnight passage north.  Eight hours to get from one set of northern isles to another even more northerly means that one is truly Up (and Out) There by the time one arrives.  (No wonder there is evidence as cited above of the connection between both of these islands and polar exploration…)

This was my first view of Shetland in the distance.


(And let’s pause here for a brief digression on language.)  What I learned:  one does not say “The Shetlands” or “The Orkneys.”  One says in referring to either group of islands “Shetland” or “Orkney” or “The Shetland Islands” or “The Orkney Islands.”  This of course makes no rational sense.  One does say, “The Galapagos,” or, if one wants to stay closer to our location, “The Hebrides.”  This was the takeaway from one of many conversations with our British friends about language, vocabulary, and word and pronoun use.  (For example, in referring to the pathetically abysmal English team in the Euro Cup – defeated by Iceland for heavens sake – which was ongoing while we were there, the Brits were wont to say, “England are playing Iceland tonight.”  This is clearly grammatically indefensible.  “England is playing Iceland tonight…”  “The English team is playing Iceland tonight.”  “The English players are going to get their asses kicked tonight.”)  And so we had many lively and amusing discussions about the way the English speak their language, and the way we do across the pond.  But I digress, as I said…

Here’s the lighthouse at the end of Bressay, a large island off of Lerwick, the main ciety in Shetland.


And the harbor in Lerwick, quiet on a Sunday morning at 7 am.


We stopped at a small cafe for a full English breakfast – no photo but imagine if you will:  eggs, thick bacon, ham, stewed tomato, mushrooms, toast, baked beans and a nice black slice of blood pudding…  We then drove to the northwestern part of the island, passing mussel farms along the way


to the town of Brae, a mile outside of which our next home was located.  This wonderful house, the Voxter Outdoor Centre, is a not just a house.


When one of our group (American, of course) innocently asked the caretaker person whether this home was owned by the main farmer or landowner, she was gently but firmly corrected.  This was the manse – the home of the local clergyman. OK, so this was our manse, complete with fifteen foot ceilings, beautiful decorative moldings, even around the deeply inset window frames.  Large flat stones formed the floor of the hall.   A lovely, comfortable house!  With the requisite well-equipped kitchen, free clothes washer and dryer, abundant hot water and good water pressure, and a drying room into which all of our wet kit fit easily.  And, of course, a microwave:


Although it had been flat calm when we entered Bressay Sound leading to Lerwick, the weather forecast called for winds increasing markedly throughout the day, and a horrid, cold, windy, wet day following.  Although a travel day is typically the off day in these trips, we jumped – despite our fatigue – on the day’s good (albeit deteriorating) weather to get out on the water, with the plan to spend the next day recovering from it all.  Some looked as if they could have used a break right then, but that was not to be!


And so we set off, the short distance (and across the tiny isthmus separating, we were told, the Atlantic Ocean from the North Sea – although looking at my OS map, I can’t tell how that’s so, but nevermind…) to Hillswick, with the aim to get out to The Drongs.  Whatever they are, they sounded cool, and now we were all up for it!

There was another stony beach from which to launch.


Jane conferred with Sue about our destination.


Other than the scenery in the drive from Lerwick to the Voxter Centre (and more on all that later), one of the first indications we had that Shetland was to be a fantastic destination, came soon after we launched.


Gone was the mind-bending striated sandstone of Orkney, and in its place, muscular, black rocks. 


A sea anemone.


Holes in the rocks…


And then, the first view of the Drongs!  Looking very Drong-esque, I think you will have to agree.


These weird rock formations were about a bumpy kilometer off the island, although when we first spied them they were still several km away.  Our plan was to continue our circumnav (on sea and by portage) of Hillswick, handrailing up the coast through wondrous dark twisty rock passages…


and through cool low passageways,


and into red-walled caves,



and out again.


On the way, we looked up and saw these guys… 



Wondering how they got there, and whether they would be able to get up or down, and whether it was there a safe up or down for them?

