Shetland Islands, Scotland
Start: Out Skerries
End: Out Skerries
Distance: 9.7 km
Time: 4 hours
Surface: Coastal Paths
There’s only a mile of sealed road and a population of 70-80 on the two square miles of rock and pasture that constitute Housay and Bruray, the only inhabited islands in the tiny collection of islands, islets and sea stacks that make up the all-too-easily overlooked Out Skerries. Yet with Shetland boasting more than 1,600 km of spectacularly rugged coastline, you’re entitled to ask: why transit through those larger islands, where there are more than enough coastal walks to satisfy the most ardent of coastal addicts, to come here? The answer though, lies very likely in the same notion that got you thinking about coming to Shetland in the First place – the lure of isolation – despite being well connected to the world beyond with car ferries running a daily service out of Vidlin (1.5 hours) and twice a week out of Lerwick (2.5 hours). There are also 20-minute inter-island flights available out of Tingwall Airport on Mainland.
The Out Skerries lie 14 km to the east of the main Shetland Island group, and are Scotland’s most easterly landfall. The Norwegian coast, for goodness’ sake, is a scant 320 km away, and so when you walk the Skerries Circular you’re combing the very fringes of Great Britain. Housay and Bruray, which have been joined to one another by a bridge since 1957, possess some of the loveliest natural harbors to be found in Shetland, and their rocky landscape of gneiss along their coastlines, combined with a band of internal limestone underneath grazed moorlands, exudes an overwhelming aesthetic quality. The Out Skerries’ mainstay is Fishing and salmon farming, and if you happen to like scuba diving there are a couple of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch East Indiamen wrecks to explore in waters that – thanks to the North Atlantic Drift – aren’t quite as cold as you might think. There are three listed buildings – the Bruray Harbour Shop, the Grunay Lighthouse Keeper’s House, and the Out Skerries lighthouse on Bound Skerry, Scotland’s northernmost light, completed in 1858, as well as sixteen known archaeological sites including the 13-metre circle of Bronze Age boulders at Battle Pund.
The sheltered inner shorelines of the islands are home to their only communities, the houses of which hug their mile-long strip of bitumen, while beyond them the islands are uninhabited save for sheep that graze on its thin soils.
The Skerries Circular begins at the pier on Housay, and you can walk around the island and neighboring Bruray in a few hours. The coast is rugged and windswept, with rock-strewn shorelines, tiny sounds, and cliffs broken up by gullies on an indented coastline that would likely double the length of your walk if you went to the end of every headland, though the narrow and quite beautiful headland of Mio Ness on Housay’s southwest tip should definitely be walked in its entirety. A 20-minute walk up North Hill (elevation 141 ft) provides wonderful views across the water from Noss to Unst, while a walk around the north banks gives views out to the jagged sea stacks of the Hevda Skerries off Bruray Island. Along the shingle beaches at the North Mouth you’ll see deposits of pale pink calcite, and inland not far from there you’ll likely be able to find what islanders call the ‘Old Village’, an area of particularly fertile soil criss-crossed by stone dykes and the only spot in all the Skerries from which you don’t have a clear line of sight to the sea. Once back at the harbor you can cross the bridge linking Housay to Bruray and make a circuit of this tiny island. Just be sure to take care around its overhanging cliffs.
As good and invigorating as the Skerries Circular is, the fact is many come not for the walking, but for the wildlife. If you want to share a cliff edge with a colony of puffins just a meter or two away, here is where you can do it. Kittiwakes, guillemots, gannets, fulmars and other sea birds are everywhere – hardly a surprising fact when you consider these islands are the first landfall west of Norway. Shetland is also preferable to the more southerly Orkneys if you’re wanting to see peregrines, short-eared owls and other birds of prey, as well as whooper swans, pink-footed geese, and whales.
The population might now only be half what it was in the mid-1800s, but its residents are a hardy bunch, always ready with a warm welcome and always willing to share the island’s stories – from its beginnings as a Norse settlement to its increasingly bright future as a tourism destination with establishments like the Rocklea Crofthouse on Bruray, a registered croft set on nine acres and providing respite to those who like to walk on the fringes of our world and who favor mottos like: ‘If you’re not on the edge, you’re taking up too much space’.