Bressay & Noss

Bressay shelters Lerwick from the east and can be reached by car ferry from the town in under ten minutes. Noss lies off the east coast of Bressay. Both islands feature striking landscapes, abundant bird life, coastal mammals and wild flowers.

Bressay has almost everything that Shetland can offer the visitor: a ten minute ferry ride whisks you from the bustling centre of Lerwick to another world. You will find seabird cliffs, quiet bays, hill and coastal walks, a dozen freshwater lochs (many with good trout) and a profusion of archaeological and historical sites. The east side of the island is sparsely inhabited, a place of peace and quiet where birds and sheep wander undisturbed.

A quiet, rural island with beautiful scenery, friendly people and fascinating wildlife.

Getting there and getting around

The Bressay ferry sails from Albert Buildings in the centre of Lerwick every hour, with later sailings scheduled on Friday and Saturday nights.

The ferry berths in Bressay right next to the Bressay Heritage Centre which features seasonal exhibitions on the culture, history and natural heritage of the island. The centre is open part time from May to September.

Much of Bressay is accessible by car on the single-track roads which radiate from the shop and post office at Mail (the place-name means "the sands" and long pre-dates the Royal Mail). The side roads are rough tracks unsuitable for cars and the best way to enjoy the wild east side of the island is on foot. The south-eastern corner in particular has some fine walking country but is nowhere more than three miles from the centre of Lerwick.

Bressay shelters Lerwick harbour from the North Sea and for many centuries Bressay Sound has been a port of refuge for shipping, since long before Lerwick was founded in the 17th century. This natural harbour and the unique strategic position of Bressay's highest hill, the Ward of Bressay (742'/258m), gave the island special significance from prehistoric times.

From the summit, all of Shetland is visible: on a clear day, with binoculars, you can see through the natural arch in the Gaada Stack on Foula, away to the west, in the Atlantic; to the north-east lie Out Skerries; to the north Ronas Hill and Saxa Vord (Unst); and to the south Sumburgh Head. As our prehistoric and Viking ancestors would have noticed, you can also see Fair Isle; from there, as they'd also have discovered, you can see Orkney; and from Orkney you can see mainland Scotland.

Local Amenities

  • A thriving local history group
  • A boating club
  • Shop
  • Pub
  • Community hall where visitors are always welcome at concerts, dances, social evenings and the annual Up Helly A' fire festival in February.
  • Bressay is also home to the Northern Lights Holistic Spa where a variety of facilities and treatments are available.
There is little spraying or mowing of the roadside verges in Bressay, with the result that they are a riot of wild flowers in June and July. Off the beaten track, the meadow flowers are at their best among the croft land in those months, while in the wetter pastures there are fine displays of Purple Orchids.

Bressay Wildlife

There is plenty of birdlife to see in Bressay, including most of the species found in Noss. The south eastern corner of the island includes the Puffin cliffs of the Ord and has a breeding colony of several hundred Great Skua around the loch at Sand Vatn as well as breeding Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Snipe, Curlew, Whimbrel, Golden Plover and other moorland birds. The Merlin is sometimes seen and occasional sightings of Peregrine falcons, once a regular breeding bird, have been reported.

Spring and autumn bring Bressay its share of migrating birds. Great flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare can be seen and the island has some rarities on its checklist including a Surf Scoter from North America. In winter the lochs are used by parties of up to a dozen Whooper Swans. Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Great Northern Diver, Grey Heron, Long tailed Duck, Widgeon, Teal, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye are common winter visitors.

The native mammals are Otter, Grey Seal and Common Seal. Rabbits, hedgehogs, rats, mice (and sheep!) have all been introduced by humans over the centuries. There are no snakes or other reptiles but introduced frogs thrive.

Bressay's breeding list also includes:

  • Oystercatcher
  • Arctic Sku
  • Arctic Tern
  • Eider
  • Black Guillemot
  • Shag
  • Redshank
  • Raven
  • Red throated Diver
  • Ringed Plover
  • Lapwing

Exploring Bressay

The road north from Maryfield passes Bressay's most imposing building, Gardie House, a laird's mansion built in 1724 and noted for its walled gardens.

Another little road north passes through the crofting hamlet of Crueton (with its very 'birdy' copse of willows) and over the hill to the townships of Beosetter and Gunnista, overlooking Aith Voe which is one of the best birdwatching spots in the island, noted for waders, divers and sea ducks. Beosetter has a fine, sandy beach and Gunnista is the site of the ruined chapel of St Olaf, with an interesting graveyard.