Some of us (well, everyone) worried more than others (well, Steve, who is not a fan of sheep at all, and spent no time worrying about their safety…).  But as was generally the case, we travelled on (while hearing about the – ultimately unsuccessful - efforts of one of our group the year before to save the life of a lamb that had fallen into the water…). 

Follow the leader in the rocks…


to emerge to a view of The Drongs at the end of a chain of rocks reaching west out into the sea.


Before we made the lefthand turn to go out to them, there were more cool shapes to see – this stack dwarfing Steve,


- and lunch to stop for, on a beach where mini mussels grew wild


and the boys posed for a photograph.


Then and only then was it time to make the turn and start heading for the Drongs.  We passed on the way more fab shapes, shark fins made of stone...


and others that might be a good projective test for the group…  What does this put you in mind of…?


But then…the Drongs.   The sea was really picking up.


Then we were there.


We played in the area, between the rocks and going around to the backside, where there was no shelter and the water was big.  Hard to take pictures on the far side what with the need to hold onto one’s paddle, but here is a vertical hole from the backside.


One of the Donna’s watched one of the group coming through a sporty slot from the protected side of the rocks.


Then it was time to head back.  Here’s Ashish and that certain…ok, phallic…rock!


Donna found a pourover, and aced the passage.  I only wish my hands on the camera had been steadier!


There was one final cave to explore (there’s always “one final cave” in this part of the world!),


and then we were past the cliffs and looking at the verdant pasture across which we would have to carry our boats after landing.


A glance back from whence we’d come


before we started the longish carry back to the bus and trailer.


But we made it under blue windy skies.


Then home for supper.   Time now for another brief digression.  Meals, you wonder, how’d that work?  We split into teams of two, and sometimes three.  Each team was responsible for preparing two dinners (or suppers, or whatever the British call it – just don’t call it “tea” when it’s past my bedtime!) for the group.  The meals were without exception excellent.  The only issue was the schedule.  While we typically arose at around 7:30 in the morning, we often weren’t on the water until after 11 am – never quite figured out why that was, except that no one was in a particular rush, and the drive to a put-in was often some distance (and time) away on winding one lane roads – traversed nonetheless at a high rate of speed, wandering mama sheep and lambs be damned!  Which meant that lunch wasn’t until…whenever…and then we were off the water at 6…or 7… but then we had to go to the local Tesco (aka Stop and Shop or choose your brand) for food shopping…and…internet access!  So dinner (supper, whatever) prep didn’t begin until 8 pm or so and we didn’t sit down until 10, and of course it was completely light outside so who noticed?...and then bed at….whenever, although, again with sunset after 11 pm and sunrise at around 3 am, it was light all night…  What with one thing and another, our daily schedule was pretty strange, but the full effect of this didn’t really hit me until I got home and positively crashed…  but I am getting ahead of myself here…)_



Shetland, Day 2, June 20 – a day off…



…for touristing (shopping and museum going) and internet access in Lerwick.  Although the rain spat only intermittently, the wind did blow (left to right Shetland, Scotland, GB)


and it was quite chilly.  The museum was very interesting (with excellent internet access – are you sensing a theme here) with beautifully designed tile floors.


Clouds won out over sun, and it was a positively grim view on the way home…



Shetland, Day 3, June 21 – Olaberry – (I confess, I don’t know quite where because the one way trip ended off he top of OS Map 3!)



This was not my finest day.  In every trip, perhaps there needs to be a day where nothing feels quite right and one is out of sorts for no good reason.  This was that day for me – although I was well rested from the day off, and everything started nicely, with Ashish preparing eggs and bacon for everyone’s breakfast.


Although there was time for chart (map!) work, which is always interesting…


Maybe it was because I didn’t join in Before the Bus Yoga.


Or maybe it was because it was cold and very windy and the day would be one seeking shelter (which had been less of an issue for the past few days on the water).


