South Mainland, Shetland

The South Mainland, from Gulberwick to Sumburgh Head, has some of the islands’ most fertile land and many working crofts and farms within its boundaries. Shetland’s main airport, Sumburgh, is situated right at the south end, with the world-class Sumburgh Head attraction and nature reserve and the famous archaeological sites of Jarlshof and Old Scatness close by.

Photo: Yolanda Bruce Zoom Photo: Yolanda Bruce Beaches, including St Ninian’s Isle and West Voe, are of shining white sands, and on the island of Mousa sits the best-preserved Iron Age broch in existence.

At the top of hill south out of Lerwick, past the Sandy Loch (the public water supply and a good loch for fishing), take a detour (left) to Gulberwick (ON Gulberuvík from Gulberra – woman’s name, and vík – bay). The steep, winding, lower road passes the kirk, beach, public hall and playpark, then rejoins the main road.

The low cliffs by the beach at Gulberwick show sequences of pebbles and sands laid down by braided rivers during the Devonian period.

The main upper road from Lerwick (with a turn-off to Scalloway and west) sweeps above the bay and continues south, past Brindister.

The expanding settlement of Quarff is the next village south. Easter Quarff has a shingle beach with great views of the Ord and Bard cliffs of Bressay. Wester Quarff has escaped most of the recent house building and is well worth a visit for panoramic views of Clift Sound and the islands of Trondra and Burra (even Foula and Ronas Hill from the hill of Scraefield). The Quarff hall, as in most districts, is a community asset that is well utilised.

Photo: Peter Parker Zoom Photo: Peter Parker Picturesque Fladdabister (ON Flatibólstaðrthe flat farm) is next; a fertile spot, lush with wild flowers and reminiscent of Shetland in former days, its ruined lime kilns just two interesting remnants from the past.

The main road continues through Cunningsburgh (ON Konungsborg, from Konungr – king, and borg – broch, fortification). Take time to explore the side roads with their colourful shows of wild flowers. You’ll find a farm shop and café, knitwear studios, and there’s a marina and small pier at Aithsvoe along with a caravan park and facilities.

The Cunningsburgh Agricultural Show is on the second Wednesday in August. The show accepts entries from the whole of Shetland and attracts livestock, ponies, produce, flowers and crafts from all over. The village hall is an important part of community life, with teas served most Sunday afternoons through the summer and regular games nights. The Cunningsburgh History Group has premises near the hall and has permanent outdoor exhibits as well as changing indoor displays.

On the hillside at Catpund, ‘klebber’ (talc and soapstone formed by lavas from the floor of the Iapetus Ocean being altered by hot fluids) was quarried by the Vikings to create bowls, weights, bake-plates and lamps. Take a walk up the Catpund burn to see evidence of the workings.

Photo: Kim Rendall Zoom Photo: Kim Rendall Continuing south, past the ‘cliffs of Cunningsburgh’, you arrive at Sandwick, a collection of several townships such as Leebitton – a row of miners' cottages and the site of a disused copper mine. Sandlodge, possibly 17th century, is the large baronial mansion, home of the Bruce family. Copper and iron was mined at Setter and Sandlodge during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The brochs of Burraland and Mousa guard the south entrance to Mousa Sound. The broch on the uninhabited island of Mousa is the best preserved in the world, standing over 42ft high and measuring 49ft at the base. It was built in the Iron Age from local sandstone. In 1774, eleven families lived on the isle, but by 1861 all were gone.

A privately-run ferry operates from Sandsayre Pier to Mousa. The waiting room and interpretive panels have information on the history and natural heritage of this historic and scenic area. Dogs are not allowed on the island.

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason Mousa is an RSPB nature reserve. The isle is steeped in history and brimming with wildlife. With no human inhabitants or predators besides otters, it's a safe haven for ground-nesting birds and pupping seals. Thousands of storm petrels (Europe’s smallest seabird) nest in dry-stone walls, boulder beaches and between the stones of the famous broch. They return to their nests after dark, creating a magical experience for visitors on an evening trip. On a daytime visit see other nesting birds like eider ducks, Arctic terns, black guillemots and skuas. Colonies of common and grey seals haul out around tidal pools where they feel safe to pup and moult or just lounge around. Public access is carefully managed so that visitors may enjoy Mousa’s historical and natural interest with minimum impact on the wildlife that benefits from this secluded and safe island home.

A community garden with a mini-broch is near the Sandwick swimming pool and an interesting nature trail beginning here leads you to the historic fishing village of Hoswick, a hub for Shetland’s textile industry with both traditional and contemporary knitwear outlets. Hoswick Visitor Centre has interesting exhibitions, a café and gift shop, and is an Information Point.

Channerwick is the next bay south. There are ruins down by the beach and a pretty burn to explore.

The main road continues south to Levenwick, with its lovely beach (safe for swimming); a fine place for a picnic and a wander around the banks (sea cliffs). The campsite next to the shop and community hall, just off the main road, has a spectacular outlook.

Photo: Kim Rendall Zoom Photo: Kim Rendall A right turn above Channerwick leads to Bigton and Spiggie. The shop in Bigton is owned and operated by the community, an enterprising venture which allowed the facility to remain open.

On past the shop is St Ninian’s Isle, reached by crossing the pristine, white shell-sand tombolo. This is the finest and largest example in the British Isles and has built up by refraction of Atlantic waves around the island as sea level has risen following the last glacial period. On some rare occasions, with severe tides, wellingtons may be needed to cross. The beach holds a Rural Seaside Award from Keep Scotland Beautiful.

