Pier House, the Hanseatic böd situated at Symbister Whalsay – named the ‘bonnie isle’ by visiting 19th-century Scots fishermen – relies mainly on the fishing industry for income and is a fairly prosperous community. The main settlement is Symbister (ON sunnbólstaðr – south farm) with its harbour sheltering the island’s renowned modern fishing fleet.
Lying east of the Shetland mainland, the island was sculpted by ice during the last glaciation and has the appearance of a whale from the sea, hence its Old Norse name, Whale Island (Hvalsey or Hvals-øy), the humpback being the Ward o’ Clett (390ft).
The population of about 1,000, a close-knit community with a distinctive and unique dialect sound, enjoys an active and sociable lifestyle. Community halls at Symbister and Isbister and the youth centre at Livister put on events through the year. Teas are served in Symbister Hall on most Sundays through the summer.
There are some excellent ‘Walks for Health’ to enjoy; pick up a leaflet from Whalsay Leisure Centre. The centre has a swimming pool, dry sports, viewing and refreshment areas, and there is an all-weather sports field and multicourt. Whalsay golf course, situated at Skaw (ON skagi – a cape, low point of land) at the northeast point of the island, is a challenging 18-hole course with great scenery (www.whalsaygolfclub.com). The local boating club organises the annual sailing regatta and has a licensed clubhouse.
Symbister House dominates the harbour entrance. The former laird’s house (a grade B listed building) was built from Nesting granite in 1823. In the 1960s the house became the local school. Secondary-age pupils still attend the refurbished Symbister House while a new primary school opened in 1993.
Behind Symbister House is a midden yard and buildings that housed the farm animals, the belfry, doocot and laird’s toilet. In the outer court are other buildings including workers’ houses. Whalsay History Group converted part of these outbuildings and the Whalsay Heritage Centre now has permanent and seasonal exhibitions. This is also a tourist information point.
Heading into Symbister Pier House on the waterfront, a Hanseatic böd used by German merchants, was restored in 1984. Its interior was reconstructed and includes replicas of the period. Interpretive panels tell the history of the Hanseatic trade. The first written record of these German traders is 1557.
Whalsay has been inhabited since 3000 BC. Yoxie House, on the east of the island, was at one time believed to be a Neolithic temple but is now thought to be the site of a large farmhouse. Two Bronze Age burnt mounds are near Sandwick Loch in the southwest. The locally-named Broch of Huxter, on the isle within the Loch of Huxter, is actually the remains of an Iron Age fort. Viking implements found at Isbister are in the Shetland Museum.
A good place for angling, the Loch of Huxter presented a 9lb 4oz brown trout which holds the present Shetland record for a ‘truly wild’ fish. Fishing permits are available at Tetley & Anderson’s shop.
Among the wildlife to be spotted are red-throated divers which can be seen on the inland lochs, and wading birds at Houb, near the church at Brough.
Poet Hugh McDiarmid and his family lived on Whalsay between 1933 and 1942, staying at the cottage of Sodom (ON suð heimr – southern dwelling). In The Uncanny Scot he describes a three-day stay on West Linga (ON lyng – heather), with no more than matches, tobacco and books, catching fish with a bent pin and string. In reality he visited for a day.
Shops include the Shoard recycling centre at Brough – a treasure trove of recycled materials from furniture and clothing to toys and crafts. There are also a couple of general stores that can supply all your needs, and a post office.
Accommodation includes the Grieve House camping böd and a camp site/caravan park at Livister. See our accommodation listings or check with Visit Scotland for more details.
For yachting information see www.shetland.gov.uk/ports/yachting/symbister.asp.
The ro-ro ferry sails from Laxo (Vidlin). Bookings to 01595 745804; ferry information 01595 743973; timetables at www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries. Under certain weather conditions sailings leave from Vidlin pier.
Visit The Shetland Times Bookshop for a selection of books, maps, guides and gifts.