For those who love wild places and nature, Shetland has it all. With broad horizons, big skies and outstanding Nature Reserves, there are plenty of reasons to visit Shetland and get off-the-beaten-track as you explore some of the incredible nature reserves.
Shetland’s most northerly island, Unst, is home to several spectacular nature reserves, but coming in at the top of the list for me is Hermaness. Getting to Unst is easy. Shetland has excellent internal links operated by the Shetland Islands Council, including a fleet of inter-island ferries that run between nine of the 16 inhabited islands. Ferries to Yell and on to Unst are very frequent, and booking is not always necessary but is recommended throughout the summer months.
Hermaness National Nature Reserve is a walk that will take you over vast, open moorland to the coastal fringes of Britain’s most northerly frontier. Barren and wild, this area really feels as if it stands on the edge of the world. It is dominated by the imposing Muckle Flugga lighthouse, precariously perched on a small rocky island where the sky meets the sea. The lighthouse, built by Thomas Stevenson, is carefully woven into the barren rock and has stood up to 150 years of assault from the Atlantic. Until 1995 it was the most northerly inhabited island – home to a lighthouse keeper throughout the year until the light became automated and the keeper moved out.
Shetland’s Atlantic coast is spectacular and rising to 170 metres, the cliffs, stacks and skerries off Hermaness will take your breath away. It’s also a place rich in wildlife; this is a land where birds rule, and for the keen birder, there are over 100,000 breeding seabirds to watch. Be sure to scan the western horizon as you walk in case there are any passing cetaceans nearby.
Dramatic and sheer, other-worldly and awe-inspiring; just a few words that spring to mind when I think of this walk. Puffins and fulmars proudly dominate the crags, stacks and cliffs, while nesting great skuas (1,000 breeding pairs) command the moorland, their dark silhouettes camouflaged by the heathery hills. Perhaps the most astonishing sight of all is the vast colony of gannets – 25,000 breeding pairs – who live in a raucous cacophony of noise on the outlying rocks.
According to folklore, Hermaness was home to a giant called Herman, and together with Saxa, a giant from the neighbouring headland of Saxa Vord, they fell in love with a mermaid who lured them into the sea. Challenging them to swim to the North Pole, the mermaid promised her affections to the winner. Unfortunately for Herman and Saxa, neither could swim, and both were drowned, leaving this wild and remote area to the birds.
The walk to Hermaness is aided by a boardwalk that weaves through dense moorland before opening up to the sea. A landscape of wonder appears as you leave the moors behind; revealing uninterrupted views across the vast nothingness of the North Atlantic in all her glory. Standing on the edge of the cliffs, knowing that there is nothing between you and North America is quite something.
Written by Laurie Goodlad