Shetland's West Mainland, known locally as the Westside, offers lovely beaches, hill and coastal walks, excellent bird-watching, seal-watching and otter-spotting, good sea and freshwater angling and some fascinating historical and archaeological sites.

A quick introduction

The Westside's coastline varies from dramatic cliffs to long, sea lochs, or 'voes', reaching far into a landscape of heathery hills and green crofts.

This is still a crofting community but also a centre of the seafood industry, with many fish and shellfish farms and inshore fishing boats. The main road west to Walls (pronounced Waas) passes through the middle of the district but, to get a feel for the area, it’s essential to head off down one of the many side roads. There’s no obvious touring route and it helps to take a good map.

The voes are ideal for yachting and canoeing. Modern marinas at Walls, Aith and Skeld reserve berths for visiting sailors and the annual regattas are major social events. Like the Skeld Sheepdog Trials and the Walls Agricultural Show, these usually include a concert and dance where visitors are welcome. In summertime several village halls offer Sunday teas – terrific value with homebaking and a chance to meet the locals.

How to get to the Westside

As with most places in Shetland, the best way to explore is by car. From Lerwick, follow the A970 south to Tingwall before taking a left-hand turn onto the A971. The Westside begins at Tresta, just after you round the bend at the top of the Scord of Weisdale (where you should stop and admire the vista).

Where to stay

For accommodation options in this area, including self-catering and bed and breakfasts, see our Accommodation page. Visit our Caravan and camping pages for campsites. There's also a camping bod at Skeld run by the Shetland Amenity Trust.

Useful information
  • There are shops at Bixter, Skeld, West Burrafirth, Walls and Sandness.
  • There are fuel pumps at Bixter, Aith and Walls.
  • Aith, Skeld, West Burrafirth and Walls have marinas and berthing available. See our Sail pages for more details.
  • Public toilets can be found at West Burrafirth.

Things to do

Explore glorious gardens

There's many a day when the east coast of Shetland is smothered in sea fog and the Westside is gloriously sunny. It happens particularly in summer, when south-easterly winds pick up moisture from the North Sea: as the clammy air passes over the hills of Shetland it warms and dries, clearing away the mist.

This means the Westside is home to some of Shetland's keenest gardeners. In Sand, don't miss Da Gairdins i Sand, an award winning 'Oasis of Life'. The beautiful gardens created by Rosa Steppanova at The Lea in Tresta, from what was just a bare croft in the hill 30 years ago is also a must see. Not far away is the Burn of Tactigil, where a major geological fault reveals Shetland's only deposit of china clay. The fault runs south to emerge at the secluded pebble beach of Sandsound, a favourite picnic place.

In Aith, a great family day out is the woodland at Michaelswood, developed in memory of Michael Ferrie, a young musician from the village. Michaelswood has picnic facilities, children's play areas and a dinosaur trail.

Walk the Westside

Just north of Aith is the hamlet of East Burrafirth, where a path leads up the Burn of Lunklet to the waterfall and on to some exhilarating hill-walking. A viewpoint on the road at Gonfirth shows a grand sweep of lochs, hills, islands and voes.

The uninhabited island of Vementry has ruins of ancient homesteads and burial cairns and derelict First World War gun emplacements. An interesting walk leads from Vementry House over the hills to the sheltered sounds around Clousta and Noonsbrough – including Da Vadills, a special marine conservation area.

A favourite coastal walk is along the coast from Walls to Sandness, taking in the grand panorama of Foula and the Atlantic from Watsness, the superb cliffs and sea stacks of Deepdale, over Sandness Hill and down past the ancient water mills at Huxter to the sandy beach at Melby. Some of the best beaches among dozens in the West Mainland are Sand, Reawick, Westerwick and Culswick.

See our Walking pages for self-guided walks in the Westside.

Historical highlights

Archaeological attractions in the area include numerous chambered cairns; Iron Age field systems at the Scord of Brouster; the Staneydale 'temple' and settlement sites; and dozens of brochs, including the Broch of Culswick.

At Burrastow a modern version of a broch serves as the boathouse for the privately-owned island of Vaila, with its magnificently restored Edwardian mansion, Vaila Hall.

Fascinating facts

  • One of the most photographed road signs in Shetland is the signpost to the crofting township of Twatt, between Clousta and Bixter. The placename may seem like a rude word but it's actually Old Norse and means 'the clearing in the trees' – a reminder that, more than 1,000 years ago, scrub woodland covered most lower-lying parts of the islands.
  • The road junction at Park Hall, just west of Bixter, leads to another delightful corner of the Westside. Legend says sailors from the Spanish Armada built part of St. Mary’s, the pre-Reformation chapel, just above the beach, at Sand, in thanks for deliverance from shipwreck on the offlying Kirk Holm. Only the chancel arch survives.
  • Sandness has Shetland’s only wool spinning mill, Jamiesons of Shetland, where visitors are welcome by prior arrangment.