Exploring Ronas Hill, the Lang Ayre and Turls Head – North Roe, Shetland

Ronas Hill is Shetland’s highest hill at just 450 metres in height. It would barely be noted as a hill on the Scottish mainland, but it is alone at this height between Orkney and the Faroe Isles, and at 60.5 degrees north, open to the Atlantic Ocean, it is a fairly extreme environment. Da Sneug on the remote island of Foula is the only other 400 metre hill in the Shetland Islands (and having seen Foula only from a distance I would love to visit).

Ronas Hill is a great rounded lump, shaped from granitic rocks by glacial action but with some steep and rugged terrain on its coastal slopes, such as at Stonga Banks and The Brough above Ronas Voe. The Stonga Banks are on the hill’s north west side, a couple of kilometres from the summit; steep, highly eroded cliffs that drop to the Lang Ayre gravel beach in a remote and extremely scenic bay.

Before visiting Shetland it was a given that I’d want to reach the highest point of the islands. Whilst looking over the OS maps that can be purchased here my eye was also drawn to the Lang Ayre, a remote two kilometre stretch of beach with intriguing looking stacks just offshore. How long a day would it be to visit the summit of Ronas Hill and the Lang Ayre? You can see details of the route, distance and timing on Strava here or on the interactive map below. In the event, the route I took combined a quick initial ascent of Ronas Hill from the A970 roadside at North Collafirth with a long and more leisurely exploration of the west and north west coastal sides of the hill – taking in the Hill of Burriesness, Ketligill Head, the Lang Ayre, Stonga Banks and Turls Head before a plod back over the top of Ronas Hill and down back east to the road. With this route I managed to conjure up a day of nearly 1250 metres of ascent!

Interactive map of the route and photos and all of my Shetland photos.

A surfaced track leads from the A970 to masts at the top of Collafirth Hill (233m) and appeared to be open to public vehicles as a couple of cars passed me as I made my way on foot. From Collafirth Hill the east side of Ronas Hill is fairly featureless, and a wide variety of lines could be taken over or around the intervening bumps of Roga Field and Mid Field en-route to the summit. In my haste (I was seeing how fast I could make it to the summit) I barely took any photos on the ascent. The summit was worth a panorama though, despite grey skies, and, after a short break, as I descended the western slopes the views of and over the deep fjord inlet of Ronas Voe were good.

On the Hill of Burriesness there were great skua, or bonxies, that took great interest in me, circling around overhead and keeping a watchful and seemingly curious eye. I think the young were of sufficient maturity that the parents didn’t feel the need to be aggressive. From the hill I descended north to the cliffs near Whal Horn and made my way round to the western point of Ketligill Head above The Roodrans stacks, then to the top of the head. The granite coast is steep, spectacular and beautiful.

From Ketligill Head there is very steep grass down to the Burn of Monius valley that runs down on to the Lang Ayre. I swung south then back northwards to avoid the worst of this, then descended down the fairly steep and eroded stream valley where there is a worn path. Care is needed on the bare rock and loose gravel and someone has thoughtfully rigged up a rope to help with the steepest passage.

Reaching the Lang Ayre was superb. There was no one else on the beach (or the west side of the hill as far as I saw all day), it is rather remote and very beautiful; an awe inspiring place. I felt incredibly lucky and privileged to visit, a similar feeling to one I’d had on Beinn an Aodainn (Ben Aden) earlier in the summer. Like Beinn an Aodainn this is a place to savour, you won’t be in a place like this every day – or maybe I’m just getting sentimental in middle age! Anyway, I took a few photos and took time to soak up the atmosphere and the sky brightened for a time.

Onwards and upwards, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to explore round the top of the Stonga Banks and towards Turls Head. Once I got close to Turls Head I was irresistibly drawn down to its lowest accessible point. As I’ve said before, this is an awe inspiring place; my mind was blown.

In late afternoon from near sea level at Turls Head, to return to a vehicle on the A970 at North Collafirth, there isn’t much for it but to put one foot in front of the other and keep repeating. You could contour around the northern slopes of Ronas Hill via Knowe of Sandywater, The Roonies, Vig Vishins and Grut Wells – Shetland has a plethora of fantastic names – but where is the fun in that and how boggy is the ground? Always keen to get a few metres of ascent in the legs I took the north west ridge of Ronas Hill up into the mist. I didn’t linger on the summit and headed down to Mid Field and the track at Collafirth Hill enjoying the re-emergence from the mist and the evening views over Yell Sound.

Discover and explore more of the wonderful sights of Shetland through the articles and links below.

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