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13 November 2014

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You are in: North East Scotland, Orkney & Shetland > People & Places > Arts & Culture > Shetland poetry walk


Shetland poetry walk

Join award winning Shetland-based poet Jen Hadfield on an atmospheric walk around the inspirational coast-line near her home in the islands. Part of the BBC poetry season, you can vote for the nation's favourite poet, Seamus Heaney gets Jen's vote.

Jen recently won the T.S Eliot prize for her second anthology of work 'Nigh-No-Place'.  Her work is inspired by the landscape around her and on this walk she'll show you how and why this is the case. 

Details of the walk to the brink of Burra

Jen Hadfield lives in Shetland. The landscape and language persistently influence her poetry and visual art. Her work often pivots on the idea of the secular-sacred, relating to landscape – "It is in heaven as it is on earth", "it is on earth as it is in heaven".

Of her two books, Almanacs was written in Shetland and the Western Isles in 2002 and won an Eric Gregory Award in 2003. Nigh-No-Place, written in Canada and Shetland, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2007 and won the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry in 2008.

On this walk she shares the place that inspires her.


We are leaving Banna Minn Beach, in the central mainland of Shetland, to walk to the headland of Kettla Ness at the southernmost tip of Burra Isle.  Banna Minn is Everybeach; a skinny spot of land curved like a rib, with round grey boulders on its east shore and white sand on the other.  The marrow between them is a grassy dune, grazed by sheep.

Reference: Jen Hadfield, 'Banna Minn' (unpublished).


We've passed between the ruinous settlement of Minn, and the immaculately painted cottage where my neighbours used to stay at lambing time, to be close to the ewes.

Reference: Michael Longley, 'Gathering Mushrooms' from No Continuing City.


I have a particular love for Shetland's high steppes, this expansive plain dominated by the sky.

Reference: Don Paterson, 'The Poetry after Li Po'.


As you climb up the final slope towards the summit and the Ward, the west coast drops away in one of those extreme cliffs that is so typical of Shetland.  There's rubble of torn black basalt at the base of the cliff, and muscular seas, and a tall scone-shaped sea-stack, on which there are sometimes sheep. I can't quite work out how the sheep get there or if they ever rejoin the mainland. This is Fugla Stack and the site of one of Burra's many wrecks. The winch, engines, propeller shaft and stern gear of a steel steamship called The Castor lie on the seabed to the north of the stack. She was lost with all hands on 17 February 1910.

Reference: James Sinclair, ‘Skipper’s Log 1969’ from Gulf Stream Blues.

Having survived the climb to the Ward you get a long view across Kettla Ness. Ever since seeing the 1980s adaptation of C.S Lewis's books on TV as a child, I've had a fascination with the edges of lands. The very brink of Burra is one gorgeous dry moonscape of sea-pink and dry rosy quartz.

Reference: George Mackay Brown, ‘The Joy of the Young Men’ from Travellers.


When you describe a retreat, or a bolthole, a place you pine for, you almost consecrate it with words; it can begin to feel sacred. Which isn't meant to sound new-agey, it happens quite easily to all of us. I have just discovered this lochan's given name: The Loch of Annyeruss. Unlike the transparently Scandinavian etymology of Virda Vatn (Virda meaning... and Vatn...) I haven't been able to find out its roots, but for some time I've privately called this place The Font. The lochan is small and from this perspective, triangular. Beyond it is a rough rill of stones and the open sea, the island of South Havra, now deserted, and the long view of Fitful Head, the massive cliffs at the southernmost tip of the Mainland of Shetland.

Reference: Kathleen Jamie, ‘Lochan’ from Jizzen.

Having walked to the brink of Burra, you more or less have to retrace your steps, and this seems perverse and appropriate to a pilgrimage. It is strange to meet other people out here. Passing Fugla Stack, and the Sweetie Wreck.

VII. Nearly home, goat-stepping down the steep bank along the burn to the tiny cottage at Minn.

Reference: James Sinclair, ‘Ties’ from Gulf Stream Blues; after Brian McCabe’s poem, Noah.

VIII. Finally, leaving Banna Minn Beach, a reading from the poet I would vote for on the BBC Poetry website, Seamus Heaney, and his account of what places can do to the heart.

Seamus Heaney, ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level.

Further Links

Part of the BBC poetry season, you can also discover more about poetry and vote for the nation's favourite poet at the poetry season website.  Seamus Heaney, also a T.S Eliot prize-winner, gets Jen's vote. Cast your vote and learn more about the season at the website.

last updated: 12/08/2009 at 11:39
created: 17/07/2009

You are in: North East Scotland, Orkney & Shetland > People & Places > Arts & Culture > Shetland poetry walk

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