Jarlshof Prehistoric & Norse Settlement. Photo: Sophie Whitehead.
As you read this, I will (hopefully) be sunning my weary legs on a beach in the Adriatic, or exploring a medieval town’s backstreets. The reality is, I’ll probably be trying to rub sun cream into sandy skin, stickied with ice-cream while wondering if it’s an acceptable time to order a large glass of sauvignon blanc. As I was planning the holiday, I found myself ‘googling’ “best things to do in Croatia” and realised that this is what many Shetland visitors will also be furiously googling before any trip to our islands. So, I have put together this guide to the ‘Top 7 in Shetland’ for visitors. These are all outdoor activities for varying abilities (and most can be tailored into a shorter or longer experience depending on interest and/or ability). I should also say that this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather it gives an idea for ‘something to do’ for every day of a week-long break.
1. Mousa Broch
Mousa Broch, an imposing 2,000 year-old structure, built during the mid-Iron Age.
Did you know that Shetland has over 120 broch sites and that Mousa represents the best example of a broch anywhere else in the world. That’s a fact.
Many people ask about brochs; what they are, what they were used for, and why we were building them. In a nutshell, a broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, built in the mid-Iron Age. They are unique to the north and west of Scotland and archaeologists are still not agreed on what their purpose was. Were they defensive structures? Agricultural grain stores? Homes for high-status members of the community or bolt-holes in times of strife or trouble? Perhaps we will never know? What we do know is that they have a unique construction; built with a double-wall, giving an inner and outer wall with a staircase between the two, leading to the top.
These trips are amazing, the culminating in a magnificent spectacle of nature all played out under the shadow of the 2,000-year-old broch. If you want more info about this, I wrote about it here.
Mousa has it all; archaeology, geology, hiking, wildlife and much more. I will write a longer blog about this one soon but, for now, add it to the ‘must-do’ list for your Shetland adventure.
2. Jarlshof Prehistoric & Norse Settlement
Jarlshof from above; this fascinating site spans 5,000 years of human history in Shetland.
Anyone who follows me on Instagram will know that I harp on about this site all the time. I am more than a little obsessed with Jarlshof (meaning the Earl’s House, and so coined by Walter Scott in his book The Pirate).
Jarlshof makes it onto this list because as far as archaeological sites go – and we’ve got them in abundance – this one literally has it all. It has an (almost) uninterrupted chronology spanning 5,000 years of human history in Shetland – not something to sniff at.
Deep in thought at Jarlshof. Photo: Sophie Whitehead.
The site, maintained by Historic Scotland, will take visitors on a tantalising journey from the Neolithic (New Stone Age), through the Bronze and into the early, mid and late-Iron Age. The journey then changes with the arrival of the Vikings and a period of Norse settlement begins. Society during this time changed on unparalleled levels from anything that had gone before. From there, visitors visit the Medieval (Norse) and the arrival of Scottish landowners.
The site is open all year round, although the Visitor Centre is only open May to September, and information can be found here.
Jarlshof truly is unmissable. It is the largest multi-period site in Europe, and your journey will take you through Shetland’s entire ‘human’ story.
3. Lerwick’s Old Town
Lerwick waterfront; get lost in the rich history of Shetland's fascinating capital town. Photo: Susan Molloy.
This is another favourite of mine; I absolutely love the town that I am blessed to call home. Do I feel like a traitor to my Scalloway roots? Yes, I do, but bear with me.
Lerwick, is a relatively new town, certainly in European terms as it only began to grow from the 1600s. Before this, Scalloway, six-miles to the west, my home town/village, was the economic and legislative centre in Shetland. Lerwick grew quickly throughout the 18th- and 19th-century and by the 1830s was firmly established as the capital in Shetland, overtaking Scalloway.
Lerwick, Shetland's capital town. Photos: Susan Molloy.
Spending an afternoon getting immersed in Lerwick’s streets, lanes and architecture is bliss – in fact, that’s how I spent most of my second maternity leave. Explore the waterfront and surrounding town; look for Jimmy Perez’s house, paddle on Bain’s Beach, take in the views from Fort Charlotte, gaze at the Town Hall’s windows, take a coastal walk around the Knab or simply enjoy some retail therapy on da street (Commercial Street). There is no shortage of ways to enjoy Lerwick.
Hermaness Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland.
Hermaness is a walk to the edge of the world, or at least to the edge of the UK. Barren and wild, this is the most northerly point of Britain. Dominated by the imposing Muckle Flugga lighthouse, precariously perched where the sky meets the sea and solans (gannets) and bonxies (great skuas) rule.
Some views from Hermaness & Muckle Flugga, Unst, Shetland.
The walk is aided by a boardwalk, weaving through dense moor before the smell of the sea, the cacophony of the birds and landscape opens up revealing views across the vast-nothingness of the Atlantic in all her glory. Standing on the edge of the cliffs, knowing that there is nothing between you and North America is quite something. I wrote about the walk here.
5. St Ninian’s Isle
St Ninian's Isle sand tombolo in Shetland's South Mainland.
Picture-perfect St Ninian’s Isle is unmissable, even if it is just for a quick photo on the way to the airport. St Ninian’s is the image that adorns most of the glossy mags advertising Shetland and, the vast sand tombolo, linking the island (St Ninian’s) to the mainland is an impressive sight at over 50-metres long. Take a walk, paddle in the sea, pick up a stone or shell and listen as the water laps onto the sand at either side. In the summer, this is an excellent place to watch tirricks (Arctic terns) feed as skootie Alans (Arctic skuas) chase them, twisting and turning mid-air, till they divulge their food.
