Back Where It All Began…

Back where it all began…

When you grow up in Shetland the majority of us are lucky enough to experience a care free childhood where we could roam in the hills, play at the beach and enjoy the freedom of island life. Even although we moved to Lerwick (the capital) from the isle of Whalsay when I was small, there was still a beach just across and down the road, and hills all around. Then in the school holidays we’d spend weeks up in Whalsay at my grandparents where we’d explore the hills building gang huts and making up our own games from our imagination. When you are that small you don’t realise that this freedom isn’t the norm for most children, that this lifestyle is a complete privilege.

I have lots of happy memories of being at the beach as a child, playing with my sisters, cousins and parents friends children. Here I am at Meal beach in Burra when I was around 8 years old. It’s funny that I came across this picture, because I was at this beach yesterday walking the dog.

Then you hit your teenage years and all you want to do is leave Shetland because your rebellious teenage attitude believes that you are being deprived of a much more exciting teenage life. To an extent this is true, but with everything in life you have to measure the good with the bad. As a teenager, along with my friends we had complete liberty to do what we wanted. We were always safe and in an environment our parents knew that if we couldn’t look after ourselves, someone would be there that would. I guess now as an adult I can appreciate that as a teenager I was in the best place!

Then, as many do, I did leave. I moved to Edinburgh to study at University and I completely loved it.

A few years later I returned to Shetland for a job and felt a bit oppressed to adjusting back into island life. The job was an opportunity I’d always wanted, but I struggled to find my place again in Shetland. I’d left Shetland as a teenager and returned as an adult and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. The friends who were still here had settled down and those who hadn’t returned after uni… well they weren’t here.

Then one night after work a colleague of mine invited me to come on a hike with him and a couple of his friends. “A hike?!” needless to say I hadn’t walked the length of myself before. Nevertheless, I wasn’t doing anything else and could do with some people to hang out with. Living back in Shetland was becoming very lonely. “What do I wear? What do I take? What if I can’t keep up?” believe it or not I was completely overcome with anxiety at the thought of this, I was completely out of my depth and comfort zone. On a quick dash home with my list of what to bring I found a pair of pink trainers and a little polka dot rucksack I’d bought on a whim and never used. They’d have to do. So off I went… and on that evening, on my very first hike we took on Ronas Hill and The Lang Ayre (no biggy)  

Here I am in my little pink trainers 4 years ago delighted to have made it down onto the The Lang Ayre.

I’d never experienced Shetland from this perspective before. Yes I was a pretty unbound child who would disappear for hours, only to return when hungry. But this was a whole new experience. I’d never seen a panorama quite like it. I’d never been this high before unless in an aeroplane. Therefore, that night for me was a bit of a game changer. Without sounding too Hollywood movie, it really did remind me that, actually, being back home was pretty special. It was like I’d been awoken to what a privilege it was to live here and how I needed to get out and see exactly what Shetland had to offer outwith Lerwick.

June 2014, my first experience of seeing Shetland from a different view point
4 years on I was back, but better equipped and wiser

Four years later, here I am. Still here. My list of Shetland adventures are endless. Without looking back through photos I can’t even remember everything I’ve done. Something in me that evening changed. I went from the girl in a pair of pink trainers struggling up the face of The Lang Ayre to ‘Shetland Islands with Leah’. Owning a pair of hiking boots is something I never thought I’d ever need and now I have all the gear. Sometimes as I’m packing for an adventure I laugh at myself and wonder how different I was back then. It’s been a learning curve of what’s best to pack, what comes in handy, how to keep it light, how to stay warm and cool at the same time, but I think I have it sussed!

So my point here is: when you come from a place you can sometimes overlook and not appreciate the little things in life. You can become so familiar with your surroundings and conversant with certain circles you fail to move out with your comfort zone. Getting out and exploring is not only good for you physically, but delightful for your mental health. The beauty, the fresh air, the sense of calm you experience is priceless and only rewarded if you accept the invitation to go and see Shetland in its true glory. These spots are hidden in the hills and down over the cliffs because they are special and you need to go to them, they will not come to you.

Also, venturing to the many islands, taking part in group adventures, going on ‘staycations’ in Shetland has all lead to me meeting new, different and interesting people and mixing in different circles has inevitably made me feel ‘more at home’ in my own home.

So, to conclude this discomforted heartfelt splurge, I guess I want to remind anyone who is reading this whether you came from here, moved here, visited here or want to visit Shetland that this place is unbelievably special and unique and I’m so grateful to my friend Maurice for dragging me out for that hike which changed my attitude towards life for me in Shetland.

June 2014, enjoying a G&T at the Lang Ayre to mark my first ever hike

So go explore. Go grasp what’s waiting for you.

Shetland Islands with Leah was an idea I’d had on the back burner for years. I was racking up a good archive of adventures documented with stunning photos and memories which repeatedly happened but disappeared into a photo folder.

People would see I’d been somewhere on social media and message me questions or meet me desperately inquisitive. Subsequently, I was seeing a need from both people out with Shetland and local people to have a platform to engage in my adventures. But more essentially I just wanted to have a place I could record and store all my memories and if anyone wanted to have a peep they could.

