Hiking and exploring Yell Island | Shetland

Our first stop on the island of Yell was a hike around Breckon Beach, a stunning stretch of white sand and turquoise water nestled in an inlet. We were enjoying watching the gentle waves lapping the shore when we were rudely interrupted by the screeching noise of artic terns. We were attacked by these birds last week and it was terrifying so I ran as fast as I could to get away from them. I was running while crouching to avoid them touching my head but they still came low, squawking as they swooped towards me. I looked back and Craig was way behind me now, walking casually down the beach without a care in the world. What the heck? I don’t know why they picked on me but it was not only traumatising but it also happened in front of 6 strangers on the beach who were about to go surfing.

We continued the walk around a long stretch of the coastline, constantly keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife. Except for a few seals though, we didn’t see anything else. I don’t know if we’re being really unlucky in Shetland but we expected to see lots of dolphins…and some orcas but with every day that passes our optimism about seeing any fades.

We decided to sleep at a harbour as it had a good view of the sea incase any whales passed through the channel. Craig parked face in and we realised how sketchy it was, if we accidentally rolled forwards or put the van into the wrong gear we’d go straight into the sea so we carefully but hastily engaged reverse and parked sideways instead. We managed to spot an otter nearby but as soon as he got an inkling of a human in the area he scarpered.

The following day was grim and rainy so we decided to just have a lazy no hiking day parked at a harbour. We baked cookies but other than that it was rather uneventful until just before sunset. Craig spotted an otter so we dashed out to a stoney beach and tried to get a little closer by running along the shoreline every time the otter dove down. We got to a good position so we quickly sat down and waited. Much to our surprise he caught a fish straight away and it was a big one, which meant he couldn’t eat it in the water, he had to come to the land to eat it. He was swimming right towards us!! At the last moment though he darted sideways and we were worried he’d spotted us, we’d hate for the otter to risk losing his food because he saw us, but luckily he came to the shore just 8 or so meters from us and devoured the wriggly fish. As soon as he finished eating he had a good look our way and let out a few hisses. We didn’t move a muscle, even though we were sat on such awkward rocks with twisted bodies we managed to stay dead still and I was able to just keep clicking my camera. So I’m not really sure if the otter knew we were humans and was trying to be defensive of his area and shoo us away, or if he had no idea what we were and was just testing us with his hissing, to see if we’d move. He roamed the shores of the beach a little and then headed back into the water and continued fishing. What an amazing encounter!! Craig said that would be the best otter experience we ever get…but amazingly it got even better over the next few days.

The rain vanished the next day and was replaced by thick fog but we managed to do a nice hike along the west coast of Yell. There were two beautiful white sand beaches and on the grassy land above them were a couple of Shetland ponies. I just love these little ponies, their hair is so wild and it makes them look like 80’s rock stars. Craig felt like their vision was blocked by their hair though so he decided to help them out by tucking it behind their ears which made them look ridiculous.

We passed a lovely area of rocky shoreline where there was the most perfect rock pool to swim in. It was pretty small but the water was a stunning emerald colour and the rocks encircling it were spiky like a crocodiles back. We ended up at a misty inlet completely protected from the wind so the water looked like glass. We sat on the end of a stone jetty and enjoyed a cup of tea from our flask before we made our way back.

We tried our otter luck at another harbour the next night and we did manage to spot one but moments later a huge ferry pulled straight in and scared it off. The area was said to be good for otters though so we did a long hike along the coast. We found a lot of other evidence including a huge pile of poop. You can sometimes tell the otters food preference by its poo as there will be piles of tiny bones, crab shells or mussel shards in its dried out poop.

It felt like a very wild area, the rocky beaches were covered in dry, crispy seaweed and animal bones. In fact in Shetland we’re coming across at least one dead sheep a day, usually washed up on the beach and in various stages of decomposition or mummification from the sun. An old ruin had a couple of sheep skulls inside and the beaches were covered in them too. We wanted to keep one for our van so we picked a nice old skull and used some washed up rope to tie it onto the back of Craig’s bag. When we climbed over a stile and he lent forward the skull swung forward and landed on his head! Eww. But we plan to paint it and display it on Helga, a little reminder of all the sheep we’ve seen in Shetland and the amount of shit we’ve stepped in. We must’ve walked about 10km but no otters were spotted. We did however see a few curious seals though, bobbing their heads up to see who we were.

After a relaxing evening in the van and a nice big dinner Craig spotted an otter swimming in the harbour in front of us. We were able to observe it from the van and then another otter appeared! There were two of them together which was very exciting. They were out fishing but they kept coming to land, sometimes running along the rocky harbour, up and down the pier and even inside peoples boats. We decided to head to the jetty to try and get a little closer so we sat quietly on the end but we only saw the resident seal. As we left to go back to Helga we spotted the otter right below us, she didn’t see us at first and was walking just a couple meters away until she took a double take of us. She didn’t seem very scared and just continued at the same pace down to the sea where she dove down and swam right beneath Helga.

The next day we explored the east coast of Yell and did a few hikes. It was a wildly windy day with passing rain storms and the odd rainbow. We drove past a group of highland cattle which I just adore, they are such beautiful cows with long auburn locks, flowing in the wind and huge horns. We ended up finding a wonderful spot to camp above a white sand beach. There was only space for two vehicles and we had it all to ourselves so it was a delightful spot. Before dinner we headed out on a hike along the coast where we ended up on another white sand beach, our footprints were the first of the day…possibly even the week judging by how quiet the area was. The wind was so strong that the sand was all blowing into us and it actually hurt. We were getting hundreds of sand shards launched into our faces and we had to walk sideways while holding our hoods around our heads.

A group of seals were lounging on rocks until they got sight of us and launched into the water. They then followed us in the water like a group of synchronised swimmers. The area had a lot of abandoned buildings and we explored a few of them. One of them had some sheep skeletons inside, a usual sight for us now, but at the entrance of one building was a pile of bones. It had to of been put there by a human but why? It was so creepy like some sort of witch craft ritual happened here.

We had a wonderful night sleeping in the silence and after a lazy breakfast while enjoying the view we headed off, making our way to the ferry terminal as it was time for us to leave Yell and head back to mainland Shetland.

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