North Mainland, Shetland

The land north of Mavis Grind has been described as “the largest, wildest and most beautiful parish in Shetland”. The area, known as Northmavine, is both “wild and glorious” and has some of the best scenery in Shetland.

Hillswick. Photo: Kim Rendall Zoom Hillswick. Photo: Kim Rendall It is composed mainly of red granite and diorite and boasts not only an outstanding coastline but is good walking country, rich in wildlife, rocks and plants and with many historical and archaeological remains. The story of the area’s life and culture is well told at the Tangwick Haa museum in Eshaness.

Some of the most dramatic, storm-sculpted coastline that Shetland has to offer can be seen around the North Mainland (and at Muckle Roe - see Delting & Lunnasting section), having been subject to the full force of the North Atlantic which has carved out a breathtaking array of holes, stacks and geos. Boat operators give an opportunity to enjoy the spectacular scenery from the sea, while footpaths and trails have been provided giving more and better land access in some areas.

The North Mainland (and Muckle Roe – see Delting & Lunnasting section) has some of the most dramatic storm-sculpted coastlines that Shetland has to offer; being subject to the full force of the North Atlantic which has carved out a breathtaking array of holes, stacks and geos.

Until the 1950s, boats were hauled across Mavis Grind (ON mær – narrow, eið – isthmus, and grind – gate: gate at the narrow isthmus) as a shortcut between fishing grounds. This 100-yard strip of land separating St Magnus Bay (the Atlantic Ocean) from Sullom Voe (the North Sea) is the gateway to Northmavine (north of the narrow isthmus). Look out for the ‘welcome’ on the hillside and the interesting ‘geology wall’.

A plantation of trees in the Sullom road, planted in the 1950s and since added to, attracts a range of birds. You can also get an interesting view of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal from this side of the voe.

The ‘Gunnister Man’ was discovered in May 1951, his clothed remains found in a shallow grave. Drive in the Nibon road and at Gunnister there is a roadside interpretation board. A small stone on the opposite side of the road marks the site of the discovery. More information can be sourced at Tangwick Haa Museum.

Photo: Kim Rendall Zoom Photo: Kim Rendall On the beach next to the Wadill Loch at Urafirth you will find one of Shetland’s most beautiful and now rare seashore plants, the oyster plant (Mertensia maritime). Even rarer is sea club-rush (Bolboschoenus maritimus) and Urafirth has Shetland’s only recorded site.

St Magnus Bay Hotel, a listed building set in a scenic and historic location, dominates Hillswick (ON Hildisvík – from Hildir, man’s name). The wooden building was prefabricated in Norway for the Great Exhibition in Glasgow in 1896. It was purchased by the North of Scotland Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company and re-erected in Hillswick in 1902, since when it has been a welcome addition to village life.

On the foreshore below the Hillswick shop, which is owned by the community, is a reconstruction of ‘cootch kettles’. An interpretive board explains how cootch was made and used to treat fishing lines and nets during Hillswick’s heyday as a bustling fishing and trading centre.

Photo: Graham Mullay Zoom Photo: Graham Mullay Da Böd has been trading on the waterfront at Hillswick for well over 300 years, making it the oldest trading place in Shetland. Built as a Hanseatic trading post by German merchants, its first known keeper was Adolf Westermann from Hamburg, who was witnessed opening a kist of goods in 1668, the earliest record the building has. His ships, St Johann and St Peter, spent every summer trading between local crofting and fishing families and the outside world. Da Böd has been home to knitwear, weaving, fishing, coopering, coffin making, a shop, post office, a pub and vegetarian café/restaurant. Sick, injured and abandoned seals and otters are cared for at the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary next door and the Weaving Shed gallery hosts exhibitions and events.

Hillswick has an interesting graveyard, a good beach, and some interesting public art at various locations, sculpted by Esme Wilcock who is an ‘artistic’ blacksmith. Also look for the tiny shell covered house as you wander through the village. There are public toilets on the waterfront.

Offshore are Da Drongs (ON drangr – sharp, pointy rocks).

Brae Wick has a beach with a difference; it is cut down the middle by a major fault. Explore an ancient landscape of lakes and lava at one end, and find granite formed deep in Earth’s crust at the other! A caravan and camping site with café and facilities is located here.

Photo: Davy Cooper Zoom Photo: Davy Cooper Tangwick Haa, the 18th century manor house that is now the local museum, was the home of Captain Cheyne (killed in 1866 by natives in the South Pacific).

At Stenness (ON stein-hús – stone-built house), site of a former fishing station and sheltered by Stenness Isle, is a stone cross (1927) erected by the Commissioners for Northern Lighthouses to mark the spot where supplies for the Eshaness Lighthouse were landed. Shetland’s ‘gems’ can be found at Stenness. Hiding amongst the pebbles on the beach are fragments of agates formed by hot fluids filled with dissolved minerals circulating through cooled volcanic rocks.

Esha Ness is home to Shetland’s volcano. Layer upon layer of volcanic ash and lava flows can be seen exposed in the cliffs. In fact, the name Esha Ness is from ON esja – ashy/flaky stone headland. Discover more with ‘Shetland’s Volcano’ self-guide trail and exhibits at Mavis Grind, Braewick, Tangwick Haa Museum and Stenness.

Many of the stacks and natural arches along the Eshaness road can be seen from a car, but the area has a remote and rugged beauty that is best seen on foot. You can wander along the cliffs for hours or search the beaches for the spoils of the seas. The blowhole, Hols o Scraada, is 132 yards end to end. The sea flows to a beach at the base of the cliffs through an underground passage 11 yards long. There were originally two holes, with a natural bridge, but this collapsed in 1873. Another blowhole, Fiorda Taing, is 40 feet from the cliff edge and 60 feet deep. At the Grind o da Navir there is a spectacular cliff top ‘storm beach’.