If you want to explore a little further then go onto the island and walk to the Chapel site (interpretation panels at the beach will guide you). The 12th-century chapel was excavated in the 1950s and was the site of a remarkable discovery. Schoolboy, Douglas Coutts, helping archaeologists on the first day of the summer holidays uncovered a sandstone cross-incised slab which, underneath, contained a box filled with 28-pieces of highly decorated silverware and the jawbone of a porpoise. Nobody knows why this treasure, dating to the 9th century, was buried and why it was never recovered; perhaps we never will, but it is well worth the walk.
Some of the coastal views on St Ninian's Isle. Note the island of Foula on the image on the right.
Also on the island, take a walk to the south-west corner and marvel at the geology – layers of sandstone – on the cliffs and stacks and spend a quiet moment tracing the flight of a maalie (fulmar).
6. Culswick Broch
Approaching Culswick Broch on Shetland's West Mainland.
This one is a little off-the-beaten-track but is one of my favourites for archaeology, dramatic landscapes, solitude and wildlife.
Culswick Broch is tucked away in the corner of Shetland’s West Mainland, park at the signs for the broch in the deep valley of Culswick and follow the dirt road. By road, the walk is about 3 miles (4.6 km), and the broch is the pièce de résistance at the end, commanding views across much of the West Mainland.
Views across Sottersta and out to sea beyond, on the Culswick Broch walk.
A broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, built during the mid-Iron Age these structures are unique to the north and west of Scotland. Archaeologists are still debating their purpose and use but, for me, the beauty of the broch lies in the mystery and intrigue that these impressive buildings evoke.
I wrote more about the Culswick broch in a blog post that you can read here.
Eshaness cliffs on a breezy winter day.
No guide to Shetland would be complete without mentioning the impressive cliffs at Eshaness. The cliffs that form part of the Eshaness circular walk are part of an ancient landscape formed by the blast of a volcano millions of years ago and is one of the many reasons why Shetland is a Unesco Geopark.
The Grind o' da Navir, Eshaness.
The walk here takes you right through the flank of the volcano and along the way you will encounter lava-flows, geos (long, narrow inlets), collapsed sea-caves (Hols o’ Scraada) and the Grind o’ da Navir, an impressive natural amphitheatre carved out by the power of the sea. On the way back, take a moment to explore the ruined watermills and 2,000-year-old broch that stands in a ruinous state in loch close to the Hols o’ Scraada.
The Hols o' Scraada, Eshaness.
So that’s me, a quick guide to seven unmissable Shetland experiences that will enrich your visit and make you dream of coming back, time and time again. And for me, it’s back to the suncream and sauvignon.
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.
Commercial Street, Lerwick on a busy summer day.
A beginners guide to Shetland
You’ve read the travel guide? Great. You’ve seen the Shetland TV series, even better; now read a real guide from a local. Delve a little deeper into the fascinating culture of the place I call home: Shetland.
Our island’s culture and tradition is unique and distinctively ‘not Scottish’ – if that’s a thing? We’ve only been part of Scotland for 550 years so don’t expect to find any haggis, kilts or bagpipes here.
So, for those arriving here for the first time, I’ve compiled this little Survival Guide – a beginner's guide to Shetland, if you will. It’s by no means comprehensive and should be taken a little tongue-in-cheek, but here you go:
First things first, welcome to Shetland – hiyi, noo den, whit lik’, or whatever – you’ll find a few variants of this common greeting. We’re a friendly bunch, and you’ll find that people will be only too happy to help you while you’re here, so please, don’t be afraid to ask locals for directions, tips or any other little thing which might spring to mind.
If it’s your first time to Shetland then pop into the Tourist Centre and meet the staff – a more helpful team you couldn’t ask for. You’re sure to leave feeling inspired and bursting with ideas for your holidays.
Lerwick Tourist Centre where a friendly welcome awaits.
*note* WE DRIVE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD.
With introductions over, it’s likely that one of the first things you’ll do as a visitor to our islands, is rent a car (several car rental companies are available, such as this one, this one and this one).
You will then find yourself on one of our minor, single-track roads with passing places. We have rules for these, which are unwritten, but strictly observed by islanders. Below is your handy guide to Passing Place Etiquette:
A Shetland passing place, many people visiting ask what "passing place" means on the road signs.
Using one of Shetland's passing places in Fetlar.
A few notes, or additional points to consider when driving in Shetland:
Be aware of vehicles displaying car hire logos. They may, or will almost certainly be unsure of where they’re going, or how to navigate the roads. We expect this from self-drives. Remember that for many, they’re driving on the opposite side of the road to what they’re accustomed to. This is as much a reminder to locals (and myself) as anyone else because it can be frustrating when rushing to get somewhere only to come up behind a car going at 35 mph on a 60 stretch.
Be aware that unless specified, you’re probably going to end up with a manual car if you rent one, and one that has about as much power under the bonnet to get up the hills as my hairdryer. That said, Shetland’s car hire companies are very good, and the vehicles are usually reasonably new.
Cyclists are a problem here too. I joke (kinda). Please just be aware that we have a lot of cyclists on the roads and there are no dedicated cycle paths, other than a few around town and one leading into the village of Hoswick. I wrote a blog about cycling in Shetland that you can read here.
