Shetland Mainland - part 2a: A speleological special

Our second day was always going to be a big one - not so much in terms of distance, although we did cover more than 50km - but more because of what we would be passing: first the rightly renowned caves of Papa Stour, then the crossing of St Magnus Bay, then Esha Ness, a crossing of Ronas Voe, the superb section of coastline between Ronas Voe and Uyea, and then the Point of Fethaland.
Any one of these sections could easily and deservedly be turned into a full day's paddling and while we were all keen not to rush past such remarkable places, it was clear that getting around the Point of Fethaland on day two, would greatly increase our overall chances of success.
And so we set out, late as normal, with the intention of exploring the caves in the morning and getting as far as we could after that.
Caves, low light and moving kayaks - even in the absence of any swell - simply do not lend themselves to good images. It has been a source of continual frustration, especially in areas such as this, and so while these pictures certainly do not do the place justice, I hope they give a flavour of what Papa Stour offers.
The highlight is arguably Kirstan Holl - a long and wide entrance leads eventually to a large chamber where the roof of the cave has collapsed.
It is a remarkable place with a number of passages leading from the main chamber - in fact this is almost certainly the meaning of the name.
In an article I wrote for Ocean Paddler (issue 16), titled: A Peerie Paddle to Papa Stour, I quoted an excerpt from The Coastal Place-names of Papa Stour by George P.S Peterson...
"The correct name is the one used by the local people. I pondered long over its meaning studying Scandinavian words beginning with K and G and even H but finding nothing that suited...however a Gaelic dictionary...immediately revealed 'cuartan' - a labrynth. And Kirstan Holl has side caves that branch off near the beach. The pronunciation of the Gaelic inserts a sibilant between R and T so that the word sounds something like 'carshtan'. It has not changed that much since the local Celts gave the word to the Norse settlers..."
In the context of the depopulation of islands like Papa Stour, I believe it is important that we who are able to visit these places and see things that few ever will, take the time to understand the names and their meanings, in order that the historical link is not lost.

Exploring most of the larger caves led eventually to the steep beach beneath Aesha Head...
...where we stopped awhile, taking advantage again of the calm conditions, before setting out to explore the last of the caves and then make the crossing of St Magnus Bay.
Tim heads for the gap between Aesha Head and Lyra Skerry - which along with its neighbour, Fogla Skerry, has a number of remarkable through routes - making directly for the Holl o Boardie.
Brian heads into the gloom of what is the fourth longest sea cave in the world. I had sized up this passage once before - but then, with waves rebounding and breaking in all directions we had backed off. I was glad we had - after rounding the headland, it was clear that the exit was closing frequently as the northerly swell broke upon the cliffs. Yet today the unusual calm persisted and we moved rapidly into this exceptional cave, to emerge after 300m, looking out on the vast expanse of St Magnus Bay...

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