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Sailing in Orkney, Shetland & Fair Isle

Explore Orkney Archipelago, Shetland Isles & Fair Isle

These most northern Isles of Great Britain are closer to Norway than to Edinburgh so the wildlife is truly wild and the air is full of the sound of sea birds. The rugged beauty of the hundreds of islands that make up Shetland & Orkney make this a wonderful opportunity for exploring. Whilst the seas can be rough and tides are fast, the sea passages between mainland Scotland and Orkney are short. Once in Orkney and the Shetlands there are deep sounds or voes providing sheltered water from many wind directions and beautiful and deserted anchorages. 

Between the island groups of Orkney and Shetland is lonely Fair Isle. Made famous by the shipping forecast and renowned for its distinctive knitwear, this tiny inhabited island is home to thousands of birds.  It has two tiny harbours which are not always calm enough to enter, but if you are lucky it is a gem of a place.

Both the Shetlands and Orkney's are very different culturally and visually from mainland Scotland. There beauty is in their ruggedness with ancient stone circles and hundreds of stone age and bronze age settlements testify to the fact that man has lived here for a tough four millennium or more. 

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Why we love this sailing ground

Orkney for Sheltered Anchorages & Sounds

"In terms of its sailing potential the Orkney Islands are like a Northern Isles of Scilly - a boatman's delight with so much to explore" Gijs Sluik - Tecla Skipper

For an island group in the wild North Atlantic, is has a lot of flat seas and sounds to explore, with fast tides and interesting navigation. The most famous expanse of sheltered sea is Scapa Flow – an incredible natural harbour and big enough to scuttle a German Naval Fleet. There are plenty of anchorages and very few yachts. In summer the sun takes a long time to set up here so plenty of time to organise a BBQ.  It is a very windy place for much of the year, but you can generally see the weather coming, and it is constantly changing. If it looks a bit ‘dreak’ in the morning, never give up on a life outdoors…as it might be glorious in a few hours time.

Tecla between the islands in Orkney
Tecla between the islands in Orkney

Orkney for Sea Stacks, Sea Eagles and North Divers

Debbie from Classic Sailing sailed to Orkney on Tecla in 2017. In the space of a day walking on Hoy we saw a white tailed sea eagle on her nest, fulmars and kittiwakes, curlew, Arctic Skuas having a splash in a fresh water lake, a snowy white Hen Harrier, skylarks everywhere, and Northern Divers. On another island we saw three otters playing in the kelp.

The Old Man of Hoy is not the only geological attraction, as the whole Atlantic facing side of the island has dramatic red sandstone cliffs.

red cliffs of Hoy
red cliffs of Hoy. Photo Debbie Purser

Archaeologist’s Dream Archipelago

On mainland Orkney the archaeology and history is significant and world renowned, so it is worth signing up for a proper tour. The stone age village at Skara Brae with a cluster of interconnected Neolithic houses is incredible. The standing stones of Brodga are mysterious and you can crawl into burial chambers or learn about Viking murder and mayhem in St Magnus cathedral with its long ship model on the altar.


Read more About Orkney


Perfect little harbour on Fair Isle
Perfect little harbour on Fair Isle

Fair Isle - a real gem

Fair Isle is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is a well known for its bird sanctuary and wonderful flora. The island is some thirty miles north of Orkney and twenty five south of Shetland.The tiny harbours are not always safe but if you get calm enough weather it is a treat treat to stop her

Before the advent of radar there was a shipwreck on Fair Isle on average every 4-5 years - including the El Gran Griggon - an escapee member of the defeated Spanish Armada in 1588. The 200 survivors were shipped off to Shetland as there was not enough food on the island to support everyone.  Today more famous for the distinctive Fair Isle fishermen's jumper, a stop off Fair Isle would be an interesting island conquest for your sailing logbook if the ship stops there on the way South.

Debbie's Fair Isle Visit - Photos & Article

Shetland - Viking stepping stone to the New World

It is very rare to find a map of the British Isles that shows Shetland in its true position. It is way out North of John a Groats and is closer to Bergen in Norway than Aberdeen. The Shetland archipelago includes over 29 islands so it was a relatively easy destination to find for the Vikings sailing from Norway. If they carried on sailing West on the same latitude their longboats would reach the Southern tip of Greenland and Newfoundland beyond. 

There is a 76ft replica of a Viking longship at Haroldswick and the island is home to the annual Viking Fire Festival of Up Helly Aa.  Whalsay is named after the Viking name 'Hvals-oy' meaning island of whales and this is a great location to spot Orcas, minke whales and dolphins. The islands were Norse until the 15th century when Scotland annexed both Orkney and Shetland and they still feel very different from the Scottish Mainland

Gannets on Northern cliffs on Shetland. Photo Debbie Purser
Gannets on Northern cliffs on Shetland. Photo Debbie Purser

Shetland - realm of the Gannet & Storm Petrel

Huge gannet colonies on Unst near Muckle Flugga lighthouse mark the Atlantic Realm of the Gannet. Britain's biggest seabird is like the albatross of the North and to sit amongst them at Hermane's National Nature Reserve and the plucky little puffins plunging down vertical cliffs is a highlight of any spring voyage to Shetland.  

On the island of Mousa hundreds of storm petrels breed in the hollow walls of an iron age Broch fort. These secretive birds normally live in the middle of oceans.

More Photos from Shetland


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'Ring of Bright Water' - Otters, Sea Eagles, Golden Eagles, Puffins, Minke Whales, phosphorescence.
Which ship for my adventure?

This summer we have several boats that will be offering voyages in Scotland. They all able to easily cover the longer distances between the anchorages and have great experience of sailing in these waters.

6 day voyages offer a great way to get a good insight into all that Scotland has to offer. However, if you are looking for a longer adventure then a 9-day voyage gives even greater potential to get that little bit further to the more remote islands of the Outer Hebrides and even St Kilda if the weather is right and the crew are keen.


Tecla - the adventurer 

Tecla - Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes
Tecla - Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes


The Way of the Viking - Orkney, Shetland and Faroes


A route steeped in myth and legend, Tecla follows the 'way of the Vikings' and other early traders who sailed between Britain, Ireland and America.  They used the Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes, Fair Isle and Iceland as stepping stones to Newfoundland Banks, as well as trading between Viking settlements in all the places in between.

Tecla is very much an adventure charter ship so the style of sailing is 'hands on' but her well trained staff recognise that her expedition style voyages attract all types and ages of guest crew. Whether you are a keen traditional sailor who wants to learn all the ropes, a bird watcher or a sea lover who just wants to experience a romantic way of travelling, you can all feel part of this little ships community and do what you can manage to help sail the ship and contribute to life on board. She originally sailed with 16 but now prefers to keep guest crew numbers to only 12, so you find the ship pretty spacious.

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North, South, East or West?
Shetland, Orkney and Fair Isle

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'Ring of Bright Water' - Otters, Sea Eagles, Golden Eagles, Puffins, Minke Whales, phosphorescence.

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