Or maybe it was because we had to set up a shuttle (well, Steve did) involving the bus and his bicycle. Our car driver had departed at the end of the Orkney part of the trip), so the shuttle now required Steve’s driving the bus some miles to our planned stopping point, removing his bike from its place in the rear of the bus, then riding back to the starting point – into the wind the whole way, over incredibly hilly roads! – while the rest of us tried to shelter from the wind and cold at the entrance to the little Church of Scotland church in the background of this photo.


(It was a lovely little church, at least as I could see peering through one of the windows.)


But the wait was a good hour, and our wind protection wasn’t perfect and it was cold and…am I bitching enough here?  I said, it wasn’t a good day for me!

Steve’s bike ride back was positively heroic (as we would see when we drove his route back to retrieve the bicycle at the end of the paddle) and we were quickly on the water.  The hope was to get the wind at our backs.  This was partially successful, and we got out of the wind in a beautiful aqua blue bay.


Clearly this Donna was in better spirits than I was!


Out of the bay, we were back into rough beamish seas, and it seemed that the group was not in synch, with some lagging behind to go into caves, and others trying to hold position while awaiting the arrival of the cave-goers.  It was one of those days when I felt that I was always crashing into other people, or they into me, as we sat in our boats.  Just not a good day.

Even seeing two sea otters and two puffins (“PUFFINS!” the spotter shouted, as would be the case throughout the trip…) didn’t cheer me up much.

It was a surfy landing for lunch.


At least I liked the patterns in the rock surface here…


Then it was time to launch again, and the view ahead much summed up my psychological state…


Seeing this seal – which we came upon unexpectedly and amazingly didn’t flush into the water – cheered me up.


But then there was a dead lamb in the water, which I found very upsetting.  The image of it stayed with me for hours…

But beauty was there if you looked for it…


Although a cave that was big enough for all of us didn’t get me out of my funk.


What finally did was getting off the water and into dry land clothes.  And the walk we took up from Sand Voe to check out a possible paddle the next day – off the north coast, where we would be sheltered from what were now south/southwest winds.  We climbed up and up, then looked down at the beautiful harbor from which we could launch.


There was a sobering end to the walk with this sign, which partially explained the number of dead lambs we saw in the water in the course of two weeks…


But it was the summer solstice!  In far northerly Shetland where it never really gets dark!  We celebrated it back at the manse after our late supper, joining hands and dancing all the way around the house!  How could such a ridiculous exercise NOT cheer one up!



Shetland, Day 4, June 4, Sand Voe – Uyea round trip


This would have been an excellent day even if I had not determined an attitude readjustment from the day before was imperative.  Indeed, it would have been impossible to stay grim even if one had wanted to – and why on earth would one, anyway!  For one thing, the sun actually came out for some time.  And we had good shelter under the tall north-facing cliffs from the southerly winds blowing up and across the island.  There were many caves, and many puffins, and NO dead lambs.  And, oh my, the most spectacular lunch/turn around spot…but I get ahead of myself here.

First of all, you have to love a launch spot off a sandy beach reached by a narrow road from which one can see small farms – parked in the garden of one of which was a rather large airplane.  We could only see this phenomenon from a distance, but the question of how and why it ended up there…well, it was unanswered until I found the North Roe Plane Facebook page – which explains how the crashed airplane was moved part by part to its current location.  Check it out!

When we launched from the beach at the end of Sand Voe, it was overcast.


But in no time, the sky turned blue (as in New England, if you don’t like the weather, or unfortunately even if you do, in Shetland, just wait a minute; it will change) and we all enjoyed the rocky shoreline on the west side of the bay.




Of course there were caves folded into the rock, red and green.



We stopped below a rocky meadow for the boys to strip down a layer on this now sunny day.


Jane and Donna relaxed and enjoyed the sun and view.


A group conference before we headed on.


We enjoyed watching the water crashing against the rocks, and despite admonitions from some to keep our distance, it was fun getting close because that’s what some of us have been trained to do by our Maine and Baja coaches!


I loved this cool cave.  The green archway looked the scrim on a theater stage.


