Wild swimming doesn’t get wilder than Scotland’s northernmost shores. Stylist contributor Anna Hart braces herself and leaps in
Nobody warns you that wildness is an addiction. The more we embrace the great outdoors, relishing the physical challenges it affords us, the more extreme our tastes in adventure become. After moving to Margate last year and falling in love with sea-swimming, I knew my 2017 summer holiday would be all about the sea, but I craved solitude, barren beauty and bracingly cold waves. So I planned every wilderness-seeker’s dream trip: a campervan tour of Shetland’s most remote beaches.
The Shetland Islands are Scotland’s northernmost isles; the nearest city is Bergen in Norway, not Inverness. During ‘Simmer Dim’, the long twilight hours of midsummer, the sun barely sets on this subarctic archipelago of 300 islands and skerries (small, rocky outcrops too small to live on). Just 16 islands are inhabited, the largest charmingly called Mainland. It’s here, in Lerwick, that our overnight ferry docks 12 long hours after leaving Aberdeen, and we drive north, taking two tiny 10-minute ferries to the island of Yell and on to Unst. The first beach on my hitlist is Unst’s – and therefore Shetland’s, and therefore Britain’s – northernmost beach: Skaw. Like many of Shetland’s beaches, it’s graced with pristine white sands, bookended by melodramatic cliffs and voluptuous hills; the sort of beach that would have been thoroughly ruined by tourism had it been some 300km south, and some seven degrees warmer.
Unst is perfect road-trip material, with clear roads, tiny tea rooms for sustenance and quirky roadside flourishes like Bobby’s Bus Shelter, a working bus stop decorated with an armchair, telephone and windowbox. Shetland is a wealthy community, thanks to the North Sea oil trade, and it’s attracted artists, musicians and bohemians since the Sixties, making it a cultural hotbed despite its dinky dimensions and isolation.
Our next stop is Bridge End Outdoor Centre in Burra (bridgeendoutdoors.com), a £5-per-night harbourside campsite, and one of the loveliest places I’ve ever awoken in. I’m here to swim Meal and Banna Min beaches, both equally beautiful and equally deserted. Sometimes beaches can blur into each other, but my Shetland swims remain vividly distinct (and not just because the sea was a bracing 14ºC). The next morning, St Ninian’s Isle, a dazzlingly white spit of land stretching from Bigton village to the isle itself, pops to the top of my ‘most beautiful beaches’ list. And I’ve seen a lot of beaches.
Thanks to a steadfast sea breeze and cool temperatures year round, few trees graduate beyond ‘shrub’ height, making for a sparse landscape. But Shetland’s barren beauty and empty beaches, along with the simplicity of campervan living, soothe my stressed-out soul. None of our daily drives take more than an hour; with 1,700 miles of coastline, Shetland crams a lot of scenery into a compact space.
Our final morning, we set off for Shetland’s most remote beach: Da Lang Ayre, accessible by a two-hour hike over Ronas Hill, Shetland’s highest point, and a sweaty scramble down a rope. We’re rewarded by a mile of red sand and jagged cliffs that make it hard to believe we’re not on Mars, let alone still in Britain. We’re the only people here, and I jump into the sea naked, just because I can. And because wildness, I’m warning you, only makes you wilder.