The Shetland Islands - early summer 2015

The Shetland Islands are in the far north of the UK, basically it is the most northerly point in the UK and Scotland. They are far away from the way of living in England or London, some of the heritage dates back to the viking times and the islanders cherish this part of their history. Nowadays Shetland makes its money from north sea oil, fish and mussel farming, sheep farming and tourism.

You may ask why Shetland again, I think it was my 7th or so visit. Of course I like this islands, but there are some hard facts as well. Most of my Shetland wildlife stock dates back to the times of film and this is hard to sell nowadays, basically it is dead stock. In 2013 I was for two months on Shetland (May) and Orkney (June) but could not do much wildlife photography on Shetland as it was quite often very stormy. I also did not visit Fair Isle and Foula, two magnificent places for landscape and wildlife photography.

Moreover I will guide a photography workshop on Shetland and Orkney in 2016 ( Fotoreise Schottlands Northern Isles - Shetland und Orkney, offizielles Programm bei Auf Kurs! Inselreisen: Shetland und Orkney Inseln / Fotoworkshop - wilde Natur und geheimnisvolles Neolithikum) and I wanted to check some new places, especially the Sumburgh Head area which was under construction in 2013.

It was easy to set up my itinerary and I decided it to be a very tight plan, quite unusual for me.

  • by plane to Aberdeen and hop on the ferry to Lerwick to arrive early morning the next day
  • next morning take the ferry from Grutness to Fair Isle (by bus from Lerwick)
  • three nights on Fair Isle
  • back to Grutness, pick up a rental car and stay one night at Sumburgh and one night in Lerwick
  • drive up north to Brae for a short visit of Eshaness and stay one night in Brae
  • drive further north to Unst and Hermaness for three nights
  • return to Lerwick for a night to change equipment
  • fly for three nights to Foula
  • back to Lerwick for a final night and take the ferry to Aberdeen the next evening and fly back to Munich next noon

This plan did not leave much space for bad weather, it was either hit or miss! This year however I was much more lucky than in 2013.

I had some rain and misty days, quite often cloud cover, but no strong winds and I could work every day many hours. During the last decade the weather pattern changed a bit, once the "better" month was May now it is better to go in June. That is not only my experience, but thats also what the locals told me.

It all worked pretty well and I was pleased with the results. I could close many gaps in my stock and scout out some good places for instructing next year.

Fair Isle

Fair Isle is a small speck of land between Shetland and Orkney, but is really a fair island. I do not know why, but weather seems to be always a bit better than on mainland and this year it was again like that. It was cold, very cold, but sunny or slightly overcast. Only a few drops of rain in three days, not bad. I stayed in the new Fair Isle Bird Observatory, highly recommended...

Fair Isle has a stunning cliff line and is prime Skua and Puffin territory. This year I dedicated only one evening for landscape the rest was planned for Skuas (Great and Arctic) and Puffins. Skuas worked out very well. They tend to be very agressive, but some individuals are more relaxed than others. I stay with them for some hours every day and they got more and more relaxed,  I avoided pairs with chicks or eggs (of course).

There is a puffin colony very close to the Bird Obs and the birds are used to visitors. After so many days in puffin colonies I thought I do understand their way of living quite well, but this time they surprised me every day. One day there had been hundreds hanging around all day, the next day everything was empty, even during the evening where they normally sit next to their burrows. The weather did not change, perhaps their hunting grounds changed, I do not know. Nevertheless I got some good shots....

Fair Isle is definitly a place not to be missed, if you have the time for just one of the outer islands, this would be high on the list.... Access is by plane or ferry from Grutness near Sumburgh, but take care, the age of roll on roll off has still to come to Fair Isle, but a car is not needed anyway.

Between the main locations - Sumburgh Head and Eshaness

For both locations I had special intentions in mind. Sumburgh Head was always a good location for puffins during my first visits to Shetland. In 2013 however, the whole area underwent massive reconstruction and renovation works. I could not get access to it. For my workshop next year I wanted to be sure that the place is as good as it was, as I wanted to introduce the participants to wildlife photography at this location. The place changed considerable, but it is still very well suited to photography. The dry stone wall protects the birds from the visitors, but also from sheep. The vegetation is lush, the birds behave very natural and access is VERY easy, thats on the + side. The down side is of course the angle of view. You cannot get down to the ground due to the wall, therefore I recommend longer lenses to reduce this effect. The lighthouse itself is now beautifully restored, it is still a good location!

Eshaness in Northmavine is one of the prime cliff sceneries I know world wide. I have plenty of shots, wild weather, sunshine, rain, but I never ever will be bored to watch this scenery. The village of Brae nearby is a good one night stop over on the way north to Hermaness. This year I wanted to test some new (very) grey filters from a brand ( called NiSi) new to the german market. I must say, good filters!

Another reason to stay in Brae is the food. I think it has the best "eat in or take away" sea food and fish and chips restaurant for several thousend miles around (Frankie’s Fish and Chips)! And do not miss the Indian take away as well.

I look forward coming back next year for a few days!


Hermaness is a bird reserve on Unst, as far north as you can go in the UK. Breathtaking scenery, several gannetries, puffins, skuas and if you are lucky beautiful sunsets.

I will not write much about Hermaness, the pictures are self explaining. It is worth while the drive and you should stay several days. Access is by an easy footpath, but it takes 45 min one way to the cliffs. Bring foul weather gear, waterproof boots, it can get really nasty.... Weather was so so, no sunset, but still ok.


Foula was the last of the outer islands I visited this year. Foula and Fair Isle - similar but as different as you can imagine. You have to feel theses islands. If you come to Foula, take your time. It is terrific but demanding hill walking country with cliffs towering more than 300m. Life follows a different schedule here not only metaphorically but sometimes even literally as some of their holidays are still set to the Julian calender.

After so many good opportunities for puffins and skuas, I intended to do more landscape than wildlife. That was a good decision as the bird population dropped quite a bit during the last years. I mean there are still many, many birds around, but it has changed. All the same Foula has the best Shag colony for photograpers I know on these islands, which would be reason enough to go there. My plan was easy, if it looked like a nice evening stay on the western coast for the sunset, the rest of the day stay on the east side with the shags, the harbour seals and the Foula sheep, a rare and unique breed.

Many thanks to Bryan for letting me use the Shogun, take care and next time we will have a dram together!

Lerwick - the capital

Lerwick feels big for the size it has (pop 7000). Shopping is good, yes you even have a Tesco, there are plenty restaurants and pubs and the museums are superb. Even if you choose the Shetlands as a wildlife destinations spend some mornings or afternoons in Lerwick, you will not regret it!

This year Lerwick was my central hub. I stored my not used equipment, dirty clothing etc in my B&B, relaxed in town and had fun to take pictures not only of puffins and skuas but of the atmosphere in town. I did my shopping (if you look for knitwear got to the spiders web in the old quarter) and looked at the yachts in the harbour. I just had a good time.

No good time without some pictures.....

That is all for the moment, have fun and the next time I will be quicker to write down my blog....

Munich, September 2015

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