Whalsay is a close-knit fishing community and the home port to some of the biggest trawlers in Europe.

A quick introduction

People have lived in Whalsay for at least 4,000 years. Traces of former settlement include hilltop burial cairns and prehistoric field boundaries as well as the Neolithic houses of Yoxie and the Beenie Hoose at Pettigarths Field.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Whalsay, along with the rest of Shetland, became a trading port of the Hanseatic League. Ships from Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck sailed here every summer, bringing seeds, cloth, iron tools, salt, spirits, luxury goods and hard currency.

Whalsay's fishing legacy lived on throughout the centuries and today it's still a proud fishing community, home to a fleet of trawlers as well as plenty of smaller boats and sea craft. It is one of the more densely populated of the Shetland islands, with a population of around 1,000.

How to get to Whalsay

Whalsay is accessible by car ferry from Laxo, 20 miles north of Lerwick. The crossing to Symbister takes 25 minutes and it's advisable to book during peak season. For timetables and booking information, see the Ferry Services website.

Where to stay

Whalsay has a limited amount of visitor accommodation but the Auld Manse Whalsay is available to book .

Useful information
  • There are two shops in Whalsay: JWJ Whalsay just along the pier in Symbister, and Tetley & Anderson in Harlsdale. Both sell a range of groceries and JWJ has fuel pumps.
  • Public toilets are available at the ferry terminal.
  • Whalsay Heritage Centre doubles as a tourist information point providing a range of relevant information about the island.
  • Symbister has a small boat marina with some visitor berths. Fuel, water, repairs and services are available. Whalsay Boating Club has a licensed clubhouse with toilets and showers.

Things to do

Whalsay Heritage Centre

The centre hosts permanent displays and changing exhibitions on all aspects of the island's history, including subjects like fishing, weddings, archaeology and the wars, in their premises behind Symbister House. It is also the base for Whalsay History Group meetings an a tourist information point.

Hanseatic Booth

As previously mentioned, the Hanseatic League came to Shetland between the 15th and 17th centuries to trade seeds, cloth, tools, salt, spirits and luxury goods for Shetlander's fish. This museum, situated in a restored trading booth on Symbister pier, tells the traders' story.

Yoxie House and the Beenie House Walk

The Neolithic houses of Yoxie and the Beenie Hoose at Pettigarths Field are nationally important monuments, excavated in the 1950s. Situated on the east side of Whalsay, the houses evolved over hundreds of years and the community even built its own burial place overlooking the fields. Download the Shetland Heritage leaflet for walk details.

Whalsay Golf Club

Whalsay has a cracking 18-hole golf course at Skaw, which is the most northerly course in Britain. Non-members are welcome and you find out more about green fees and tee times on our Golf page.

Loch fishing

Whalsay is a popular island for anglers, with some fine trout inhabiting the lochs, the record being a 9lb 4oz brown trout from the Loch of Huxter. Fishing permits are available from Tetley & Anderson's shop.

Fascinating facts

  • Whalsay was nicknamed 'the bonnie isle' by visiting fishermen in the 19th century. This was thought to be due to its density of wild flowers, which thrived in the absence of many grazing animals.
  • The tidal sounds and off-lying rocks around the isle which are among the best places to see porpoises and occasional dolphins, minke whales and orcas. Keep a lookout during the ferry crossing and you may see why the Vikings called it Hvals-øy – the island of whales.
  • The poet Hugh McDiarmid lived in Whalsay in the 1930s. He resided in the croft house of Sodom (from the Norn sud-heim - the southern house) with his wife and son. The 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.