Shetland: Hillswick and Tangwick

In addition to the St Magnus Bay Hotel, Hillswick has a community shop where we picked up a few items and I found some sea glass on the small pebble beach on the Ura Firth side while James was posting the postcards. It also has the headquarters of the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary based in a building which was built as a trading booth in 1684 and then became Shetland’s oldest pub. We then walked past the old graveyard, through a field of sheep, stepping over run rigs and down onto West Ayre beach. You can walk all around the Hillswick Ness (about four miles) but we just walked part of the way up the hill where there are views across Sandwick to the Heads of Grocken. We only met one other person who was continuing to walk around the Ness.

Fulmars nest on the cliffs.
After wandering on the empty beach for a while we hopped back into the car to drive to Tangwick. The Northmavine Museum is here in the late 17th century former laird’s house. It also holds the local archives and has various exhibitions in addition to permanent displays. On our visit the exhibition was on shops, many of which had disappeared as the area suffered depopulation, people acquiring cars and travelling to Brae and Lerwick and more recently, internet shopping. In addition to Hillswick, the shop at Ollabery is also a community shop. There is a self-service mini-café at the museum and after getting the caffeine levels up it was time to wander down to the beach here.

There were birds feeding on the shore and a pair of Eider ducks on the water. Several grey seals were lying on a rock and one was in the water looking at me, trying to decide whether to come ashore. Even when I retreated, he stayed in the water.

We met a German woman who was planning to walk all round Eshaness the following day and had decided upon a great place to camp in the shelter of the abandoned building on the bay. On the way back to the lighthouse we discovered that it is not just sheep who wander on the roads around here.

Shetland: exploring Eshaness north and south of the lighthouse


We woke to sun and light cloud on our first full day in Shetland. Rain was forecast later and having spent so much time yesterday in the car, we decided to explore on foot. A little further back down the road is the Cross Kirk Churchyard which is still in use as a burial ground. The Roman Catholic Cross Kirk continued after the reformation but gained a reputation as a place of ‘superstitious pilgrimage’ and it was burnt to the ground in the 17th century by the minister of Northmavine, Hercules Sinclair who was a Protestant zealot. Some of the older stones apparently commemorate local notables but after a wet winter they were covered with lichens and I could not read them.

Back to the coast we descended to Stenness which was a Haaf (deep water) Station where fisherman went 40 miles offshore to fish for cod and ling with lines. The ruins of their summer lodges remain on the beach. Any sand on the beach is dark and along with all the black rocks, clues to the area’s volcanic past.

We wandered back along the coastal trail on the cliffs. Just south of the lighthouse is the Kirn O’Slettans. It is thought to have been one of the side vents of the volcano and when the waves are high enough they blow up it and the spray drenches the lighthouse. Back at the lighthouse we had lunch and then set off to Brae as James felt the need to find a newspaper (we had no internet at the lighthouse and the only thing on the TV news was the cyber attack). Mission accomplished, we stopped off at the Mavis Grind on the way back. Deserted by people but with sheep grazing, we walked along the shore and I picked up some wool for a future project.

After dinner, I sat outside and waited for the 21.40ish sunset.

Our second full day at the lighthouse was sunny but the wind had returned. We decided to walk up the coastal path to the north of the lighthouse. The trail is marked at stiles and occasionally signposts but mostly you follow the coast on sheep tracks and don’t get too close to the edge. Following sheep tracks reminded me of my childhood on the Ochil Hills. I spent hours just exploring on sheep tracks. We first reached the Hols O’Scrada, a 100m passage which was a long cave where the pressure of the water opened it to the sky. There used to be two holes but the bridge between them collapsed in 1873.
We diverted off the trail a little to visit the Broch O’Houlland where the remains of a defensive broch sit on a peninsula on the loch.

Further on up the coast there is a large gap in the cliffs at Grind O’ Da Navir.

