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Shetland Island Hiking - St. Ninian's Isle

Shetland Island Hiking - St. Ninian's Isle

The Shetland Islands are not known for their wild night life. Or glitzy urban centers. Or shopping. Shetland is known for absolutely rugged and breathtaking scenery, which we planned to take in through many, many hikes.

First Shetland Hike: St. Ninian’s Isle

Please see Walking on the Orkney and Shetland Isles by Graham Uney for more greats maps like this one!

St. Ninian’s Isle is technically not an island anymore, but is now connected to the southwestern part of Shetland’s Mainland (main island) by a tombolo, which is a sand bar that was created from sea waves. Apparently it is the largest tombolo in all of the United Kingdom. I picked the isle as our first hike because right at the end of the tombolo are remains of a 12th century chapel, and where a large amount of silver artifacts was found in Shetland in the 1950s.

However, our suggested route took us south, meaning the chapel would have to wait until the end of the hike.

Walking around the non-island was, quite frankly, bonkers. As we walked up a steep hill, the horizon grew closer and closer, and all of the sudden we were greeted with stunning cliffs and rocks jutting into the sea.

Around the back of St. Ninian’s Isle, the terrain really gets treacherous. Rock walls are completely sheered off due to thousands of years of pounding sea waves. All of the sudden we would be walking towards an edge, only to find out that there was a huge canyon in front of us and we would need to double back. And then, when we got around the canyon, we realized we were walking on land undercut by the ocean! I am a nervous person around heights and unstable terrain, but of course W was wandering around like a mountain goat.

There is a long neck of the isle called Loose Head, which takes you up a more steep hill. At the furthest edge is an Ordnance Survey Trig Pillar which was put there in a 20th century effort to re-triangulate the maps of the United Kingdom. We came across several of these pillars on our Shetland walks. Of course, now I want to go back to the U.K. and see MANY more. There used to be 6,500 pillars across the United Kingdom, but as they are now obsolete many of them have been removed to make way for building projects. Hopefully they leave remote ones like the one of St. Ninian’s alone.

After getting to the edge of Loose Neck, it’s a quick and less picturesque walk around the rest of the island. I’m no geologist, but there seemed to be less erosion on this side of the isle. Instead of the scenery, we focused on the hundreds and hundreds of sheep that are EVERYWHERE on Shetland.

Finally, after almost four miles and two hours, we made it around the isle and saw the remains of St. Ninian’s Chapel. Unfortunately, I only took one photo as there was a tourist group there, and I had to take a picture quickly before they got in the way. Those were the only other people we saw on the entire walk. Possibly because we got down to the isle early in the day, or maybe that is just Shetland! More sheep than people.

One thing that constantly shocked me about our Shetland walks is the absolute trust the government has towards visitors. There are no fences near the edges of any cliffs. The only signs are to close gates when you open them (to keep sheep inside pens), and to keep dogs on leads so they do not scare the wildlife. I did not see a single “No Trespassing” sign the entire week we were in Shetland. The expectation is that a person should be able to go anywhere and not behave like an idiot. As an American, I was constantly shocked by this level of trust, and very jealous that my own country cannot behave this way!

If you take the time to go to Shetland, I would recommend this hike. St. Ninian’s Isle was an easy stroll around some beautiful terrain, complete with history at the end. I was very happy this was our first introductory walk around Shetland, and not something more intense like some of our future walks on the islands.

Stay tuned for more of our hikes in Shetland, plus more fun Shetland activities!

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