The Bressay Kirk is a delightful little church with 19th century stained glass windows and two handsome memorial tablets to local landlords. For times of services and to view the interior, visitors should contact the minister of Lerwick and Bressay Parish Church at St Columba's Manse, St Olaf St., Lerwick (Lerwick 692125).

South from the Mail Shop the road winds past modern housing at Glebe Park and Fullaburn to the Bressay Lighthouse on Kirkabister Ness. Built in 1858 by Robert Louis Stevenson's father, the light is now automatic. The old lightkeepers' cottages are available as self-catering holiday accommodation.

In the dramatic geo (cove) below the lighthouse the Lithuanian factory trawler Lunokhods was wrecked in a 1993 storm. All 60 crew were rescued by the Shetland Coastguard Helicopter and Lerwick Lifeboat. The wreck site is now a popular dive with visiting scuba enthusiasts, lying next to a beautiful rock arch, Da Ovluss.

The old kirkyard lies partly over a ruined broch. Here was found the Bressay Stone, apparently the memorial to the daughter of a Pictish chieftain, Naddod, and inscribed with Ogham script which has never been fully deciphered. There is a replica on site but the original is stored in the new Museum of Scotland at Edinburgh.

Walking notes:

  • Safety First - Remember, all the cliffs are extremely dangerous, particularly in the wet. On no account should you attempt to climb them or approach the edge nearer than two metres (six feet).
  • Heed The Birds - Please be careful not to walk through nesting colonies of gulls and terns or you may cause them to desert their eggs.
  • No Dogs, Please! - The owners and tenants of the land have given permission for these recommended walks to be included in this guide, on condition that visitors do not bring their dogs, even on a leash. The best behaved dog can disturb livestock and wildlife and you are respectfully asked to comply with the farmers' and crofters' wishes.

For more information:

A short walk up the Burn of Setter is a good place for a close look at the distinctive, vertical-shaft Shetland watermills. There are several on this burn and many more throughout Bressay. Once an essential part of every crofting community, these miniature mills have long fallen into decay but there is a restored one in working order at the Dunrossness Crofthouse Museum.

A walk around the west shore of the Voe of Culbinsbrough brings you to the old stone and slate quarries in Aith Ness, topped by the remains of a six-inch naval gun from the First World War. Like the gun on Bard Head at the southern tip of Bressay, this one was installed in the last year of the war and was never fired in anger.

If you have only a little time in Shetland, one of the best ways to sample most of what the islands have to offer is to spend a day on this glorious walk round the uninhabited coast and hills between Noss Sound and the Bressay Lighthouse, taking in some of the wildest scenery in the islands.

Follow the tarmac road to Noss Sound and then head south along the coast, past the volcanic vent of the Muckle Hell and its colony of Herring Gulls, until you come to the waterfall below the ruined watermill on the burn from the Loch of Grimsetter. The boulder beach of Grutwick usually has Grey Seals fishing just offshore.

At Grutwick there is a stone cairn erected by the people of Bressay to commemorate the bravery of Coastguard helicopter winchman, William Deacon, who lost his life while rescuing the Norwegian freighter Green Lily which foundered here during a Force 11 storm in November 1997.

There is so many lovely walking routes to choose from and the scenery is spectacular!

Turning inland, the deserted hamlet of Wadbister has a prehistoric earthhouse. Across the Loch of Grimsetter is the croft of Gorie, an oasis of trees and bushes in the hill.

South of Wadbister the cliff walk gives superb views of caves and natural arches, including the remarkable triple arch of the Stoura Clettstack - another favourite haul-out for Common Seals. Here too is the ruined medieval settlement of Stobister, where legend has it that the inhabitants fled when a violent storm sent fish raining down the chimneys - perhaps the same tidal wave that opened Noss Sound.

Walking on past the collapsed sea cave of the Gore's Kirn you come to the breeding territory of Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas; then the wild, lonely loch of Sand Vatn where Red-throated Divers nest (please avoid disturbance). Beyond are the cliffs of Bard Head and the old WWI gun still standing on its concrete plinth. Two hundred feet (61m) below is the tide race of the Bard a strom, a favourite fishing ground for Gannets and other seabirds.

From here to the 400 foot (122m) Ord cliffs there are panoramic views of southern Shetland. The Ord is Fulmar territory, with thousands of these graceful birds wheeling in the updraft, but here and in many corners of the Bressay cliffs you will also see Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and Tysties.

