THE author and BBC Grand Tours presenter Paul Murton has written a new book about his very personal journey to Scotland's Viking Isles: Orkney and Shetland.

Here, focusing on his travels around Shetland, he shares some of his favourite spots.

Mousa Broch

Dominating the view, from almost every angle, the slate grey walls of Mousa Broch contrast with the green sward of the rest of the island. Rising to a height of 13 metres, it is the finest and most complete example of the 500 or so brochs scattered throughout the north and west of Scotland. Uniquely Scottish structures, they are mysterious and unknowable; no one is sure who built them or why.

I was lucky enough to spend a summer's night on Mousa. We landed late in the evening with the sun low in the north-west. It was June and the "simmer dim" as Shetlanders call the extended twilight of midsummer meant that the sun would never set far below the horizon. Imperceptibly sunset moved to sunrise, rendering the northern sky a glow of pulsing crimson and gold. I had come to Mousa to film some more recent inhabitants who have taken up residence in the broch's walls.

As the light faded, my guide told me to listen. I could hear strange noises emanating from crevices and cracks in the stonework. In the not-so-distant past, these sounds once startled local people who thought that the eerie noises were made by trows – the mischievous fairy spirits of Shetland folklore who live underground and come out at night.

But it wasn't trows that I could hear. The underground cacophony was being made hundreds of nesting storm petrels waiting to swap places with their mates. And it wasn't long before they began to arrive – hundreds of tiny fluttering birds, not much bigger than swallows or house martins, flew in from across the sea.

With hurried wing-beats, they gathered around the broch. Their silhouettes against the reddening sky reminded me of bees around an old-fashioned hive. By the light of our torches, we watched each bird locate its mate inside the drystone wall, change places with it and take its turn to incubate the eggs on the nest. It was a magical and unforgettable sight.

Noss and the Orkneyman's Cave, Bressay

When Jonathan Wills took me to visit the isle of Noss on his wildlife safari boat, he also took me on a tour of the sea stacks and caves that are such a feature of the coast of Bressay.

There was one cave big enough to accommodate his boat. It was huge and known as the Orkneyman's Cave. A strange acoustic sounded inside as the ocean swell surged and gurgled around us. Letting his boat drift, Jonathan told me that before the cave became a tourist attraction, it was used as a refuge by Shetland men when navy press gangs came calling.

"The story goes," he said. "That a man from Orkney came here and hid from the press gang. He tried to swim out after they had gone but the water here is terribly cold – cold enough to kill a man in just a few minutes. Luckily, some Bressay men found him before he died of hypothermia.

"But he was in a very poor condition when they fished him out so they took him home and gave him a shot of rum. This didn't seem to work. Then one bright spark had an idea. They put the Orkney man in bed with a Bressay lass.

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"This warming treatment worked wonders and the Orcadian recovered but, of course, he had to marry the girl who'd brought him back to life. The local story goes on to say that the Orkney man was a winner on two counts – he got himself a wife and never had to return to Orkney."

St Ninian's Isle

Tiny St Ninian's Isle itself lies 400 metres offshore and is connected to the mainland by a spit of sand which forms a double-sided, bow-shaped beach – probably Shetland's most photographed. When I saw it for the first time on a sunny, blustery day in early May, the beach certainly lived up to expectations. My senses were dazzled by the cries of seabirds, the sound of the waves and the shimmering sea on both sides. It was almost like walking on water.

Out Skerries

Known to all Shetlanders as "Da Skerries", Out Skerries is a beautiful group of low-lying islands, wave-washed rocks and sea stacks. Bound Skerry, with its distinctive Stevenson lighthouse, marks the eastern extremity of Scotland.

The "out" in Out Skerries derives from the language of the Vikings and has one of two possible meanings – ut for "outer" or austr for "eastern".

In recent years, getting to Da Skerries has become harder. The air link no longer exists and the ferry service has been cut back to just four sailings a week, giving Da Skerries a 'final frontier' feel.

Alice Arthur can trace her ancestry on the islands back for hundreds of years. She was honoured with an MBE in 2006 in recognition of her services to the local fire brigade and to the community. She also worked in the fish factory, at school as an art teacher and on the family croft.

That's a lot of different hats to wear but, very sadly, things changed in the years since. The community suffered a succession of blows that impacted the economic viability of the island.

"It happened very suddenly – really just in the last two years that it's gone downhill fast," she said. "We've lost the secondary department of the school; we've lost the salmon farm; we've lost the fish factory; we've lost the flights coming into the island; we've lost the fire brigade. We're really struggling to be honest."

This adversity has not diminished Alice's love for her home. "It's a place to treasure – quite literally," she said. She produced some gold and silver coins from a drawer – doubloons and ducats lay on the table in front of us, collected over the years by family members from the rocky shore.

Sunken treasure has been continually washed ashore from ships wrecked on the harsh coast. The coins in Alice's family collection came from a Dutch East Indiaman wrecked in 1711. A large silver coin, found in a rock crevice by her father, had an inscription in Latin around the rim.

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It read: "Concordia Res Parvae Crescunt". With the aid of some quick internet research, I was able to tell Alice that this translated as: "In harmony small things flourish". She was delighted. "That could be a motto for us here on Da Skerries. We're not giving up yet!"


The isolation and loneliness of life on of Foula (population 30) is legendary. The birds that gave the island its name continue to nest on its spectacular cliffs and hills, which rise to Da Sneug at 418 metres, making Foula, when seen from some angles, resemble a giant wedge-shaped piece of land adrift on the sea. The other high hills have similarly evocative, Nordic-sounding names – Da Noup, Hamnafield, Tounafield and Da Kame.