I should also give you a little heads-up about roundabouts in Shetland, especially for our American visitors who have never encountered this quintessentially British intersection. Basically, on entering a roundabout, give priority to traffic approaching from your right. You will find these randomly situated throughout the isles, and lots of people living here are quite unaware of how to use them too (!). Be prepared for lengthy stand-offs – the roundabout stare-off – as people unblinkingly gaze from one car to the other, wondering who dares to go first. It can be quite fun (if you’re not in a hurry) and I like to treat it as if it were a competitive sport – always disappointed when someone has the guts to enter the roundabout before me. Basically, this system to ‘keep traffic flowing’, more often than not brings traffic to an absolute standstill.
But don’t worry, traffic hold-ups in Shetland are short-lived and infrequent and if you’re still unsure about navigating a roundabout check out this advice from the Highway Code.
If you want to understand a little more about how to use passing places and general ‘Shetlandy stuff’ check out this helpful YouTube video.
So that's the roads covered.
Who lets a little rain stop them anyway? A rainy day in Yell. Welcome to Shetland summer.
Small talk & weather
Despite a surge in tourism in recent years, visitors can still come here and catch a glimpse of the islands distinct culture. Shetland remains true to its roots in many areas – despite the fact we all have iPhones, instant messenger and wifi.
I’m listing small-talk and weather together here because they seem to come as a package. All small-talk begins with the weather, and the weather is the first thing that we ever talk about. We have weather here in abundance, and it can change in a millisecond – providing us with endless opportunities for small-talk.
If you meet a local, be prepared to be given a run-down on the weather (especially if you meet my mother-in-law), it’s how we start most conversations here.
‘Fine day, daday’ – It’s a good day, today.
‘It’s a day o’ dirt’ – It’s a horrible day today.
‘It’s steekit’ mist’ – It’s extremely foggy.
‘A laar o’ wind’ or ‘a scaar o’ wind’ – Not much wind, or, a little more wind...
‘It’s a day o’ shite’ – I’ll let you figure that one out for yourselves.
And one of the nicest things you can hope for is ‘a day atween wadders’ – a calm day between storms when the birds come out singing, and everyone appears outdoors after being stuck in! (As I write, we’ve enjoyed a ‘day atween wadders’, and I’m writing on the rainy end of it).
On a serious note:
Be prepared for four seasons in one day. And, be prepared for the wind chill – It’s a real thing here despite our temperate Oceanic climate. It will surprise you – it still surprises me!
So, pack wisely and layer up.
I wrote a blog about what to wear in Shetland that can be found here.
What not to say to a Shetlander:
Never say that you are ‘on Shetland’, or ‘on Unst’ for example – us Shetlanders can’t abide it (even if it is grammatically correct). Just bear in mind that when visiting; you are ‘in Shetland’ or you are ‘in Unst’, never on.
Another never never is – the Shetlands. We’re not the Shetlands; we are just Shetland. Period. Call us the Shetland Isles, or an island archipelago, or da auld rock, or da rock – whatever, just don’t call us the Shetlands. This is a sure-fire way of getting off on the wrong foot, or most usually, corrected.
Although, as mentioned, Shetlanders are a friendly bunch and will probably helpfully correct you with a smile of knowing sympathy at your error.
Fair Isle knitwear is the national dress in Shetland; not tartan.
Don’t ask what our tartan is; a real Shetlander doesn’t have a tartan – our roots are very much Scandinavian (if you want to know more about our ‘non-Scottish’ culture you can read my blog post here).
You will perhaps want to buy some of our locally made Fair Isle knitwear, and this can be picked up all over the isles from larger shops on Commercial Street to small community museum shops.
Knitwear has always been important to our economy – much more than tartan ever has. But that’s for another day.
One of the Shetland fishing fleet; supplying fresh local fish to market.
Food & Drink
Again, this is another blog post, but for now:
A sheep at Hermaness, Unst.
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to stand on the edge of the world? When I was little, I had big dreams. Dreams of sailing away to far-flung places in the world, but as I grew older, my career advisor told me that that wasn’t possible. “You can’t sail around the world,” she said. Despite this dream-shattering moment, I often find myself thinking about the vastness of the world, and our place in it, as I gaze out over the rolling North Atlantic. We are but one small cluster of islands – a rock – rising proudly from the sea. Standing on the point of Hermaness looking across to Muckle Flugga gives an incredible sense of place. With the Arctic to the north and Newfoundland to the west – it feels so much more.
Muckle Flugga lighthouse. The most northerly point in the UK.
Hermaness is the most northerly point of mainland Unst – and the UK for that matter – with breathtaking views across to Muckle Flugga, a small sea-worn skerry with the UK’s most northerly lighthouse. The walk takes in much of the bird life on offer in Unst, including great skuas, a gannet colony and puffins.
Distance: 5.5 miles (9km)
Time: 3 hours (we took 5 hours, soaking it all in and picnicking with our three and seven-year-old in tow)
Difficulty: Moderately challenging
Dramatic and sheer, other-worldly and awe-inspiring; just a few words that sprang to mind reflecting on this walk. In a landscape ruled by the birds; puffins, gannets and fulmars proudly dominate the crags, stacks and cliffs, while nesting great skuas command the moorland (with an estimated 1,000 breeding pairs). Their dark silhouettes camouflaged by the heathery hills until the discerning eye homes in on them. Once the eye is trained, they appear everywhere the gaze falls; piercing eyes a reminder to respect their territory.
