Twelve miles out in the Atlantic, the silhouette of Foula’s five hills is visible from many parts of Shetland. Foula is one of the most remote inhabited islands in Europe and has the second highest sea cliffs in the UK. The name means ‘bird island’ in Old Norse – very appropriate for the world’s largest colony of great skuas. Vast flocks of puffins, fulmars and other seabirds throng the cliffs. In former times the birds were an important source of food and Foula men were famous for their skills as cragsmen. These days the island is a Special Protection Area for birds and an important research station for scientists studying the changes in seabird diets due to over fishing and global warming.
Foula became famous in 1936 as the location for the film ‘The Edge of the World’, about the evacuation in 1930 of a similar but even more remote island, St Kilda. Unlike St Kilda, Foula’s population held on long enough for modern amenities to reach their crofts. The island’s electricity comes from an ingenious combination of a wind turbine, a small hydro-electric plant and a diesel generator.
This spectacular and secluded island is a perfect place for a walking holiday. Like Fair Isle, it’s habit forming and many visitors return year after year. A ferry runs from the village of Waas on the Shetland Mainland. The flight from Tingwall in an 8-seater ‘Islander’ plane is a wonderful way to see the west side of Shetland.
Bressay is only a five-minute ferry trip from Lerwick but it’s a world away: a peaceful island with wonderful walking in beautiful scenery, surrounded by abundant wildlife and dozens of archaeological and historic sites. First stop is the Heritage Centre at the ferry terminal. Staffed by friendly volunteers, it’s a ‘must see’ before you set off to explore the island.
Walking around the north coast at Aith Voe or the awe-inspiring cliffs of the Ord and the Bard on the south side of the island, it’s hard to believe the busy town of Lerwick is less than three miles away. Bressay has several deserted 19th century villages, including Cullbinsbrough where the famous Bressay Stone, a Celtic grave marker, was found in the kirkyard. There are no fewer than 14 freshwater lochs on Bressay and the heather hills have large numbers of nesting waders and skuas.
The top of the Ward Hill is the only place where, on a clear day, you can see all of Shetland at once – from Fair Isle, 52 miles to the south, to Saxa Vord in Unst, the same distance to the north. Foula’s clearly visible to the west and Skerries to the north-east. The Ward was a beacon hill in prehistoric times and is still in the signalling business today, with Shetland’s main TV, radio and mobile phone transmitters.
Below the Ward are the Bressay Lighthouse and the beautiful natural rock arch of Da Ovlus. Here and at the boat marina near the kirk you can often see amazingly tame common and grey seals.
Noss is one of the most spectacular wildlife sights in Europe. You can take a 3-hour boat trip from Lerwick around the magnificent cliffs or make your way by car or on foot across Bressay for the 200-yard ferry crossing of Noss Sound to spend a day walking this idyllic island. Many visitors do both, as the cliff nesting birds are best seen from seaward.
The first sight of Noss always sticks in visitors’ memories, even if they’ve no previous interest in birds. The spectacle of 20,000 gannets, 25,000 guillemots and 2,000 kittiwakes festooned over a mile of cliffs, up to 592’ (181m) high, is simply astounding, as is the roar of the massed ‘choir’ of parents and chicks. National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting summed it up in 1994 when he first set eyes on Noss: “This is a world class cliff!”
About 400 pairs of great skuas nest on the moor in the centre of the island – avoiding their dive-bombing attacks is one reason why visitors must keep to the track around the coast. Noss has a summer population of just two humans – the SNH wardens, who’ll be happy to welcome you at the visitor centre in the old shepherd’s house.
Famous for its knitwear, a bird observatory, a special kind of mouse, some wild weather forecasts and a Spanish Armada shipwreck, Fair Isle is a National Trust property lying midway between Shetland and Orkney. Although it’s only three miles long, this is one of Britain’s most successful small islands. The economy is still based on traditional subsistence crofting but islanders supplement their income with wildlife tourism and craftwork. Fair Isle’s wind-powered electricity scheme is owned by the community and was one of the first of its kind in Europe.
Archaeological evidence suggests people have live in Fair Isle for over 5000 years. Their story is told in the George Waterston Memorial Centre and Museum, named after the ornithologist who in 1948 founded the bird observatory – now a major international research station on bird migration and seabird breeding ecology and a visitor attraction in its own right.
The swirling currents in the Fair Isle Channel, where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, stir up nutrients to feed vast blooms of plankton which in turn sustain the fish for the seabirds, seals and cetaceans. The ferry ride from Sumburgh to Fair Isle’s North Haven is one of the best ways to see porpoises and whales in Shetland waters.
Visitors will tell you that Fair Isle is habit-forming. Like the arctic terns and the skuas, many of them come back year after year to this green jewel in the ocean.