The Lodge in Fetlar; the perfect rural retreat in Shetland.
In early August we stayed in an award-winning self-catering cottage in Fetlar. The Lodge sits tucked above the shore, overlooking Lambhoga, and won the 2019 Lux Life’s most Tranquil Accommodation award. And wow, what a spot. As you drive into Houbie, the heart of the island, The Lodge comes into view. Nestled in the shadow of the impressive, if imposing, Leagarth House to which the Lodge was built to serve; originally as a gardener’s cottage for the early-20th-century mansion. The Lodge was built in 1900 for then-owner Sir Watson Cheyne, a pioneering surgeon who grew up in Fetlar.
Fetlar; the perfect place to get-away-from-it-all.
Fetlar, one of Shetland’s three North Isles has endearingly been known as the ‘Garden of Shetland’ since Norse times, and it’s easy to understand why. The stunning landscapes, fertile valleys and diverse geology give rise to the most incredible display of flora and fauna. As we walked through the island, I was amazed by the array of flowers; scented meadowsweet, wild angelica and hogweed, vibrant bog asphodel, sunny buttercups, carpets of eyebright and creeping willow, and, a personal highlight for the whole family, young and old – heather berries.
Bog cotton, bog asphodel and meadowsweet in Fetlar.
Today Fetlar has a population of 60, with two new families set to move into the isle before the year is out. We were joined on the 25-minute ferry crossing from Yell by one other car – the ‘shop’ car. The Landrover was stacked to the rafters with boxes marked ‘Fetlar shop’, having made the weekly journey to the mainland, bringing vital supplies to the island. The shop is in Houbie, just up the hill from The Lodge, and is very much the centre of the community here. Well-stocked and friendly, I think we sold them out of both ice-cream and Lerwick Brewery’s ‘Tushker’ beer (and I can only apologise to the residents who were left disappointed after a long day in the sun to discover that their local shop was out-of-stock!).
Loch of Funzie, Fetlar.
Despite being a remote and picturesque getaway, Fetlar has not been without its share of problems over the years. In the 19th century, the landlord (laird) evicted many of the tenant farmers from the land to make way for large-scale sheep farming and the island never really recovered. By the 1990s the population was at an all-time low. So it’s heartening to hear that new life is coming to the island as new families, and life, move in. The clearances undoubtedly left many scars on the community, mostly in the form of ruined houses and homesteads; homes once filled with warmth and happiness, reduced to gloomy ruins with empty hearths. I wrote about this last year, and you can read about it here.
Views from the front door of The Lodge across the Wick of Tresta and Lambhoga.
Fetlar has been inhabited for about 5,000 years, and it has been argued that the first Vikings in Shetland arrived in Fetlar, although Unst could well dispute this claim! One thing is clear, as you walk through the island, the hand of ancient man is all around you, and if you tune the eye to the landscape, you can read it like a book. The story of Fetlar is the story of Shetland’s broader past.
Getting to Fetlar
Fetlar is relatively easy to get to, although ferry booking is advised. The journey involves two crossings; from Toft (Mainland) to Ulsta (Yell), and then Gutcher (Yell) to Hamars Ness (Fetlar), often with a drop in at Unst to pick up more passengers en route. To get to Toft, follow the A970 from Lerwick then the A968 towards Mossbank. The first crossing takes about 15 minutes. Allow half an hour to travel through Yell towards Gutcher. The final leg, Gutcher to Hamar’s Ness, takes 25 minutes on the ferry.
Fetlar ferry at Hamar's Ness.
The Shetland Islands Council operates Shetland’s network of Inter-Island ferries, and timetables and bookings can be made here.
The Lodge, situated in Houbie, Fetlar.
The Lodge, Houbie
It’s hard to fault the accommodation provided at The Lodge. The setting is so serene and relaxing that it’s little wonder it won an award for tranquillity this year. The Lodge itself is a three bedroom self-catering cottage that is well kitted out and thoughtfully renovated. It oozes serenity and calm, and the pastel-coloured wood-lined walls throughout the house give the place a soothing sense of peace – sure to relieve any stress or anxiety.
There are two doors; one at the front of the property with off-road parking, and one at the back that leads onto the main road. But don’t fear, traffic is not an issue here, and the roads are quiet. We used the door at the front of the house, a sunny spot with breathtaking, uninterrupted views out to sea. My only criticism here is that the freshly mowed grass presented a never-ending problem as little feet trooped in-and-out the house in a flurry of grass-cuttings. As a result, I was continually sweeping grass from the house. A path to the front door or a mower with a grass box would provide a simple solution.
The house is well-equipped with everything that you might need during your stay; well-stocked kitchen, wifi, TV, information, games and books and the glorious views across the Wick of Tresta.
Houbie, Fetlar, with Leagarth House in the foreground and The Lodge behind.
A weekend in Fetlar (some ideas for your stay)
I have written a lot about Fetlar; last year, I wrote two blogs about things to do in Fetlar that included:
Returning this year, we stroked off a few more ‘must do’s’ from the list from an island which has a tremendous amount to give.
Houbie, Fetlar, with views to Leagarth and The Lodge.
Houbie itself has a lot to offer within a stone’s throw of The Lodge. Fetlar Interpretive Centre is just across the road, offering a glimpse into the island’s history, culture, tradition, people and folklore. It is well worth spending an afternoon as there is a lot of information to get through. A testament to the quality of this community-run museum is its four-star Visit Scotland rating.
Fetlar Interpretive Centre, Houbie.
The Centre is open from May to September (Monday to Saturday 11 - 4 pm; Sunday 12.30 - 4 pm).
Also in Houbie, just beside The Lodge is a beautiful, sandy beach, complete with a 19th-century stepped pool system, designed to encourage trouts to breed in the stream. The beach has a pier and slipway, and we spent every evening of our stay in wetsuits exploring the shoreline and bay beyond.
The beach at Houbie, beside The Lodge, with the trout pools on the left.
Coastal walk from Houbie to Tresta
Houbie is an excellent location to explore every corner of Fetlar, and we began our stay by walking the coast between Houbie and Tresta before returning to The Lodge via the main road.
Walk distance: 5 miles
We began at the Lodge, following the coastline to Tresta Beach. This part of the walk is 1.5 miles and incorporates stunning scenery, geology, archaeology and cliffs.
Along the way, in Dammins and Clemmel Geo, we discovered a steatite quarry with bowl-shaped carvings and initials engraved in the rock face; documenting years of human history in this area.
Steatite/soapstone workings in Fetlar.
Steatite, better known as soapstone, is a soft rock that is extremely easy to carve. It has been used here since prehistoric times; Neolithic people using it to temper pottery. The Viking and Norse settlers later arrived, using it for almost every conceivable purpose in the home and beyond. Steatite/soapstone is synonymous with Norse occupation in Shetland, and its use can be traced all through the North Atlantic. It’s a topic that is close to me, and it formed the basis of my masters thesis, exploring the rise of fishing in Shetland. The thesis tracked the growth of our mainstay industry from Norse times, using the artefactual finds – steatite line-sinkers – as evidence. Outcrops of this versatile rock are found in various places throughout Shetland; notably Unst, Fetlar, Fethaland and Catpund.
Steatite/soapstone items in Shetland Museum. (l-r) line-sinker; toy quernstone; loomweights.
Moving on, we rounded another headland and came on more archaeology; more evidence of Fetlar’s past people. Standing proud on the edge of the cliff sits the Broch of Houbie; a 2,000-year-old Iron Age structure, cloaked in mystery and intrigue. These towers of the past, erected in the mid-Iron Age, still cause archaeologists to stop and scratch their heads, wondering at their purpose and use. The broch, like most of the other 120 broch sites in Shetland, now stands in ruin, but the ramparts are still visible. The conical-shaped mound, rising from the landscape is sure to stop you in your tracks and wonder for a while. We had a picnic here, gazing out over the Wick of Tresta, watching the maalies (fulmars) in their elegant flight, soaring high in the thermals on a warm southerly breeze.