Take a guided walk of St Ninian’s Isle to hear all about its interesting history. A hoard of Pictish silver – the St Ninian’s Isle treasure – was discovered by a local schoolboy here in 1958, during excavations at the church (believed to be Norse (1150), built on a pre-Norse structure). The 28 objects were buried in a box made of larch. Replicas are on display in the Shetland Museum; the real hoard was ‘stolen’ for safe keeping in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

The South Mainland Up-Helly-A’, the newest of the isles’ fire festivals, is different in that the torchlit procession and galley-burning moves among five areas, depending on the home district of that particular year’s Jarl (chief guizer). The event is held on the second Friday in March and the 2022 event is due to be held in Bigton.

There is a loch and a fine beach in the Maywick road, and another beach at Rerwick. Spiggie beach lies just over the road from the Loch of Spiggie, an RSPB reserve that is one of Shetland’s most important lochs for wintering wildfowl. Large numbers of whooper swans gather in late autumn. During winter months, ducks such as tufted ducks and wigeons can be seen, while in spring and summer waders display around the marsh areas and skuas bathe in the fresh water.

Photo: Kim Rendall Zoom Photo: Kim Rendall Spiggie Loch is also a must for anglers. This is a ‘fly only’ loch but if the fish are not surface-feeding, nymphs fished slowly in mid-water can be very effective. Within easy range of Spiggie are Broo, Clumlie and Vatster and these are all worth a visit. The Spiggie Hotel was a popular stop for visitors since it was built in the 1870s.

The restored Quendale Water Mill (built 1867) is a welcoming and interesting visitor centre, run by the South Mainland Community History Group. The mill is also an Information Point and has a small shop and refreshments.

A climb up Fitful Head will be rewarded with some fine cliff scenery and views. In 1993, the oil tanker Braer was wrecked at Garths Ness to the west of Quendale Bay. Despite everyone’s worst fears, the effects of Shetland’s biggest oil spill were less than expected. Leaflets about the incident are available at the Quendale Mill.

Volcanic activity around 500 million years ago beneath the ocean floor circulated sea water that leached minerals from the rocks to be deposited as ‘black smoker’ volcanic vents. Black smoker deposits are found today as iron and copper sulphides and were mined at Garths Ness at the end of the 18th century.

The mile-long stretch of sand at Quendale is Shetland’s longest beach. This was the site of the largest ever whale-kill when 1,540 whales were driven ashore in 1845.

The Crofthouse Museum, at Boddam (ON botnthe end of a valley), was built about 1830. It has a thatched roof and chimney, and consists of house, byre, barn, watermill and a grain-drying kiln.

Photo: Shetland Amenity Trust Zoom Photo: Shetland Amenity Trust Old Scatness broch and Iron Age village was first discovered in 1975 when Sumburgh airport was expanded and works uncovered the broch. Twenty years later Shetland Amenity Trust excavated the site and discovered a pristine Iron Age time capsule. The site has unearthed fascinating finds, answered archaeological questions and even changed expert opinion on Scottish history.
See for further information.

A multi-burial of discarded human bones in a rough kist was also uncovered by contractors working at the airport in 1977. The bones of 18 individuals were radio-carbon tested, and date these Shetland residents to around 3200BC.

The camping böd at Scatness was once the home of Betty Mouat, who inadvertently had to endure an eight-day lone trip on the 50ft sailing vessel Columbine in January 1886, eventually drifting ashore at Lepsoy, Norway. There is a memorial in the kirkyard at Dunrossness.

Sequences of fast flowing river conglomerates can be seen at the Ness of Burgi where there are also remains of an Iron Age fort. Lake sediments with fossil fish are seen at Exnaboe. Sand dunes are preserved in the cliffs of Vaakel Craigs.

Sumburgh airport sits at the southern tip of the Mainland and planes and helicopters come and go throughout the day. The nearby Sumburgh Hotel (1867) was the former laird’s house and the beach at West Voe holds a Keep Scotland Beautiful Rural Seaside Award.

Photo: Agnieska Gardner Zoom Photo: Agnieska Gardner Jarlshof (named from Sir Walter Scott’s book The Pirate) emerged after a gale in the late 19th century. The site is managed by Historic Scotland and dates back around 4,500 years. It is many-layered, with settlements from Neolithic dwellings to a 16th-century laird’s house. There is an interpretive centre and both children and adults will enjoy exploring the ruins.

The ferry to Fair Isle, Good Shepherd IV, leaves from the pier at Grutness. The name Dunrossness is derived from Dynröst – ON name for Sumburgh Roost, meaning a strong roaring current, and nesa headland.

Shetland’s first lighthouse was built on Sumburgh Head in 1821 by Robert Stevenson. There was once a fort on the site of the lighthouse and the name Sumburgh is from ON borg – fort/broch; the southern fort. The lightkeeper’s cottage is now available as self-catering accommodation.

In summer, Sumburgh Head is one of the best places in the UK to see puffins and thousands of other seabirds. The breeding colony includes puffins, guillemots, shags, fulmars, kittiwakes and razorbills. Don’t forget to look beyond the cliffs and stacks as there is a chance of spotting killer whales, Minke whales and dolphins.

Photo: Kim Rendall Zoom Photo: Kim Rendall This spectacular headland is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Shetland and the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre & Nature Reserve is an exciting world class attraction that offers the chance to explore not only the fascinating natural history but lighthouse technology, a Second World War radar hut, marine life centre and much more.

There are general stores at Sandwick, Levenwick, Bigton, Dunrossness and Toab.

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