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Sailing Voyages in the Shetland Isles

The Shetland Isles have been inhabited for at least 3000 years and each civilisation has left its mark on this wild and windswept landscape. Stone Age farmers, ancient picts, Viking raiders that liked the landscape and settled and ruled Shetland for centuries..Archaeological sites are everywhere but the cliffs and offshore rocks are the realm of ocean seabirds.

 

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Why we love this sailing ground

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 Unst gathering nest material
Gannets on Unst gathering nest material

Unst & Muckle Flugga - Wild Atlantic & Gannets

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. Thousands nest on the rocky islets off the Northern Cliffs. Sometimes they fly over to the cliff edge to pluck moss for their nests so you sit right on the edge and see these masters of the airwaves fly past you. If you look hard you can see plucky little puffins plunging down vertical cliffs. 

Arctic and Great Skuas also lurk on the heather moors on most islands so beware of their dive bombing in the breeding season. The sailing down through the sounds or around the outside of the Shetland Isles is varied and sometimes challenging sailing but the wildlife rewards are great. The landscape is on a huge scale and raw and salt spray swept.  

wild seas and gannet colonies in the North
wild seas and gannet colonies in the North

Storm Petrels and Ancient Brochs 

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. Tecla crew in 2017 went ashore at sunset and we sat on the roof of this double walled fortress home and we could hear the storm petrels in the walls.  At dusk they fly and go hunting for food.

Tecla anchored off Mousa for storm petrel safari
Tecla anchored off Mousa for storm petrel safari

Sailing Around Shetland

The geology of the islands means that there are long fjord like sounds that divide the land. It gives a different sort of sailing ground to Orkney but there are sheltered water options and a vast and complex coastline to find sheltered anchorages.

Sailing around Shetland near Mousa Sound
Anchoring near the famous broch Mousa

Fair Isle - Shetland Outpost

Tecla always try to visit Fair Isle if the can on the way between Orkney and Shetland. High cliffs all around protect Fair Isle from the wild Atlantic waves and there is a North and South Harbour. Historically the locals dig boat shaped holes in the sandy turf near the harbour so their wooden boats (Shetland yoles)  would not get blown down the beach. As you can image these harbours are not always safe places to visit. We were lucky on Tecla in 2018. The North Harbour was simply beautiful with black guiliemots and shags swimming in the jade waters and fulmars nesting all around.

On the island is a RSPB Bird Observatory. You can pop in for a beer or listen in to talks on the birds that have been spotted each day. It is easy to walk around the island but beware the sheer cliffs. You can buy Fair Isles hats knitted by local people, but if you want a hand knitted Fair Isle jumper they are generally made to order.

Tecla in the little harbour on Fair Isle
Tecla in the little harbour on Fair Isle
Which ship for my adventure?

Tall ship Tecla spends several days exploring Shetland each year on her way to the Faroes and Iceland. She usually manages to get special permission to stop on Fair Isle on the way and then reach the main group of Islands and visit 3-4 islands. Unst is a favourite for the sea birds and Muckle Flugga lighthouse. Mousa for its famous broch and usually Kirkwall for a shopping and internet cafe fix.

Destination Vessels
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Regions
World Heritage Site -puffin traders
Viking legend & towering sea cliffs

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