Everything was good.  Steve had told us we’d stop for lunch (and turn around) at a neat place called Uyea.  He had apparently not been there, but had some idea of what it would be like.  None of the rest of us did.  This was our first view.


It wasn’t until we got a bit closer that we saw the water color change.  How on earth did we end up in the Caribbean? (And if so, why was the water still 50 degrees?!)  What an enticing passage!


We landed for lunch.


Let me describe to you this most beautiful spot that we’d yet seen!  A sandy beach connecting the mainland island to Uyea, a giant hunk of rock topped by pasture, to the north.  On one side, gentle aqua water with small neat waves riding onto the beach.


On the other, rocks and stacks and sometimes wild (aqua) water churning through.


Oh how one of the Donna’s yearned to launch into one of the slots and ride the periodic great swells crashing through!  We were all mesmerized.


In the distance – from the calm side – we could see the Ramna Stacks, well over five kilometers distant.


The tide allowed me to walk around a rock jutting into the water to this little cave beyond.


If these photos don’t capture the magic of the place – and likely they don’t! – they at least remind me of what I saw, and gives you at least a sense of what a beautiful spot this was.

But as is always the case, it was time to leave, but that was OK because it meant we could traverse that little tunnel we’d passed on our way in.


Inside looking out…


This was a nice passage on the way back.


Are you sick of caves yet?  We weren’t.  This one had anenomes…



And a baby cormorant, or was it a shag? standing sentinel on the way out - neatly camouflaged against the rock.


Another passage, this time with some fun current running through.


And finally we were back in the bay where we’d started, where land and rock and water all seemed quite peaceful.


This was such a special and beautiful day.  I thought none could top it.  



Shetland, Day 5, June 23 – Isle of Noss



Oh my!  Yesterday was good, great, magical.  But this day…this day…Isle of Noss, well, words still fail me at this point.  The. Best. Day.  On this day, I found what truly matters to me out on the water.  More than aqua blue sea.  More than amazing rocks.  More than cliffs of amazing geological complexity.  More than caves.  More than passages through solid rock (wait ‘til the next day for that).  More than…everything we’d seen so far, was…

But once again I get ahead of myself.

The day started with Steve asking us to consult our maps (word used advisedly; I didn’t lay eyes on a marine chart the whole time) to come up with a plan for the day.  When we had done this, a number of options were offered.  One involved driving into Lerwick and catching a ferry to another island.  This sounded like a pain to me and I piped up that I wasn’t for the hassle of dealing with ferry schedules and etc…  Thankfully, no one listened to me!

The group chose the Ferry Hassle Option – driving into Lerwick to catch the hourly ferry to the Island of Bressay, from which we would launch for a circumnavigation of the Isle of Noss.  It looked as though we had missed the next ferry, so we wouldn’t be able to get going until the 11 am ferry deposited us on Bressay – and still there would be a drive across the island, and launching and etc etc.  Another late start.  (Which was no use lamenting, because the fact that it never got dark made it really irrelevant when we started our day…or when we ended it.)  But after a moment’s consideration, Steve said that if we hustled, we might catch the 10:00 ferry.  So hustle we did…

…only to arrive 15 minutes late for the ferry.  Which allowed time for some to get a coffee (and internet access!) and others to stroll around town and get OS maps that covered the areas where we’d paddled.

11 am ferry it was – for mini-trailer, bus, and passengers.


(As for the fare, let’s just say that there is an advantage to being in the Medicare Set when it comes to ferry rides in the Shetland Islands!)  We all stayed aboard the bus, and I waited for us to leave…  Only to find that not only had the ferry departed – and remember, I was on board it - but that it had just landed at the dock at Brassy!  (An editorial "duh" would not be inappropriate here...)

We drove across island, and stopped by a stone wall


by a gate overlooking a tiny stone beach littered with trash.  I tried not to let the trash...and a carcass of a lamb next to the boats put me in sad spirits…

Soon we were launched.  Donna and Ashish couldn’t stop chatting, even though there was a historically significant ruin right in front of them!