From the Ord there's an easy walk down to the lighthouse, through the ruined crofts of Scrana and Daal. Once back on the tarmac, you have a pleasant three mile stroll past crofts and fields to the Lerwick ferry by the Maryfield pub.

Noss - The Perfect Island For Birds

Noss is one of the most spectacular wildlife sights in Europe. The first sight of Noss always sticks in visitors' memories, even if they've no previous interest in birds.

As soon as you set eyes on the mile-long seabird cliffs of Noss you can see why the island was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1955: this is one of the most spectacular wildlife sights anywhere.

At the peak of the breeding season the stupendous chorus of around 150,000 birds and chicks is unforgettable - as is the smell of the guano which stains the cliffs white! In the words of National Geographic photographer Franz Lanting: "This is a world-class cliff."

Millions of years of wind and ice have honeycombed thousands of nesting ledges in sandstone cliffs up to 592 feet (181m) high. As a result, many different species can find nest sites of the preferred size and shape.

Although not the biggest seabird colony in Britain, Noss is the most accessible one, combining very large numbers of birds with a wide variety of species and spectacular scenery.

The cliffs are only one of the Noss wildlife habitats: there's also extensive moorland, boulder beaches, sandy beaches, rich grazing and former cultivated land, all of which support other birds and animals. Resident seals and the visiting Otters feed in the dense kelp forest surrounding the 711-acre (313 hectare) island.

The spectacle of:

  • 20,000 gannets
  • 25,000 guillemots
  • 2,000 kittiwakes

festooned over a mile of cliffs, up to 592’ (181m) high, is simply astounding, as is the roar of the mass ‘choir’ parents and chicks.

How to get there

There are two very different ways to experience Noss and many visitors choose to do both:

  1. Excursion boat from Lerwick. This is easily the best way to view most of the seabird nesting sites at close range (and the only way when the island is closed to visitors) but it doesn't include a landing on Noss. If you have mobility problems you can still see this wonder of the wildlife world: wheelchair users are welcome on a highly manoeuvrable boat with twin engines which can take you safely into the coves, right alongside the lower cliff ledges and, in calm weather, even into the Cave of Noss, with an underwater camera to explore the kelp forest as well. Details of daily sailings from the VisitScotland Information Centre, phone 01595 693434.
  2. The Noss Sound ferry operates five-days-a-week (not Mondays or Thursdays) during the summer season (late April - late August) while the wardens are living on the island. You first take the Bressay ferry from Lerwick, then walk or drive the three miles (5km) across Bressay to Noss Sound where the ferry, a small inflatable boat with an outboard motor, will take you across the narrow sound to the Noss landing place at Gungstie. For more information or to book, phone: 0800 107 7818.

    The warden's house, Hametoun (also known as Gungstie, although that name properly applies to the boat landing), has a visitor centre with displays on the history, geology and ecology of the island, with information about the latest sightings. After the warden's briefing on safety and how to avoid disturbance to birds and livestock, you can follow the track around the edge of the island. Leave at least four hours for your walk - it's steeper than it looks and watching the Puffins on the clifftop may well delay you, to say nothing of that sensational aerial view of the gannetry.
A wonderful place: great views of the wildlife, stunning scenery and great walks.

Arctic sandstorms and giant waves

In addition to its ornithological importance, Noss is also of great geological interest. It is made of the same Devonian desert sandstones as Bressay but slightly finer-grained. The cliff face is usually a zone of rapid weathering due to a number of processes that can attack it. There are three types of weathering: physical (eg. frost actions), chemical (involves hydrolysis) and biological (eg. growth of lichen or large amounts of guano). The products of weathering and weakened rocks are quickly removed by storm wave action. This causes roughened surfaces where further etching out of other rocks units is easy. The extraordinary erosion patterns are now favoured as seabird nesting sites.

Noss Sound is a relatively new channel and was probably made by storm waves that breached the sandy spit that once joined Noss to Bressay. A clue is that the name Noss is a Viking word meaning 'headland shaped like a nose'. If it had been an island when they arrived in the ninth century they would certainly have recorded the fact in their name for the place and it would be 'Nossay' - 'island shaped like a nose'. There are physical traces of a gigantic wave along the Bressay coast south of Noss Sound, and also a legend of a clifftop croft washed out by the sea at Stobister.

