Beaches

Shetland has almost 1,700 miles of coastline, carved from a geology that’s astonishingly complex. You can find boulder-strewn storm beaches as well as many stretches of white or golden sand.

This selection of favourite beaches doesn’t pretend to be objective. We all have our own reasons for liking particular places: maybe we recall a child’s first paddle at the water’s edge, a great barbecue on a romantic summer’s evening, a close encounter with a seal or a dramatic, salt-sprayed walk on a wild day. Some beaches impress because of the surrounding scenery or unique rock formations. Others simply provide good shelter for a picnic. With all that in mind, we present a cross-section of Shetland beaches, each of which has something special to offer. Five of them are holders of Seaside Awards given by Keep Scotland Beautiful. We begin our journey in the south of Shetland.

Grutness, South Mainland

Close to Sumburgh Airport and the ferry terminal for Fair Isle, the south-east facing strand at Grutness might appear, at a distant glance, to be an ordinary pebble beach. However, if – taking great care - you scramble among those ‘pebbles’, you realise that the scale is all wrong: they’re huge, many weighing a ton or more. The power of the sea here is extraordinary: these monstrous rocks have been tossed about, rounded and smoothed as though they were just centimetres in diameter, rather than up to a metre. This shore is exposed to the full force of south-easterly gales and this is one place where, even on the calmest day, the potential of the sea is unmistakable. Grutness holds another attraction: in the waters here, around Sumburgh Head, whales, including orcas, may sometimes be seen and they occasionally come remarkably close to the shore here, hunting for seals.

In some places there are huge cliffs with stacks, caves and blowholes. Then there are rocky shores, often with wave-churned, smooth pebbles, sometimes in extraordinary colours. Elsewhere, you can find boulder-strewn storm beaches and many stretches of white or golden sand, sometimes sweeping for hundreds of metres but elsewhere much more intimate in scale.
We loved it on our first visit this summer and plan to return again. For us it was the scenery, the wildlife and the changing light. A really peaceful and relaxing place.

West Voe, South Mainland

At the other side of Sumburgh Airport from Grutness, the West Voe of Sumburgh is one of the four Shetland beaches that have won a Seaside Award from Keep Scotland Beautiful. A crescent of white sand around the voe’s turquoise water, it’s backed by steep dunes clad in marram grass. It’s not only the beach that is spectacular, though. To the south-east, there’s the striking outline of Sumburgh Head, an RSPB reserve famed for offering close encounters with puffins. The headland is topped by Sumburgh Lighthouse, built in 1821 by Robert Stevenson, who was Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather. Close to the beach, there are two outstanding archaeological sites, Jarlshof and Old Scatness. There’s car parking, too, and food and drink is available not far away, at the nearby hotel or the airport. West Voe is an ideal place for stretching legs or, on fine days, simply relaxing in beautiful surroundings.

The Peerie Voe, Spiggie, South Mainland

In the south of the Shetland mainland, anyone looking for wide, sweeping sandy beaches is spoilt for choice: the west and east voes of Sumburgh, Quendale Beach, the Scousburgh Sands and Rerwick are all magnificent; all have their adherents and there are more details at the bottom of this page. However, one of the most beautiful corners of the area is the Peerie Voe, a quite narrow inlet that faces west into the Atlantic Ocean. The beach itself is a mixture of sand and shingle but the view from it, distinguished by some very picturesque rock formations, is one of the most celebrated in Shetland. It’s an ideal place for a picnic, or indeed for a summer evening’s contemplation as the sun sinks into the sea just beyond the rugged, outlying skerries.

Sands of Breckon, Yell

Framed by the cliff scenery of north Yell, the sandy beach at Breckon is one of the island’s highlights. It holds a Seaside Award from Keep Scotland Beautiful and has been highly rated by visitors. Although the bay is open to the Atlantic, the beach is well sheltered from most wind directions and the dunes provide an infinite variety of picnic places on good days. The sand, a mixture of rock and shell particles, is piled deep and shelves quite steeply.

There’s plenty of interest around this area, too. The nearby cliff-tops offer good walking and great views. Botanically, the area is rich, with more than 80 species of plants recorded. Archaeological remains suggest that the area has been settled for at least 4,000 years. There is evidence of Viking and Iron Age settlement and a number of interesting finds have included pottery, Viking combs made from bone and even Roman coins. However, many people will simply want to relax and absorb Breckon’s simple peace and beauty.

Absolutely love it - the people are so welcoming, the scenery is amazing and the wildlife tops it all!

St Ninian’s Ayre, South Mainland

Oh how I love St Ninian's Isle, great memories of wonderful summer days on this beach, picnics, walking and watching the wildlife with special people.

