The return walk direct to Hermaness takes about 3 hours but can be extended south-west along the coast to Saito by ascending Neap; you should allow at least an other hour for this. The Lighthouse Shore Station at Burra Firth, near the start of the walk, hosts a small natural history exhibition and is the HQ for the Reserve warden in the summer. Toilets are also situated in the building.
The start point for the walk is the car park for Hermaness National Nature Reserve, where a notice board and leaflets in a metal box provide information on the Reserve. From the car park, follow the gravel path north to Winnaswarta Dale, from where a boardwalk takes you across the reserve to the western cliffs. Please keep to the boardwalk to avoid damaging the fragile blanket bog vegetation.
The blanket bog records over 7,000 years of vegetation history at Hermaness and provides nesting habitat for Red-throated Diver, Snipe, Dunlin and Golden Plover. In summer Shetland’s annual ‘pirate’ visitor, the Bonxie (Great Skua), favours this reserve with almost 1000 pairs nesting here. Bonxies breed from May to August before migrating south in the winter some perhaps as far as West Africa.
The path reaches the cliff top at Toolie, offering spectacular views of the rugged coastal landscape and the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. From here you may wish to take a detour to the south as far as Saito and experience the sight (and smell) of the gannet colony on the 170 metre (600 foot) cliffs of the Neap. Over 25,000 pairs of gannets, Britain’s largest seabird, return to Hermaness each year to lay their single eggs in nests built of seaweed cemented with guano. The cliffs also reveal some of Hermaness’ spectacular geology with contorted veins of pink granite weaving through grey gneiss, formed 600 million years ago as a result of intense heat and pressure on what were once quartz rich sands.