District of the Month: Northmavine

by Alastair Hamilton -

In the next of our series, we look at Northmavine, a large parish which lies in the north-western corner of Shetland's mainland.

Northmavine is one of the most spectacular districts in Shetland. The western coastline, facing the Atlantic, is a dramatic crust of cliffs and stacks, caves and blowholes. A visit to Eshaness, where all these features are on display, is a treat for locals and visitors alike and is especially memorable during or immediately after an Atlantic storm, when huge waves crash ashore.

Northmavine also boasts Shetland's highest point, Ronas Hill, which rises to 450m (1,486 feet) and offers a sub-arctic landscape in which wind or frost have produced features, such as stone polygons, at a lower altitude than anywhere else in the UK. Not far away, at Ollaberry, is an impressive exposure of the Walls Boundary Fault, an extension of Scotland's Great Glen Fault. Northmavine is, then, an earth scientist's paradise – but non-experts are just as impressed.

There's a long history of human occupation, with evidence of life, work and trade from prehistoric times through the Viking age, the Hanseatic period and subsequent centuries of crofting agriculture and fishing. The abandoned fishing station at Stennes is a poignant reminder of the days when fishermen rowed fifty or sixty miles out to sea in small, six-oared boats, at the mercy of the north Atlantic. The district's story is told in a local museum at Tangwick Haa.

Northmavine's population today is around 840, most people living in the villages of Hillswick, Ollaberry, North Roe or Sullom. Crofting and fishing (including fish and shellfish farming) provide employment but, with all these natural attractions, tourism is important too. There are several bed and breakfast or self catering businesses, a café and camping site and a hotel. Other businesses range from a smithy to a garage and Northmavine is also known for producing innovative polycrubs, which are polytunnels built to withstand any weather and using recycled materials.

Three primary schools, at Hillswick, North Roe and Ollaberry, currently serve the area, though the future of the first two is under review; older pupils travel to Brae High School, a six-year secondary in the neighbouring district of Delting. Hillswick has a shop, a health centre, a hotel and a wildlife sanctuary which rescues seals and otters. Ollaberry has a shop and a garage. A wider range of services is available in Brae, including a Co-op supermarket, restaurants and a leisure centre with swimming pool; and all the shops and services in Lerwick are less than an hour away. Local bus services link Northmavine to Brae and Lerwick. Local events include the Northmavine Up Helly Aa and the Big Bannock, a charity event which involves, among other things, Merry Tiller races; it's easier to experience than describe.

Northmavine is a place where it really is possible to get away from it all and connect with nature. Wonderful walking, great fishing and a lively community life make the district a candidate for anyone who loves to make their living in exceptional surroundings. There's more information on the website of the local community development company and you can download a leaflet for visitors to Northmavine (pdf).