Broch of Houbie; note the ramparts on the right. Hansi and Lena stand on top of the now collapsed structure. It has commanding views across the Wick of Tresta.
The next part of the walk takes you around to Tresta Beach, where the church and Papil Water come into view. Sheer cliffs, geos and caves punctuate the coastline here, and the path between the fence and the cliff-edge can be narrow in places. This is where we happened on the grumpiest crofter (farmer) I think I have ever met. With many profanities and gesticulations, he tried to clear us from his land – concerned, I suspect, that we were going to drive his sheep and lambs over the cliffs. He needn’t have worried. Growing up in Shetland, we are well aware of how to respect the countryside and everything in it. It was just a shame that the children had to be subjected to such ill-temper and bad language – scaring them as we proceeded to the beach.
Tresta Beach coming into view with Papil Water behind.
For anyone concerned about walking the countryside in Shetland, you needn’t be. We have the ‘right to roam’ here, meaning that you can freely explore as you wish. The only requirement is that you respect the land, leave gates as you find them, take away your rubbish and keep dogs on a leash if sheep are around. It is worth bearing in mind that some areas can be dangerous; with sheer cliffs, overhangs, bogs and ground-nesting birds, it is worth doing your homework. I did write a blog about staying safe in the outdoors in Shetland and you can read that here.
Papil Water, Fetlar.
From Tresta beach we walked around Papil Water, skirting past a colony of bonxies (great skuas) who eyed us with as much suspicion as we gave them. Both parties – us and the bonxies – keeping a respectful distance from the other. Incidentally, this is one of the best trout lochs in Shetland. We then re-joined the road and made our way lazily back to The Lodge with little feet beginning to tire and belly’s rumbling.
Bonxies (great skuas) taking off from Papil Water, Fetlar.
Tresta Beach, Fetlar.
This beach deserves a special mention. Outstandingly beautiful, picture-perfect and flanked by the steep slopes of Lambhoga, it commands uninterrupted views across the Wick of Tresta and the North Sea beyond.
Not only is it outstandingly beautiful, but it is also one of five beaches in Shetland to have been awarded a prize in the Keep Scotland Beautiful beach awards in 2019.
The bairns had a ball playing in the crystal-clear turquoise water while we adults enjoyed the picnic benches and a cold beer just above the sand.
Whiling away an afternoon on the beach was no hardship as the wildlife provides a never-ending drama performance overhead. I was most heartened to see scootie Allans (Arctic skuas) – a cousin to the larger bonxie – swiftly flying around. They were chasing tirricks (Arctic terns) and bonxies – their agility, a real sight to behold as they danced above the ebb-stanes, keeping their pursuers at bay. I idly watched a family of dunters (eider ducks) gingerly make their way across the sound, avoiding detection and staying close to the shore. The mother keeping her young close as the acrobatic terns and skuas swooped and dived overhead – nature’s fighter jets fighting for supremacy.
Coastal walk from Tresta to Lambhoga peat shed
This was predominantly a hill walk rather than a coastal walk, although it could be done as a coastal (longer) route. The walk took us four hours but could be achieved much quicker – we stopped along the way to pick heather berries, admire the views and picnic.
Walk distance: 4.5 miles
For this walk, park at the Tresta beach and walk along the beach to the other side where you will find a path/old road that makes the steep passage up the side of Lambhoga. From here, there are spectacular views across the Wick of Tresta, back to Papil Water and Tresta Beach and across to Houbie – and The Lodge, our home for a few days.
The track that we followed continues for about two miles up the hill and inland. On the way, we were distracted by the glut of heather berries. Sweet little bursts of tangy delight, a proper taste of Shetland’s summer. (These are now at home soaking in gin for Christmas). We picked enough to satisfy our needs, leaving enough behind for the birds who depend on this essential late-summer food source.
Searching for heather berries in Fetlar.
As you scale the ridge of Lambhoga, spectacular views across to Yell – Mid Yell and Aywick – emerge. We tracked the passage of a sailing boat heading north through Colgrave Sound and marvelled at the beautiful flush of moorland colour as the bog asphodel transformed boggy depressions into carpets of vibrant, sunshine-coloured flower.
The track that leads through the hill is very boggy and wet in places. Long neglected, the former peat road weaves haphazardly through the bog. After a wet summer, even my Gore-tex hiking boots failed me as brown, peaty water soaked through to my toes, slowly warming in the heat.
The path is very wet in places on the walk to the 'Peaty Hoose'.
The reason for following this track was to see the “Peat Shelter” at the end of the road. Described by Peter Guy in his Walk Shetland series (1991) as a “derelict shelter” where “peat cutters could rest from their labours in the nearby [peat] banks, now disused. During the ‘flitting’ of peat (bringing home) workers of both sexes lived in such ‘peat hooses’ amongst the peat banks”.
My family were pretty unimpressed when I announced that I had found our target; a tumbledown shack, with nothing more standing than part of the corrugated roof and a few empty lemonade bottles. Peter Guy had more luck, saying that: “A plank covered bed-space occupied at least half the space at one end of the ‘hoose’. Thirteen such houses still existed here in the 1960s”.
The 'Peaty Hoose' in Fetlar that I dragged the family to. It has seen better days!
Nevertheless, it was a fantastic spot for a picnic, with panoramic views across the east side of Yell and mainland Shetland, with the Noup of Noss standing proud on the southern horizon.
I tried to wade through the heather that Peter Guy says “elephants could graze”, in search of the ruins of a croft, but the bonxies won the day, and we were forced to turn back to the safety of the ‘peaty hoose’.
It felt like a forgotten place, ruled by the bonxies that glided overhead, diving on us now and again, reminding us that this was their territory and we were trespassers.
It was lovely to bring Grandad along too. Even if he did insist on wearing his hankie on his head to protect from the sun!
Our three days in Fetlar came and went too quickly. The Lodge provided us with the perfect base for exploring and a relaxing place to kick off our boots and wetsuits at the end of the day, with sun-kissed faces and weary legs.
Despite having visited two years on-the-trot, there is still so much to see, do and explore. I left feeling, again, like we had merely scratched the surface of this tantalising little island, tucked away off the north-east coast of Shetland. Next summer, when we return, I will certainly be booking back into The Lodge.
If you too would like to stay in The Lodge, bookings can be made here.
Looking down Whalefirth, Yell.
Shetland is peppered with beautiful old buildings, and none are more evocative and thought-provoking than some of our old church buildings that are found dotted around the islands. Once seats of spiritual worship and ecclesiastical power, many are now privately owned and have undergone refurbishment. Varda self-catering, situated on the island of Yell, is one of these.
Varda self-catering, former church for the Herra community, lovingly restored into self-catering accommodation in Yell.
Varda lies at the end of the Herra road in West Yell. A quiet part of Shetland’s second largest island, the Herra is a place often forgotten, with many people, myself included, having never been in the road to explore this beautiful spot of solitude, steeped in history and lore. Arriving in the Herra, the valley’s steep sides dominate the skyline in all directions, and it certainly feels ‘off-the-beaten-track’.
I am guilty of dismissing Yell and rushing through the vast peat moorland that forms the greater part of the island’s interior, hurrying to catch the ferry across to neighbouring Unst. So I was really excited when we were invited to stay at Varda and explore this peaceful haven, tucked away under the hills in a place which promised hours of fun and adventure.
