Hiking trips and beach treks amongst Europe's priemier stone-age islands in the northern Atlantic.
The Northern Isles - the island groups of Orkney and Shetland - are quite distinctive. Being Britain’s most northerly outposts they are so far from mainland UK and close enough to Norway geographically to make nationality an ambiguous concept.
Orkney, separated from Scotland's north coast by the turbulent waters of the narrow Pentland Firth, is very green with lush fields cropped by sheep and cattle. Across 60 miles of Atantic Ocean, Shetland is less fertile and more rugged and remote. Coming from Denmark and traversing the archipelago we would many times hear: “We consider ourselves Scandinavians”. Add into the equation, that streets are named King Haakon or St Olaf, a reminder that Shetland was once under Norse rule.
The striking beauty of the archipelago cannot be discussed. Vast cliffs, beaches with azure waters, magnificent moorlands, famous ponies, sky-blue lochs, many historical monuments, and, of course, sheep on the roads, Shetland and Orkney are a natural wonder.
Location: Shetland (islands of Shetland Mainland, Burra, Mousa, Mucle Roe, Yell and Unst)
and Orkney (islands of Orkney Mainland, Hoy, Flotta, Sanday South Walls, Rousay and South Ronaldsay), during two weeks
We kicked off the trip in Shetland and spent one week exploring and hiking across several islands in the archipelago. On southern and central Mainland Shetland we enjoyed the hiking around Sumburgh Head, St Ninian Isle, West & East Burra, Tingwall Plain, Standydale and Skeld. Driving across Mainland Shetland, the strikingly bleak setting is very unique with deep, naked glens flanked by steep hills, sky-blue lochs and sheep on the roads. Also, besides seacliffs and grassy headlands, in the south are also several magical white-sand beaches with azure waters and lazy seals enjoying the sun. For some of the finest coastal walking in Northern Europe we headed to the Muckle Roe peninsula and to Eshaness, both in the western part of Mainland Shetland, for spectacularly colorful and rugged coastal scenery.
Then, we crossed by ferry to the islands of Yell and Unst. The island of Unst is the most northernly part of Britain, and a hike through the Hermaness National Nature Reserve was astonishing to see the sea birds and Muckle Flugga lighthouse. We also enjoyed the coastal walking around Westing Beach and Lunda Wick Bay. Also, being half ghost towns with a haunted feeling to them, yet alive with local fishermen and farmers, the remote villages Haroldswick, Baltasound and Muness on Unst have very special atmospheres. On Unst, the famous ponies and woolens still rule the few roads, and the birdlife is spectacular. On Yell, we did a lot of hiking around the Burravoe Plains, Sands of Breckon, Herra peninsula and the Ness of Sound peninsula. Yell is desolate with big moors, boglands and rocky coastlines. Besides great hiking, scattered across Shetland we saw many archeological sites - from Viking rectangular longhouses over 16th-century brochs to Iron Age roundhouses.
In Orkney, we based ourselves on Mainland Orkney and on the island of Hoy, primarily to do do hiking and diving trips to the famous Scapa Flow. Across Mainland Orkney are several good coastal hikes such as the areas around Birsay & Brough Head, Bay of the Stairs, Loch of Stenness, and the coast around Kitchener Memorial. These places took us past rugged cliffs, deep narrow inlets and rocky islets. Otherwise, the real highlights on Mainland Orkney are not the walking but the many prehistoric sites and villages such as the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Skara Brae and the Broch of Gurness. On the smaller islands such as Flotta, Sanday, South Walls, Rousay and South Ronaldsay we enjoyed coastal walks and views towards WW2 battlefields. These islands are ringed by Orkney's best beaches with dazzling white-sand of the sort we'd expect in the Carribean. The soutern islands are connected by causeways and they offer a peaceful, green, pastoral landscape with the sea revealed at every turn.
Just across the Scapa Flow - one of the world's largest natural harbours we we did marvellous diving on the many sunken German ships from WWII - lies the island of Hoy. Meaing 'High Island', Hoy got the lion's share of the archipelago's scenic beauty with shallow turquise bays lacing the east coast and massive seacliffs guarding the west. The cliff-top hike to Europe's tallest sea stack, the 137m Old Man of Hoy, is one of the best walks in all of Europe. Other good hikes we did on Hoy was around St John’s Head, Lyrawa Bay, Rackwich Beach and cliffs, Rora Head and along the North coast.
For another impression of the North Atlantic check out our island hopping trip to the Faroe Islands.