As we crossed around Loder Head, I was surprised to see a fishing boat.  I took a picture because seeing any other boat was pretty rare.  All this water and so few boats...  (Although we saw some kayaks atop cars on both Orkney and Shetland, we never saw another one in the water.)


We passed below Ander Hill atop which was a WWII observation tower, and Donna gave it a look.


We then headed right across Noss Sound to the Isle of Noss, where we came to a screeching half when the first puffins (“PUFFINS!”) were sited nesting in the rocks above.


Smiles and photographs ensued…


We continued on (reluctantly…it’s hard to leave puffins behind!), under


and around layered rock faces,


and green ones too!


It was wonderfully calm, and we could get right up against the cliffs to examine colonies of limpets that formed graceful waves on narrow fissures in the rocks.


I was already entranced, but Steve assured us the best was yet to come.  So many beautiful and varied rock faces, this one with a lonely guillemot standing sentry.


Steve knew a lot about the geology of the region – and I only wish I could have taken notes as I paddled.  (Not getting any younger here, and my memory is not the best!)  He pointed out geological layers, and we looked at rocks embedded in layers of rocks.



We were close to making a right hand turn to the exposed outer edge of the island – where the true magic would begin!  The fog rolled in over the headland.


We turned into a slot at the end of which was a jagged boulder beach, where we stopped for lunch. 


Above us were what looked like high class condos for birds.  Hanging gardens in the Shetland Islands.


These spots looked so much more enticing and comfortable than the narrow and bare rock ledges where we’d seen most birds nesting.

While we sat gazing up at the birds and quietly eating lunch, all of a sudden a juvenile guillemot came hopping by, within feet of us, trying to get to the water.  We froze, and watched.


He hopped and froze and hopped some more, then flopped into the water, probably relieved to be past all these strange tall birds with brightly colored plumage sitting on rocks eating strange looking lunches…

After lunch, the magic!  Neither words nor pictures can do justice to the spectacle that lay ahead.  We exited the slot to find up above the 600 foot high cliffs a great whirling flock of gannets.  It took a moment to realize what was going on above us, as focused as we were at looking at the colonies of birds in the rocks.

But look up we did…and saw… a great and graceful counterclockwise circle of hundreds and hundreds – or was it thousands and thousands? - of these magnificent birds.  We all stopped – in an awe different than the delighted pleasure we’d taken in seeing puffins.  This spectacle – gannets with their six foot wing spans, light reflecting off the underside of their wings – was…beyond words.  They circled and circled and circled.  I realized that my mouth had fallen open in awe.  I was speechless and moved.



Great white birds.

And as we moved slowly south, the whirling flock moved with and above us.  Around and around, sweeping in their great circle.

Alan reported becoming dizzy with delight as he started up at them.


The combination of these grand birds following us as we moved along the cliff face and the colonies of tightly packed nesting guillemots -the little penguinesque birds lined up cheek by jowl, or wing by wing – on ledges several inches wide…


well it was all an abundance of life the likes of which I’d never seen before.  I subsequently learned that most of these sea birds mated for life – which could last for decades, and returned year after year to the exact same perch to start another family.  We saw packs of juveniles who had been shoved from their nests huddling together on undesirable real estate – broad flat ledges just inches off the water, where they were vulnerable I would imagine to waves and whatever predators wanted a lunch of tasty young bird.  They were all just there for the taking.

And the gannets whirled and whirled.  We gazed up and up. Colonies of nesting birds in their rock ledge homes.


There were two more giant caves to go into.  The gannets waited for us outside.



Ahead of us was the final great headland before we would turn northwest around the bottom of the island.  The fog kept rolling in.


The gannets circled.


And then we were around, and almost instantly, the great horizontal ferris wheel of gannets disappeared, and it was just the cliffs and the caves and us…


The land continued to gentle.  There was one more stop – which I observed from my boat, not wanting to negotiate the giant round cobbles that made up the beach -


before we proceeded under foggy hillsides


back to the launch site.  There was one final crossing before we were passing close underneath the ruins, now lit by the evening sun.


