Spelunking in Burra

by Elizabeth Atia -

As the Autumn weather makes itself nice and comfortable here in Shetland, we need to take each opportunity we can to enjoy any sun and warmth that might be remaining before Winter arrives.

Yesterday was one of those lovely days, and so, on the spur of the moment, I planned a little adventure trip for myself and my two older children - some spelunking in Burra!

Spelunking, for those who don't know the word, is North American noun meaning: the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby.

We packed a quick dinner (tins of Heinz beans, some hot dogs, tomato sauce and fresh from the Voe bakery finger rolls), our mini camping stove, some sweets and headed out after the school bell rang.

Hamnavoe, the main settlement in Burra, just south of Scalloway, is a small village of about 1000 people with a pier, hall and shop. There's a large car park next to the pier where we parked and set off.

There's a coastal path which will take you over a large rocky area out to the lighthouse on Fugla Ness, our first stop. The sea was quite dramatic here, with large waves crashing on the shore. Foula, usually visible on the horizon, was invisible, obscured by cloud, despite the fact it was a sunny, warm day. Sometimes I like to image that Foula (an island I've not yet had the pleasure of visiting) is a magical island, sometimes spontaneously relocating other areas on the planet, which is why it isn't always visible.

The original lighthouse at Fugla Ness was built in 1893 by David A. Stephenson, and the current lighthouse, rebuilt in 1936 as a round, white tower, guides sailors past the rocks and reefs in the area.

After the lighthouse we returned over the boulders to Pundsar, the next headland to the east, to find the secret entrance to the Smuggler's Cave! I had learned about this cave by chance when I stumbled across a geology:heritage trail leaflet by the Shetland Amenity Trust.

The leaflet explains:

"The hidden entrance is tricky to find 200m inland! As you climb down into the cave the passage widens out into a vast, spacious cavern that extends all the way to the sea. This old ‘smugglers cave’ formed due to the sea exploiting a weakness within the rock face. This weakness in the rock is actually an ancient fault plane. A fault is what happens when blocks of rock “slide” past one another due to tectonic forces. The result is a displacement of the rocks on either side of the fault. Millions of years of storm driven erosion upon the weak fault plane have created this long narrow cave."

The leaflet does provide the co-ordinates for the entrance, but entry is at your own risk. Someone has very kindly built a rope and blue plastic tube ladder which does make entering the cave that much easier!

The cave expands into a remarkably large space. You can't reach the walls or the ceiling when standing in the middle. The floor is made of large rounded beach stones. The water enters the cave at the sea entrance and as that day was particularly windy the crashing booming sound made as the waves entered and retreated over the worn beach stones was quite frightening.

We had a rather quick look around with our lantern and torches.

We didn't stay long!

The original plan was to cook our dinner inside the cave, but I didn't feel it was very safe that day with the movement of the water so we made a quick retreat and looked for somewhere out of the wind to have dinner.

Further along the coastline we could see the area where the Burra bairns used to have their swimming lessons, I've been told! That flat pool in the rocks is kept to a sufficient depth for swimming by a well placed bit of concrete.

From this point we could see a few wooden styles crossing the fences, so we thought we'd shelter on the lee side of the hill.

We found the perfect spot nestled by a rock. I sent the eldest down to the beach for a flat stone to balance our camping stove on and set to cooking!

There's a time and a place for tinned beans - never do they taste better than when outdoors after an exploring adventure!

We finished off our adventures with a visit to the nearby Meal Beach. A truly superb afternoon out!

Walk Shetland has a walking guide for this area - the Hamnavoe Circular. It really is a stunning place.