Five Favourite Places

by Alastair Hamilton -

‘Write about five favourite places’, they said.

Now, that’s a challenge. There are lots of places in Shetland that I love. What to put in? And what – much more difficult – to leave out? In the end, it’s a very personal choice; but here goes....

Let’s take it from the top: the island of Unst. It’s Britain’s farthest north, of course, but there’s much more to it than that. Hermaness National Nature Reserve is known for its seabirds; but carry a stick above your head to deter dive-bombing Bonxies (Great Skuas). From Hermaness, you can look north to the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse and, beyond it, the last bit of Britain, Out Stack.

it’s a very personal choice

There’s Britain’s most northerly woodland at Halligarth, plus astonishing geology and a unique and delicate little plant, Edmondston’s (or Mouse-eared) Chickweed at the Keen of Hamar.

I love the boat haven (a great museum) and the really informative Heritage Centre. Then there’s archaeology in spades, or maybe it’s trowels, with the Viking presence especially strong.

There are beautiful beaches, a brewery, a distillery and the nation’s most luxuriously-equipped bus shelter. Oh, and the enterprising Unst folk also offer worldwide expertise in renewable technologies, build high-tech boats, make astonishingly intricate lace and shape glass into beautiful objects, among other things. There’s a lot to like.

But one of my favourite places in Unst is way off the beaten track, hidden behind a talc quarry: it’s the tiny beach at Cross Geo, formed from serpentine pebbles washed and polished by the sea. They range in colour from pale green through dark green to black and, glistening in the sun on a falling tide, they’re exquisite.

Farther south now; and I’m having to miss the many delights of Yell (especially the beaches, the otters, the Old Haa Museum and the walks) and Fetlar (with a great Interpretive Centre and those beautiful little Red-necked Phalaropes). My next stop is on every visitor’s list, and with very good reason.

they’re exquisite

The cliffs at Eshaness in Northmavine are spectacular and the geological story behind them is dramatic. It seems the rocks here were formed by a volcanic eruption. There are suggestions that the eruption may have resulted from the impact of an asteroid that smacked into the earth’s crust just south-west of here, forming St Magnus Bay. Eshaness isn’t the only rendezvous for earth scientists in this part of Shetland; not too far away, near Ollaberry, there’s a dramatic exposure of the Walls Boundary Fault, connected to the Great Glen Fault, which stretches all the way to Northern Ireland.

Eshaness is a great place to walk, because – provided you keep well away from the cliff edge – you’re on pretty level ground clothed in very short grass. Offshore, there are stacks – including the wonderfully-named Drongs – and natural arches in rocky islets. There’s history here a-plenty, too. The remains of the old fishing station at Stennes remind us of the exploits of fishermen who set out from here in open boats and would row fifty miles or more out into the open Atlantic. It was a risky and sometimes fatal business. The history of the area is told in the excellent Tangwick Haa Museum.

There are surprises here too. Just west of the Eshaness lighthouse, and to be approached with the greatest care, there’s a blowhole that, in winter storms, ejects seawater that has crashed into the cave a hundred feet or so below. Even in calmer weather, the boom and hiss of the waves echoes in this vertical shaft..

South again now, and we’ll have to miss a walk through the scenic glories of Muckle Roe to make our way to Weisdale, where (especially when approached over bare moorland from the north) the sudden appearance of a woodland landscape reminiscent of, say, the Scottish Borders, comes as quite a shock on the first encounter.

the boom and hiss of the waves echoes in this vertical shaft

There are around 14 acres of mature woodland here, planted initially around the house at Kergord (formerly known as Flemington) by a landowner between 1913 and 1920. Later, further experimental plantations were created by the Forestry Commission. Planting and renewal, undertaken by the Shetland Amenity Trust, continues. The variety of tree species is remarkable and demonstrates that trees do grow in Shetland, provided that hungry sheep and rabbits are kept away from them.

There are, of course, sycamores, which grow in many places in Shetland, but there are many other species too, including Japanese larch, sitka spruce, horse chestnut and copper beech. There was, until quite recently, a large monkey puzzle in front of Kergord House.

This environment supports all sorts of flora and fauna that you might not expect to see. It’s Britain’s most northerly rookery and a popular resting place for tired migrant birds that need a safe haven after hours on the wing from, say, Scandinavia. A cuckoo has been heard from time to time.

There’s history here too, of course. Weisdale was the scene of distress during the clearances, when families were removed to make way for sheep. And Kergord House played a part in the wartime Shetland Bus operation, which used fishing vessels to run supplies into occupied Norway for the resistance movement and bring out refugees and agents who were at risk of exposure.

Just down the road from here is another favourite, the Bonhoga Gallery: interesting exhibitions, a gift shop and a café in the conservatory overlooking the stream, where I’ve seen an otter and several herons. All in all, then, this corner of Shetland has to be on my list. And, were I not constrained by my brief, I’d strike farther west from here, out towards Tresta, Skeld, Culswick, Aith, Walls and Sandness, with great walking, superb angling, lots of archaeology and such delights as Lea Gardens, Da Gairdins O’Sand and Michaelswood.

Next stop, though, is Lerwick. In an earlier life, in the world of planning, some of my time was focused on the older part of the town (classified as an Outstanding Conservation Area) and the waterfront. I still find the area irresistible, not just for the townscape but for all the other things that happen here.

