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Shetland: March of the puffins

It's well worth the effort involved in getting to Sumburgh in Shetland — think island-hopping, snug cabins and avian spectacles magical enough to make youngsters tremble.

By Mark Rowe
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:23 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 11:39 BST
Looking for puffins in Shetland

Looking for puffins in Shetland.

Photograph by Mark Rowe

Have you ever heard a puffin growl? It's one of nature's most magical, comical noises, perfectly appropriate for an equally magical and comical bird, like a motorcycle revving up, ready to leap into thin air.

We're 100m above the North Sea, by a precipitous cliff ledge at Sumburgh Head on Shetland and, just the other side of a stone wall, perhaps 100 puffins are on patrol, They're not really growling, of course: it's just how their gentle cooing comes across.

It's an enchanting place and my 10-year-old son Thomas is utterly overwhelmed, visibly trembling with excitement at the magical spectacle. I've seen a lot of puffins over the years but never so close up or in such a breathtaking setting. Then there's the guillemot chicks, newly fledged — known delightfully as 'jumplings' — about to take their first perilous leaps and tumble into the water.

The puffins come and go, fluttering in arcs above the bay before returning to their perches. The guillemots simply go for it, falling through the air to the sea. The backdrop is stirring: Sumburgh Head and Shetland tumble away to the north, down to sea level and then rise once more in the shape of sweeping hills with names such as Fitful Head. In the middle distance lie the ruins of Jarlshof, an astonishing jumble of archaeological remains, dating back 4,000 years.

For this moment and this view alone it's been well worth the effort involved in getting to Shetland. The islands are not quick to reach, unless you fly, but the journey is easy, fun and perfect for families: an overnight sleeper train to Inverness, a drive down to Aberdeen and the 12-hour Northlink ferry with snug cabins to Lerwick.

Sumburgh is the perfect family destination. Not just for the puffins but for the excellent cafe just behind us. Thoughtfully and aesthetically moulded into the contours of the headland, it has floor-to-ceiling windows that allow you to gaze out at the sea, pick out orcas and seals and the distance outline of Fair Isle; closer by, the tiny Shetland wren bobs along the walls. An excellent visitor centre introduces you to the local wildlife and history and there are even 'puffincams' keeping an eye on the nests.

The sea, ancient history and wildlife dominate our time on Shetland. We take a day trip to Mousa Broch, a cylindrical stone tower reached by a short ferry from Sandwick. No one can say for sure why the broch was built — home, warehouse, fortification, vanity project have all been proposed. Hugh Harrop, who runs outstanding wildlife trips for adults and children, shows us around the broch and Mousa Island. If you want to see otters then he is your man; his passion could even encourage your children to take up careers in wildlife. He shows us storm petrel nests and when Thomas gets too close to a rock ledge he politely asks him if he's keen to act as orca bait. This is how ancient history and wildlife encounters should be for kids: tangible, tactile, remote and slightly edgy.

Hugh also runs an orca watch group and throughout the holiday my phone pings with his sightings of a pod that is hunting seals around the mainland of Shetland. We always seem to be a couple of hours behind them. They're spotted at Sumburgh but leave as we arrive. We swim in the orca-free waters of Grutness Beach by Sumburgh airport. We can see the terminal and the runway runs just 20m behind the sand dunes on which we sit. We're swimming in Shetland, as a family, and enjoying it. I pinch myself, not just to keep warm but to make sure we're really doing it.


More info:

How to do it:
Return London-Inverness on the Caledonian Sleeper in twin cabins with connecting doors for a family of four costs £340.
Aberdeen-Lerwick return for a family of four with overnight cabins £545 with Northlink Ferries.

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