There is an increasing network of waymarked paths and trails in Shetland, most of which are detailed in the Core Paths Plan and Access Routes by the Shetland Islands Council - https://www.shetland.gov.uk/developmentplans/corepathplan.asp and https://www.shetland.gov.uk/developmentplans/AccessRoutes.asp. These routes offer a wide variety of terrain (ranging from natural ground to constructed paths) and distances, catering for all abilities and interests. However, they are not your only option.
Many of our visitors are used to walking in areas where access is restricted to trails, national parks or rights of way, and they are very surprised by the wonderful access rights that we have here in Shetland, as in the rest of Scotland. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) gives members of the public the right to access most land for recreational use. There are of course some restrictions, but in general you can go almost anywhere you like, as long as you do it responsibly. The Access Code states that access can be enjoyed over most of Scotland's urban parks, hills and woods, most grass fields and field margins as well as beaches, lochs, rivers and canals. We don't have canals in Shetland and our largest streams could never be called rivers, but you're probably getting the idea by now. More details on the SOAC can be found at https://www.outdooraccess-scotland.scot/enjoy-scotlands-outdoors-leaflet.
Rights of access don't include buildings and their immediate surroundings, houses and gardens, land where crops are growing, and there are some restrictions to do with conservation and wildlife management. Fishing, shooting or hunting activities are covered by different legislation and codes. Access rights do not extend to any motorised activities. However, many people use their cars to get into the outdoors and parking a vehicle without regard to the interests of other people can cause problems. Therefore, when you park your vehicle it’s important not to cause any damage, or create an obstruction by:
not blocking an entrance to a field or building (including sheep pens)
not making it difficult for other people to use a road or track – do not block passing places and remember large vehicles may need to use them
considering the safety of others
trying not to damage the grass verge
using a car park if one is nearby
So, let’s concentrate on walking – the SOAC means that you really can walk almost wherever you like - responsibly. This means being responsible for ………
your own safety, and
not causing any damage or nuisance to other land users.
Bear in mind that where there are no marked trails or paths, you're likely to be out on the open hillside, so you must be able to navigate, especially if the weather changes which it does regularly in Shetland. You should always ensure that everyone in your group has the ability to walk on the terrain you have chosen to access. Everyone should have the right clothing, footwear and supplies for the potential conditions. Although all walking in Shetland is on low-level hills, some of it can be challenging and accidents can happen at any time, so it is important to ensure you have appropriate emergency gear, just in case. Although mobile phone coverage is improving, don’t assume that you’ll get a signal. And our most popular walking areas still have few visitors, so don’t just hope that others will be around to help if you do get into trouble.
The terrain under foot might be very different than what you used to if you’re a trail walker. You might be walking on very uneven ground or walking across the side of a hill, which I know many walkers find uncomfortable. Moorlands can be difficult to walk over – clumps of heather, lots of boggy ground, hidden rabbit holes, rocky areas and other booby-traps for the unwary, where ankles are easily broken - you must be prepared for a different type of walking experience. Even some of the way-marked routes are over this sort of terrain, with little or no path.
As there are relatively few marked trails, this means that there are often no stiles, gates or easy ways to cross field boundaries. If there is a stile, Jacob’s ladder or gate, then you should use it. If there is no alternative and you must ‘climb’ a fence, you should do it at a strainer post (the large corner post) where possible, as this will cause the least damage. When crossing dry stone walls which may be centuries-old, take care to prevent damage to both the wall and yourself. Some fences are topped with barbed wire, so particular care is required to prevent injury and torn clothing. If you're having to cross a field boundary by climbing over it, it's always worth taking a little time to see if you can identify a gate, even if you need a small detour - it will almost always be the better option. Most gates are easily opened. However, some can be very stiff, tied with a bewildering array of knots or just plain unyielding. If necessary, you can climb a gate – but again very carefully to ensure it is not damaged. Of course, the usual advice applies - to leave a gate as you found it, either open or closed.
Always be aware of livestock. In Shetland, it's mainly sheep, but we do have some cattle which can be unpredictable, particularly if they have calves with them. You should avoid fields with livestock where possible and perhaps go into the adjacent field. Where it's unavoidable (and with 280,000 sheep in Shetland they are difficult to avoid) you should try to disturb them as little as possible - skirt around the field margins or slowly cross the area with least sheep and give them chance to move away if they wish to. If there are sheep near a cliff, don’t walk straight towards them, as they may be spooked and run the wrong way. Approach slowly if you need to and give them time to move off in a safe direction.
If you're walking with a dog, it should always be under very close control - preferably on a lead. Dogs are allowed in most areas in Shetland, but there are some signs saying ‘no dogs’ and others asking you to avoid the area with dogs during lambing and nesting time. Please be aware that between May and August, there are ground-nesting birds in many areas and young birds can be hiding in the grass and heather. Even if a dog is on a lead (especially on an extending lead), they can flush out birds and cause injury to young chicks, so be vigilant. Please respect all signs regarding access with dogs. I am speaking as a dog owner and ours go everywhere with us on walks, but we are always aware of the potential disturbance they may cause and do everything we can to avoid it. Also remember that if you have a dog, you may need to lift them over field boundaries (fences or walls), where there are no gates, stiles or Jacob's ladders.
If you’re used to hill-walking you will be very aware of the phrase – ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints’. Of course, it also applies here in Shetland, as we all have a responsibility to ensure that our walking and recreational activities have minimum impact on the environment. Many areas here are under special protection such as sites of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and some National Nature Reserves, but even in most of these areas, the rights of open access apply. Where they don’t, they are carefully signposted.
We don't have any organised hunting or shooting activities here in Shetland. For those used to walking on the Scottish Hills, this makes life a lot easier here, as we don't have to consider that some of the hills may be closed for periods of time. You should be aware if the local crofters are out working, particularly if they are rounding up sheep. Try and stay away from them, as you will not be popular if you cause a flock of sheep to scatter when they have been collecting them together for the last hour!
Rights of access do not usually apply to farm-yards and areas immediately surrounding buildings, but some waymarked paths in Shetland do go close to buildings, and in that case you can follow those at any time. Please respect the privacy of the property-owners and be aware they may have a dog that doesn't realise it’s OK for you to be there.
For some general advice on hill-walking in Shetland, please see our page – ‘Walking in Shetland’. If you’re looking for some ideas for walks, have a look at our ‘guided walks’ page and my previous blogs. There are several walking guide books for Shetland, detailing many walks – some based on core paths or access routes and others suggesting some magnificent walks taking advantage of our wonderful open access. I will also continue to post blogs of some of our favourite walks, so look out for future posts. If you're interested in a guided walk, we can tailor-make walks to suit individuals and groups, so please get in touch if you’d like to.
Most importantly - get out there - enjoy the wonderful Shetland coastline and landscapes. Happy walking.
Thank you to Kevin Serginson, Outdoor Access Officer, Shetland Islands Council, for checking the content of this blog.