Some of Yell's rich, peat moorland.
Despite being in the centre of Yell, the Herra is a great place to get-away-from-it-all and enjoy a well-earned break. Follow the main A968 through Yell and turn off just before Mid Yell and Windhouse at the road marked the Herra. Follow the single track almost to the end; you can’t miss the distinctive silhouette of the early 20th-century church looming on the skyline.
The road to the Herra and Varda self-catering, Yell.
There has been a place of worship in the Herra since Medieval times, with chapels at both Windhouse and Gremister, and the kirk, now Varda, was built in 1912. Calls for a church were made in 1911 (see photo above) when the population of the Herra stood at 140, and they had nowhere except the schoolhouse (that could only hold 30) to hold services. The old school is currently on the market, and every day when we passed it, I tried to think of ways to raise the money to buy it, and justify why I should have a summer house in Yell. A girl can dream, right?
In this new kirk, each family had their own pew, and these have been beautifully woven back into the fabric of the building at Varda. I was astonished to discover the population change over 100 years; today, the population of the Herra is only 27.
The old Herra school, currently for sale. A girl can dream, surely?
There were very few marriages that took place in the kirk, most couples choosing to marry in Mid Yell, and one pair were forced to marry on the beach, in the ebb-stanes, by an impatient minister keen to get to Fetlar. Information on those that did marry in the kirk can be found in the Old Haa Museum in Burravoe.
Looking across to Grimister in the Herra. Can you spot Varda self-catering on top of the hill?
Approaching the house, the outside gives away no clue to its current use. The austere church exterior masks its present-day function well. The door, original to the building, opens into the porch, a bright and open space with one of the original pews. Pews have been further incorporated back into the fabric of the building in the hand-crafted kitchen which is just off the porch.
Original pews have been worked back into the building at Varda self-catering. A nod towards its ecclesiastical past.
From the kitchen-diner and continuing into the ‘body of the kirk’, so to speak, there are two bedrooms – a twin and a double – and a generously sized family shower room. The spacious hallway leads upstairs through a wide, airy staircase onto another hallway with Velux windows that stop you in your tracks as you reach the top and admire views over the surrounding hills.
Upstairs is a large king-size bedroom and a fantastic living room, tucked away under the eaves – a perfect retreat after a busy day exploring the area. And with floor level windows and another Velux skylight enjoying spectacular views out across Whalefirth which,at night, commands attention as the sun sets in the western sky.
One of the comments in the visitor’s book from a younger guest sums up Varda perfectly. Grace said, “It reminds me of the Tardis from Dr Who – it looks smaller from the outside, but on the inside, it is BIG!”
This comment really is a testament to the careful thought and consideration that has gone into renovating Varda into a comfortable and spacious home. Churches by their nature, are not easy buildings to repurpose; let alone repurpose and get right. The Hunters have achieved this perfectly, and what Varda offers is a spacious, welcoming, well-thought-out home.
Comments from the Visitor's Book at Varda self-catering.
Varda is well-equipped; the kitchen is fully stocked, and there’s a Thermos in the cupboard for picnics! The house has a washing machine, TVs, CD player, high-chair and Z-beds for any extra visitors. The linen cupboard is bursting with fresh bedding all helpfully labelled according to bed size, and there are plenty of leaflets with information on things to do in Yell, including several fantastic circular walks in the area. The whole house was clean and well-presented, and the pulley in the porch was a welcome place to dry out our water-logged clothes on more than one occasion during our stay!
Fantastic views from the Herra and Gremister, out across Whalefirth beyond.
Getting to and from Yell
The holiday begins on the ferry to Yell.
It’s very easy to get to Yell; it’s just a short hop across Yell Sound on the modern inter-island ferry. The crossing takes about 15 minutes, and passengers can stand on the upper deck and enjoy views across the sound, passing the uninhabited islands of Bigga and Samphrey on the way.
It is advisable to book ferries, although not always necessary. Timetables and bookings are available here.
Beautiful scenery in Yell, note the wildflowers that thrive here.
Yell is the largest of Shetland’s northern isles; and at 17 miles long and seven miles wide, there are plenty of places to discover and enjoy.
Yell is also a relatively quiet place to visit. With most visitors passing through and heading on to the neighbouring island of Unst to the north, the hills and beaches are generally free to enjoy at leisure – alone. Yell is also one of the best places to see skuas, red-throated divers and otters.
Great Skua, there are plenty of these impressive (albeit aggresive) birds to see in Yell.
A weekend in Varda self-catering (some ideas for your stay)
Happiness in the wilds o' Yell.
We chose a weekend in mid-May for our break at Varda; arriving on Friday evening on the 18.55 ferry from Toft we had two days to explore the tantalising Herra and beyond.
Driving through the centre of Yell from the ferry at Ulsta, much of the landscape is blanket peat moor, bleak and moody, yet rich in texture and colour.
The road into the Herra, vast peatland which unfolds into the sea at Gremister.
Turning off the main road the peatland gives way to the green coastal fringes, and stunning views down Whalefirth and out to the Stacks of Stuis which sit on the horizon, guarding the approaches to the voe like sentries on watch.
With only an hour before tea, we took the bikes and headed down to the beach where the Burn of Bouster terminates into the sea. With Arctic terns calling overhead, trout jumping in the burn and dunlins darting around the tide line, it was a special place to while away a little time – that is until Lena decided to wade through the burn without boots on. So with soggy tights, and full hearts, we made our way back up the steep incline to the road to bed down for the night in Varda.
As we cosied in for the evening, the sunset from the upstairs living room took our breath away, no photo could ever do justice to the colours in that May sky with all the accompanying sounds of the night.
A beautiful sunset from Varda self-catering, Yell.
The Herra is a beautiful little community which unfolds from the valley like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon. Consisting of the settlements of Grimister, Efstigarth, Raga and Bouster, these Old Norse names are an echo from the past. And there’s a fascinating history here; the Herra is an ancient community, Laurence Tulloch of Mid Yell describes the people of the Herra, he says:
“The Herra, in Yell, is one of the districts in Shetland most worthy of careful study by anyone truly interested in Shetland matters in their wide range. Among its inhabitants the unusual prevalence of dark eyes and dark hair infer that their fathers dwelt here long before the colonisation of the islands by the Northmen.”
The steep-sided approaches of Whalefirth certainly make it feel like the land that time forgot.
As well as being cloaked in history, the Herra boasts the smallest community hall in Yell – now disused – once famous for its celebrations of Old New Year (January 12th) it sits next door to Varda and was built in 1931. Exciting plans are now in motion to give the hall a new lease of life. A committee of local men are hoping to establish a ‘Men’s Shed’ in this former community hall. On the Sunday that we were staying, a meeting was taking place to move the project forward with the aim of gaining charitable status for the proposal. You can find out more about men’s sheds here.
The former community hall which is set to get a new lease of life as a 'Men's Shed'.
Saturday morning arrived with a fresher, colder wind and grey skies promising rain. Despite being well-equipped Varda had few toys to entertain the three and almost-seven-year old on a rainy Saturday morning, so the first thing on the agenda was a trip to the Aywick shop – an Aladdin’s cave, with everything from electrician’s wire to hair dye and hosiery. As we approached the shop, I was reminded that I was to buy essentials only. Eighty-seven pound later we left with the picnic we had gone in for, a few things to keep the bairns amused, and a few other things that we probably didn’t need, including a trout wand and a book on graveyards in Shetland.
Aywick Shop, Yell, an Aladdin's cave of goods.
