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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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Getting to and from 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.
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.
A weekend in Varda self-catering (some ideas for your stay)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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
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.
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.
A little about Laurie
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