West Mainland, Shetland
The ‘Westside’ – the sunny side of Shetland – is a place well worth discovering and seems to escape days of fog or rain more often than other parts of the islands.
Photo: Cathie Henry Remaining relatively unspoilt by developments of the oil era, there are gardens to explore, beaches to stroll, archaeological ruins to delve among, Shetland’s only spinning mill, trout to catch and, as everywhere on the islands, wildlife and wildflowers galore to savour, as well as some spectacular sunsets to enjoy.
The Westside begins at Tresta, just after you round the bend at the top of the Scord of Weisdale (where you should stop a while at the viewpoint and enjoy the panorama).
Drive down through the trees and take a run into Sandsound (to the left) where there’s a pretty burn and a good shingle beach at the end of the road. Further along the main road, on the right, is Lea Gardens. With over 1,600 different species and cultivars on show, the garden at Tresta holds Scotland’s largest plant collection north of Inverewe gardens.
Sea ducks and waders, and sometimes seals, can been seen along the coastline at Bixter and there are public toilets and a general store on the main road through the village. Occasional traditional music nights are held in the Bixter and Aith halls.
Aith (locally pronounced ‘Eid’; from ON eið – an ithsmus, neck of land) is off to the right as you pass through Bixter. It’s a busy area and the site of one of Shetland’s leisure centres/swimming pools as well as a fine pier, shop, junior high school, and a well-used public hall.
Photo: Gordon Siegel The Aith lifeboat station is the most northerly in Britain and was opened in 1933 as a result of the Ben Doran shipwreck at the Ve Skerries, off Papa Stour. The lifeboat gala day is usually held on the first Sunday in June – a fun day out for the whole family. The Aith regatta includes rowing and sailing races and is held in July.
Make time to visit Michaelswood. First planted in 1993 as a memorial to one of Shetland’s finest young fiddle players, this award-winning ‘garden’ has grown over the years and is an excellent place to while away an hour or two, for young and old alike. Watch out for the dinosaurs!
The road into Vementry is a fine drive. The best-preserved heel cairn in the islands is on Muckle Ward (298ft), on the isle of Vementry. The House of Vementry was built in the early 1900s, with red granite dressings and crowsteps of granite quarried on the isle.
The sandstone rocks found in the west of Shetland are 390 million years old and were laid down as sediments within a large desert continent near the Equator. The ancient metamorphic rocks from Vementry to Bousta have been sculpted by ice into a rugged landscape of small hills and lochs. Volcanoes sometimes erupted into the wet sediment and laid down lava and ash which can be seen today near Clousta.
Photo: Kim Rendall Anglers should visit the lochs in the Clousta road – Northhouse, Vaara, Clousta and Clingswater are all worth a cast.
The Burn of Lunklet at East Burrafirth is also well worth visiting and a good walk. Continue past the waterfall and up to the moorland for splendid views of the area. Also look out for the original ‘cake fridge’ and tea room nearby.
Back to the A971 main road on past Bixter, branch left at the now derelict Parkhall and head to Sand, with the remains of the pre-reformation Chapel of St Mary’s, and a fine sandy beach. Here you will also find Da Gairdins i Sand, where three crofts have been transformed into an oasis of life. Over 30,000 trees, shrubs and flowers have been planted and a free leaflet shows the recommended routes.
The small ‘Red Ayre’ beach is worth a visit, and Reawick also has a beach of red sand which is interesting to explore and safe for swimming. Reawick House is a laird’s mansion standing above the picturesque bay. The house dates from 1730 and is listed grade two.
Photo: Kim Rendall The pretty village of Skeld is a fine place to stop and stretch your legs by having a wander around the marina and breakwater. Visiting boats are welcome and excellent facilities for caravanning and camping are available. A hide, with disabled access, has been constructed for viewing the varied wildlife which includes otters, seals and birds. The Reawick/Skeld sailing regatta weekend is usually in July. A Shetland Amenity Trust camping böd is situated in the old Skeld shop.
A detour into the townships of Silwick, Westerwick and Culswick offers some stunning coastal scenery and you can enjoy beachcombing on the pebble beaches. A red granite intrusion forms the spectacular cliffs between Skeld and Culswick and this was used to build the impressive Culswick broch. The Methodist Chapel at Culswick dates from 1894.
A myriad of small roads, all worth exploring, meander back to the Bridge of Walls. On your way visit the Stanydale Temple – the largest Stone Age structure in the islands. The size of the large house (40ft x 20ft) denotes its importance.
The road to West Burrafirth, and all the side roads en route, lead you through a totally unspoilt and magical part of Shetland, with fine fishing (try Upper Brouster) and walking; an area with a charm all its own. The ferry to Papa Stour leaves from West Burrafirth pier.
Photo: Agnieska Gardner The village of Walls (ON vágar (plural vágr) – a long U-shaped bay) is pronounced ‘Waas’. The ferry to Foula sails to and from the pier here. The local sailing regatta is usually held in July and the annual Walls Agricultural Show is held in August, both events giving the opportunity to meet the local folk.
Walls is also the site of one of Shetland Amenity Trust’s largest camping böds at Voe House, and there are toilets, a shop, seasonal cafes and a small swimming pool.
Across Wester Sound is the Isle of Vaila where Arthur Anderson, founder of P&O, ran a fish curing business, drying the fish on wooden ‘flaakes’. The isle was sold to Anderton, a Yorkshire mill owner, in 1893 when the Haa (built 1696) was extended for use as his summer residence, complete with baronial hall, minstrel’s gallery and massive fireplace. At one time there was a Buddhist temple above the boathouse. The island was sold again in 1993.
All through the Westside you will come across remains of settlements, wild flower meadows, and coastal inlets that attract birds, seals, and sometimes otters, so take time to travel around and enjoy these ‘free’ attractions.
From the isolated community of Sandness, where you will find white sands, unusual pebbles on the beaches and a bounty of wild flowers, there are lovely views to Papa Stour. The side roads of Sandness should be explored as little surprises and beautiful views can appear out of the blue.
Shetland’s only spinning mill, Jamiesons, is sited in Sandness. A video showing the fascinating process of turning raw fleece into a knitted or woven item is available to view both at the mill and at the company's Lerwick shop.
Photo: Peter Parker Leaflets are available locally guiding walkers along the Sandness Coastal Walkway (developed by the Sandness Crofting and Community Association). The 2½-mile walk stretches from the promontory of Quilvataing (near Huxter) in the west, to the cliff headland of Da Neap. Along the route are remains of a broch, remains of a red sandstone quarry worked in the 1890s, and ancient burnt mounds. The corn grinding mills at Huxter were used up till the 1940s.
The white water lilies, first noted in 1774, can be seen at Lunga Water on the road back to Bridge of Walls.
Aith, Skeld, West Burrafirth and Walls have marinas or berthing available; see www.shetland.org/visit/do/outdoors/sail for full details.
For public transport information see travel.shetland.org.
Search accommodation listings here or check with Visit Scotland.
Take a trip to The Shetland Times Bookshop for a huge range of books, maps, guides and gifts.