The Cliff Gardens of Noss

Because the grazing on Noss is restricted (and because even Shetland sheep can't find their way everywhere) the cliff vegetation of Noss is more luxuriant than in more heavily grazed areas, despite the plague of rabbits which each winter's cull only just keeps in check.

In early summer, as the Sea Pinks and blue Spring Squill fade, the cliffs present a palette of white Sea Campion and Scurvy Grass, Red Campion, yellow Birdsfoot Trefoil and Roseroot and the distinctive blue of Sheep's Bit Scabious, to set off the brown Heather moorland with its patches of Cotton Grass, Lousewort and orchids.

A lovely place and very friendly people. The scenery and the wildlife are magnificent. I will be back.

A Fertile and Productive Island

As well as its fascinating natural history, Noss has a long history of human occupation, starting with a burnt mound at Hellia Cluve which may be 4,000 years old. Place name evidence and the remains of a mediaeval chapel on Big Ness ('promontory of the buildings') suggest that Noss was home to a Celtic Christian community before the Viking invasion. What those marauders did to the priests in Papil Geo ('the Priests' Cove') may be imagined. From time to time, winter storms shift the sands at Nesti Voe to reveal human bones from the ancient graveyard.

The sandy soils around the 17th century house at Hametoun were easy to work - and to fertilise with seaweed from beaches such as Da Stinkin' Geos ('the smelly coves' where storm-blown seaweed lies and rots to this day). In subsistence times Noss was a very productive island, where good crops of oats and barley could grow and the grazing was so good there was even a milk surplus to make cheese.

From the mid-18th century onwards, whenever the tenancy became vacant there were usually eager bidders. Signs of that relative prosperity are still visible in the long, slightly curved 'rigs' on Turr Ness - the traces of ploughing by oxen which were swum across the sound from Bressay at low tide and herded at night in Da Owsen's Pund (the oxen's enclosure') at the north end of the big cliffs. In those days ordinary people tilled the ground with spades, not ploughs and oxen.

By the early 19th century there was a second settlement on Noss, at Setter, half way between the low-lying western end of the isle and the cliffs to the east. By 1861 the population peaked at 24, but may have included some visiting fishermen who spent the census night in summer lodges at Booth's Voe.

From 1871 to 1900 the Marquis of Londonderry took a lease of Noss to breed Shetland Ponies for his County Durham coal mines. A display in the old Pony Pund tells the story of this rather cruel trade, which also involved building a stone wall around the higher cliffs to stop the mares falling over. The stallions were kept in Bressay until required.

Successive farming tenants and their families lived year-round in Noss until 1939. After that it was occupied in summer only until 1969 when the last resident tenant (who was also honorary RSPB birdwatcher and ferryman) gave up the lease. Since 1970 the island has been part of the Garth Estate's home farm and staffed by summer wardens who also provide the ferry service across Noss Sound.

Notes for 'Nossers'

  • Noss is open to visitors during the summer (except on Mondays and Thursdays) and closed in winter (September to mid-May)
  • Boat trips which don't land on the island can visit Noss on any day of the year if the weather is suitable.
  • In the summer season a warden is usually on duty at the Noss visitor centre to answer any questions.
  • It is also possible to arrange guided tours with groups.
  • If the weather's too bad for the Scottish Natural Heritage ferry to cross Noss Sound the wardens hoist a red flag outside their house but to avoid disappointment you should check with the VisitScotland Information Centre before setting out for Noss.
  • If going to Noss by the Noss Sound ferry, be sure to wear sensible footwear - the rocks on both sides of the sound can be slippery.
  • Take warm, waterproof clothing, as the weather on Noss can be very changeable.
  • Visitors' dogs are not welcome. Even well-trained dogs can disturb wildlife and sheep.
  • Don't leave litter - it can kill or maim wildlife.
  • Don't take plants, eggs, birds or animals - only photos.
  • Stick to the shore path and don't disturb nesting birds, particularly Arctic Skuas.
  • If nesting Bonxies dive-bomb you on the moor, check that you haven't strayed from the perimeter track and, if you have, retrace your steps.
  • Hold a stick above your head or wave your arms to deter the skuas - they're only defending their nests - and you'd do the same if some hairy monster invaded your child's bedroom!

For more information see the SNH Noss website. Contact: Scottish Natural Heritage, Ground Floor, Stewart

Building, Alexandra Wharf, Lerwick, Shetland. ZE1 0LL. Telephone +44 (0)1595 693345.

Add to
My Shetland
Back to Areas