• William Gray

Shetland Islands: End of Britain

Updated: Mar 2

An island-hopping journey in search of the history and wildlife of the Shetlands

Puffin portrait, Shetland Islands

The atmosphere inside the crofthouse was thick with peat smoke and nostalgia. Elma Johnson sat by the fire, hunched in a woollen shawl with her hands clasped in her lap. She stared at the embers for a while, as if teasing some distant memory from their timeless glow, then turned to the small gathering in the cramped room.

“We had lovely meadows,” she began in her strong Gaelic accent. “When you went out in the voe to catch fish for y’supper, you could smell the flowers wafting out for miles. It was fine.”

Right on cue, a curlew called outside – its keening voice merging with the first notes of the fiddle player sitting by Elma’s side. Cynics might have dismissed it as contrived – a storyteller in traditional costume, the restored Crofthouse Museum – but there was something enigmatic and compelling about Elma’s tales of life in the Shetland Islands over a century ago.

History, whether recent or ancient, seems to pulse through this remote archipelago. Everywhere you look there are clues to the past – from Neolithic burial chambers and Iron Age brochs (circular stone towers) to the foundations of Viking longhouses. Over 5,000 years of human settlement have left their mark on Britain’s most northerly outpost, scattered 93 miles off the Scottish mainland and six degrees south of the arctic circle. Little is known of the first Shetlanders, but of one thing we can be certain – they arrived by sea.

It was during a particularly reluctant dawn that I first sighted the Shetland Islands from the ferry, St Clair. Storm clouds slouched on the horizon and the sea was grey and languid – more like bath water than the notorious confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. During the long night’s voyage from Aberdeen, the ferry’s windows had frosted over with salt grime and many of the passengers had ventured out on deck for a glimpse of land. Fair Isle, the most southerly of the Shetlands, was little more than a fog-bound smudge on our port side, but it still sent a ripple of excitement along the deck rails.

It was mid-July, the height of the seabird breeding season. As we continued north towards the main group of islands, a swirling procession of gannets and fulmars followed in our wake. Soon the cliffs of Sumburgh Head were slipping past and we were nuzzling into Lerwick harbour on the largest of the islands, known as Mainland. I turned from the railing to join the scrummage for the car deck, but it seemed that not everyone was enthusiastic about our arrival. “Trees – that’s what I really miss,” said a homeward-bound local standing next to me. “Trees would be nice – and Woolworths. I miss Woolworths too.”

It was mid-July, the height of the seabird breeding season. As we continued north towards the main group of islands, a swirling procession of gannets and fulmars followed in our wake.

Leaving the ferry, I drove a short distance north to the village of Tingwall, my base for the week. A trio of wind turbines crowned a nearby moor above the loch where 9th century Norse settlers once held parliament. It’s not surprising that Vikings colonised the Shetlands. Lerwick, the modern-day capital, lies almost equidistant from Aberdeen and Bergen. The islands, straddled between Norway and Scotland, not only made a convenient base for raiding Britain, but they also offered sheltered bays, fertile valleys and hill grazing for a more peaceful farming existence.

The following day, I headed south to Jarlshof, a remarkable archaeological site that was uncovered by violent storms in the late 19th century. It was clearly a desirable residence – not just to Norse colonists, but also to those from the Pictish era, the Iron Age and the late Bronze Age before them. Literally topping it all were the ruins of a 17th century laird’s mansion. Strolling through the mosaic of trenches, mounds and stone enclosures I traced 4,000 years of Shetland history in a single morning.

Tantalizing clues have enabled archaeologists to shed light on Jarlshof’s complicated past. Shell middens prove that around 2000BC its inhabitants harvested the sea, perhaps even clubbing the seals that are still commonly seen hauled out on Shetland’s coast. But by the time of the Norse settlement, life closely resembled the seasonal pattern still followed in some traditional parts of the archipelago – a mixture of fishing and crofting. That evening, at the Crofthouse Museum, Elma Johnson took up the story.

“In spring, seaweed mixed with manure was spread on the fields. There were no supermarkets – if it didn’t work, you died. It was simple as that.” Ironically, it was summer that seemed to test the lives of the islanders most severely. The men would go to sea, rowing in open boats thirty or forty miles offshore to fish the far ‘haaf’ or deep sea. Sudden storms destroyed entire fleets, ripping the heart from the close-knit crofting communities. But it was also a time for optimism and bravado as the jaunty chorus from a traditional fisherman’s song reveals:

Fir am gyaain ta da far haaf becaase da wadder’s fair.

An a boannie lok o fish we’ll hae ta lay apo da ayre.

The ‘wadder’ was calm and sunny the next morning when I returned to Lerwick to embark on a less challenging boat trip. Shetland’s bird life is some of the finest in Europe. Twitchers flock to the islands each spring and autumn to glimpse rare, gale-blown migrants. But for a real pummelling of the senses, few experiences can rival a close encounter with one of Shetland’s ‘seabird cities’.

Twitchers flock to the islands each spring and autumn to glimpse rare, gale-blown migrants. But for a real pummelling of the senses, few experiences can rival a close encounter with one of Shetland’s ‘seabird cities’.

“I’m afraid it’s a case of ‘guano shampoo’ out there,” explained Dr Jonathan Wills, skipper of the Dunter II, as he handed out hooded oilskin overcoats. Weaving between the yachts, cruise ships and industrial trawlers bound for Lerwick’s harbour and fish-processing plants, we made for the nearby island of Noss. Rounding the southernmost headland, the cliffs turned white and the sea breeze suddenly reeked of ammonia as a steady drizzle of bird excrement fell on our heads. Even the rumble of waves slumping against the base of the 180m-tall cliffs was not enough to drown out the staccato voices of 50,000 seabirds crowded above us. It seemed that every ledge, no matter how precarious, was crammed with squabbling gannets, guillemots and shags. A spectacular airborne contingent wheeled overhead, like ash spiralling from a bonfire, while guillemot chicks performed leaps of faith in their bid for the sea and freedom. Only the great skuas, or bonxies, appeared relaxed. Large, predatory birds with an arrogant bearing, they lurked offshore ready to attack an unwary puffin or snatch an unguarded chick.