Exploring Grommond & Graveland
The planned walk for Saturday morning was to the Stuis of Graveland; which is a coastal walk nearby, skirting the coast of Whalefirth exploring some of the abandoned settlements along the way. I wanted to get to the Ern Stack; believed to be one of the last places that the sea eagle nested at in Shetland in 1910. The Old Norse word for an eagle is ern, hence the name, Ern Stack.
Abandoned houses of Grommond, Yell.
We made our way down the steep track to the beach before walking up to the ruined houses at Grommond. Once a populus place, this area is now characterised by the ruins of those who once made the unforgiving slopes their home. The derelict houses, reminders of the lives once lived here, and evidence of spade and plough can still be seen as scars on the land that you can read like a palm.
Laurence Williamson of Mid Yell said that:
Remains of ruined houses in Grommond, Yell.
Hansi was desperate to try his new trout wand from the Aywick shop, so we stopped and tried for a bite. One thing I do know is that trouts scare easily and silence is key to successful trouting. So with our little herd of elephants, no trout were caught. There were plenty of birds to be seen though – and the three rain gus (red-throated divers) on the loch seemed entirely unaware of our peace-shattering presence in their quiet corner of West Yell. The tirricks (Arctic terns) provided a shrieking and noisy cacophony overhead, while the bonxies (skuas) swooped silently above, circling us like vultures around prey.
(A fishing permit for the lochs in Shetland can be purchased from the Anglers Association for £30 annually, here.)
As we left trow country and headed back to the coast the rain eased, and by the time we got back to the beach there was a great spoot ebb to explore – spoots are razor clams that can be caught on sandy beaches in low tide. Attracted to vibrations in the sand, I was sure the herd of elephants would bring home the supper this time. Unfortunately not. We can add that to the list of unsuccessful foraging attempts. Nevermind, there was still the patch of nettles at the foot of the road.
While at the beach, I watched a raft of dunters (eider ducks) floating in the bay, the distinctive males stood out in their bold colours against the grey sky and steely sea, their sarcastic call echoing across the bay. These always remind me of my dad; for some reason, he is obsessed with these birds, and the sight of them never fails to excite him. Perhaps his love has brushed off on me, although we won't tell him that.
Eider ducks on the water.
We never made it to the Stuis of Graveland, but Elizabeth Atia did, and she documented her walk, and fell in love with Yell here. And I believe that I too have fallen in love.
Afterwards we went to LJs Diner & Pizzeria in Mid Yell. A friendly family restaurant in the old school. The menu is extensive, offering something for everyone, all served with a smile from the bubbly waitress.
Windhouse, Yell. Shetland's most haunted house.
Saturday night was a full moon, so it seemed inevitable that we would end up at Windhouse – arguably the most haunted house in Shetland, if you believe in that kind of thing. So with the ghost stories ringing in our ears, and clammy paws clinging to tired legs, we made our way up the short track to the ruined house which sits on the crest of the hill on the approach into Mid Yell. Its foreboding silhouette, dominating the skyline.
Windhouse, commanding views in all directions, is the site of an ancient settlement. The house itself has its foundations in an Iron Age broch, and recent excavations have revealed a burial site within the gardens of the house. Steeped in mystery and legend, Windhouse attracts both historian and ghost-hunter, keen to unpick the magic of this iconic house.
The list of ghosts alone is impressive – if not a little spine-tinglingly scary. In no particular order, there is the: Lady in Silk – thought to be the skeleton of a woman with a broken neck discovered under the floorboards at the foot of the staircase. A tall, cloaked man who passes through the wall in the kitchen. A child – a baby’s skeleton was found in the walls during alterations at one stage. A black dog who prowls the bedrooms – although the first floor and roof have now fallen in, so there is no telling where the dog may now roam. There’s the taxman – obviously – and finally, a pedlar who was found under flagstones at the door. I’m sure this list is not exhaustive, but it does make for bone-chilling reading.
Whatever the truth, this once majestic building with the armorial crest of the Neven family above the door, was once a grand home – however oppressive the Nevens’ may have been – and whatever the truth, it makes for an eerie and thought-provoking walk.
Sunday was a bit of a washout, the rain was pretty heavy, the kind that gets right to the skin. But it fell vertically, from a silent sky – no accompanying wind – so that was a novelty to be marvelled at alone.
Easy like Sunday morning.
We managed to have a relaxing morning puttering about Varda until the cries from the three and almost-seven-year-old drove us out the door in waterproofs. Hansi was desperate to try for a trout in the burn down at the beach, so we all trooped back down in the pouring rain. Lena made sandcastles that disintegrated faster than her peerie hands could build, and Hansi persevered, despite catching no fish.
It was such a quiet, reflective air on the beach compared to Friday night when the horizons stretched further and the night air was punctuated with the thrum of a lawnmower, and the tirricks (Arctic terns) called noisily overhead. The quiet Sunday morning felt more encompassing, the birds closer, darting the shoreline in a frenzy, and there was no definition between sea and sky, the hills shrouded in low mist, cloaked the valley and all within it.
Peerie Willie Johnson
At the Peerie Willie Memorial.
In the road to the Herra, and forking left towards Efstigarth, is the memorial to guitar legend Peerie Willie Johnson. Born in Bouster, Peerie Willie is one of Shetland’s best-loved musical exports. Since 2005, an annual guitar festival – The Peerie Willie Guitar Festival dedicated to his work, and now his memory has taken place. The memorial sits alone, with breathtaking views across the moors and north-west down Whalefirth.
(*note: peerie is the Shetland dialect word for small.)
Sands of Breckon
After drying off (again) in the busy cafe at Gutcher, we went to the northernmost point of Yell to explore the Sands of Breckon. The rain was on, and we got soaked (again).
Sands of Breckon, Yell.
Sands of Breckon are fascinating. Not only does it boast an expanse of white sand and almost guaranteed solitude, but it also has an exciting and rich archaeological past that is still visible today.
Despite being soaked through, there was plenty to inspire the mind at Breckon.
Gloup Memorial to fishermen lost in the fishing diasaster of 1881.
We stopped at the Gloup Memorial which is a reminder of harder times when men fished from small open boats called sixerns in offshore waters. The memorial commemorates the lives of 58 fishermen who were lost to a storm in 1881. They left 34 widows and 85 orphans behind; in this small community, an unimaginable loss.
Old Haa Museum, Burravoe
The Old Haa Museum, Burravoe Yell has fantastic displays documenting life in Yell over the years.
Eventually, the lure of the Old Haa Museum in Burravoe was too much, the cakes were calling. For anyone who does not know about Yell’s best kept culinary secret, get along to the Old Haa Museum and sample some, or all, of their cakes. Between the four of us, we got through most of the selection on the menu that afternoon.
And almost as quickly as we had arrived, it was time to wave goodbye and make our way back to the mainland, back to reality, leaving the mysteries of the Herra behind for another day.
Lost in the rabbit-holes of history
I found in reviewing Varda that I would end up distracted; falling down rabbit-holes of history. The school opened in 1896 and educated pupils until 1954 when they were then bussed three miles up the road to Mid Yell. Think of how the community felt when the school closed. Then there was the couple who were married on the beach by a reluctant minister. This event inspired a poem at his expense that I would love to share, but that’s another rabbit hole. And there’s the folklore; tales of dogs that haunt the derelict houses, of ghosts and visions, all of these stories that were once part of the very fabric of the community.
The Herra seems a faraway place, not in terms of getting there, that’s easy enough, but in terms of its very deep-rooted history. It feels like a place on the periphery, almost as though one facet of it is buried in another world altogether. Maybe I’ve read too many stories. I’ll let you decide. But it has certainly got under my skin; I want to go back, to trace the walls of the derelict houses, chase the stories and imagine what life in the Herra was like in days gone by. Some places do that to you, and I felt a real connection here.