So that’s how the walk begins – in bonxie (skua) territory. Park at the designated Hermaness National Nature reserve car park where an information board outlines the route and leaflets are provided. Follow the path. The initial stages of the trail are gravel before it gives way to a boardwalk. The boardwalk has been much improved since I last did the walk with a friend a few years ago. I don’t know if it was the old wire-covered walkway or the hangover, but the path ran before my eyes, leaving me feeling sick, dizzy and uninspired.
The walk to Hermaness follows a boardwalk for most of the way. Look out for native flowers and ferns along the way.
The boardwalk that carefully weaves through the boggy moor, safely navigates you away from the bonxies. Spongy and soft underfoot, it’s a nice easy walk with the laverock’s (skylark) song providing an uninterrupted playlist. This area of blanket bog is vitally essential to the birds that nest in it, providing the lungs for Shetland’s environment. Without trees, this blanket bog is a crucially important carbon store.
Breathtaking and dramatic scenery at Hermaness, Unst.
The views from the clifftop at Toolie are breathtaking; rugged stacks, sheer faces and a babble of noise rising from the birds below. This western promontory stands tall in the face of the wild and unpredictable North Atlantic. On the day that we visited, the sea was calm with a warm breeze from the south and the sky and horizon merged into one vast blueness. But judging by the coastline, and the salt-burnt clifftops, it’s clear that this north-western frontier takes a battering from the elements in the winter.
Heading north, we went down the steep slopes into Sothers Dale, stopping halfway down in a drystone sheep enclosure, or cro, for a much-anticipated picnic. From the shelter of the cro, we continued north, making our way to Muckle Flugga. Along the grassy slopes, puffins busily came and went, periodically congregating in groups for a natter and a spot of bill rubbing. A lot of time can be spent just watching these sociable little birds. Comical and proud, we whiled away a bit of time just observing as a pair went about their chores – on this day, lining the burrow with dried grass. Puffins are always found at the top of the cliffs. They lay their single egg in a burrow, so to nest, these guys need soil! What this does mean, is that you can get up-close-and-personal to these animated little auks.
We had a wonderful family day out at Hermaness, Unst.
But it’s not all puffins and picnics. On the way to Muckle Flugga, we passed the impressive and noisy gannet colonies. With 25,000 breeding pairs returning here every year, it's a fantastic place to see these – the largest British seabird – in their natural habitat. Down at sea level, on the lower reaches of the cliffs, guillemots nest in dense and noisy colonies, laying their single egg directly onto the rock. Above, fulmars make their presence known, soaring like gliders in the air currents.
Eventually, we arrive at our zenith – Muckle Flugga (large steep rock) – topped with its impressive lighthouse. The lighthouse, built by Thomas Stevenson, is carefully woven into the barren rock that hosts it, and has stood up to 150 years of assault from the Atlantic. Until 1995 it was arguably the most northerly inhabited island – home to a lighthouse keeper throughout the year until the light became automated.
Muckle Flugga: The UK's most northerly point.
And here I sat, with a bottle of 60 North beer in hand, marvelling at the wonders of this truly amazing place we call home. Maybe my career advisor could see I was just a dreamer, or maybe one day I will sail around the world. Who knows. What I do know is that the walk to Hermaness really makes you feel like you’re perched at the edge of the world, and that is a very humbling experience.
Happy bairns: delighted to have made it to the UK's most northerly point; Muckle Flugga.
I hope that one day you have the opportunity to do this walk too. And if not, I hope that these photos have opened your eyes to another truly marvellous place. If you want more Shetland inspiration, remember you can sign up to my monthly Newsletter via the website.
'Cheers' from Muckle Flugga and 60 North!
The Lang Ayre, Northmavine. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
If a Munro is a small mountain, then a Marilyn is a small Munro. And a small-small mountain is exactly what we climbed (and some) a few weeks ago. I was invited to join a lovely group of folk on a hike to the Lang Ayre in Northmavine in Shetland’s North Mainland. The Lang Ayre was a bucket list goal of mine, the long walk which takes in the small-small mountain, Ronas Hill – the highest in Shetland – is one that I have been meaning to do for years.
The stunning Lang Ayre in Shetland's North Mainland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
It was a beautiful summer day, the kind that remains etched in memory for long after it has passed. And as the group assembled in dribs and drabs at the old NATO station on top of Collafirth Hill, the sun hung high, throwing warm rays over us from a sky that promised nothing but pure unadulterated sunshine. Leaving our convoy of cars and 4G signal behind us, we finally set off into the hill at about midday.
Walking up Ronas Hill, Shetland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The walk is in Northmavine, a landscape characterised by the red granite stone intrusion – or batholith (as I was told) – that makes up this fascinating corner of north-west Shetland. The area is dominated by Ronas Hill (our small-small mountain) that stands proud at 450 metres and often lies cloaked in low cloud and hill fog. But not on the day we visited, the sun shone off the red granite, illuminating the steep slopes and bathing all the miniature Arctic Alpines in light, making them stand from the rough rock like tiny beacons.
