Whalsay inspired some of Hugh MacDiarmid's finest poetry, and is the centre of Shetland's fishing industry. Important archaeological sites and a wealth of birds, seals and wild flowers make it an attractive destination for a day trip or a longer stay

Just five miles long and two miles wide, Whalsay has easy coastal walking. From the highest point, the Ward of Clett (393 feet), there's a panorama of the east coast of Shetland.

Whalsay also has Britain's most northerly 18-hole golf course, a leisure centre with heated swimming pool, and Shetland's museum to the German merchants of the Hansa. Accommodation on Whalsay is limited so it's best to book ahead. There's a small, family-run and pub, the Oot Ower Lounge at Livister, open Friday-Sunday. The Whalsay Boating Club bar at Symbister also welcomes visitors. The charity shop 'Shoard', a real Aladdin's cave, is also becoming a popular place for visitors - open on Wednesday, Thursday & Saturday afternoons (2-4pm).

Whalsay, home to a prosperous fishing community, has long been known in Shetland as 'Da Bonnie Isle'.


The harbour at Symbister is the hub of this fishing community of around 1,000 people - and a constant source of interest to islanders and visitors alike.

Craft owned and crewed by local families crowd the sheltered dock, from the smallest creel boats to big ocean-going trawlers - some of Europe's largest fishing vessels. The inner harbour is packed with colourful dinghies and the distinctive "Shetland Model" boats which compete in local sailing and rowing races.

The beach below the road around the head of the bay is partly man-made and was formerly used to dry salted cod and ling during the heyday of the line fishery from sixerns - open, six-oared boats - in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Whalsay Heritage Centre is also located in Symbister and has exhibitions on throughout the year, as well as a family history room where records can be browsed.

The German Merchants

For hundreds of years the salt fish trade was in the hands of German merchants of the Hanseatic League. The museum in the Symbister Pier House tells how ships from Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck sailed to Shetland every summer, bringing seeds, cloth, iron tools, salt, spirits, luxury goods and hard currency. Generations of the same families made the voyage and some merchants are buried in the islands.

This picturesque old building, restored with its dock and cargo hoist, was one of two Hanseatic booths, or warehouses, in Whalsay until the Germans were forced out by import duties after the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland.

Sodom and Hugh MacDiarmid

For most of the 1930s the Scots Communist poet Christopher Grieve ("Hugh MacDiarmid") lived in Whalsay. He was poor, little-known outside literary circles and regarded in the islands as an oddity, although his wife Valda and son Michael were well-liked.

In the croft house of Sodom (from the Norn sud-heim - the southern house) this often tormented genius wrote much of his finest poetry (including On a Raised Beach) and, via the Whalsay post office, conducted furious correspondence with the leading writers and thinkers of his generation.

Grieve was called up for war work in 1942 and never returned to Whalsay.

The tidal sounds and offlying rocks around Whalsay are among the best places in Shetland to see porpoises and occasional dolphins, Minke Whales and Orcas. So keep a lookout during the ferry crossing and you may see why the Vikings called it "Hvals-oy" - the island of whales.

Getting There

The ferry terminal for Whalsay is at Laxo, a 20-mile drive north of Lerwick. The crossing to Symbister takes 25 minutes and the service is frequent, although booking is advised in the peak season. View timetable here.

Day trips to Whalsay are certainly possible and with regular sailings you can spend as much or little time as you wish on the island. There is accommodation available if you wish to spend a bit longer exploring.

Find out more:

  • Download a Shetland Heritage leaflet about Whalsay
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