Mortimer Manson writing in 1942 said that Yell had been “sadly neglected by writers”, despite being “an island possessed by several beauty spots.” The Herra is undoubtedly one of these neglected beauty-spots. It feels set apart, on the fringes of society, along an empty road, off the fast main artery that passes between Ulsta and Gutcher. A route I always meant to ‘take a run down’, but never had, and one that I’m now immensely glad I have.
And with 83 square-miles to explore, we will certainly be back in Yell soon.
And as for Varda, I can't wait to go back, what a perfect place to escape to.
The world is yours to explore. Go discover!
I would like to add a special thank you to Charlie Inkster from Yell for his help in finding me the information I craved as I fell down all the rabbit holes the Herra could throw at me, thank you.
The Taing sits nestled on the edge of the striking red sands of Reawick beach on Shetland's west mainland, offering the ideal rural retreat.
The Taing, Reawick (self-catering)
Half an hour drive from Lerwick and situated on Shetland’s scenic west mainland The Taing offers everything – and more – a guest could possibly wish for. From its eclectic mix of earthenware bowls, plates and mugs, to the carefully selected artworks from locals such as Gilly Bridle and Howard Towll. The attention to detail here is to be marvelled at; from the Farrow & Ball painted door upon arrival, to the luxurious roll-top bath overlooking the beach in the ground floor bathroom. White Company candles, a complimentary bottle of merlot and crisp, white sheets on the beautifully presented beds all made for the most welcome of first impressions to this stunning beach-side property.
A bath with a view. Who wouldn't want to gaze out over the beach from here?
For me, it was love at first sight, as I’m sure it was for owners Shelagh and Peter who say that, “After many years of visiting Shetland, Peter bought The Taing with the intention of living there.
“As is often the case when buying a property, it needed more TLC than anticipated.
“Five years later, after knocking down walls, installing new heating, making it water-tight, replacing the kitchen and decorating etc. it is finally ready to be lived in and enjoyed.”
All they ask of their guests is that, “you enjoy it as much as we do.”
The Taing opened its doors to guests for the first time this year, and you can really feel the heart and soul of Peter and Shelagh in this house, which feels far more like a home than a holiday let.
A quiet spot for contemplation.
The house itself is divided across two floors; with a spacious dining room, kitchen, master bedroom, bathroom and sun-porch on the ground floor, and on the second floor there’s another double bedroom, a spacious lounge with wood burning stove and second toilet with shower. In the lounge, there is a sofa bed and plenty of space to sleep more guests, and each window in the property features a commanding view, and with the exception of the kitchen, these are all out to sea across the sweeping beach.
After lunch – and bearing in mind we were travelling with a two and six-year-old – we went to the beach, where we scoured the tideline for shells and sea glass. Hansi set to work building some sort of dam and water diversion scheme which involved a great deal of engineering prowess (and digging). We found a little brittlestar washed up on the tide-line, which we kept in a bucket for a while before setting it free again. We had a pocket book called The Seashore but could still not identify the little five-legged creature that sprickled in our hands. But that didn’t matter; we’ll call it a brittlestar.
Searching the shoreline to find out who lives there, and why.
It was no hardship to while away an hour at the beach. The sand is incredible, with distinct bands of colour and texture, alternating between sand, gravel and shingle, interspersed with chunks of volcanic rock deposited intermittently across this striking sand. This area of the west mainland is geologically diverse – as is Shetland as a whole – Reawick and the surrounding area sit on a bedrock of red granite which gives rise to this wonderfully rich, burnt orange sand. It’s incredible the wonders that can lie beneath your feet in Shetland, and that’s why we were awarded Geopark status in 2009.
Things to do in the area:
There's plenty to do in the area, particularly for those who have a love of solitude, walking and fantastic landscapes. For the keen hiker, this is the perfect base to explore some of the hidden gems of the west mainland, of which there are plenty. We stayed at The Taing for two days and I have highlighted our walks below.
A note on walking: Here in Shetland you are free to explore and roam. Just remember to leave gates as you find them, and stay safe. For more information, check this.
Coastal circular walk from Reawick beach – Roeness – beach
Walk distance: 4 miles
Time taken: 3 hours (with much stopping and picnicking along the way)
Once we peeled the bairns away from the sand, we headed off up the hill to explore the surrounding coastal routes around The Taing. Despite a few protestations from little legs, and many pit stops to pat ponies, enjoy picnics, examine animal skulls and poops and rabbit hole scree’s, we completed the four-mile walk south from The Taing to Roeness and back. We made this walk into a loop, rejoining the track, and then the road, at the Roeness house. An idyllic walk which took in stunning coastal scenery; sea caves, a natural arch, cliffs teeming with the cackles of fulmars and the alluringly named ‘Johnny Sinclair’s Nose’. What was this feature, which stood out on the OS map like a shark in a fish tank?
Who was Johnny Sinclair and why is his nose on the map? A quick check at Canmore (the national record for the historic environment) reveals that it is: “A 3m wide and 0.5m high earthen bank running perpendicular to the coast. It is eroding over very high cliffs at its S extremity. It lies in rough grazing and is visible for over 50m inland.”
I can’t say that this feature in the landscape stood out as much in reality as it did on the map, but we did discover his nose, and marvel at the land use of past societies farming at Roeness.
But the truth is, nose or not, this walk is worth doing for the coastal scenery alone; for the wild bubble and cackle of the fulmar’s colonies, the dramatic cliffs and the rugged coastline.
Looking out to sea we enjoyed stunning vistas to Hamnavoe to the east, Fitful to the south and Sandsound to the north. This is an area that I hear about every summer as dad makes his annual pilgrimage to the Haddock Sands in search of – yes, you guessed it – haddock.
Arriving back at The Taing at tea time, and with the evening sun shining in on the valley, lighting up the faces of the daffodils that lined the roadsides and verges, I couldn’t resist the pull of the ocean. The low light creating shimmering prisms on the turquoise sea was too tempting. So despite the cool April temperatures, I put on my wetsuit and splatched into the sea (anyone who saw my Instagram stories will have seen this graceless approach, and it is highlighted here).
There is so much to do at The Taing, it makes a great base for exploring both land and sea!
Curry for tea, and a quick cycle, which was cut short when I realised that actually my legs were pretty done in after all the walking. (Not from the snorkelling as I really just floated like a selkie until the cold water seeped into my hood and gave me brain freeze).
As the sun set, we listened to the gentle hush as the waves washed up the beach. A soothing melody as I lay in bed beside two weary bairns on the cusp of sleep; sitting on the edge of a dream. It’s in moments of calm reflection like these that I’m able to really count my blessings, and appreciate the wonders of where we live.
The Taing is carefully and lovingly curated with treasures.
We woke to the call of the shalders (oystercatchers) on the beach, and the waves washing over the sand – the smell of fresh coffee wafting through the house from the kitchen. Or at least that’s what would have happened had we been without children. In reality, we woke with two small humans invading our peaceful slumber, and we argued over who was going to make the coffee. But, with coffee in hand and peace restored, we could lay in bed gazing out the window and plan the day ahead. The wind had freshened overnight, and I could hear it forcing its way down the lum like thunder.
A house with a hundred stories to tell.
We had a slow and easy morning, soaking up the morning light that flooded into the east facing Taing. It was hard to peel ourselves away from the house. It has such a calming effect; it pulls you into its warm embrace forcing you to surrender to its four walls. Steeped in memories and history, I always find myself daydreaming and thinking about the people who lived here, and the lives they led. Old houses do that to me. (Our house does too, and I spoke about that here).
Two cups of coffee later, and after admiring the array of beautiful pottery that seemed to fill every cupboard and corner, we were ready to hit the road again.