On top of the world; summit of Ronas Hill, Shetland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
Ronas Hill is home to several varieties of Arctic Alpines that have survived here, presumably from before the last Ice Age retreated about 10,000 years ago. Of these miniature marvels, there is Mountain azalea, alpine lady’s mantle and spiked woodrush. These hardy little miniatures are usually only found on high mountains, or in the Arctic, but they thrive here, and as we ascended to the upper heights we spotted all three clinging to the unforgiving slopes of the rocky tundra.
Mountain azalea (left); Alpine lady's mantle (right).
Ronas Hill rocky tundra. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The day was hot, and the walk was steep, but it didn’t take long to reach the top, at our leisurely rate we made it to the chambered cairn on the summit in an hour. From the peak, the views are breathtaking. To the north, we could see the dome on top of Saxa Vord Hill (on the most northerly part of Unst) and to the south, Fitful Head (the southern point of Shetland) that stood out on the horizon like a great sleeping dragon, snoozing in the summer sun. Every corner of the isles laid bare in front of us; the vista was spellbinding. We spent a bit of time at the top, catching our breath, eating homemade scotch eggs (thanks Shaun) and flying drones to get even more spectacular photos and video footage (for images and footage from the top, check out Southspear Media and Shetland by Drone on Facebook or Instagram, here and here).
Rona's Hill chambered cairn.
Two features on top of Ronas are notable (other than the alpines), the geocache and the chambered cairn.
Geocaching in Shetland is a popular pastime, and they are found all over the landscape – basically, small Tupperware boxes containing trinkets and a visitor’s book are hidden and using GPS, people seek them out, leave a signature and something they may have in their pocket or rucksack.
The chambered cairn is an older structure, made from the weathered granite the structure dates to the Neolithic – about 5,000 years ago – and contains a large chamber inside. It has been added to over the years by climbers who place a rock to mark their achievement of reaching the summit of Shetland.
Views across Shetland from the top of Ronas Hill.
Hunger satisfied and photos snapped we set off on the climb down to the Lang Ayre (Long Beach) on the other side of the hill. The downward climb was a lot easier on the legs, but you know what they say; everything that goes down, must come back up!
With the heat beating down on us, I stopped to fill my water bottle from the crystal clear burn, fed from springs deep inside the heart of the hill. The water was icy cold and refreshing, forced up through layers of granite before meeting the earth in a gurgling babble before winding its way through deep ravines down to the sea. ( A note of caution: take care when drinking from burns or streams, and only drink from a clean water source, make sure there are no dead sheep upstream!).
A long way down to the other side and the Lang Ayre.
As we descended the hill, the bonxies (great skuas) began to circle above us, swooping stealthily in great circles overhead before landing again – scoping us out; a warning to us that we were in their territory.
Surveying remains in the landscape; trying to read the stones for clues about the past, Ronas Hill.
Sweating less, I was able to reflect on the landscape around us. The area is barren and wild, yet there is evidence of people from the past all around. Just over the hill, at Grutwells, a Neolithic axe factory that produced highly polished felsite axes and knives that were exported all over Shetland by a prehistoric people. Halfway down the hill, built structures and field systems indicating lives lived here long, long ago – but the OS map and Canmore could offer up no indication of what these structures may have been, or who may have used them, and why.
Thinking about the people who inhabited these wild northern reaches, exposed to the elements and eking out a living in thin, unforgiving soils, I could only imagine what they may have thought about their Neolithic counterparts in Shetland’s lush and fertile South Mainland. They must have appeared to have had a very easy life in comparison to these northern people.
The route to the Lang Ayre, following the course of a burn down a steep ravine. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
As the coast comes close, follow the deep ravine that terminates on to the red stones of the Red Ayre – this is the only way down on to the beach, and at the top of the cliff, there is a rope to aid your passage on to the beach below. This is a walk that would probably be inadvisable – if not unachievable – during the winter months.
Getting down on the Lang Ayre is made easier by a helpful rope to assist down the steep slopes.
The beautiful Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The Lang Ayre itself is a veritable palette of colour; reds, oranges, greys and blues, all thrown together, rocks polished and smoothed in nature’s very own rock-tumbler. Each one placed and formed by the violent North Atlantic that ravages this impressive and imposing coastline. On the day we visited, it was calm, shimmering and still. A creel boat puttered around the stacks, hauling in creels; glistening jewels of water falling from burrop and buoy into the turquoise ocean below. Sitting, for a moment, by the water’s edge I listened as the sea washed over the stones, rushing in at haste before slowly making its retreat, water noisily finding its way around every pebble – sucking and gurgling as the power of the ocean pulls it back to sea. It was transfixing, the way it comes rushing in with such velocity, and pulled out again, almost reluctantly, clinging to every rock on its retreat.
The sea rushing up the beach; a transfixing sound on the Lang Ayre.
The rugged coastline on Shetland's Atlantic seaboard.
We lounged on the beach for a while, scoffing the rest of our picnics (and scotch eggs), marvelling over the beauty of the place. Words like, ‘Jurassic’ and ‘out-of-this-world’ banded around as we all struggled to absorb the sensory overload that fell before our sun-blinded eyes.
Our beachside views out to sea were spectacular at the Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
I was fascinated by the drone that Nick from Southspear Media was flying overhead (and I thank him for taking the time to give me the ‘idiots guide to drone flying’ lesson). We were able to see every inch of this remote and vast coastal landscape, fly between stacks and look back at our beachside seats from way out at sea. The whole experience was mesmerising, a reminder that technology can sometimes allow us to see a world in much more detail and clarity. It feels like a bit of an oxymoron to say that, as we often criticise technology for not allowing us to be ‘present’ in a moment; but to see the Lang Ayre from the vista of the fulmars and gannets that soared around us, felt to me, an incredible privilege. Although we all know someone who has lost a drone, right?