I still find the area irresistible

The port of Lerwick is a vibrant place and never more so than in summer, when the old quays host cruise liners and yachts from all around the north Atlantic and sometimes farther afield; one recent yachting visitor had come from New Zealand.

The harbour is overlooked by Lerwick Town Hall, which has some of the finest secular stained glass in Britain, made by the same craftsmen who created the windows in the House of Lords.

some of the finest secular stained glass in Britain

A little farther south along the harbourfront, things become more businesslike; there’s a fish market and the Malakoff shipyard. This is not just a place to have a boat repaired; the upstairs shop is a chandlery that has everything a boat owner could wish for, but they sell other things too: when I was in for some paint last week I noticed a drone.

Beyond that again, another project from my past was the regeneration of an old industrial area around the North Ness and Hay’s Dock. These days, it’s home to a business park, the excellent Mareel arts centre (two cinemas, a concert hall, recording studios and a spectacularly-situated café) and the Shetland Museum and Archives, which offers the best possible introduction to Shetland’s geology, archaeology, history and culture. It also has a café-restaurant with a terrific view over the harbour. The Museum, Mareel and the whole regeneration project have picked up a number of awards.

Southwards again now; we’ve had to miss the fantastic cliffs and seabird colonies of Noss (but you really shouldn’t) and pass the fascinating little archaeological gem at Catpund, near Cunningsburgh, where you can see where the prehistoric predecessors of Le Creuset casseroles were hacked out of soapstone. We’ll resist, for now, the strong temptation to head over to the magnificent west coast, including St Ninian’s Isle, or take the ferry to see the world’s best broch on Mousa.

The next target is Sumburgh, with the seabird cliffs of Sumburgh Head, the impeccably-restored lighthouse, impressive archaeological sites and a couple more beautiful beaches. It’s an area that features on every visitor’s list and no wonder, but it also holds as much appeal for me after many, many years of visiting as it did on the first trip.

an area that features on every visitor’s list

Sumburgh Head is an RSPB reserve and,on the slopes of the Head, just over a stout stone wall, early summer brings puffins. They can be as little as three metres away and I don’t know of any better place to see them. But they’re not alone, for below, on the rocks, there are huge numbers of shags, razorbills and guillemots; fulmars and kittiwakes float on the wind and, a little farther out, squadrons of gannets fly purposefully in formation. This is also a place where various species of whale, including orcas, are occasionally seen, though you’d be extraordinarily lucky to be there at the right moment. (If you do want to look for orcas, it's best to hook up to the local Facebook page where sightings are reported, but there are no guarantees, of course).

The lighthouse itself was designed by Robert Stevenson, engineer extraordinary and, incidentally, granddad of Robert Louis. You can read about its history here. The engine room, which provides compressed air to sound the big red foghorn, is not to be missed and other rooms have been converted to throw light on the lighthouse keepers’ role and the sea life around the coast. The hut used by wartime radar operators has been restored, too; they averted what would have been the British version of Pearl Harbor when they spotted a large fleet of bombers heading for Scapa Flow in Orkney.

Down near the airport, Jarlshof is a large, multi-period site, with evidence of human occupation from the Neolithic to the medieval period, taking an Iron Age broch and a Viking village along the way. Not far away is Old Scatness, another extensive site that has been much more recently excavated.

There’s so much else to see in this area: an ancient promontory fort at the Ness of Burgi; the restored Quendale Mill; and I don’t really recommend that you bypass St Ninian’s Isle or Mousa; they, too, are unmissable.

one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the northern isles

That makes five favourites, but I really can’t miss out one other one, Burra Isle. There are actually two Burra Isles, East and West, just a few metres apart at their closest point, Bridge End. Why is it a favourite? Well, it’s where I live, but it’s also a really beautiful part of Shetland. And on the way there, I might well be tempted to head into Scalloway, with its superb local museum, telling the story of the Shetland Bus, and its castle.

a really beautiful part of Shetland

The two islands and the seas between and around them create an intimate landscape, with lots of bays and inlets, some shapely headlands and a couple of gorgeous beaches at Meal and Minn. To the east, the Clift Hills rise to around 800 feet, often breaking up any mist that might be heading towards us from the east and leaving us in sunshine. It’s a kind of Shetland in miniature, great for exploring on foot or in a small boat.

The wildlife is rather more low-key than at some other spots; it’s not puffin territory, for one thing. However, there are usually some Bonxies, Arctic Terns and a pair of Shelduck around, plus any number of Curlews and Wheatears; and I always grossly underestimate the number of perfectly-camouflaged Turnstones among the seaweed until they rise. There are otters, too, though one of them sadly chose to expire in my garden; and there are very occasional sightings of bigger sea creatures. Walking the coastline, either on Houss Ness (East Burra) or Kettla Ness (West Burra) is easy and rewarding, with views west to Foula. It’s a great place to be.

As well as the omissions I’ve already mentioned, there are many more: the beautiful Lunna peninsula, with the perfectly formed, tiny kirk; the Hanseatic story told at Symbister in Whalsay; and of course the smaller islands, Skerries, Papa Stour, Fair Isle and Foula, all of which could justify inclusion in my list.

Shetland is bigger and far more varied than you might imagine.