Scotland is well known for it's "Every man's right" giving access to land for hiking and wild camping, but given the high numbers of tourists to mainland Scotland, and the limited number of roads, it can be difficult enough to find a scenic spot for an easy wild camp, especially if you don't want to be eaten alive by the Scottish midge. The Shetland Isles have very few visitors and even less midges, and wild camping is positively encouraged!
With signposted stiles through farm land providing access to the most scenic coastal spots, and public toilets dotted throughout the islands, wild camping there really is a breeze.
We camped for 18 nights in September, on some of the most beautiful scenic spots I've seen anywhere. The best spots were the beaches (Spiggie, Muckle Roe, Bridge of Walls, Eshaness & Yell) and the stunning cliff top sites (Sumburgh, Eshaness & Fetlar). The weather was pretty settled at that time of year - we had one very rainy evening, and spent one morning listening to an apocalyptic thunder storm. The rest of the time the weather was pretty settled and pleasant - we even had to don sunglasses and sun cream from time to time!
We couldn't find many resources on wild camping before we got there .. so here's your guide to how to do it!
1) Do some research
Because it's an archipelago, and some of the islands involve a bit of planning to get to, it's worth coming up with a vague plan before you go. We find a road map, laid out in the living room floor, with a walking guide for ideas and descriptions of the various locations really handy for planning before you go. Philip's Red Books do a good road map (of both Orkney & Shetland) at 2.5 miles to an inch. Cicerone do a nice hiking book by Graham Uney called Walking on the Orkney & Shetland Isles which helps a bit when trying to come up with a plan. But nothing beats getting there and seeing it for yourself, so don't stick to your plan too rigidly if you get there and don't like what you see. For example, we drove every single road on the main island, some of which sounded like they would lead to nice walks that we'd read about in the Cicerone guide. But when we got there, it wasn't our cup of tea - too flat, or too much infrastructure (like fish farms), so we ditched that plan, and hung out for longer on the wild and rugged west coast of the main island which was right up our street.
2) Plan any island hopping in advance
We were so blown away by the scenery on the west coast of the main island, that even though we had a long trip (18 nights) in a compact archipelago, we ran out of time to see some of the more remote islands. We were able to get to Fetlar and Yell, as ferries to the Northern Isles go pretty frequently (at least a couple of ferries per day), but you can still lose a good part of a day by not being aware of the ferry times, especially getting to and from tiny Fetlar.
For the more remote islands, like Foula, Papa Stour and the Skerries, the ferry only sails on certain days, and only then if there is a booking made. The boats are quite small, so without a booking, there is a chance you wouldn't get on.
To make a booking, each crossing has its own number, open during office hours only, and mobile phone reception is very sporadic, so book well ahead if you're keen to explore some of the remote islands.
3) Choose a beautiful camp spot, and stay put
There are some really stunning locations for wild camping, with good access via stiles across farm land. Once you get there, there is plenty to see in the few kilometres of coastline around your camp spot, so I recommend getting set up and staying put for 2 or 3 nights. That way you maximise your relaxing camping and hiking time, and minimise your time driving and looking for camping spots. Chances are you'll never be further than 1 or 2 km from the car, so you can always go back to pick up supplies of food and water if needed. It is much easier to find good places to camp if you're armed with a good scaled map. Ordnance Survey maps numbers 466-470 cover all of the islands at 1:25000, and include all the little paths and tracks, interesting geographic features, and the overall lay of the land - crucial in finding a spot you can access and fancy staying in for a few days.
4) Don't get caught short
The lovely people at Shetland Islands Council have gone to a lot of effort to make sure you're never too far away from a clean (basic) public loo. The islands are fairly compact, so you rarely have to drive more than 15km to the nearest WC. It's a good idea to keep an eye out for them as you're driving around, or keep this map handy. That way, when you need the loo in a hurry, you'll know where to go!
5) Be prepared for the weather
We were pretty lucky with the weather, but we still got good use out of our waterproofs! Especially when wild camping, you don't want to get your clothes wet, as it can be difficult to get them dried again, and hanging around in wet clothes, in cold, windy weather is miserable at best, but can also be dangerous. You will need a robust tent, as the islands can get pretty windy, being 60 miles off mainland Scotland in the North Sea, and the most scenic camp spots are on the exposed west coast. While the sun came out, and we were down to t-shirts at times, it did get pretty cold some evenings, and we were grateful for our goose down Rab Neutrino Endurance jackets and sleeping bags. In short, be prepared for all types of weather, as you'll probably see a bit of it all, all in one afternoon!
6) Consider taking your own car
Car hire can be pricey, so think about taking the ferry, and your own car if this is feasible. We live in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and 24 hours got us from our front door to Lerwick, and cost us about half as much as flying and hiring a car. Another possibility is using public transport - but for an extended trip, with all the gear and supplies you would need, given how far the shops are from the camping spots, I think you would need to be fairly hardy to consider this. Throw in a few cameras, and a 7-month baby bump, and this was pretty much impossible for us. For more reasons to take the ferry, see my related blog post here.
7) Treat yourself to some luxury once in a while
Most of the hotels and guest houses are in Lerwick, which can mean a bit of backtracking if you fancy a break from wild camping half way through your trip. There are a few hotels doted around near the scenic spots (Busta House near Muckle Roe, St Magnus Bay Hotel near Eshaness, Sumburgh Hotel, and Spiggie Hotel near Spiggie beach & St Ninian's Isle) but too many of these will prove pricey, as you'll need to eat out. Another way to get some luxury for a night or two is with AirBnB - take a whole property, for cheaper than a night in a hotel, and cook some treats for yourself. See my related blog post AirBnB - the perfect companion to wild camping.
So, now you have much more info than we had to make the most of an incredible few weeks wild camping in Britain's most northerly out post, where you will meet more seals than people, and can enjoy the most spectacular coastal camping you've ever imagined!