Among Shetland’s many striking coastal features is the ayre, or tombolo, that connects St Ninian’s Isle to the Shetland mainland; it’s five hundred metres long and the finest of its type in Britain. This unique beach is also the holder of a Keep Scotland Beautiful Seaside Award. Composed mostly of shell sand, its symmetrical curving form is particularly striking when seen from above, a good viewpoint being the Ward of Scousburgh. For most of the year, the tombolo is dry, but it can sometimes be submerged in winter. It makes an excellent, often bracing, walk but there are plenty of sheltered corners for picnicking or sunbathing. The tombolo offers access to St Ninian’s Isle, on which can be found the site of a chapel. Here, in 1958, a Lerwick schoolboy discovered a horde of Celtic silver, presumed to have been hidden by monks to keep it safe from Viking raiders. The original horde is kept in Edinburgh, but there are replicas in the Shetland Museum and Archives.

Cumlewick, South Mainland

The beach at Cumlewick is a conundrum: it’s on the east coast of Shetland, but it faces due west. On a peninsula on the south side of the scattered community of Sandwick, it lies beyond the school and some large warehouses. It isn’t very big and you need to park some distance away. So why is it a favourite? Well, Cumlewick is the place to be if you want to try swimming in Shetland and a sunny afternoon coincides with an incoming tide. The beach is of fine, golden sand and it shelves very gently, so that all the heat of the sun is absorbed, helping to take the chill off the waves as they roll in. As an added bonus, the surrounding low cliffs (‘banks’ in Shetland) provide good shelter if the breeze is from any direction but west.

Meal, Central Mainland

On much of Shetland’s shoreline, you’re likely to be alone. Even on some of the more popular beaches, you’ll probably see no more than a handful of other people, even on fine summer days. That’s also usually true of Meal Beach; however, on really warm days, Meal can become quite busy and is deservedly popular with families. It lies just to the south-east of the village of Hamnavoe, on West Burra. The beach faces south, with plenty of sheltered spots among the rocks, and there’s a smaller beach among the rocks just to the west. It’s equipped with a car park, toilets and a proper boardwalk giving good access. The beach is of fine, deep sand and it’s popular for swimming and all kinds of beach games. Barbecues happen frequently, too.

A lovely place, amazing beaches, silence and peace around you!

Dale of Walls, West Mainland

In contrast to Meal, the beach at Dale of Walls is normally deserted. Although it can readily be reached by car, with just a short walk down to the shore, it feels a remote place. Exposed to the full force of the incoming Atlantic breakers, the pebbles have been piled metres high by the sea. There is fine, well-signposted walking in the area. In summer, a wander up the burn that flows to the beach will reveal banks rich in wild flowers. For the more adventurous and properly-equipped, a challenging walk leads over the hill and along a spectacular coast to the dramatic Deep Dale, a distance of about three kilometres. From there, a steep climb of about another two kilometres will take you to the top of Sandness Hill. Dale of Walls is a place that’s usually guaranteed to blow any cobwebs away. However, on a calm day it’s a perfect place to enjoy real peace, perhaps in the company of seals or even an otter.

Fethaland, Northmavine

The beach at Fethaland, in the far north of the district of Northmavine, has powerful historical associations. Today, this is one of the remoter corners of Shetland,

reached on foot by a track from Isbister, 3 kilometres to the south. During the 19th century, though, it was the scene of intense activity. It was from here – and other places like it – that fishermen set out on perilous expeditions to catch the fish that paid their rent. They used ‘sixareens’, six-oared boats, and would search for cod, ling or other species fifty miles or more offshore. Some trips ended in tragedy, the boats being overwhelmed by sudden squalls. Fethaland was one of the largest of Shetland’s summer ‘fishing stations’, with the remains of around twenty of the booths clearly visible; at times, perhaps 400 fishermen and shore workers would have made a hard living here. Those exploring the area will also find evidence of much earlier inhabitants in the form of the remains of a broch, other prehistoric structures and soapstone workings. All of this makes for a fascinating walk.

Tresta, Fetlar

The beautiful sandy beach below the hamlet of Tresta also holds a Seaside Award. Stretching for almost a kilometre, it faces south-east over the Wick of Tresta and gains good shelter from the promontory of Lamb Hoga to the south. It’s one of a number of Shetland beaches backed by a small loch, in this case Papil Water. An ancient church is believed to have stood here, although its remains have proved hard to discern: however, names such as Papil or Papa do indicate the presence of priests or monks. Today, local people take great pride in the beach and the links behind it, which are the setting for the annual Fetlar Foy, a June weekend filled with music, games, food and entertainment. There’s a great deal more to explore in Fetlar: an RSPB reserve is home to the tiny Red-necked Phalaropes that fly thousands of miles to breed here each Spring. The island has an excellent, small interpretive centre. There are abundant archaeological remains and some interesting, more recent buildings including Brough Lodge, due for restoration.

