Whalsay, Shetland

Photo: Angela Irvine Zoom Photo: Angela Irvine Whalsay is known as the ‘bonnie isle’, named as such by visiting 19th-century Scots fishermen, and has around 1,000 inhabitants. The close-knit community has a distinctive, unique dialect sound and enjoys an active and sociable lifestyle. Islanders are heavily involved in the fishing industry and the harbour in Symbister (ON sunnbólstaðr – south farm) shelters the island’s renowned modern fishing fleet.

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 (whalsaygolfclub.co.uk). The local boating club organises the annual sailing regatta and has a licensed clubhouse. 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.

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. 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.

Photo: Ivan Reid Zoom Photo: Ivan Reid Whalsay Heritage & Community Centre is situated behind Symbister House in outbuildings that were acquired and renovated by the Whalsay History Group. Permanent and seasonal exhibitions on all aspects of the island’s history and traditions are displayed and this is also a tourist information point. Originally these buildings housed the farm animals and there was a belfry, doocot and laird’s toilet as well as a midden yard. The outer court contains other buildings including workers’ houses.

Pier House, on the waterfront, was a Hanseatic böd used by German merchants. It was restored in 1984 and its interior was reconstructed. It includes replicas of the period and 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.

Photo: John Lowrie Irvine Zoom Photo: John Lowrie Irvine 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.

A good place for angling, the Loch of Huxter was home to 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.

Lying east of the Shetland mainland, Whalsay was sculpted by ice during the last glaciation and has the appearance of a whale when viewed from the sea; its Old Norse name is Whale Island (Hvalsey or Hvals-øy), the humpback being the Ward o’ Clett (390ft).

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. Many migrants pass through on their journeys elsewhere too.

Photo: Austin Taylor Zoom Photo: Austin Taylor 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 a camp site/caravan park at Livister. Check with Visit Scotland for more details.

For yachting information see shetland.org/visit/do/outdoors/sail.

The ro-ro ferry sails from Laxo (Vidlin). Bookings to 01595 745804; ferry information 01595 743973; timetables at shetland.gov.uk/ferries. Under certain weather conditions sailings leave from Vidlin pier.


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