District Of The Month: Whalsay And Skerries

by Alastair Hamilton -

Every month, we look at what each district of Shetland has to offer as a place to live. This time, we visit the island of Whalsay and the neighbouring Out Skerries.

Whalsay and Skerries lie to the north-east of the Shetland mainland. Whalsay is roughly 8 km (5 miles)long by 3 km (2 miles) wide and has a population of just over 1,000. It’s a rolling landscape, with heather moorland occupying much of the interior. There’s more fertile crofting land around the coast, particularly between Symbister (the largest village) and Challister on the north-west coast; around Isbister, on the south-east coast; and at Skaw, in the north.

...It’s a rolling landscape, with heather moorland...

Although there’s always been some crofting, Whalsay’s economy is dominated by fishing and islanders own some of the largest trawlers in the Shetland fleet. Although the island has some great coastal walking, some important archaeological remains and a small museum which recalls Shetland’s Hanseatic trade, tourism plays a relatively small part in the economy. The island is very well provided with public services. There’s a school catering for nursery, primary and junior secondary pupils and a great leisure centre with a games hall and pool. The island has a medical practice. There are public halls, too, and the boating club in Symbister is a popular venue. The island has several general stores but it’s probably best known for its charity shop, SHOARD, which occupies several rooms in a former school and offers an extraordinary range of goods, often in nearly new condition and at very attractive prices. There’s more about Whalsay’s heritage in this leaflet (pdf download).

...The island is very well provided with public services...

Skerries consists of several small, rocky islands and islets, of which Bruray and Housay, linked by a bridge, are inhabited; the island’s road is less than a mile long. Around 75 people live there. The terrain allows grazing for sheep and offers some small areas capable of cultivation, but fishing has always been the mainstay of the economy. Until quite recently, the island school had a secondary department catering for two or three pupils but, these days, they are accommodated in Lerwick. There’s a public hall and two shops. Again, a heritage leaflet provides more information about what’s to be seen.

...fishing has always been the mainstay of the economy...

Whalsay is reached by ferry from Laxo, on the mainland, or (in some weather conditions) from Vidlin. The trip takes about half an hour and, for most of the day, crossings are at intervals of 45 minutes on weekdays, with a less frequent service at weekends. Commuting to work in Lerwick or elsewhere on the Shetland mainland is feasible; with the last ferry from Laxo at 2310, it’s also possible to attend mainland social events, go to concerts or visit the cinema. The ferry that serves Skerries usually sails to Vidlin, taking 1 hour 30 minutes, with between one and three crossings per day on four days per week. On Wednesdays, it sails to Lerwick, taking (2 hours 30 minutes)

Why might you move to Whalsay or Skerries? Apart from fishing, the most obvious employment opportunities are in education or health. However, either island could be a good base for a self-employed person or for writers or artists. Hugh MacDiarmid, the celebrated Scots poet, lived in Whalsay for much of the 1930s and is said to have written much of his best work there. Both islands hold attractions for bird-watchers, too: rare migrants often turn up during the spring and autumn. Whalsay offers the pleasures of island life but with good connections to the mainland. Out Skerries is more remote and could offer a very different experience from what you may be used to.

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