We raced to catch the 6 pm ferry back to Lerwick.  We had paddled hard and fast, and now emptied boats of gear, and carried them up the beach, and loaded them as quickly as we could onto the trailer, and stripped out of drysuits into traveling clothes, and sped across the island and made the ferry with plenty of time to spare.

When we were back in Lerwick, the town had been transformed by an arrival of a fleet of sailboats for a regatta that was starting the next day.


That night, a bit of pink sky sunset – this at 11 pm


to cap off a day that was, at least for me, the best yet.  Ten percent of all the nesting sea birds in Great Britain are in the Shetland Islands, and it seemed that a substantial percentage of those were at Noss. I felt privileged – and somehow humbled - to have seen such a spectacle – another reason to be in a small quiet boat on a distant sea…



Shetland, Day 6, June 24 – Papa Stour



Jane, who had been on a previous trip to Shetland with most of the crew, had been talking about Papa Stour from Day One.  From before Day One.  On telling Steve that I couldn’t believe there could be a day that would top our trip to the Isle of Noss, he told me to have faith.  He was trying to organize things for a finishing crescendo. 

Before we even got going, political upheaval put a dent in the group spirit.  We had been having dinner discussions about politics – American and British.  There wasn’t a Brit there who wasn’t appalled by our orange-faced candidate, and they all had been talking about Brexit. The vote would occur while they were away, but all had either done early voting, or had enabled another to proxy vote for them (imagine that system in the US!).  They had all gone to bed convinced that the vote result would be to stay, which was what they all supported.

On the way to Melby, where we would launch to make the crossing to Papa Stour, an island a kilometer off Mainland, Shetland, we stopped at a tiny store for gas.  Since we had had no internet access to find out, we asked about the vote result at the store.  “Leave 52-48%,” the proprieter said in her thick Scots accent.  Stunned silence.  Two other customers confirmed what she’d said.  For those who haven’t been following this rather seismic event, England and Wales voted in favor of leaving the EU, Scotland voted strongly for staying in.  The customers voiced hope for another vote for Scotland to secede from the UK. 

In the bus, both numb silence and chatter.  Those who had cell service began getting texts from family members confirming the news.  This is a trip report, not a political manifesto, but let me just say that I got a glimpse of the emotional reaction many will have if a certain man with a bizarre yellow comb-over becomes leader of the most powerful nation on earth…  It was a very strange and upsetting start to the day…

So on we went, an hour’s drive to our launch spot, concrete ramp by a small settlement.  Papa Stour…  the promise was of unbelievable landscape.  OK.  This island can only be reached when the tides are favorable - and the weather allows.  We had both in our favor, which was what made the trip there possible.  It was slack tide, and we would need to be ready to cross over again at the end of the next tide cycle or we would be faced with a six knot current that we wouldn’t be able to negotiate. 

So across we went at a good clip until we were along Papa Stour’s rocky coastline.  Steve told us that rather than dawdle in all the features we would see on our way west and north, we should just make a beeline for the point at which we planned to turn around.  Then we could take our time on the return trip investigating some of what the island had to offer.

This was our first view of what was special about Papa Stour – a giant hunk of rock out in the water with a passage of some size – who could tell? – leading through the heart of it.


Very hard to judge the scale...

We got closer


and closer.


The water inside was gnarly with strong currents running through passages that can’t be seen in these photos.  I made a stunningly inept passage through one of these, fighting a swirling current at the exit that pushed me back in.  I pushed against the barnacled rock with my hand and got myself through with only a minor bloody scrape.  Timing is everything.  I didn’t have it!

There were dramatic stacks


and big caves to check out.  OK, so we did do a bit of play before we reached our turnaround spot.