Other beaches not to be missed

The beaches we’ve described above are, of course, only a small selection of the dozens around Shetland’s coast. Here are some more that you might like to visit, arranged from south to north.

South Mainland

  • East Voe, Sumburgh: soft sand, very easy access.
  • Quendale: long, south-facing sands, backed by dunes.
  • Scousburgh: another long, glorious, sandy beach.
  • Rerwick: an intimate, south-facing and sheltered sandy beach.
  • Levenwick: a beautiful sandy beach that shelves very gently.

Central Mainland

  • Banna Minn, West Burra Isle: a tombolo with sand on one side.

Lerwick

  • Sands of Sound, Lerwick: a favourite spot for town-dwellers on sunny days.
  • Bain’s Beach, Lerwick: a sandy beach survives in the very heart of the old town.

West Mainland

  • Reawick: a beautiful beach of reddish sand.
  • The Crook, Melby: a long, sandy beach with great views to the north.

Papa Stour

  • Kirk Sand, Papa Stour: a peaceful place to relax on this quiet island.

Delting, Lunnasting & Nesting

  • Dales Voe: three tombolos link Fora Ness with Swinister on the mainland.

Northmavine

  • Back Sands, Ollaberry: an amazing encounter with the Great Glen Fault.
  • The Lang Ayre: remote and spectacularly set below cliffs; very challenging access.
  • Uyea: safest to admire from above, a sand bar links the isle to the mainland; a long walk in.

Yell

  • West Sandwick, Yell: a beautiful beach backed by dunes facing Yell Sound. West Sandwick also holds a Seaside Award from Keep Scotland Beautiful.

Unst

I wish I was on one of Unsts amazing beaches just now watching the rough seas!

Cross Geo, Clibberswick, Unst

Clibberswick is on the northern side of Haroldswick in Unst and it’s a fascinating place. The name Clibberswick means ‘bay of soapstone’ or steatite, clebber or kleber being old Shetland and Norse words for the material. The beaches at Cross Geo – reached after passing around a quarry - are surrounded by soapstone cliffs and on these it’s possible to find places where soapstone was quarried in Viking times. As at some other sites, for example Catpund, in Shetland’s south mainland, or Fethaland, above, you can see where pots were carved from the solid rock. There’s a great deal more history here, too. The site of an ancient church lies nearby and, on New Year’s Day 1840, there was a shipwreck. The Borussia, on passage from Archangel to Rotterdam, came ashore, with the loss of her master and some of the crew. However, it seems that most of her cargo of mats and 13,600 bushels of rye was saved. For beachcombers, though, the best part of a visit here may be the stunning pebbles to be found. At the water’s edge, where they are wet, the range of colours is extraordinary, ranging from jet black through a rich, dark green to a pale olive hue, with occasional grey, orange or white specimens, all perfectly polished by the sea. There are two inlets and the tiny southern one is much the more rewarding; it’s also much easier to scramble down, though great care is needed as the rocks are slippery.

Skaw, Unst

The island of Unst is home to many things that are ‘Britain’s most northerly’: post office, school, swimming pool, and bus shelter. It also has Britain’s most northerly sandy beach. It’s at Skaw, a hamlet consisting of – you will not be surprised to learn - Britain’s most northerly house. Access is by a winding road that climbs over the shoulder of the hill from Norwick, giving tremendous views of the cliffs of north Unst. The beach is of fine, white sand and is backed by a meadow hosting a profusion of wild flowers in spring and summer. It faces due east and is well sheltered from the prevailing winds. If you yearn for even greater seclusion, there’s a smaller, even more remote sandy beach at Inner Skaw, a walk of less than a kilometre to the south. There are excellent walks to be had on the low cliffs and headlands in this area. Not far away, there are military remains: the Cold War radar dome on Saxa Vord is most obvious but, much closer at hand, there’s also a pioneering Second World war radar station, underlining the strategic importance of Unst at those periods of our history.

'Laid Up On Da Green'

  • If you plan to go beachcombing, a word about a local custom. It's not a law, as such, but you'll cause severe offence if you break the rule that says you can only pick up driftwood and other flotsam if it's lying below the highest tide mark. Anything 'laid up on da [the] green', as they say, has been put there by someone else and they'll be back for it some day so please leave it alone. Considering the value of driftwood in a largely treeless archipelago, the fact that this rule is universally observed says something about the honesty of the islanders.
  • Warning: not everything that washes ashore is harmless or useful. Sometimes distress flares, or explosives from military exercises, or drums of poisonous chemicals can come in on the tide. Don't touch anything that looks suspicious but phone the Coastguards immediately on 01595 692 976 and they'll deal with it safely.
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