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By Toby SkinnerSeptember 30th 2020

Local boy Ritchie Williams on a lifetime of coasteering, surfing, cliff-jumping, kayaking and more in Shetland – and why he isn’t done discovering yet.

It takes a lot to stop Ritchie Williams getting outside. Even in the darkest depths of winter, he’ll still be gathering friends for hiking, kayaking and surfing trips. Often, everyone will crowd into the Ford Transit van that he and his girlfriend, photographer Susan Molloy, converted into a camper van with a stove and fairy lights. After a surf on the moon-shaped white-sand beach at Quendale, or kayaking among the curious rock formations up at Eshaness, they’ll get changed and dry off in the van.

“The landscape here is special, and so varied,” says Ritchie, who until recently was a welder and diver at engineering firm Ocean Kinetics, but who has recently been working at popular Lerwick brunch spot Fjara. “In the south of the Mainland, you have these flat white-sand beaches, but as you go north it becomes more volcanic and dramatic. And each of the islands has its own feel. Every time I think I’ve seen it all in Shetland, I discover something new.”

Every time I think I’ve seen it all in Shetland, I discover something new.

Ritchie was born in Birkenhead, where his dad hails from, but moved up to Shetland when he was young. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been outside, and I spent so much of my childhood digging jumps for bikes, or going out on boats with friends,” he says. “I was lucky, too, to meet a group of likeminded people at school, who are still good friends today. We’ve sort of developed together, getting into freediving, cliff-jumping, cycling, kayaking, surfing, rock-climbing and really everything outdoors.”

This summer, the group have noticed that they’re less alone than ever. “I’ve never seen more people in Shetland out walking or swimming in the sea,” says Ritchie. “It’s like lockdown has helped people realise what an amazing place we live in. And it’s great - there’s plenty of space to go around.”

Here, he talks through some of the photographs he’s taken on his Shetland adventures over the years.

“I’m always finding new places to explore in Shetland. This summer I discovered a new spot between Uyea and Lang Ayre, just before Ronas Hill. It’s this huge waterfall, cascading out of the reddish rock, which I never new existed before. We all went and showered under it when we found it this year, and we’ve been back a lot. It’s one of my favourite spots now, and amazing for a cool-down on a summer’s day.”

“I was up at Hermaness in the summer, not far from the end of the wooden walkway, and got perhaps my favourite ever shot. We’d gone up there for a hike all round the headland, and I’d been annoyed that I’d forgotten my long lens. But I decided to just lie down near the edge of the cliff to get close to a little puffin. I wasn’t expecting much but, as I lay there as still as I could, it just starting edging closer and closer until it was barely a metre away. It was one of those special moments where you just feel so lucky.”

“It’s quite a few years since we all got boards and started learning to surf. Getting the right waves isn’t always the easiest, but when you do it’s magical. Some of the guys have been to surf camps in Morocco, and they’re a lot better than me now. We’ll often surf at Quendale, Boddam or at the beach by the airport and the Jarlshof Viking settlement. We might get one or two good days in the summer, but the best waves are in the winter when the big storms come in. Most of us have 5mm wetsuits, so we’ve been in the water for almost four hours in the depths of winter.”

“Over time, I’ve become more and more into photography. In the beginning, it was just a way to document what we were all doing, but now I tend to leave the house with a shot or a set of shots in mind. I’d class myself as much as a photographer as a doer these days. My girlfriend Susan is also a photographer, but we don’t get in each other’s way. We’re often shooting quite separate things, or seeing the same things differently.”

“We’ve become quite into coasteering and cliff-jumping around Shetland. One of my favourite coasteering spots is Nibon, a little island off the North Mainland, where you swim less than a hundred metres to the island, which has stacks, holes and ledges all around it, with jumps of all kinds. There are good high cliffs to jump off at Culswick, near the broch on the west side, which I’ve photographed a few times.”

“I’m normally fine with heights, but we found a spot on Fetlar recently where I was struggling to stand on the ledge. We’d been on a 30-minute cycle and a 45-minute hike across the heather when we found this ledge that was maybe 20+ metres high and jutting out from the cliff. We didn’t have our wetsuits, but we would have jumped if we had. We quite often do tests in the water, but most of the time you can judge where the water’s deep enough from the top of the jump. Maybe we’ll go back and do it some day.”

“Between my group of friends, we’ve got enough kayaks, canoes and paddleboards that we can get everyone out. I’ve got two kayaks and a canoe, and just love the way that you can see Shetland from a fresh angle in the water. For one trip in the spring, we set off from Hillswick to explore the coast and caves, and found these gnarly rock formations, like these two that look like fists leaning towards each other. There are so many great spots for kayaking round Shetland. I love the sea caves in the little island of Papa Stour, off the west side.”

“Shetland’s also a great place for wild camping, and there’s a lifetime of places to camp. Recently, I went on my own to test a new tent, just behind Banna Minn beach in Burra. It’s just a 15-minute walk along the beach and up the hill, but you can see the sun set from these beautiful cliffs, and wake up with that view.”

“Places often look different on different days. We’d seen this little waterfall at a blowhole on a flat day up at Eshaness, and came back on a stormy day to see these waves just ripping through the hole and spitting water 20 metres above the cliff. Just sitting so close to this energy, in awe of the ocean’s immense power, is something else.”

“I recently got back into drawing. I used to draw a lot as a kid. About five years ago I had a couple of knee surgeries, and I drew a lot then. I’ve recently been drawing and making furniture, just mostly for myself. I’ll often base my portraits loosely on photos, but try to make something new.”

“But the outdoors with my friends is my place. I’ll be out there doing something every weekend, even on the coldest winter days. It’s where I feel most alive, and most like myself.”

See Ritchie's Instagram page for more beautiful images of the Shetland outdoors.