By Laurie GoodladMay 11th 2021
Laurie Goodlad

As we all start to think about what to do in the summer holidays, Laurie Goodlad shares a few of her favourite burns to visit with bairns.

Burns are fantastic, and although we don’t have any wide, gentle rivers that meander through rolling countryside like something out of The Wind and the Willows, Shetland’s waterways are a great place to explore nonetheless.

Burns provide shelter on days where there’s a cool nip in the air from the wind, they are relaxing – until someone falls in – and they offer endless opportunities for joy and discovery as we search for fish, frogs, and if you’re lucky, gold! They’re also a brilliant place to discover some of Shetland’s wildflowers that are at their best as we move into June and July. Look out for sunny marsh marigolds, buttercups and the wet-ground favourite, yellow iris.

Panning for gold

I’ll begin with what every adventure-seeking bairn is after – gold! Shetland’s rich and diverse geology has given rise to an incredibly diverse natural environment with more geology than you can shake a stick at.

To make sure that what I’m saying is correct, and not just a fairy tale from my own childhood, I’ve dusted off (literally) my copy of British Regional Geology: Orkney and Shetland – a bible of geology for any would-be gold-miner – and contacted geologist Allen Fraser to explain it to me in layman’s terms.

With geological processes comes the promise of gold and, although nobody has ever got rich panning for gold in Shetland (to my knowledge), there are traces of gold present in several places, most notably at Muness in Unst. These traces are noted in the Geochemical Atlas, a boffin’s guide to the rocks beneath our feet – and makes little to no sense to someone like me. That said, there are stories of people finding gold in Shetland and even, apparently, a wedding ring. What you’re most likely to see in the shiny stones, picked up by small, cold fingers, are shiny micas, schists and gneisses – or pyrite, more commonly known as ‘fool’s gold’ due to the uncanny similarities.

My favourite places to pan for gold – or the promise of gold – are Collafirth Burn in Northmavine and the burn at Muness in Unst. Armed with gold pans and a healthy sprinkling of optimism, panning for gold is a fun way to spend any afternoon.

Pssst… Channerwick Burn in the South Mainland and a few in Yell (Gutcher and Garth) have recorded trace elements of gold too – so that’s our next burns to survey as part of our gold-mining programme.

Looking for fish in Hoswick

Sticking to the South Mainland, the next burn that we love to explore is the Hoswick Burn, a gentle, meandering burn that edges the village before terminating into the sea at the Hoswick beach. This is a perfect burn if you have peerie bairns as the Visitor Centre is just a two-minute toddle when the boots are breached, and laughter turns to tears.

Be sure to bring a net and jam jar as this burn is teeming with little fish – just be sure to release them back into the water when you’ve finished examining them.

If you want to explain how water is caught and released, the Hoswick Dam at the top of the village, just beyond the fantastic play park, is worth the venture uphill. The dam was built in 1908 and designed to keep the village clean. The reservoir at the top was opened by a small valve that allowed water to wash out the series of stone-lined drains that pass through the village, removing all the smelly fish waste and other human and animal waste.

The beauty of the Hoswick Burn is that, once they get fed up with the burn, the beach, play park, Cake Fridge, and Visitor Centre are all nearby!

Perfect for a picnic

Moving away from the gentle course of the Hoswick Burn and heading north, my next choice is the Burn of Valayre in Delting, a lesser-explored burn that flows into the sea near the Voxter Outdoor Centre, a few miles outside Brae.

Valayre tells the story of Shetland’s frozen past, it’s steep sides carved out by fast-flowing water under pressure beneath the ice when it melted during the last period of glaciation – or Ice Age – about 10,000 years ago.

The steep-sided burn has allowed relict trees to grow, and the area itself is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its shrubby woodland that has remained out of reach of grazing animals. Look out for native trees and the relict examples of rowan, dogrose and honeysuckle that cling bravely to the steep-slopes as you explore further up the burn.

The burn is sheltered from the wind and the perfect place for a picnic or a dip in the cool waters where a waterfall has allowed a deep plunge pool to form.

This is another place where you’ll find shiny stones that look like gold and silver. The stone comes from the Valayre gneiss that outcrops in this area, along a geographical boundary fault. Valayre Gneiss is a metamorphic rock – a 925 million-year-old band of rock that has been transformed by heat and pressure and contains unusual and distinctive large crystals (megacrysts) of feldspar.

Before I begin to sound like a geologist, I’ll move on to the final burn featured in this blog – Shetland’s best-known burn, the Burn of Lunklet near Aith.

A few great things about this burn ensure that it remains an ever-popular place for a walk. Firstly, it’s only half a mile from the Original Cake Fridge & Tearoom, where you can pick up a picnic or have lunch before you set off. Secondly, the access path is fantastic, meaning that it's a relatively easy walk if you have mobility issues or small toddler legs. Lastly, the waterfall that plunges down the face of a sheer rock surrounded by the heathery hillsides is spectacular – particularly after a period of rain or when the heather is in purple flower at the end of summer.

I hope I’ve persuaded you that, although we don’t have any grand waterways, canal boats and riverside pub/restaurants, Shetland’s burns are a treat in themselves and are ready to be explored as we rediscover Shetland.