Sea-birds and seals on Shetland’s fiord-cut islands

Shetland lies 110 miles north-east of Scotland’s north coast, and the islands’ traditions are more Norse than Scottish. Less than 100 miles further north-east lie some of the biggest North Sea oil fields, and their exploitation has brought changes to parts of the islands. Elsewhere, however, they retain their wild appeal. They are windswept, treeless and peat-covered, and the sea lochs that cut deeply into them are the domain of sea-birds.


Shetland’s capital, and the islands’ only town, was a Dutch, settlement in the 17th century. It became a thriving fishing port after Fort Charlotte was founded in 1653 to exploit the military potential of Bressay Sound. The oil boom of the 1970s brought dramatic growth. In that decade, there was a ten-fold increase in harbour traffic, and a 40-fold increase in revenues. The many new houses – stern and grey as the older ones are – reflect that growth, and today Lerwick holds a third of Shetland’s total population of 22,000. However, the old town along the front is intact, and there are still no traffic lights or parking meters.

A mile from the centre, in the Loch of Clickimin, are the remains of a broch dating from the 4th to 2nd centuries BC. The Shetland County Museum in Lerwick contains replicas of Celtic silver treasures found in 1958 on St Ninian’s Isle, Norse remains and relics of maritime history. At Veensgarth, 3 miles north-west, there is a museum devoted to domestic life, agriculture and fishing.

The Tourist Centre issues permits for inland fishing, and most lochs are well stocked with brown trout. Boats for sea-angling can also be hired.

Lerwick’s main annual celebration is the fire festival of ‘Up-Helly-Aa’. Held on the last Tuesday of January, the festival is an 18th-century adaptation of a Norse feast, Uphalliday, marking the end of Yule and the long winter nights. A replica of a 30 ft Viking galley is hauled through the streets by ‘guizers’ – men disguised with masks – and ceremonially burned as a prelude to a night of revelry.


The island, a national nature reserve, is one of Europe’s greatest sea-bird colonies, with an estimated 70-80,000 birds. It was once farmed, but there are no permanent inhabitants now. In the course of a walk around the

SHETLAND’S TOUCH LITTLE PONY Measuring only 42 in. high at the shoulder when fully grown, the Shetland pony was once in great demand for work in coal mines and on Scottish crofts. Now it is sold the world over as a pet, and is often the first mount ridden by pupils at riding schools. island, taking 2-3 hours, visitors can see eider ducks, Arctic terns and great skuas, or ‘bonxies’ as they are known locally. Ledges of sandstone provide nesting sites for gannets, kittiwakes and guillemots. The walk includes the 600 ft Noup of Noss cliff, with views that range from Fair Isle to Unst.


This small uninhabited island, which can be reached only by specially hired boat from Sandwick, has on its west coast the most complete example of an Iron Age broch in existence today. The tower rises 43 ft on walls that are at the base 12 ft thick and hollow. Inside this fireproof protection, a clan of Picts built a ‘wheelhouse’ of thatched wooden rooms set in a circle.


The village is dominated by a new airport, its two radar domes poised like giant golfballs on nearby hills. Until North Sea oil was found in 1971 the airport had a single runway, and a man was employed to drive sheep off it so that planes could land. Now there are two modern runways and a new terminal to serve the regular flights from Aberdeen, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the helicopters that fly back and forth from the oil platforms.

Just south of the airport lies Jarlshof, one of the country’s most remarkable archaeological sites. Nestling around trim, grassy hillocks are the remains of 3,000 years of settlement, from the Stone Age through the Bronze and Iron Ages to Viking times. Iron Age remains include those of a broch, one of the 500 circular drystone defensive towers built by tribes all over northern Britain between about 400 BC and AD 200.There is a small museum on the site.

Round nearby Sumburgh Head, sea-birds by the thousand roost, and seals clamber on and off the rocks below. To the west lies the sandy Bay of Quendale, and beyond towers a 900 ft hill, Fitful Head. A steep, rough road climbs to the radar dome at the summit. From the top, North Sea fogs permitting, there is a magnificent view over Mainland’s cliffs, inlets and rolling inland hills.

At Boddam, 4 miles north of Sumburgh on the A970, a mid 19th-century croft house has been restored to its original state and furnished in the style of the time.