Our turnaround spot, now that was something!  On the northwest corner of the island is a passage through the rock that is almost 900 feet long, running clear through from the northwest to the north side of the island.  Steve had never been through it, and he and Sue went to investigate, leaving the rest of us bobbing on lively seas.  They seemed to be gone quite a while, but then we could see their headlamps in the darkness of the cave and they were out.  They had gone in on a sporty swell, and reported that in the heart of the passage, it was complete pitch black.  I got a bit shivery hearing about it.  Steve offered to take a first group through, emphasizing again the darkness and the longness and the no way back-ness of the passage if one started on through.  He might also have mentioned that if anyone tipped over it might be challenging to do a rescue in the dark – even with headlamps.  More shivering on my part as we waited for the first group to make the passage and back.  I had decided by this point that sea kayaking did not need to involve putting oneself in scary dark places – and that I could live without having traversed this subterranean passage (as it was called on the map).  However, when Steve told us he’d parked one of the group (brave Alan, who had a very bright headlamp) back in the middle of the passage so that we would not be subject to complete darkness – I changed my mind.

This is the entrance to the passage.  Looks like just any other cave, right?


Wrong!  Once inside, it was calm and cool and very very dark.  But we had headlamps on, and if they didn’t exactly light our way, they did light up the reflective gear on the person in front of one – and soon we could see Alan’s bright headlamp, and after making a slight dogleg, we could see the light at the other end of the tunnel (!).  We reached the end, turned around and went back.  I was glad to have done it.  Turned out it was fun going through!

We started back, stopping brown cobble beach where we had a hot beverage and a quick lunch


before continuing on, this time with a mandate to investigate the places that we’d passed more quickly on the way out.



Currents and caves.


We went around the back of one of the giant stacks on extremely lively water (no picture taking!).  I was relieved to be back in the calm part, and was entranced to see some puffins (a group of puffins is called a circus!) – PUFFINS! I shouted in my head, not wanting to scare them off.  And so I was able to approach and just sit and watch them with their silly beaks.  One of the magic moments of the trip…


Looking back at one of these giant skerries off the coast, the water pounded in and out of the openings.  No part of me wanted to be traversing them!


And on the coast of Papa Stour, this cave – going downhill! – with waves rushing in and out, creating a delightful washing machine on which to ride as one faced back out to sea


This cave had two openings - one to the sea and another to the sky…


The water outside was so churned up it turned into foam.


More caves leading into other caves...


More colors.


There was a “ferry” to make (across the Sound of Papa, before the current really picked up).  Not much of a ferry angle was necessary because we hit slack pretty much spot on.  The water was calm and the crossing easy.


And then we were back on land, and the boats were loaded and we were changed.  I went back to take one last look as our on-water time was over.


Papa Stour – a pretty fantastic place, but give me a choice between the explosion of life the day before at Noss and the static immense impressive beauty of Papa Stour’s caves and stacks and skerries… I’ll still take Noss every tim!



Shetland, Day 7 – A 12 hour passage back to Aberdeen



And so we packed up our stuff, and Ashish organized packing up the bus,


our Always Prepared Baden Powell boy scout bus,


and the ladies celebrated the successful trip…


and we headed into Lerwick for several hours of shopping, internet access, museum going, and killing time before our evening ferry would depart.

We drove by the links golf course.  Although The Donald was at some golf course he owns in Scotland that very day, it was not on the Shetland Islands!


In town, the regatta was in full swing under gloomy rainy skies.


I’m always glad to see a boat that appreciates polar bears!  This one was from Poland.


We went into a cafe where Donna ordered an awesome tri-colored cake in shades of pink.


Jane and Ashish enjoyed internet access to kill time.  (And it must be said that Ashish had left his wife and six month old daughter back in Hong Kong and was always very glad when he could communicate with home.)


And then we were on the ferry, where the TV was showing The Donald telling the people of Scotland how great it was they’d voted to exit the EU – apparently unaware that his audience hadn’t voted for that at all…


Ashish continued to eat the food that had powered him throughout the trip.


I made a nest for bed and prepared for a long night on the long crossing.  (Unlike Alaska State Ferries, which I rode on last June, these allow anyone to sleep anywhere.  It was good to have a sleeping bag and pad as I did!)