At Da Kame, perpendicular cliffs plunge 376 metres into the Atlantic below. Its sheer cliffs resounded with the bewildering noise of thousands upon thousands of nesting seabirds. These must have been the sights and sounds that had impressed the Vikings when they named Foula "bird island".

But, to me, more impressive than the cliffs themselves was the thought that generations of men and boys had climbed these vertical, guano-splattered rock walls to plunder the nests for eggs and to take the adult birds for their meat and feathers.

Fair Isle and the Good Shepherd

This lovely island competes with Foula for the title of remotest inhabited island in the British Isles and, if distance is the arbiter, then Fair Isle wins because it’s further from any other land. Lying almost midway between Orkney and Shetland it is approximately 24 nautical miles from Shetland to the north and 27 nautical miles from North Ronaldsay in Orkney to the south-west.

Yet, despite the greater distances involved, Fair Isle seems somehow better connected than Foula and, therefore, feels less remote. It’s possible to fly from Tingwall in a tiny Islander aeroplane or to catch the ferry Good Shepherd from Grutness near Sumburgh Head.

This can be a wild and dangerous crossing, rough enough to make even veteran mariners go green around the gills. Fortunately for me, the weather was perfect when I sailed – blue skies and just a hint of ocean swell gently rocked the passengers and crew as we steamed south towards distant Fair Isle. "This is flat calm for me," said skipper Neil Thompson up on the bridge. "But it can be really hellish in winter. The biggest wave I’ve taken this boat o’er was 11 metres high."

Tresta Sands on Fetlar

There is really only one road on Fetlar. It crosses the island from the ferry terminal at Hamars Ness to the happy-sounding place of Funzie in the east.

Making my way from one end of the road to the other, I encountered lots of Shetland ponies which seemed to have been given a licence to wander freely across the island. Some of these creatures took a perverse delight in making a stubborn stance in the middle of the road, refusing to move unless possibly coaxed by nibbles.

Down at the lovely Tresta Sands is a wide crescent of beach, which backs on to a loch called Papil Water – a holy place even in Viking times. Brydon Thomason, who runs wildlife safaris around Shetland, took me on an otter hunt. Shetland is the best place in the world to catch sight of this elusive creature.

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Heading into the wind and keeping a low profile, we stealthily made our way along the rocky shore. Brydon confessed that he's had a passion for otters since he was a wee boy growing up on Fetlar. "I'd follow their runs and try to find their holts – anything to do with otters just fascinated me."

Now crouching below a gravel bank our patience paid off. Brydon pointed out a mother and two cubs swimming a few yards away. Then the thrill of the chase as the mother dived and brought ashore an octopus, tentacles waving desperately.

But this was just for starters. Next came an equally difficult dish to tackle – a velvet crab with alarmingly active and vicious claws. I'd seen otters in the wild before but never this close. It was thanks to Brydon's tracking skills that I had the privilege to observe these wonderful animals in their natural habitat from such close quarters.

Muckle Flugga and Out Stac

Even at a distance of a mile, you can smell the pungent aroma of the gigantic bird colony on the jagged, rocky island of Muckle Flugga. Today, birds are the only occupants of this northern outpost but, until the lighthouse was automated in 1995, the keepers could proudly boast that they were the most northerly residents in the British Isles. Here they spent one month on and one month off, perched on an improbable rock, where the weather can be unbelievably violent.

As we cruised past on a calm day in June, it was hard to imagine the ferocity of the seas in winter but, despite its reputation for wild weather, Muckle Flugga isn't actually the most northerly point of the British Isles. That title belongs to the appropriately named Out Stack – or "Ootsta" as it's called in Shetlandic. It lies 600 metres north of Muckle Flugga, making it the very last point of the British Isles.

No one has ever lived on Ootsta. It's just a wave-battered hump of rock in the sea, which is almost impossible to land on because of the ceaseless Atlantic swell that washes over it even on a calm day. Beyond Ootsta there is nothing further north for thousands of miles – just cold ocean until the polar ice of Svalbard and the North Pole.

As our boat rose to meet the long sluggish waves coming from the north, I realised there was nowhere else to go. I'd reached the end of the road. Perhaps this is why Ootsta has been called the full stop at the end of Britain.


To find out about Orkney boatbuilding traditions, I went to speak to the master boat-builder in Stromness, Ian Richardson. I came to a very workaday, inconspicuous looking building on an industrial estate at the edge of town. The sound of hammering drew me inside.

There, I discovered the proprietor Ian Richardson busy caulking the seams of a wooden boat. The boat I was told, was "a South Isles yole, 18-foot long and 7 foot 6 inches in the beam, copper fastened and very traditional to the islands". It had taken Ian just over five months to build, working alone for the most part and only needing a hand to help with the steam-bent timbers because his 'arms aren't long enough to go around the whole boat'.

Ian had learned the boatbuilding trade in Stromness as an apprentice. Back then, in the 1970s, there were two boatyards in town and five in total across Orkney. "Now there's just me," he said ruefully. Looking around the big shed where Ian plied his trade, I counted four large wooden boats in for repair and one under construction. "There's more to these boats than just wood isn't there? There's a lifetime of experience here."

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"Yeah, well. It's not something you pick up in a year or so!" he said modestly. Ian is something of a legend among people who know about these things. Over the years, he has built dozens of boats, mostly working craft used by fishermen, and I had actually sailed on one or two of them before realising it, often being told by a proud skipper that his boat was a "Richardson's of Orkney". Now that is quite an endorsement.

Paul Murton's The Viking Isles: Travels in Orkney and Shetland is published by Birlinn, priced £17.99. Visit