Bressay and Noss, Shetland
Bressay, seven minutes by ferry from Lerwick, offers Shetland in miniature – inspiring coastal landscapes, wildlife up close, and sites of historical, natural and adventure interest. Exchange the bustle of town for a friendly rural atmosphere and explore the island that is one of Shetland’s best kept secrets.
Photo: Chris Dyer (Garths Croft) The island is perfect for exploration by bicycle, walkers can hunt for geocaches at some fascinating locations and regular boat trips around Bressay and Noss are available during the summer. Visit Garths Croft to see native breeds and enjoy a walk through the ‘agricultural year’ or join in with the regular Saturday-morning parkrun, the most northerly in Britain.
Bressay has its own Up-Helly-A’ on the last Friday in February while the Maryfield Hotel is a popular meeting and eating place all through the year. The old school buildings, just 15 minutes walk from the ferry, have been taken on by Bressay Development Group and house the Speldiburn café and community hub. More information can be found at www.bressay.org and www.facebook.com/bressaydevelopment.
A guidebook developed by Bressay History Group is available from Bressay Heritage Centre (open May to September and by appointment in October). The centre houses exhibitions, provides leaflets for scenic heritage walks, and is home to Cruester burnt mound – an enigmatic Bronze Age monument that was excavated and relocated to save it from erosion by the sea. Photo: Agnieszka Gardner
Puffin cliffs and a colony of great skuas exist alongside breeding curlew, whimbrel, plover, lapwing, dunlin, merlin and more. Red-throated divers nest on some lochs and one of Britain’s biggest gannet colonies is just across the water. Native mammals are grey seal, common seal and occasional porpoises, dolphins and whales. Otters, sheep, mice, rats, rabbits, hedgehogs and frogs have been introduced. Roadside verges and meadows are a riot of wild flowers in June and July, with fine purple orchids in wetter pasture, while in late summer the hills glow purple with heather.
Bressay is sandstone, its faults and volcanic vents hinting at a turbulent past. The rocks are sediments eroded from the Caledonian Mountains 400 million years ago during the Devonian Period. Plant fossils from this time are found in quarries. The sandstone flags make excellent building material, evidenced by drystone dykes and croft buildings. The picturesque houses in the deserted settlement at Wadbister are built to a very high standard with ‘blind presses’ (cupboards) in the gables, unusual fireplaces and even a souterrain.
Photo: Kim Rendall Bressay’s rocks and landforms make it a real adventure playground. Sea-cliff climbing ranges from Diff to E3. The coastline is perfect for kayaking and coasteering, with dramatic cliffs like the Ord, a striking natural arch – ‘Giant’s Leg’ – and sea caves. Divers and snorkellers can discover rocky reefs, and kelp beds that house starfish, crabs, sea urchins, soft corals and jellyfish. Experienced divers may explore numerous shipwrecks, several of which are commemorated on land through ‘Rescues and Wrecks’ panels developed by Bressay school pupils, and a memorial cairn to winchman William Deacon who lost his life during the remarkable lifeboat and helicopter rescue MV Green Lily, which sank in 1997.
Bressay (‘broad island’ from ON breiðey) shows evidence of occupation from Neolithic times. The fascinating site of Cullingsbrough boasts a Neolithic dyke, Viking houses and the mound of a broch over which the 10th century chapel and graveyard of St Mary’s are sited. A large carved Pictish stone was found here and a replica remains on site while the original can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland.
Bressay Sound has provided a safe and sheltered anchorage for centuries. Bressay was a thriving fishing and farming community before Lerwick was established during the 17th century. Gardie House, home of the laird, was built in 1724. Quarries that supplied Lerwick’s stone and slate are at Aith in the northeast of the island, with workers’ houses among the extensive spoil on the hillside.
Photo: Peter Parker In the mid-17th century, 1,500 Dutch herring vessels gathered at the start of the fishing season. Bressay folk traded food and woollens for fine cloth, brandy and tobacco. In the late 19th/early 20th centuries, Lerwick was the most important herring fishing port in Europe and remains of herring stations are found along the Bressay coast.
The lighthouse was built by the famous Stevensons in 1858 and is dramatically sited above a beautiful natural arch. Today the lightkeeper’s cottages are self-catering accommodation.
The 226m Ward of Bressay is a lookout point with spectacular views as far as Unst and Fair Isle. During both World Wars Bressay guarded the approaches to one of the best natural harbours in the North Atlantic. The square tower on Anderhill is a First World War lookout station, impressive First World War guns still stand at Aith Ness and the Bard and there are remains of a Second World War anti-aircraft gun battery at Cruester.
Today Bressay has about 340 residents. As well as the hotel and café, there’s a shop, community hall, kirk and marina. While the ferry and fish factory provide employment, most of the workforce and all school pupils commute to the mainland.
The ro-ro ferry makes frequent daily sailings to Bressay from the Esplanade in Lerwick. No booking required. Check ferry information on 01595 743974; www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries.
For yachting information see www.shetland.org/visit/do/outdoors/sail.
For accommodation providers go to our search page or check with Visit Scotland.
Photo: Agnieska Gardner Noss (ON Nös – nose), lying just east of Bressay, has been a National Nature Reserve since 1955. This small isle of 774 acres, with its dramatic outline rising from sea level to a height of 590ft at the Noup, is home to a large gannet population as well as puffins, herring gulls, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills. Erosion has created the stone ledges that provide ideal nesting sites for the residents of ‘seabird city’.
The reserve is staffed by seasonal wardens and open to visitors from mid-April to the end of August. An annual open day is also held (check press for details). To get to Noss you first have to catch the ferry from Lerwick to Bressay then drive across to the east side and cross Noss Sound in the inflatable boat (no dogs are allowed). Call free on 0800 107 7818 to check Noss boat operation.
Great skuas (bonxies) nest in the moorland interior and plant life is abundant –150 species of flowering plant have been recorded. You can see otters, seals and, if you are lucky, cetaceans in the waters round Noss.
At Gungstie (ON gangr – a walk, and stöð – a landing place), in the 17th century house, is a small visitor information room and toilets. It takes about four hours to walk around the island at a gentle pace.
Photo: Agnieszka Gardner The Marquis of Londonderry leased Noss from 1870 to 1900 for breeding Shetland ponies to replace child labour in his Durham coalmines. The stable buildings – the Pony Pund (1870) – were restored in 1986 and an interpretive display is provided. A beehive-shaped grain-drying kiln has also been restored.
The ‘Cradle of Noss’ was removed in the 1860s, on the orders of Mr Walker, the factor. The cradle, slung in July and dismantled in November, consisted of a box (large enough to hold a man and a sheep) on two cables. It crossed from Noss to the Holm of Noss, allowing the Holm (164ft) to be grazed and seabird eggs to be harvested.
Noss is owned by the Garth Estate and jointly managed with NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage - 01595 693345).
For books relevant to Bressay and Noss visit The Shetland Times Bookshop.