The exuberant life at Noss persists beneath the waves. Lowering an underwater camera overboard, Dr Wills revealed a tangled kelp forest that sprouted its swirling amber fronds from 30m down. Later, we nosed about in a sea cave encrusted with dead man’s fingers – a type of soft coral. And wherever we paused, seals surfaced to watch us with curious, solemn eyes. “Sometimes we can lure them closer by singing,” said Dr Wills. Apparently, he had an Italian group the previous week who greeted every sighting with an outpouring of Verdi.

A gentler sound ebbed across the moors and lochs of Westside where I ambled by car the following day. Never louder than the ripple of a skylark’s song or the piping of an oystercatcher, it complemented the ambience of this tranquil corner of Mainland. Whitewashed crofthouses studded the peat moors like chips of quartz – and although they were modernised versions of the thatched Crofthouse Museum further south, they were still surrounded by the kind of meadows Elma Johnson had spoken of. Red campion, yellow iris, ragged robin and buttercups ran riot beside single-track roads which, if you followed them far enough, would eventually peter out at a deserted cove, a jetty or someone’s front door.

It would be wrong, however, to perceive the Shetland Islands as some kind of quaint time capsule. Traditional crofting is becoming increasingly uneconomical in the face of intensive new farming techniques which replace hay with silage and heather moor with commercial grassland. Modern machinery, drainage and fertilisers are good news for those trying to make a living from the land, but a disaster for wildlife habitats. Fortunately, there are numerous nature reserves scattered throughout the archipelago and many crofters are using Government grants to restore the old meadows and moorlands.

Fishing, the other great mainstay of Shetland life, has also evolved with the times. Although many boats are still locally owned, the fleet has altered radically over 200 years – from the six-oared ‘sixareens’ to refrigerated purse seiners over 45m long. In addition, many of the coastal inlets, or voes, now contain the circular pens of salmon farms – a major source of revenue that nets over £30m a year.

But of all the recent changes to affect the Shetland Islands, the arrival of the oil industry in the late 1970s was perhaps the most ominous. There is no doubt that the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal, the largest in Europe, has brought wealth and employment to the islands, but everyone’s worst nightmare came true in January 1988 when the tanker Braer ran aground on the south Shetland coast, spilling 85,000 tonnes of crude oil.

At Hillswick, in the rugged parish of Northmavine, I visited the centre from which the clean-up operation was co-ordinated. Long before it became a wildlife sanctuary, the Booth was one of many Hanseatic trading posts operated around the islands by German merchants in the middle ages. Over three hundred years later it is still a thriving business with profits from a vegetarian cafe providing upkeep for orphaned or injured otters and seals. There are no set prices for the menu. A simple donation box is left by the door of the beautifully restored stone-flagged building and it’s up to your conscience as to how much you leave. Thrifty guests, however, may find it hard to meet the dark, sad eyes of Silva, a common seal pup in the sanctuary next door. After suffering a crushed pelvis from a boat collision, she’s still waiting for a large concrete pool to replace her old pond with its leaky liner.

There were other inquisitive animals on my island-hopping journey north of Mainland. Whenever I stopped, Shetland ponies always seemed happy to trot over to the roadside fence in search of titbits or simply to chew my favourite Gortex jacket. At Toft, I caught one of the small inter-island car ferries to Yell before making my way to Unst.

Robert Louis Stevenson visited this most northerly of the Shetland Islands in 1869. The map he drew to illustrate Treasure Island bears a close resemblance to the outline of Unst. A coincidence, perhaps, but there is no doubting the island’s special qualities. It has all the historical intrigue of the other islands – from Viking houses and Neolithic standing stones to a 19th century horse-powered mill. The scenery is quintessential Shetland – blanket bogs and moors scalped by peat diggings and flecked with freshwater lochs; scattered crofthouses and tiny settlements huddled around kelp-wrapped bays. I even found a few quirky signs of remote island life – a ‘donations only’ cafe and a bus stop shelter that had been filled with house plants, an armchair and a television! But it is the dramatic manner in which Unst brings the British Isles to an abrupt northerly end that perhaps sets it apart from the 100-odd other Shetland Islands.

The northern extremity of Britain is guarded by a breeding colony of 800 pairs of belligerent bonxies. As I squelched across the saturated moorland of Hermaness National Nature Reserve, the skuas fixed me with their haughty stares – always, it seemed, on the point of launching an aerial assault if I strayed too close to their nests. Numerous ‘false summits’ added to the anxiety of the trek, but less than an hour after setting out, the moorland came to a sudden end.

As I squelched across the saturated moorland of Hermaness National Nature Reserve, the skuas fixed me with their haughty stares – always, it seemed, on the point of launching an aerial assault if I strayed too close to their nests.

I swayed on the brink of gale-gnawed cliffs that plummeted 170m into an effervescent sea. A succession of squalls marched offshore, trailing grey curtains of rain towards the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga – once the most northerly inhabited point in the British Isles, but now unmanned and remotely controlled.

Hermaness had been left to the seabirds – over 100,000 of them. The cliffs and nearby islets were painted white by their guano. It was as if a winter storm had dusted the coastline with fresh snow. Crouching on the soft turf at the cliff’s edge, I watched fulmars, gannets and puffins gyrate on the fickle ocean breeze. They filled the air like shreds of tickertape flung from a New York skyscraper. I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate the end of Britain.


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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.