Incredible drone footage captured by Nick of the coastline at the Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
And then, just like that, it was time to leave and make our way back up the hill, back to our waiting cars on top of Collafirth Hill – just a 450-metre hike back. And as weary legs pulled us back up the way we had bounded down an hour or so before, we skirted the summit, avoiding the peak, before heading back down to our endpoint – back to the real world, away from the solitude and drama of Ronas Hill and the Lang Ayre.
Colours on the Lang Ayre.
I think that on this sunny summer day I fell a little bit more in love with Shetland; a place that I feel coursing through my veins so deeply. There really is no better place in the world than home.
Finally, a massive thanks to Sophie and the gang for letting me join the walk and for the great company and laughs. And a special thanks to Nick from Southspear Media for letting me use the drone footage, and of course, Shaun for the homemade scotch eggs!
Morning light in Shetland's west mainland.
I often read Peedie Peebles’ Summer or Winter Book by Mairi Hedderwick to my bairns. They’ve both loved it; and so did I when it was read to me as a child. This illustrated children’s book looks at the antics of mischievous toddler, Peedie Peebles, as he goes through the trials and tribulations of being little, following him through summer and winter. Importantly, it highlights the differences between the seasons – the endless summer light and sunshine masterfully illustrated in watercolour with clear blue skies, and gardens dripping in flowers and light, bursting with life and energy. It then shows the same domestic scene, played out in winter, with its darkness and storms, fraught tempers battling the realities of perpetual light deprivation.
This difference between summer and winter at 60° North is something I’m always asked about, and in fact, was interviewed about and featured on TV discussing with BBC Breakfast just last week. The first question (after "what’s it like living with the light nights") that visitors – and the BBC – ask me is, “how do you cope with it being light at night when you’re trying to get to sleep, and more importantly, trying to get your kids to sleep?” And the truth is; it’s all I know, all they know, all we know.
Early evening light in Fetlar, Shetland.
I was born and brought up in Shetland, which sits closer to the Arctic Circle than it does to London, and enjoys up to 19 hours of daylight at this time of the year, known locally as the Simmer Dim, or midsummer. I grew up with endless days of light, of going to bed with the sun high in the sky and waking with it still there; hung suspended like a continuous portrait of summer. It’s the most normal thing in the world to us who have been born and raised at this most northerly part of the UK.
Summer evenings in Shetland.
Yet, to a researcher in London, or a visitor from closer to the equator, where day and night are more equal, this seems almost surreal, and I guess it is – if you stop and think about it, as I have recently. My childhood memories are split in two; like Peedie Peebles Summer or Winter Book. Split like the two sides of a coin, between the memories of summer holidays that seemed to go on and on forever; of being outside covered in gutter, with bare feet and grubby paws. And then the long dark winters; with peat fires, books and houses filled with laughter and warmth. Hygge isn’t new; we’ve been doing it here in Shetland for generations.
December light at 2pm in Shetland.
That brings me on to the second question from the BBC researcher: “How do you and your children cope with the winter”. Our winter brings six hours of daylight within the 24 hours and is punctuated with winter storms brought in off the Atlantic which can, at times, feel all-consuming. But this is another reality. All my life this has been the reality, and for me, it brings a certain comfort. When I was young, and my dad was at the fishing, I used to lay awake, worrying that he was at sea in a storm and the dangers that can bring. Now, as an adult, I find it soothing to hear the wind rattle down the chimney and the rain lashing at the window; I shut the shutters and cosy down – it’s soothing. Isn’t it ironic that our greatest childhood fears and worries can become a comfort in adulthood.
A day between weathers; a calm, winter morning in Shetland.
Another question I’m always asked is, “What do you do with the long winter nights?” I have no real answer to this as it’s something I never considered until recently. I usually just make a joke out of it – avoiding having to give a sensible response – and answer with, “we have the highest birth rates in the UK, so I’ll let you figure it out.” (Sometimes it gets a laugh; sometimes not!). But, we do what everyone else does in the winter; indulge in hobbies, all washed down with too much cheese, wine and chocolate. For me, I read, write, binge on box sets, redecorate rooms on a whim and discover dusty corners that were neglected in that halcyon haze of summer (who cleans in summer anyway?). Generally just mooching around a bit more, lighting candles, cooking and baking – re-stocking the freezer with quick meals for summer (because who wants to cook in the summer either?).
But, that said, when we do get a fine day in winter, there is no better place to be. I like to get out and fill my lungs with crisp, cool air. The winter light is as breathtaking as summer, and can often be more so as the clarity is so good, allowing you to see for miles – islands appear to 'stand out of the water' and are sharper and more pronounced on a winter day.
Shetland's Simmer Dim; the sun merely dips below the horizon beforing rising again a few hours later. Photo: Dale Smith.
