By Chloe IrvineAugust 3rd 2021

The island of Whalsay caters to a variety of tastes whether it be wildlife, hiking, sport, history or a fun place to have a night out.

The name Whalsay comes from the Old Norse term ‘Hvalsey’ meaning ‘Whale Island’. It's also known locally as the ‘Bonnie Isle’, a name given by visiting fishermen in the 19th century who saw it covered in yellow flowers, which it still is in certain areas throughout the summer.

The isle is heavily dependent on the fishing industry with most of the island’s men employed in either the whitefish, pelagic or shellfish industries.

Whalsay is on the east side of Shetland and is accessible from the Mainland via the ferry from Laxo, with a journey that lasts half an hour. Occasionally, due to weather conditions, you may have to get there from Vidlin, which adds 10 minutes of ferry time. Nearby digital road signs update commuters on which of the two terminals to attend.

The island is 5 miles long and 2 miles wide, making it smaller than the likes of Yell, Unst and Fetlar, therefore an ideal location for a day trip.

Wildlife and nature

A walk by the cliffs of Isbister is an enthralling place to start. If you head to the end of Nisthouse and make your way down to the beach, you will instantly come across a patch of Hoary cress, the only place in Shetland the plant is known to grow.

As you continue to follow the shoreline northwards, you will see the ‘Door of Glippa’ before seeing the grassy slope down to the entrance of Lungi Geo. On the rocks at the bottom, rich purple coloured shells called ‘dog whelks’ reside. Naturally, these shells are white, but change colour as a result of feeding on mussels’ shells.

During an ebb, explorers can visit a cave that has another cave inside it, without needing to put their feet into the sea. Upon my walk across Lungi Geo a few weeks ago, I was surrounded by Shetland wrens hopping along the stones beneath me and puffins flying from the cliffs above my head.

In the cave known as ‘Yoxie’, halfway between Isbister and Skaw, sea asters grow on the cliffside. Like the Hoary cress, it’s the only place in Shetland where it is known to grow.

The Houb is a small tidal lagoon on the west side of the island. It’s a marvellous place for nesting terns and waders in the summer time, as well as wildflowers and astonishing sunsets.

From personal experience, a hotspot for seeing orcas is Clate, the south end of the isle. Both this year and last year they cruised right alongside the shore for everyone to see, one was even spotted putting its head onto the beach in search of dinner.

Island history

Elsewhere in this area, there is the Ward of Clate, Whalsay’s highest hill. Following up the track, remains of a World War II radar station are visible.

Historic remains in Whalsay go back even further than the Second World War. For 362 years, the isle was oppressed by the Bruce lairds who arrived from mainland Scotland in the 16th century, subjecting islanders to hundreds of years of forced labour and the continual threat of losing their home if they failed to meet their arduous demands.

Janet (Williamson) Irvine was evicted from her home after husband died in 1890 at the age of 39. As there was no longer an eligible male of the family to occupy his role as a fisherman, she could no longer afford the rent placed by the laird, forcing her to move into a tiny house at Marrister known as ‘The Glibe’ with her three young children and a cow.

Symbister House, now Whalsay’s Secondary School, used to be the home of the Bruce laird. In 1823, islanders were forced to build it using granite which they dragged up from the pier to his site upon the hill. The last Bruce laird left in 1944.

Part of Symbister House’s complex is the Whalsay Heritage and Community Centre in the renovated farmers house.

The Hanseatic Booth museum is just below JWJ Shop where you can pick up the key to look inside. The exact age of this building isn’t clear, but it is believed to have been made by German merchants. Stories of these traders can be read inside. Children can enter the museum for free and adults pay £2 each.

Sports and leisure

In terms of sports facilities and opportunities, Whalsay is prosperous.

Harbison Park, the flood-lit, all-seasons pitch below Whalsay Primary School, opened in 2002 named after the reverend David Harbison who was instrumental in the development of the local football team during the 1960s. The funds for the field were raised by the community itself and is regularly used for football and hockey matches, as well as school sports days.

Above the primary school, is Whalsay’s Leisure Centre used for a range of different sports including badminton, netball, indoor football, squash, swimming, dodgeball, trampolining, volleyball, and sessions at the gym.

Below Symbister House is a multi-court that can be used as a tennis court, as well as outdoor netball, football or basketball. Beside Tetley and Anderson’s convenience store at Harlesdale is Whalsay’s Snooker Club.

Whalsay’s riding club take their horses and ponies to Brough where they learn and improve on equestrian skills.

Skaw, at the very north of the isle, hosts Britain’s most northerly golf course. If you aren’t a golf fan, it’s also a scenic walk where whales, dolphins, porpoises, otters, seals, birds and wildflowers can be found.

Whalsay nightlife

If you’re looking for a pint, you won’t have far to go. Once you get off the ferry, across the road is Whalsay Boating Club where locals go to drink, socialise and play darts.

In the last week of July, Whalsay celebrate the regatta, which some years takes place on the pier with live music. Throughout the week, sailors race off Symbister, a marquee is pitched alongside the Boating Club where people can go to socialise and eat fresh fish.

There are always various activities available for people of all ages. One year, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to run across the sea inside an inflatable water walking ball with a volunteer holding the rope. For adults, there’s the classic ‘Beery race’ where you and a partner compete in a three-legged race and have to undergo a series of challenges such as blowing up a balloon, downing a shot or eating dry crackers without anything to swill it down.

Opposite Huxter Loch, lies the isle’s Oot Ower Lounge where you can also go for a dram at the end of the night.