Shetland: to a lighthouse


Café society was on the pavement, students were sunbathing on the Meadows and sunglasses required on our first morning in Edinburgh. We had 36 hours there for business and pleasure: seeing our solicitor, picking up supplies and having a very enjoyable dinner with a friend before and early start to drive to Aberdeen the next morning. We had hoped to be driving over the Forth on the new Queensferry Crossing which was originally scheduled to open in May but has been delayed so that will have to wait for another trip. There were several signs on the A90 warning that deer might be crossing the road, even in the middle of Dundee. However, it was not until we were on a minor road to Fettercairn that a Roe hind ran across in front of us and disappeared into the forest. The diversion to Fettercairn was to photograph another distillery for the photobook of all those in the British Isles.

The unicorn comes from the Ramsay family crest: they founded the distillery. Noticing signs to the arch I had to ask about that and was told that it had been erected to commemorate a visit to Fettercairn by Queen Victoria in the early 1860s. The arch is dated 1864.

Just south of Aberdeen there are extensive roadworks as a city bypass is being constructed. Looking at the map I could see that its route might be contentious especially through Deeside and the friends we met for lunch in the city confirmed this. Interestingly Aberdeen also missed the chance to develop the waterfront with historic buildings behind it and instead has an enormous shopping centre. Our friend also showed me some street art which is in a small back street and I would never have found it without her help.


Pottering around the city centre before we had to board the boat I discovered a good-sized Oxfam book and music shop on Back Wynd, just off Union Street. I added a volume to my New Naturalist collection and James found some music. A little while later we were on the ship. It was built in Finland and the harbour had boats registered in Bergen, Panama, Limassol and Monrovia that I could see. We cast off and as Aberdeen disappeared in the mist, the pilot boat left us and we sailed past the last light on the harbour wall.

We arrived into Lerwick on time and after picking up more supplies at the Co-op, stopped at a coastal espresso bar. They directed us to the nearest petrol station more reliably than the car’s satnav and James was given a free can of Irnbru after filling up there. While he was doing that, I noticed Clickimin Broch across the road. It was built over 2,000 years ago and no-one knows whether it was a fortress or merely a residence. It remained partially submerged until 1874 when the loch water level dropped. various excavations have taken place since the 1860s.

Driving north on the A970 we passed abandoned crofts and Voe where the last clearances took place in 1799. The residents farming the land were removed so that larger scale sheep farming could be introduced. We reached Mavis Grind, just south of Brae. The name means ‘gateway of the narrow isthmus’ and the just over 100m wide strip of land separates St Magnus Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on one side with Ell Wick, Sullom Voe and the North Sea on the other. Until the 1950s it was used as a boat drag to enable rapid travel from one sea to the other. On our visit locals were trying to clean up the shore, disentangling plastic from seaweed. A lot of it comes from fishing nets and creels. I spoke to one of the women who said that as a child she would pick broken glass from the net floats off the beach but that now it was all waste plastic. There is a path around the area but as it was extremely windy and the car thermometer was reading 1 degree, we decided to leave that for another day. A little further on we stopped for a picnic lunch. We stayed in the car as the thermometer now read -1 degree. This did not last as we continued into Northmavine but as the thermometer rose, the rain fell. A small diversion from our route took us to the St Magnus Bay Hotel in Hillswick where we ensconced ourselves in the bar until we could get into the lighthouse. Renovation was under way and the proprietor told us that this was the first time for 50 years. He explained that the building was listed and this was delaying work. The toilets have already been re-vamped and I have never seen a sparkly toilet seat before. We eventually reached Eshaness Lighthouse which was ready for us. It is the last Northern Lighthouse constructed by the Stevenson family and was automated in 1974. The light keepers house fell into private hands and in 1999 an American author Sharma Krauskopf bought it. She wrote a book about living on Eshaness called ‘The Last Lighthouse’. I must try and find that. In 2005, the Shetland Amenity Trust purchased the cottage and now rent it out as holiday accommodation. They do not have access to the tower. We settled in hoping that the mist would lift later.