But, back to the simmer dim. The Shetland Dictionary defines it as “the twilight of a Shetland summer evening”. It’s a magical time of year here. The sun sets at 10.30pm, merely dipping its head below the horizon before rising again at 3.30am. Everything in nature is alive – it’s the best time to pack up a tent and set off into the hills. Listen to the world outside, it really is transfixing, and it leaves you feeling oh-so-insignificant; a tiny speck in a wide, wide world filled with wonder. The evening light of the simmer dim is an indescribable soft veil that cloaks the land, lingers and clings to it as if it will never give up its warm hold. Everything in nature is accentuated under its heady rays. The moss greener, the lichen more textured and every bird’s call is amplified; the senses are overloaded from the moment you step out the door. The morning light differs; it brings a crisp sharpness, a raw edge as the dew lifts and gives rise to the day. It’s refreshing and rich, bursting forth like a child who has just been given free rein at the park gates. It leaves you feeling rejuvenated and bursting with happiness.
Summer is the perfect time to pack up a tent and head to the hills.
My energy in the summer is always heightened, I can stay out all day and night – overdosing on vitamin D, squirrelling it away some-place deep inside to replay as memories of summer on the deepest darkest of winter days. I don’t mind that the housework gets neglected and meals are generally last-minute, dug from the deepest depths of the freezer, summer is just a fleeting moment. Blink and you might miss something – the light shimmering on a turquoise sea, or the flight of a bumblebee through heather, or the dew on a spider web, tucked under a bank of peat.
Last week we had the Simmer Dim, and with it comes a certain sense of trepidation, a realisation that the days are on the turn again and that the march towards winter and the darkness has begun once more. But for now, for today, there is still a summer to be had. Longer blog posts can wait till winter.
And for anyone who missed our TV appearance, please find a (taken on my iPhone) video of it below. It was aired on BBC Breakfast on Sunday 23rd June.
A summer day at the Hams of Roe (note the hat!).
I’m always reminded of the words of my great-grandmother when thinking about what to wear; her words still echo in my head as clear as though it was yesterday. “Nivir cast a cloot, till da munt o’ May is oot” were the words she – and many before her – said. And it’s true; we still experience cool weather in May.
Wrapped up and layered up against the elements at Eshaness in winter. (Photo: Sea Kayak Shetland)
This is just a short – but hopefully useful – blog post. I’ve been inspired to write it by the weather, the month of June usually brings warmer weather, but not this month, we seem to have been plagued with cold and windy days, reminiscent of October. So, for those who are planning their Shetland wardrobe, here are a few pointers.
Sumburgh Head on a fine spring day.
Shetlanders will often comment that we experience ‘four seasons in one day’, and anyone who has lived in (or visited) Shetland will appreciate this. So my advice is to layer up. You can always remove extra layers if necessary, but you can’t add them if you don’t have them. Our average summer temperature is 15°C and in winter this drops to 5°C (although it usually feels much cooler).
A windproof cardigan on a summer day (and another layered underneath) - the boy still wears shorts!
And don’t let the indicated temperature on weather forecasts fool you, the wind chill is menacing. Even I’m caught out by this on occasion. It reminded me of one bright sunny day last year. I was standing on the pier waiting for my bus and passengers, and I was fooled by the bright, cheerful sky that had greeted me as I pulled open the blinds in the morning – It masked a bitter north wind that gets right to the bone. In my jaw-chattering coldness, I was forced to dash to the LHD shop (across the road) to buy a hat, scarf, and I sent for my husband to fetch my long-janes (thermals). A quick change in the back of the bus and layers added I was good to go.
Wool: nature's warmer. Essential here both summer and winter.
There’s a reason Shetland knitwear has been so popular here for hundreds of years – it’s bloomin’ cosy! Shetland jumpers were worn to conquer Everest in 1953, they have been to the Arctic, the Antarctic and we traded them for gin and tobacco with the Dutch fishermen. Get into one of the local knitwear shops and buy something woolly – it will keep you warm.
I would not be without my Meindl hiking boots for longer walks and Merrell trainers for short walks.
A rough guide of what to wear:
This guy wears shorts, summer or winter!
As for umbrellas – don’t bother, they just blow out. A visitor can always be spotted as they brandish (and battle the wind with) this foreign accessory!
And for heaven’s sake, remember to bring your camera, we have just been voted in the top 10 destinations for Best in Europe by Lonely Planet after all!
But most importantly; enjoy your Shetland adventure.
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.
All photos courtesy of James Irvine.
With summer just around the corner, many of us are dusting off our bikes and hitting the roads (or pavements). I spoke to James Irvine about his experiences cycling in Shetland. Many people ask me about cycling here, and as I’m more of the cycle-around-taking-Instagram-videos kinda cyclist, I thought I’d better consult an expert on this one.
If you are thinking to come to Shetland on two wheels rather than four, then this is for you. Or, if you are a Shetlander who has a bike, or is thinking to get a bike, then this is also for you. And, for all the dedicated four-wheelers out there, this is your chance to sit back and enjoy the ride!
There are plenty of options when it comes to a cycling holiday in Shetland. You can bring a bike with you, or hire locally. Either way, once you arrive there are plenty of places to explore. And with fantastic road surfaces, and over 1,000 miles of road to cover, there is something for everyone, from the experienced hardened-cyclist right down to the novice who is simply along for the ride.
Following James on Instagram (@jamesirvine_), I’m in awe of his adventures. His hobbies include hiking, kayaking, surfing, camping, coasteering, wild-swimming and rock climbing. A real thrill seeker, I immediately feel for his mother and wonder how she copes with his antics? I imagine a certain sense of resignation as he heads out the door with his wetsuit and go-pro camera.
