South Mainland

The peninsula, which runs 25 miles south from Lerwick, has some of Shetland's most attractive scenery and an extraordinary concentration of archaeological sites, including Europe's best-preserved broch and two remarkable Iron Age villages.

There is excellent walking along the coastline and through the hills which form the spine of the South Mainland. The views from Scousburgh Hill and Fitful Head are on an epic scale: crofts and farmland fringe shell sand beaches and secluded coves; while to seaward are the dramatic silhouettes of Fair Isle and Foula.

Ice carved this landscape out of ancient Old Red Sandstone rocks, some 370 million years old, although there are also much older deposits with soapstone and copper ores. Fossil fish have been found at Exnaboe. The sandy soil and generations of good husbandry have made this Shetland's most productive farmland. The South Mainland also has Shetland's most extensive sand dunes - which have helped to preserve several archaeological sites such as Jarlshof and Old Scatness.

All through the district you will find fascinating traces of the past: miniature watermills and old croft townships built in the beautiful local stone; the patterns of ancient fields; and traditional double-ended Shetland boats whose lines speak of their Viking origins.

Here, we've assumed that you're starting from the north and making a round trip:

Major wildlife attractions include:

  • Seabird cliffs
  • Nesting storm petrels
  • Wildfowl lochs
  • Seal rookeries
  • Whale-watching viewpoints

Mousa Broch

Mousa is the best preserved broch to be found anywhere in the world.

As you head south past Quarff and through Cunningsburgh, you’ll begin to catch glimpses of the island of Mousa, lying just to the east of the mainland; it’s pronounced ‘Moosa’. As you move closer, you’ll be able to see the Broch of Mousa, one of Shetland’s most remarkable prehistoric structures.

Brochs are circular, double-walled stone towers, generally constructed during the Iron Age and mainly between about 100BC and 100AD. They’re found almost entirely in the northern and western isles and the north-west highlands of Scotland. There may be as many as 500 and Shetland alone has somewhere between 80 and 120 actual or possible sites.

Almost every theory about the origin and purpose of brochs has been disputed. However, they have the appearance of fortresses, many were built in easily-defended places and at least some locations appear to have been chosen so that they were visible from others.

What isn’t in doubt is that Shetland has, on Mousa, the best preserved broch to be found anywhere in the world. Rising to 13m (43 feet), it is 15m (49 feet) in diameter. The internal diameter is 6m (20 feet). In fact, Mousa Broch is smaller in diameter than most others in Shetland. The Broch is virtually intact and you can climb up the stairs, just as its original occupants did, and enjoy a great view.

In daylight, Mousa abounds in wildlife:

  • A large colony of Common and Grey Seals basks around an inlet on the east side of the island.
  • Fulmars (Maalies) and Black Guillemots (Tysties) are very common
  • Great Skuas (Bonxies), Arctic Skuas (Aalins) and Arctic Terns (Tirricks) defend their nesting grounds by dive-bombing all intruders. They’ll pursue you, too, so try to walk around the breeding colonies, not through them, for their sake and yours.
  • You might also be lucky enough to see an Otter (Dratsi, in Shetland dialect).

We don’t know when people stopped living in the broch of Mousa, though brochs in general seem to have fallen out of use between about 200AD and 500AD. However, Mousa was briefly re-occupied, in 1153, by an eloping couple, Margaret (Earl Harald’s mother) and Erlend; not surprisingly, their pursuers found it ‘an unhandy place to attack’.

Mousa Broch has appeared on many ‘must-see’ lists but not only because it’s one of the wonders of European prehistory. It’s also a favourite site with ornithologists. Storm Petrels raise their young in its stone walls. The bird incubating the eggs occupies the nest during the day and its mate brings food in the ‘simmer dim’ – the twilight that replaces darkness in Shetland’s summer months. A night excursion to the broch, to hear their eerie calls, is an experience not to be missed.

Travelling to Mousa

The Mousa ferry leaves from Sandsayre Pier in Sandwick, and the trip may offer the bonus of sightings of Harbour Porpoises (Neesiks) at close range, as they feed on shoals of fish in Mousa Sound.

The Crofthouse Museum

Between Sandwick and Channerwick, the main road crosses the 60° parallel, which also passes through Cape Farewell in Greenland. A little to the south, there’s a beautiful sandy beach, good for bathing, at Levenwick.

A few miles farther on, a side road leads to Boddam, where you'll find the Shetland Crofthouse Museum. The museum is in fact a straw-thatched homestead restored as it would have appeared about 100 years ago. Exhibits in the cottage, barn and byre include home made furniture, such as the box bed and Shetland chairs, as well as farm implements and a spinning wheel. Nearby is a restored watermill, typical of those which ground oats and barley for most Shetland crofting townships until larger water mills were built in the mid-19th century.

The Shetland Crofthouse Museum recreates the atmosphere of an old 'but and ben' crofter's cottage.

Old Scatness

Our journey takes us farther south, through some of Shetland’s best agricultural land and towards Sumburgh Airport, where the public road runs across the west end of the main runway. Immediately beyond the runway is one of Shetland’s largest and most recently-excavated archaeological sites, Old Scatness. It’s one of Britain's most exciting Iron Age villages, with many buildings standing at or near roof height and some still even 'decorated' with yellow clay! Buried for nearly 2,000 years, the site is rich in artefacts and remarkably well preserved - a unique opportunity to see how our ancestors lived. The largest feature of the site is a broch but there are many other structures built around it.

Guided tours begin at the visitor centre, where there are demonstrations of early weaving techniques. At certain times, there are also ‘living history’ demonstrations, in which you can find out about the techniques used by our ancestors in, say, bone carving or metalwork.