So I did and with that triggered this trip down memory lane. How on earth did this all start? So it only seemed right to go back to where this all started: Ronas Hill and The Lang Ayre…

The route we took WNW

On a Saturday afternoon we set off from the Collafirth mast. But not up Ronas Hill like the first time (the route most commonly taken) we headed WNW in the direction just south of the Swabie Water along the contour of the hill. Along this route you look out across a plateau where you could walk all day from loch to loch, the landscape broken up by heathery, rocky knowes and small burns flowing with crystal clear water. The lochs have some great names such as Loch of the Hadd, Many Crooks, Clubbi Shuns and an area known as da Maadle Swankie.

 We walked for 3 miles before reaching the first view point, whch is marked on the map as ‘Haa of Stong’ This is one view that truly takes your breath away. It’s not the most common view of The Lange Ayre as people tend to go down over Ronas Hill and see it from further south. But personally I think this view point is the best because you get to see the full curvature and stretch of the mile long, red beach, from a vantage point of almost 700 feet on top of the weathered red granite Stonga Banks.

After sitting for a while lapping up the red cliffs, sea birds and the sound of the turquoise Atlantic oceans surf pasting the beach we moved along the cliffs for another third of a mile until we approached the more common view point. This was a steep incline and one you need to be very careful on as the towering cliffs hold no mercy to irresponsible treaders.

Following on from the view point we moved a little inland before descending down the steep decline between two hills, following the burn until there is a steep drop which allows for a space to clamber down onto The Lang Ayre beach with the aid of a rope. The ground is loose with falling gravel, so it’s not a journey to be taken alone. Be careful and take it slowly.

Nevertheless, as you climb down you do so next to a little waterfall which almost stands like a little warm welcome to what becomes the most mind blowing beach experience you are likely to get. Once down on the shingle safely the beach isn’t revealed until you walk out from the water fall onto the beach which opens up into the most spectacular sweeping panoramic view of overwhelming splendour, red cliff sides and red sand going on far into the distance drawn to an end by some beautiful stacks popping out of the Atlantic Ocean like ornaments. The Lang Ayre has a definite ‘Game of Thrones’ feel about it. It’s ancient, it’s mighty and it’s powerful. It’s truly stunning and entirely unique.

Therefore, it was only fair to treat this experience with appreciation so I chose my spot to rest and cook up some dinner while taking in my mighty surroundings. This was a dream location for ‘Leah’s Culinary Skills in the Hills’ (but on the beach) so I’d taken with me some mackerel my Dad had caught which I fried up on my little gas stove and served with some fresh local bread and butter and a side of salad. Sitting in the lea guarded by the mighty red cliffs the sun shone down as we enjoyed a feast after the trek to get here. It was marvellous. Topped off by a Gin and Tonic which was commendable because I’d had one the first time I’d made it to this beach. It wouldn’t be right not to follow on the tradition…

I sent my Dad a picture to show him where I was enjoying his fry to which he responded: “Mackerel on da Lang Ayre, see da stack in de foto, it’s called da Cleiver. We got 400 ton o mackerel just aff it whin I wis on da Zephyr” to think I’d dragged fillets of mackerel all the way in my ruck sack when they are there right in front of me in the sea amused me.

The photo I sent to Dad

But as they say, all good things must come to an end and as supper was finished and a G&T enjoyed the sun was starting to set meaning we needed to make tracks. We’d come down off the cliff side like mountain goats and there was only one way to get home… to climb back up and so we did… right to the top of Ronas Hill from sea level. Now keeping in mind we’d already done a full on hike to get to the Lang Ayre the thought of climbing a 1,476 foot Marilyn from sea level was slightly intimidating and the very thought exhausting. But although I’d “climbed” Ronas Hill four years ago, I hadn’t really because when you set off from the Collafirth mast (like everyone does) you have already technically driven half way up the hill, so I had to do Ronas Hill properly. So back up the rope I went determined to be able to say I’d aptly climbed Ronas Hill.

Ronas Hill
a 1,476 foot Marilyn

Half way up the hill the sun was setting behind us as we pitched our way up. On stopping for a water break we looked out across the ocean and the sun rays shone down on two oil rigs far in the distance silhouetted by the sun rays. It was beautiful and amazing to see such a sight because in normal day life in Shetland we know they are out there somewhere, but you never get to see them. The image was beautiful.

On reaching the top the sun was well and truly set and it was cold up there! But we’d done it and I was delighted to have made it to the cairn which holds the visitor book. The lights of Sullom Voe oil terminal were shining in the distance, but this day had drawn to a close. As we made our way back down off the hill there was very little day light left and Maurice proceeded to tell Trowie stories as we made our way back. I don’t know if you believe in Trows, but when you are on the side of a hill in the dark suddenly they feel very real I can tell you!

Reaching the top of Ronas Hill. You can see the lights of Sullom Voe Oil Terminal in the distance.

Officially spooked, sore and exhausted we’d made it back safe and well. Four years on, I was back where it all began…

2014, my first experience of finding one of Shetlands many hidden view points
2019, Back where it all began….

You can view the full ‘Ronas Hill and The Lang Ayre’ photo album on the Shetland Islands with Leah Facebook page.

3 thoughts on “Back Where It All Began…

  1. Beautiful story! We might we might move to another area or city but home is where the heart is.


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