A quick chat with James:
Off-road cycling or road cycling?
James tells me that for him, he enjoys “a bit of everything. When I was younger, I did a lot more mountain biking and BMXing but recently I’ve started doing a lot more road-cycling, more for the fitness side of things, that and you can go out alone without having to gather friends”.
How many bikes do you have?
“Five. Well, five and a half if you include the unicycle."
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done a bike?
“Broken a few bones.
“There are a few things. I jumped [on a bike] off the bus shelter at the Thule [public bar] impressing the drunks.
“I tore my AC joint in my shoulder [The AC joint is where the collarbone meets the highest point of the shoulder blade] on holiday in Austria. I was riding my mountain bike over some bigger jumps which was not very clever in the gusty winds. This ended my trip prematurely, and I had to come home.
"Then I had to wire up Aaron’s shed for him" he says, nodding towards my husband.
Is Shetland good for those in search of a thrill?
“It definitely lacks good mountain biking trails. There are lots of decent tracks, old peat roads and access tracks but there are no designated trails. To create these, a lot of time and money would need to be invested, and that’s one of the reasons why I started road cycling."
The road between Voe and Aith, known as the Alps, or the B9071.
What are the top cycle routes?
“The best road is the Alps [a term locally used for the stretch of road, B9071, between Voe on the east side and Aith on the west side].
“We’re lucky to have a lot of single-track roads so you can cycle all day and not have to face the traffic on the main roads.”
Considering the question a bit more – “The south end is good too – around the Spiggie loop as it’s relatively flat and all single-track”.
I’ve come to believe that James is in fact mad. As mentioned, he embarked on a gruelling 100-mile cycle, on one of the windiest days we had seen since the previous winter – all in the name of ‘fun’. The route he took included some of Shetland’s stunning scenery and ever-changing landscapes – from the peatland heart of Shetland, and the furthest point from the sea (three miles), to the coastal edges and cliffs at Eshaness in Shetland’s north-west corner. Travelling from our main town, Lerwick, the route incorporates the parishes of Nesting, Northmavine, Aithsting, Whiteness, Weisdale and Tingwall. Who needs the North Coast 500?
Looking down the Kames across Pettawater, on the A970.
James describes this route as one of his ‘bucket list goals’. Choosing a cold, windy day in September to embark on this challenge he explains that he had meant to cycle a 100-mile route all summer and that time was running out (I spoke to him in November), so he says that he just "just went for it."
Describing the route, he says that it’s quite difficult to accumulate a lot of miles [in Shetland] as the island’s size governs you. The mainland is about 60 miles long from north to south, and at some points is only a few hundred yards wide – it’s said you can throw a stone between the North Sea and the North Atlantic at Mavis Grind – or the Narrow Gateway – which sits on the border between Delting and Northmavine.
To get the miles in (and ensure a scenic cycle), James took in the Nesting loop on the way north and the Alps (B9071) on the way south.
“It was quite a challenging cycle”, he explains. “There was a strong headwind on the way there.
“It was stupid really, once you get there [Eshaness], you realise that you have to get back! “Thankfully the café at Breiwick was open, so I got a coffee and cake. Luckily the wind blew me back.
“It was four hours to get to Eshaness and two hours to get home again!” An indication of the wind conditions here.
Since completing this, James has added many more challenges to his tally. Over the Christmas period he completed the Festive 500 which he finished on the 30th December with a 60 km ride “through the wind and rain, accompanied by a mild hangover.”
More recently he has taken part in his first serious competitive road-race, under the watchful eye of local coach and cyclist, Robin Atkinson.
Competing in Peebles earlier this month, James completed the 55-mile circuit, finishing up in a respectable position mid-pack in a group of about 60 other experienced competitors. For a first go at serious cycling, James describes the experience as tougher than he had anticipated, and a great experience for his next big challenge.
The following day he competed in a time-trial competition nearby, the opportunity to take part in two events made the cost of travelling to the mainland worthwhile and an invaluable experinece.
Representing the islands
James is now preparing for his toughest challenge to date – the Island Games in Gibraltar. Held every two years, this event sees some of the toughest competition attending from islands all over the world. James and Robin Atkinson will be flying the flag for Shetland at the event which is set to kick-off in seven weeks.
I know that these serious cyclists do everything, including leg-shaving to streamline their bodies. When I asked James whether he would be shaving his legs for the event, he said we would have to "wait and see". But, whether he shaves them or not, I would like to wish both James and the wider Shetland team every success at the Games.
Training at the moment is quite tough, and James is currently getting between 100 - 180 miles a week around Shetland's roads, so if you see him out training, remember to give him a wave!
James’ Shetland bucket list cycling-goals
Pondering this question he says that he would love to complete “the four corners [of Shetland] – Sumburgh, Sandness, Fethaland and Nesting, basically the four compass points of the island [mainland]. That route is about 180 miles.”
James' advice for cycling in Shetland:
What do I need to bring?
Any other tips?
“Yes, bananas are a great way to refuel, the wrappers are compostable, and you can make your pals slip on the skins!”
Should you have a bell on your bike?
It's easy to bring a bike on the Northlink ferry, to book a passage visit here.
You can hire and repair bikes in Shetland from here and here. Hire is also available in the island of Unst from Unst Cycle Hire (T: +44 (0)1957 711254).
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.
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