After breakfast, we headed out and decided to do the Culswick Broch walk, which you can find full details of here.
The Taing, Reawick.
Culswick Broch walk:
Walk distance: 3 miles (4.6km)
Time taken: 3 hours
The walk is a total of 3 miles (4.6 km) and we did it by bike, but probably only at a walking pace (bearing in mind we had a two and six-year-old in tow). It’s an excellent walk and I would allow an hour each way with an additional hour for exploring the ruined houses of Sotersta, as well as the broch and spectacular coastline along the way – so to enjoy it, allow three hours from start to finish.
Culswick Broch in Shetland's west mainland. A stunning 3 mile walk (or cycle).
A few miles from Skeld, Culswick is a dramatic, lush valley, forking into two with a bog in the centre, separating the east and west side – at the head of the valley, a storm beach now blocks the sea from entering the sheltered confines, or basin, into what would have been a sea loch (or flooded landscape).
Houses are scattered on either side; childhood haunts with familiar and friendly faces. I spent many a happy day in Culswick, and it brings back tremendous memories whenever I have the pleasure of visiting. As bairns, we were always warned away from its boggy soft-centre. Confined to the slopes, we had fun nonetheless and spent many a summer evening camping. Tucked in under the hills, cocooned in a womb of endless summer, the world beyond us was forgotten.
Mother will kill me for this but, – on the night that Nostradamus proclaimed the world would end, I remember vividly, Magnie brought out his gramophone to play, while mam was tearfully mourning the end of the world in our tent, unable to sleep for fear that it was her – and our – last night on earth. Sweeping my two sisters and me tight into her chest, I remember trying to console her, explaining that science had evolved (and so should she!). Thankfully the predictions of Nostradamus (and mother) never materialised, and the sun rose again.
A sweet microclimate, some of Shetland’s best gardens flourish here under the glacially sculpted slopes which shelter it from the worst of the weather – and the world beyond.
Culswick; one of Shetland's hidden gems.
The walk, or cycle (we used mountain bikes, and I wouldn’t recommend anything other as the road is rutted and uneven), is moderately easy and passes through moorland, skirting the Loch of Sotersta before winding its way up the hill where the Broch and the Loch of Brough come into full view. It’s worth taking a little detour down to the abandoned township of Sotersta where the houses now stand roofless and soak up the atmosphere of this once thriving community.
Despite the track taking you across the moor, the landscape doesn't disappoint. Dramatic and rugged; I always try to imagine how the people of this unforgiving and exposed corner of the west mainland eked out a meagre living in this windswept plateau.
Plantiecrubs – small stone structures for growing young cabbage (kale) plants – still stand; a nod towards a crofting past here, a time of industry, hard work and bondage to the land.
Today, look out for the moorland birds, the laverock (skylark); lapwing and shalder (oystercatcher) are all abundant here. And look out for the whaap (curlew); endangered around the UK but thriving here in Shetland. As you get closer to the coast, try to spot the fulmars, shags and other seabirds.
Stuuning coastal views as you walk to the Culswick Broch. Note the lichen on the wall.
At the end of the track, we abandoned bikes and made the final ascent on foot. Passing over a stone causeway that slices through the Loch of Brough, the last leg does not disappoint. The spectacular views that greet you at the top ensure that the final effort is totally worth the throbbing knee-burn to get you there. Take a breath halfway up the climb, and admire the ruins of the house tucked into the lee, nestled in the shadow of the past. The house was built from stone taken from the broch that overlooks it – and now also sits in ruin – representing another strand of the rich history here.
The broch, like many others, has collapsed and been robbed of most of its stone, although the walls can be clearly seen and still stand several metres high in places. The impressive ramparts, internal chambers and a massive triangular lintel stone above the doorway are also still visible, and on a day of chill easterly wind, the remaining interior was a welcome break from the elements to enjoy a quiet picnic.
‘What is a broch?’ I hear you cry! A broch, in simple terms, is a round stone structure which is constructed using two drystone walls – an inner and outer – with a staircase built between the two to reach the top. They date to about 2,000 years ago – the mid-Iron Age, and they are unique to the north and west of Scotland. We have about 120 of them here in Shetland – most lie in ruin (and Mousa is the best example in the world – you can read about that here). Archaeologists still dispute what they were used for – whether they were defensive or offensive; or were they storehouses, or high status ‘manor houses’ of local chieftains? We don’t know. All that we can be sure of is that they are shrouded in mystery, and carry so much intrigue about past societies and how people lived and worked here in Shetland.
These are illustrations of the Mousa Broch, but they give a good understanding of broch construction.
After the cycle, we were all pretty done in so we had a leisurely afternoon taking in the play parks of Skeld and Waas (Walls), with a pit-stop at the Waas shop for a Muckle Puckle loaf from the bakery and some ice creams for the bairns.
Another night of inactivity with cheeks burning and legs aching. What a feeling to be beside the fire warming and listening to the rhythmic sound of the sea crashing on the beach, it’s incredibly soothing, and certainly good for the soul.
I felt very connected to the landscape while we were staying at The Taing. Being so close to the sea, I was aware of the rise and fall of both tide and wind. I watched as the shalders (oystercatchers) assembled on the tide line after the dog-walkers had left, and how the fulmars settled down as the sun dipped. The shag, in low flight, made a steady ascent across the bay to bed down too. It was magical. This is the home of the bird. The fulmars conquer the cliffs in a heady display of flight – of graceful elegance as they soar into the wind. Meanwhile, the shalders command the shoreline, fleeting back and forth with the approach and retreat of every wave. And from above, the laverock (skylark) rules the moors, while the blackbirds congregate in a merry babble of noise from surrounding outbuildings and telegraph poles.
Reawick stole our hearts.
Bedtime, often an ordeal at home, was a pleasure at The Taing. As the bairns were tucked into the sumptuous bed, nestled in a flurry of white cotton, I read to them. We read My Naughty Little Sister because Lena is the very epitome of the character in Dorothy Edwards’ iconic children’s classic. And then we read How to Train Your Dragon, because Hansi is six, and when you are six, dragons are life.
As they fell into a deep, fresh-air induced coma, I watched out the sash windows as the water tickled at the edges of the red granite beach and a lone gull plucked at the tang on the tideline. It’s easy to understand why this house was built on this sleepy beach at the foot of the lush green valley of Reawick.
The Taing, tucked away under the hill overlooking the Reawick beach.
Our time at The Taing was too short; I would happily base myself here for a week, or longer if time would allow. It’s the perfect place to escape to – and yet only half an hour from town. I certainly wouldn’t tire of the coastal walks, the archaeology, the scenery, the sounds and all the hidden corners we discovered along the way. I imagine The Taing would be as good in the depths of winter as it would be in the height of summer, and as every hour brings a change here; in the light as the sun traces around the gable of the house, in the sounds as the cacophony of birds fill the sky from first light till last. And of course, the ever-present sea, with the constant ebb and flow of the tide.
Well done to Shelagh and Peter for creating such an inspiring space, and thank you for letting us stay.
There is so much to do in and around Reawick and I would highly recommend Peter Guy’s book: Walking the Coastline of Shetland: Westside (No 5), which you can buy here.
Another great walk, a few miles from Reawick, is to the Stanydale Temple, a Neolithic site which you can read about that here and here.
Westerwick is also a great walk, especially between Silwick and Westerwick. The views are unforgettable. Westerwick is only a few miles from Reawick.
Sand Gairdins is a great place to visit if you have young children.
Hopefully this review and itinerary are helpful in allowing you to begin your Shetland adventure here.
To contact Shelagh and Peter about booking you can visit their website here, or follow them on Instagram here.