I did sleep – some, and then it was morning outside of Aberdeen, where the sun rose sensibly later than 3 am.  This was 6:30.


Another long bus ride back to the Lake District, where my American friends and I had a last night in lovely pub/B&B.  (We’d actually been kicked out of the B&B we’d stayed in at the start of the trip – but that’s a story for another day…which does NOT involve alcohol, drugs, bad behavior of any kind on any of our parts – but really bad behavior on the part of the homeowner (makes one yearn for Yelp to unload on…) – but as I said, that’s another story for another day…

Ashish – an awesome guy who has done some awesome things (just ask and I’ll tell you!) – accompanied the four American ladies into Keswick for a day of shopping, lunching and ice cream eating.


 We had planned to take a bus the five miles back home, but as we had done so little walking in the previous weeks, and it felt good to be on a country lane with green hills and very civilized sheep all around.  We walked home.  Here Jane rested at the top of a hill.


And that was the day, and that was the trip.  A train to Manchester and then ultimately to the airport…and home.

A few words about Shetland. When we got there, it was immediately clear – at least to me - that Orkney was just a warmup act to these wild Out There islands.  Even the sheep looked wild – and it’s pretty hard for a sheep to look other than pacific.  The land didn’t show the cultivated look of Orkney.  Fields were studded with boulders.  Sheep wandered on the roads, their ratty wool coats hanging off of them as if they were molting.  I am convinced that one could spend a lot of time investigating these islands.

Thanks to all that made up our merry band:  our leader, Steve; my American friends, Jane and the Donna’s; Ashish and the Brits: Alan, Simon, Sue and Graeme.

And perhaps thanks most of all to all the thousands and thousands of nesting and flying birds that made our early summer trip to the Orkney and Shetland Islands so special.  (If you go, go when we did; the nesting season is brief and then everyone splits for Africa or Antarctica or wherever they think it’s good to spend the rest of the year…)   Gannets, puffins (“PUFFINS!”), great northern divers (aka loons), guillemots, rock pipits, razorbills, oystercatchers (who particularly seemed to favor cultivated lawns and graveyards…), shags, cormorants, eiders, curlews, kittiwakes, fulmars, artic skuas…and lots of gulls.  (And a nod as well to all the spring lambs – whose lives may be short… and calves – ditto, and foals on Shetland, and seals and their pups…  and all the life that was starting as we paddled on these special islands.)

And if you do go, and find you need additional energy to keeping you going, get it the way the Brits do!



...deliciously squidgy energy...  the best kind!















































































Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Spectacular Pru.  I'm going to take the tour again tomorrow morning over coffee.

Thanks so much for taking the time to share the experience.  What a trip!

Can't wait til the next one.  You have gift!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, Inverseyourself said:

 And there can be no doubt...downhill it is!

Thank you for confirming my reality - that doesn't always happen!

And thanks to everyone for kind words!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Great narration of what was obviously a stunning trip! Your reports are definitely the next best thing to being there.

There is a spot on the Quebec/Maine border called Magnetic Hill where you can put your car in neutral and it will roll uphill:


I have experienced the above firsthand, so I have no trouble believing that the Orkneys offer a marine version of the same effect. Especially if tequila-flavored beer is involved.


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, kate said:

Fantastic. You are living my dreams. All those birds wheeling overhead.....

Kate, you were my first inspiration for how to approach writing trip reports - so if what I do is working for you, you have yourself to thank!




Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
On 7/21/2016 at 4:31 PM, prudenceb said:

Kate, you were my first inspiration for how to approach writing trip reports - so if what I do is working for you, you have yourself to thank!




Student has far outstripped teacher. Seriously. 

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
On July 28, 2016 at 3:02 PM, kate said:

Student has far outstripped teacher. Seriously. 

Can't say I agree with this assessment, Kate, but I'll take the compliment for sure!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Sign in to follow this  

  • Create New...