Despite its name, St Ninian’s – named after a 6th-century Irish missionary – is not an island. It is linked to Mainland by a narrow isthmus formed by two beaches of pure sand back to back. On the hillside facing Mainland are the remains of a 12th-century chapel. There, in 1958, archaeologists found a treasure of 27 Celtic silver pieces which had been buried around AD 800, presumably to keep them from marauding Vikings. The St Ninian’s Treasure is now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.


The road to these islands leads south from Scalloway over a narrow causeway and provides dramatic views of Clift Hills on Mainland. Hamnavoe, a small fishing village, is the islands’ principal community.

To the west, 24 miles away, lies Foula, its dominating 1,373 ft mountain, The Sneug, clearly visible in good weather. Its cliffs are spectacular, rising sheer to 1,220 ft at a point called the Kame. Often called Britain’s loneliest inhabited island, Foula has about 40 inhabitants who may be cut off by gales for a month at a time. In good weather, a mail-boat runs from Walls, on Mainland, but the island has no harbour and the boat must be lifted clear of the water at each visit.


The settlement which was once the capital of Shetland is named after a Norse skali, or hall, now long vanished. But the town is sti dominated by a latter-day skali – the towering, gaunt ruin of a castle built in 1600 by Earl Patrick Stewart, who forcibly replaced Norse law by Scottish feudal law. The key to the castle is available from a cottage opposite the entrance.

Close to the castle, and surrounded by the houses of the 1,000-strong community, is the harbour, busy with fishing vessels and alive with seagulls. During the Second World War, Scalloway was the main base for Norwegian patriots who smuggled saboteurs in and refugees out of their homeland, an operation known as ‘the Shetland Bus’.


This headland is one of Shetland’s many startling clifftop viewpoints, and one of the few accessible by car. The road leads up to a lighthouse and car park over a high, barren, peat plain strewn with lava boulders. Fulmars soar over the ragged cliffs, and puffins burrow in the soil.

An inlet a few yards to the north, Calder’s Geo, is a collapsed cave where Atlantic breakers smash in over rock that once formed the cave’s roof. There are fine walks over the springy turf. Ronas Hill, 5 miles to the north-east, is Mainland’s highest point, at 1,475 ft.


This deep, ice-scoured fiord – or ‘voe’ in the Shetland dialect – is the terminal for the two oil pipelines from the East Shetlands Basin, and is the largest oil terminal in Europe. The lines, emerging from the ocean 2 miles away across a peninsula, deliver a stream of oil to huge, grey tanks, ready for transfer to tankers in the voe. A flare, visible for miles, burns off excess gas.

At the head of the voe, where the road leads northwards, is a neck of land known as Mavis Grind – from the Norse maev eiths grind, ‘the gate of the narrow isthmus’.


The second largest island in Shetland, 17 miles long, is a place of rolling peat hills speckled with lochs and surrounded by cliffs. West Sandwick, however, has a fine sandy beach and 3 miles north is Whale Firth, a voe with shingle beaches, steep grassy slopes, rugged cliffs and several caves. Frequent car ferries link Mainland to Yell, and Yell to Fetlar and Unst.


Britain’s northernmost island lacks Shetland’s usual thick carpet of peat, but is instead a place of screes and stony outcrops. Of all the islands, it has the densest population of Shetland ponies. In the southeast stand the austere rocks of Muness, Britain’s northernmost castle.

At the island’s northern tip is the Herma-ness National Nature Reserve. The cliff ledges are crowded with guillemots and razorbills, while above wheel kittiwakes, fulmars and other sea-birds.


The island is well known to ornithologists, particularly for its Arctic skuas and storm petrels. In 1967 a pair of snowy owls began to breed there, an event that caused 1,700 acres of Fetlar to be declared a bird reserve. In 1975 the only male vanished, but a few female birds can still occasionally be seen. Otters, common seals and grey seals abound.


Fair Isle, 25 miles south-west of Sumburgh, is visited twice a week by air from Lerwick and by boat from Grutness, on Mainland. Its 70 inhabitants are still noted for their knitting, the intricate patterns of which were supposedly introduced by Spanish survivors of the Armada.

Fair Isle belongs to the National Trust for Scotland and is noted for its bird life, including numerous migrants.