The Iron Age Broch and Village at Old Scatness was an undisturbed, pristine time capsule when first discovered in 1975

Betty Mouat's Cottage

Next to the archaeological excavation is the former home of a woman called Betty Mouat. In 1880, she became a national celebrity after drifting alone to Norway. She had boarded the fishing smack Columbine, for a routine trip to sell her knitwear in Lerwick, when the skipper fell overboard. The remaining two crewmen launched a boat in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to save him. The Columbine sailed on with Betty and the crew were unable to catch up. Nine days later she was wrecked and rescued on the Norwegian coast. Her old cottage is now a camping böd, one of several historic buildings offering basic accommodation around Shetland.

Jarlshof

Less than a mile beyond Old Scatness is Jarlshof. The remains came to light a hundred years ago when storms exposed stonework above the beach at the West Voe of Sumburgh.

There are six main levels, from a Stone Age hut, perhaps 4,000 years old, through an Iron Age broch and wheelhouses to a sizeable Viking village and medieval farmstead. The Iron Age buildings are especially well-preserved, built out of the beautiful local sandstone. The site was given its name by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, The Pirate, which is set in this part of Shetland; he thought it sounded more romantic than 'Sumburgh'.

As at Old Scatness, successive layers were buried by wind-blown sand, preserving artefacts now on show in the visitor centre at the site, next to the Sumburgh Hotel.

Jarlshof is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles

Sumburgh Head

The striking headland to the south-east of Jarlshof is Sumburgh Head, the southernmost tip of the Shetland Mainland. It’s topped by Shetland's first lighthouse, a listed building, built by Robert Stevenson, who accompanied Sir Walter Scott to Shetland on his visit in 1814. The excellent interpretive centre at the lighthouse offers lots of information about the building’s history and its remarkable wartime role. There’s also a comprehensive account of the wildlife to be seen in the area, including seabirds, seals and – occasionally – larger creatures including whales.

The RSPB's nature reserve on Sumburgh Head has the UK's most accessible colony of Puffins (tammie nories in Shetland dialect), although the comical little birds only come to land between April and late July. Just walk up to the lighthouse, look over the wall and there they are, along with Guillemots (looms or lomvies), Kittiwakes (rippack maas or waegs) and Shags (skarfs). Seals often haul out on the rocks below.

Our first visit this June and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Seeing the puffins was a highlight.

Quendale, Spiggie and Scousburgh Sands

Leaving Sumburgh, our journey takes us a little way northwards, then west, towards the huge mass of Fitful Head. Nestling below it, at Quendale, is the beautifully-restored Quendale Mill, which houses a museum of rural life. This mill is one of only three large mills in Shetland – the others were at Weisdale and Girlsta – and is altogether different in scale from the tiny mill at the Crofthouse Museum.

Heading north, the road leads around the Loch of Spiggie, an RSPB wildfowl reserve. In late autumn hundreds of migrating Whooper Swans and Greylag Geese from Iceland pass through here whilst, in summer, Arctic Terns and Great Skuas bathe in the shallows. This is one of the richest lochs in Shetland, with good trout fishing. The burn leading down to Spiggie Beach is celebrated for Sea Trout.

On the north side of the road, Scousburgh Sands is a popular and sheltered bathing beach.

St Ninian's Isle

Continuing north towards Bigton, there’s some wonderful coastal scenery to admire. The roadsides and meadows are equally appealing, with, in summer, a wealth of wild flowers. Bigton overlooks St Ninian's Ayre, the fine tombolo beach linking St Ninian's Isle to the Mainland.

St Ninian's Isle became famous in 1958, when a schoolboy helping at an archaeological dig on the island's tiny Celtic chapel discovered a hoard of silver bowls and ornaments. The treasure, believed to date from around 800AD, is at present in the Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh but replicas are displayed at the Shetland Museum in Lerwick.

The island, now inhabited only by sheep, is a favourite spot for picnics, swimming and coast walking.

The South Mainland has some superb beaches including Europe's finest example of a 'tombolo' - the beach linking the village of Bigton to St Ninian's Isle, where the famous treasure was found.

Catpund Burn

North of Bigton, since there’s no road up the west coast, our route takes us eastwards to rejoin the main Sumburgh-Lerwick road. Just before reaching the village of Cunningsburgh, at Catpund Burn, there is a remarkable Viking quarry, hidden away on the hillside above the road. If you scramble up the side of the stream, you’ll come to places where Shetland's ancient inhabitants carved out bowls, urns and other utensils from the steatite rock, also known as soapstone. It’s easy to see the outline of some casserole-sized pots.

Cunningsburgh to Gulberwick

A detour through the populous village of Cunningsburgh, site of the annual agricultural show, brings you to the quiet inlet of Aiths Voe, surrounded by flower meadows. To the east is a lovely shoreline walk out to Helli Ness, with views of Bressay and Noss.

The next side road goes through the old crofting township of Fladdabister, where there are the ruins of a lime kiln used until the early 20th century. Wild roses grow in the ravine leading down to the beach at Ocraquoy.

Just north of Quarff, the lay-by next to the Brindister Loch is usually one of the best places to meet Shetland Ponies, bred at the farm nearby. Out in the loch, a tiny island holds the ruins of a dun, a prehistoric fort.

The main road to Lerwick then skirts Gulberwick where the Viking Earl Rognvald was wrecked in 1148AD. To the west, above the farm of Wick is the Hollanders' Knowe, a traditional trading place between islanders and Dutch fishermen in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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