Photo: Yolanda Bruce Zoom Photo: Yolanda Bruce And if you’re able to explore the coastline from the sea, visit Calder’s Geo which is the biggest sea cave in Britain, and view the Dore Holm (from ON dyrr – doorway, and holm – islet) – a natural arch, big enough for a boat to pass through.

Eshaness Lighthouse was built in 1929 and is now owned by Shetland Amenity Trust, with the keeper’s cottage available as a self-catering property. There is a car park near the lighthouse and information boards name all the natural arches and stacks.

Hamnavoe was the home of John Williamson (1740-1804), better known as Johnny Notions, who devised a serum to cure smallpox. He inoculated 3,000 people and lost none. The Shetland Amenity Trust camping böd at Hamnavoe is named after him.

The site of the mediaeval Cross Kirk, dedicated to the Holy Rood, was one of the principal chapels of pilgrimage in Shetland and burial place of Johnny Notions. Snails collected there were powdered and dried as a remedy for jaundice. Donald Robertson (1785-1848) died after taking nitre, as prescribed by Laurence Tulloch of Clothister, instead of Epsom salts. Details are noted on his tombstone in the kirkyard. Tulloch had to move to Aberdeenshire in 1852.

The late Dr Tom Anderson MBE (1910-1991), well-known fiddler, composer and collector of traditional tunes, was born and buried in Eshaness. He wrote over 500 tunes and the Slockit Light, played at his funeral, was an expression of his sadness as the lights from the crofthouse windows went out and the population declined throughout Eshaness.

Back to the main A970 take a left and head for Ollaberry. The Walls Boundary Fault at Ollaberry is an extension of the Great Glen Fault and Britain’s best example of a major sheer fault. Rocks on either side of the fault have moved past one another by perhaps as much as 100km over the last 370 million years.

Areas of particular scenic beauty are the views from Hillhead, Ollaberry, where you can see the north isles really well on a clear day, and Gluss Ayre, where otters are regularly seen. The booths at the head of Ollaberry’s 19th century pier are now houses. The shop, public toilets and a garage are at Ollaberry Industrial Estate.

Photo: Peter Parker Zoom Photo: Peter Parker A massive 360-million-year-old granite intrusion, exposed by erosion and uplift, forms Ronas Hill (1,477ft), Shetland’s highest. A fantastic viewpoint, with a heel-shaped burial cairn on its summit, it is mantled by glacial boulder fields and home to alpine-type vegetation.

The hill is cut by the spectacular red cliffs of Ronas Voe, a seven-mile long ice-cut fjord. The beach at Heylor, the Blade, is a nesting site for Arctic terns. Between 1903 and 1920 there were two Norwegian whaling stations at the head of the voe and at Hollanders Grave is a memorial to Dutch sailors killed in action, 1674. 

Collafirth has a fine pier and a marina for smaller craft (see The road to the top of Collafirth Hill, a former Ministry of Defence site, is worth the drive, especially on a clear day when the views are spectacular.

The Beorgs of Housetter is also known as the giant’s garden and was the store for his cattle and plunder. The tumbled rocks escaped from the net of boulders he planned to use to build a causeway to Yell, where he hoped to find even more cattle to rustle. But the locals had enough of the giant and catapulted him to doom from the escarpment on top of the Beorgs. His grave has stones of red granite – 6ft 6in at his feet and an 8ft stone at his head – suggesting he was about 14ft tall!

North Roe (ON rauð eið – red isthmus) has a fine sandy beach at Sandvoe and ‘Da Nort Trow Community Gairden’ near the Church of Scotland is lovely for a wander round. The ‘Shetland Croft House Garden’ from the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show has been recreated using the original plants.

Photo: Andrew Simpson Zoom Photo: Andrew Simpson The Isle of Uyea at the north-west tip of Northmavine, a significant pupping ground for grey seals, has the oldest rocks in Shetland – nearly three billion years old! The rocks have been altered back in the mists of geological time by immense heat and pressure generated by many mountain-building events. Uyea is also said to have the best grass in the islands and, in 1851, was home to 92 folk (15 households). Kettleback Cave was a hideout from the Press Gang. 

On the northernmost point is Fethaland, once the busiest haaf fishing station in Shetland, with 60 sixareens and 20 lodges for shore accommodation. Rock slices of different ages and types have been torn up and thrust by tectonic forces to lie next to each other here. Offshore is the RSPB reserve, the Ramna Stacks.

Jack Ratter, better known as J.D. Rattar (1876-1957), whose photographs fetch high prices at local auctions, was born here at Skennisfield.

The north mainland has some excellent fishing. The Eshaness lochs produce specimen fish every year, particularly early season. The roadside lochs of Haggrister, Punds Water and Eela Water are also worth an hour or two on the way past. If you are a hill walker with a trout rod, the ultimate day out will be a trip to the Ronas Hill lochs. To the north and west of Ronas Hill is magnificent scenery with cliffs, waterfalls and the good fishing lochs, but the terrain is rough so be properly equipped before venturing out. 

Photo: John Coutts Zoom Photo: John Coutts Public halls at Sullom, Hillswick, Ollaberry, North Roe and Eshaness, serve delicious Sunday teas through the summer and, as in other areas, are well-used for community and charity events. The Northmavine Up-Helly-A’ festival is held in February.

The Northmavine Community Development Company (NCDC) provides development support and a public-access computer is available at the NCDC office at Greenbrae, South Collafirth, Ollaberry. Just phone first to check if the computer is free (01806 544222).

Public transport timetables are available at

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