If you are interested in a tour while visiting just drop me an email for information here.
East-Gate, Vidlin, the perfect retreat for a family holiday.
Interested in staying somewhere but not sure what to do in the local area? Let Shetland with Laurie help you. In this post, I have teamed up with Karen & Neil Hay who gave us the keys to their newly established self-catering chalet in the village of Vidlin on Shetland's east mainland and told us to explore...
East-Gate self-catering chalet, Vidlin.
East-Gate is a modern, new build which is fresh to Shetland's self-catering market. Just a few miles outside the village of Vidlin and only a stone's throw from the Whalsay ferry terminal at Laxo, East-Gate is ideally placed for exploring this corner of Shetland's beautiful east mainland.
East-Gate is the perfect place to watch the Whalsay ferry coming and going.
East-Gate is run by Karen & Neil Hay both from Vidlin. Karen says, “I literally married the boy next door!” The couple has two young bairns, and Karen plans to manage the chalet while Neil works shifts at Sullom Voe Oil Terminal.
Recently completed, 2019 is the first year that East-Gate will open its doors and welcome visitors. The initial thing which you notice as you enter the chalet is that the standard of finish is very high, and the smell of fresh paint still fills the space, making for a warm and welcoming first impression.
From the outside the building is understated and modest, giving away no clue to its bright and modern interior. The chalet really packs a punch as you enter into the deceptively large open-plan kitchen-living space which boasts vaulted ceilings and additional skylights – flooding light into the already bright and spacious room. Karen and Neil have carefully considered the finish – which is flawless throughout; with a modern, high-gloss kitchen exuding elegance, to the generous bathroom with walk-in shower, and an additional en-suite shower-room, servicing the master bedroom.
Their attention to detail is obvious; not just in the architecture and design, but in the boxes of toys in the cupboard – for both boys and girls, of all ages – the highchair, and all the children’s plates, bowls and cups. All this combined, made for a stress-free visit.
The bedrooms are clean, fresh and welcoming, with crisp white sheets and roman blinds. Karen has also provided a hairdryer (which is far better than mine at home) – so save space in your case and leave that behind!
Despite being finished to a high standard, the chalet is very practically laid out, and the kitchen is well-equipped for any cooking that you may do on your stay. Often in self-catering, it's the case that you begin to cook and realise that the familiar sieve, grater and parer are absent – this is not an issue here, the kitchen contains everything (even the things you didn't know you needed!), including a filter coffee machine.
If you are looking for a family-friendly stay, then this is the place to book. East-Gate is perfect for the young family who wants space to play and explore. The bedrooms are at one end of the house, with a door into the hall to block any noise from the living-room, and outside there is safe space to play with a fenced garden and a path around the house – perfect for running off energy or cycling before bed!
East-Gate is the perfect place for a family escape.
Things to do at East-Gate:
The first thing that struck me as we pulled up and got out the car was the sound of the laverock (skylark), this is a species of bird that is endangered throughout the UK, but here in Shetland, we have about 30,000 breeding pairs – representing a significant proportion of the UK population. Farming techniques have hampered this little songbird throughout the country, but here in Shetland they are common in rural areas like Vidlin, and the little laverock at East-Gate never let up her merry song the whole time we were there. It truly is an uplifting sound and a real sign that spring is in the air (we were staying in mid-April).
Not sure what to listen for? Hear the laverock sing, here.
So that’s the first thing to do, get out the binoculars and look at the birds – they’re in abundance here. Watch the lapwing fleeting and diving through the air in a frenzied flight. This impressive wader has distinctive broad, dark wings with rounded white tips – the dark wings and collar contrasting sharply by a white underside. The shalders (oystercatchers) can be seen – generally in pairs – working the shoreline. Watch as they use their strong orange bills to pick limpets from the stones – and listen for the ‘pop’ as the conical-shaped mollusc is torn from its rock.
At night, step outside and hear the haunting call of the horsegok (snipe) as it tumbles through the air (to listen to the horsegok, click here). Another haunting call is that of the whaap (curlew), and you can listen to that (and more) here. Both the horsegok and whaap can be heard from East-Gate, and with no surrounding noise pollution, the birds are yours to enjoy.
I sat and watched these pair of oystercatchers feeding for a while. Funny, busy little birds!
East-Gate is the perfect place to do a bit of otter spotting. Karen snapped this photo of an otter just a few days before our visit. The banks (shoreline) in front of the chalet is home to at least two otter families. So how could I resist a little otter spotting? And with a spring in my step and brimming with excitement and hope, I took my small herd of elephants down to the shore to look for the otters.
Fantastic photo of an otter near East-Gate. Photo: Karen Hay.
Anyone familiar with otters will know that a two and six-year-old are not a great combination to take when trying to seek out this elusive mammal. So, with this in mind, I left them on the beach gathering shells and sea-glass (with dad), and set off silently – stealthily – in search. I knew they were around – their poo was everywhere, but I had no luck and never spotted any. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to track them down, and if you follow me on Instagram, you can see my ‘otterly shite otter-spotting commentary’ here.
Otters are tough to seek out, and if you want to do some homework before you arrive, I would recommend Otters in Shetland, The Tale of the Draatsi by Richard Shucksmith & Brydon Thomason – both local experts (unlike me) who know a lot more about these elusive animals and their habits than I do. You can buy that book here, or borrow it from Shetland Library.
I would say that you are best to look for otters either at first, or last light, or a few hours either side of low tide and you will need: patience, a flask of tea (or stronger) and thermals.
Perfect otter-spotting territory at East-Gate, Vidlin.
Otter-spotting is not for everyone. It’s certainly not for the herd of elephants that I call my children. But, the little beach is a treasure trove of pretty shells, stones and shoreline creatures to find and explore. We spent hours just playing on the beach and scouring the shoreline.
This area was a favourite of local poet Rhoda Bulter (1929-1994) who often stayed at Da Horn, a croft which now stands in ruin at the water’s edge. It is said that Da Horn inspired much of her poetry.
There is more information about Rhoda and her poems in The Cabin museum and again, Shetland Library have many of her poetry books to borrow.
Da Horn where poet Rhoda Bulter spent many holidays.
Open May to September on Tuesday, Thursday & Sunday from 1-5pm.
The Cabin museum, Vidlin.
If military history and the First and Second World Wars are one of your interests then this is the place for you. The Cabin museum sits just at the back of East-Gate, a short walk across the road.
The late Andy Robertson founded what began as a small collection of medals in 1978. The collection has since grown, and now fills the museum to the rafters — an eclectic collection which has branched off into everything and anything related to Shetland’s social history.
The Cabin houses a vast assortment of histoic items; from war uniforms, weapons and tin hats to wedding dresses, photographs and an extensive archive belonging the Lunnasting History Group. The list is endless, and all the items are as exciting as the story associated with them.
The Cabin is well worth a visit and is now run by the family of founder, Andy Robertson, and the Lunnasting History Group who help out one day a week.
Visits to The Cabin can also be arranged by appointment, and we are very grateful to Stanley for opening up for us and putting on the heating.
It's worth stopping at Lunna and parking up just to have a walk around and explore the area.
Lunna Kirk sits by the sea in the shadow of the impressive Lunna House. It is well worth a visit. The kirk is said to be the oldest church which has been in continuous use in Shetland for Christian worship. It's thought that there has been a kirk here since the 1100s and an early monastery on Chapel Knowe, just to the north.
The kirk itself is an unusual design, with thick buttresses and a leper's squint, designed to allow lepers to hear the service and see the altar without physically coming into contact with the congregation.
Lunna kirk is open, and visitors are welcome to go in and have a look around. There is a donations box for anyone who would like to leave a gift to help with church funds.
Lunna House, a 17th-century laird’s house, is also an important location for anyone interested in the Shetland Bus Operation. A secret operation which took place during the Second World War between Shetland and Nazi-occupied Norway. The Operation which ran from 1941 aimed to remove refugees from Nazi-occupied Norway and bring weapons and supplies in.
Lunna House was a base in the early days of the operation before it was moved to Scalloway. Lunna provided an excellent sheltered harbour, secrecy and a base in the form of Lunna House which sits proudly on the hill. For anyone interested in the Shetland Bus story, a visit to the Scalloway Museum is a must.
Lunna House, early base for the Shetland Bus Operation.
Lunna House and the surrounding area has a fantastic ‘designed landscape’ – the formal structures built around the house were laid out in the 18th century and furthered in the 19th century. These include; Gothic ornaments, such as the beach cobble finials of the gates to the south-west of the house, and a small folly on the hill, known as Hunter's Monument – that was formerly used as a lookout by the lairds (landlords). The harbour was constructed in the 19th century, along with a walled garden and an impressive lime kiln which sits near the pier.
Walking in the area:
There are some fantastic walks in this area. Karen has provided a copy of Walking the Coastline of Shetland: Eastside by Peter Guy in the chalet. This has some fantastic walking options. Below I have outlined a few walks that I recommend in the area.
There are some fantastic walks in this area of Shetland.
Stones of Stofast
Walk: 2 hours
2 miles (3.5km)
This is a beautiful walk which will take you from the road, over the hill and onto Fugla Water and the Loch of Stofast. Between these two lochs – straddling the hill – are the great glacial erratics that make up the Stones of Stofast – dumped there, as if by the hands of giants. An imposing sight on top of the hill, commanding incredible panoramic views.
The Stones of Stofast.
The walk begins from a non-descript lay-by beside the cattle-grid on the road from Vidlin to Outrabister. The trail is helpfully signposted with an arrow pointing to the hill and a small route-finder map pinned to the fence post. This is enough to get you on your way, and I’d recommend snapping a photo of the map on your smartphone (providing you have one) to orient yourself along the way.
(please note that this walk, and none of my walks, are on a bus route, the nearest bus would take you into Vidlin (3 miles away), so I would recommend using a car to get to the walk start point).
From the starting point, head straight over the hill, sticking to high ground to avoid the bog (particularly in winter, early spring, or after heavy rain). We returned to the car across lower land, skirting Fugla Water and very quickly began to play hop-scotch in the bog as we tried to pick a route through it – although this may be fun, it does require a certain amount of agility (and patience), and it is worth remembering that bogs can be dangerous.
As you make your way to the crest of the first hill, stop and take in the breathtaking views. To the north-west, views across to Mossbank, Firth and Burravoe (Yell), as well as the islands of Linga, Fish Holm, Orfasay and Samphrey. And to the east, views to Skerries and Whalsay. Further south-east, the Noup of Noss can be seen clearly on a fine day (like we had). It feels like a unique vantage point, as you’re able to view Yell and Skerries almost in one breath – areas we assume to be remote, closely-tied together by the sea.
The landscape is a glacial one, like much of Shetland, it has been carved by the last Ice Age to pass through about 10,000 years ago. The massive stones have been laid down – not far from where they originated from – by a glacier. The Stones were originally one large boulder, weighing an estimated 2,000 tonne, now broken in two by the action of repeated freeze-thaw, the Stones were once part of a nunatak (an exposed, rocky ridge rising above the ice), which collapsed following the retreat of the ice.
It is only once you get up-close-and-personal that you can appreciate the tremendous power in that ice that carried, and moved these enormous stones – no photo will ever do justice to their sheer enormity. Being the romantic that I am, I still like to think they were put there by giants, and are now home to the trows (trolls). The whole landscape has that eerie ‘trowie’ feel that is so familiar in the wilds of Shetland.
The Stones are a great spot for a picnic, to sit and soak up the history and geology of this special hidden corner of Shetland's mainland.
This walk is a short one, but a much longer version of it can be done, taking in the entire Lunna Ness peninsula. Route details for that can be found here.
A little word on the wildlife – Lunna Ness is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) because of its thriving (yet elusive) otter population. And although we didn’t spot otters at East-Gate, I did catch a glimpse of one at Lunna, but it evaded my camera lens before I could capture it as proof – so you’re going to have to take my word on that one!
Hansi assures me that these are in fact the footprints of a T-rex. I believe him. These are dinosaur footprints that you'll see on the walk. If you spot them remember to tag @shetlandwithlaurie so I can show Hansi.
Sandwick, Sweening Voe
Walk: 4 hours
3 miles (4.8km)
This is a walk which I didn’t do with my two and six-year-old, but I have enjoyed it immensely in the past. This would be a great hike to do if you are staying at East-Gate, but it is challenging.
For this walk, park at the end of the Sweening road and follow the ‘sheep-gaet’ (sheep path) along the sheer steep-sided slopes of Sweening Voe until the track opens out and reveals a sandy beach and wide bay.
Sandwick, Sweening. A beautiful walk.
At the far end of the beach is the ruin of the croft of Sandwick which was home to the Morrison family until about 1980 when they moved to Vidlin. The house quickly fell into disrepair and now stands in ruin.
Please note that this is quite a challenging walk and anyone with a fear of heights should avoid it as it is a steep drop from the path to the sea in places (certainly not a trail for the two and six-year-old). I allowed an evening to do this walk and explore the area (c. 4 hours). So arm yourself with an OS map and explore – I promise, it’s worth it!
There are some beautiful photos of the house when it was inhabited on the Shetland Museum & Archives photo archive which can be seen here
Another great walk is out to the house at Bonidale, looking across to West Linga and Whalsay.
For this walk, park at the end if the road at Lunning and head south (again using an OS map for reference).
Bonidale when the roof was on in 2009.
Laxo burn is another great walk and a fantastic spot to explore – even for an hour or so after tea. Just a mile from East-Gate you can go and throw sticks, race siggy-boats (boats made from the leaves of the water iris), or simply follow the course of the burn.
If you read my blog post about making trench cake in my great-granny’s mixing bowl, then you can see her old house (the big white one) at the head of Dury Voe (Laxo House). If you missed it, you can read that blog post here.
It was a real joy to wake up to the morning sun at East-Gate and eat breakfast at the sunny dining table while watching the sheep outside. It really was such a relaxing experience. I would thoroughly recommend this fantastic chalet, particularly if you are looking for a good base to explore this part of Shetland, or a family-friendly retreat to escape for a few days.
There are plenty of amenities in the local area: Vidlin shop is only a couple of miles away, as is the village of Vidlin with its marina and well-equipped play park.
There is so much to do in this area, and these suggestions are by no means exhaustive. Why not take a trip to the island of Whalsay, the ferry is in walking distance of East-Gate. Or, head to Busta House Hotel for a bar supper to save cooking? Or explore Nesting? Take the ‘Nesting Loop’ and visit the First World War naval air station at Catfirth, or count the swans on the Loch of Benston. Do you have a two and six-year-old-too? How about a trip to the Mud Kitchen at the Nesting Primary School which welcomes visitors – whatever you decide, let this be a guide, and most of all – enjoy everything that this area and East-Gate has to offer.
If you have found this useful and have tried any of the routes while staying at East-Gate then I would love to hear from you, remember to get in touch and tell me how you got on. Alternatively, if you would like a tour, just let me know.
I can't wait for our next holiday at East-Gate, thank you again to Karen & Neil for a fabulous stay.
To book a stay at East-Gate and unlock your Shetland adventure you can contact Karen here.
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