Yell is the largest of the North Isles and a haven for wildlife and wild flowers. The 83 square miles of heather and moorland, cut by the deep voes of Whalfirth, Mid Yell and Basta Voe, boasts a coastline with some of the best beaches in Shetland.
Photo: Kim Rendall The islanders, numbering over 900, enjoy a varied and active lifestyle and there’s always one event or another – be it tar barrel, duck race, Up-Helly-A’, agricultural show, regatta or concert – happening in the various community halls.
The ferry sails to Ulsta from Toft on the mainland and passes the islands of Samphrey and Bigga. Whales and dolphins sometimes make an appearance in Yell Sound, so keep an eye going on your trip over… and check the area around the Ulsta ferry terminal and shop which is a great place to spot otters.
Much of Hugh Miles’ filming for BBC’s The Track of the Wild Otter was done on Yell’s east coast, near Burra Ness where there is a cairn, ancient boat ‘noosts’ and the remains of a broch on the northeast promontory. Gloup Holm has a large seabird colony and Ladies Hol is a good place for seals and sea birds and is a well-known cliff for puffin burrows.
'Foot passengers' at the ferry! Westsandwick and Breckon beaches hold the Keep Scotland Beautiful Rural Seaside Award. The dunes and machair at the Sands of Breckon formed, and continue to change, due to rising sea levels. Sometimes crumbly garnets from the bedrock are found in the sand. The pristine white sands at Westsandwick eroded from Yell’s Moine rocks. Flakes of shiny mica are scattered throughout the sand. Gossabrough and Hamnavoe beaches are also worthy of a visit.
Birrier is one of Shetland’s bonniest bays and has the remains of an Iron Age fort. The islet stack at Birrier Bay is connected by a spit of land topped by a natural arch. At Burgi Geos is an Iron Age fort with blockhouse and defences.
The Herra (ON herað) peninsula is 4,250 acres of moorland, superb for walking. The Eigg and nearby Ern Stack are said to be the last nest sites of Shetland’s sea eagles (ern) around 1910.
Photo: Kim Rendall A memorial to Shetland’s legendary musician, ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson, overlooks the now deserted valley of Bouster, Herra; the ruins of his birthplace can be seen on the hill opposite. Peerie Willie, as he was known to all, was an exceptionally talented and unique musician who influenced many and earned his place in the annals of Shetland music. A short detour from the main road leads to this lovely spot.
The long walk to the Lumbister coast is rewarded with views of the striking huge white veins of granite-pegmatite criss-crossing the Moine rocks.
The ruin of Windhouse above the road to Mid Yell is supposedly the haunt of many ghosts. The house, built in 1707 and reconstructed in 1880, is privately owned, but Windhouse Lodge has been redeveloped as a camping böd by Shetland Amenity Trust.
Mid Yell is the biggest settlement in Yell and has a good range of amenities, including the island’s school, leisure centre, health centre, shop and a restaurant/diner. The excellent natural harbour is sheltered from all wind directions and the salmon factory is the island’s largest employer.
Photo: Kim Rendall The business park at Sellafirth houses a wonderful art gallery and a tweed-making company as well as facilities for music and textile workshops. Other craft and genealogy services are sited nearby.
Cullivoe, the main village in north Yell, hosts Yell’s only Up-Helly-A’ celebration, which has been on the go since 1957. The galley shed is open daily to visitors in the summer to view displays, props, costumes and memorabilia (guided tours on Sunday afternoons). Cullivoe has a general store and is the base for some of Yell’s commercial enterprises.
At the Ness of Cullivoe, rocks have been intensely folded and deformed due to a continental collision hundreds of millions of years ago while around Burravoe you can find some of the oldest rocks in Shetland, equivalent in age to the Lewisian gneisses of Scotland which are almost three billion years old.
The Gloup Memorial (1991) commemorates 58 men and six boats lost in a storm in 1881, leaving 34 widows and 85 children. Gloup was one of the most important haaf (fishing) stations in Shetland. Open boats (sixareens), each crewed by seven men, were rowed to the offshore fishing grounds 30 to 40 miles away.
Photo: Alastair Christie-Johnston The White Wife (Widden Wife) at Otterswick (ON Óttarsvík – from the man’s name Óttar) is the figurehead from the German training ship Bohus, wrecked in 1924. Four lives were lost from a crew of 38 plus a stowaway. A black marble commemoration slab, set in stone from nearby Hascosay, is in Mid Yell kirkyard.
The annual Yell Show takes place in late summer at Aywick where there’s also a popular shop and community hall. Check locally for more detailed information.
The Old Haa at Burravoe is one of Yell’s oldest buildings (1672). Restored in 1984, it is open each summer as a heritage centre. The Haa is a tourist information point and also has a tearoom and lovely garden. There’s a small caravan park at Burravoe pier.
Above Erisdale is the memorial site of a World War Two Catalina aircraft that crashed on 19th January, 1941; three of the crew of ten survived. (Follow directions at the foot of the road and wooden markers alongside the burn.) A commemorative tapestry hangs in Hamnavoe Church of Scotland.
Photo: Charlie Inkster Churches, playparks, craft and small business operators are situated throughout the island and there are marinas/piers at Ulsta, Burravoe, Cullivoe and Mid Yell – see www.shetland.org/visit/do/outdoors/sail.
The ro-ro ferry from Toft in the North Mainland sails to Ulsta. If you’re travelling directly on to Fetlar, top up with fuel at Ulsta as it’s the last pump on the way. The ferries to Unst and Fetlar leave from Gutcher. Allow around 30 minutes to drive between the Ulsta and Gutcher terminals.
Ferry bookings to 01595 745804; ferry information 01595 743972; www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries.
For accommodation see our online listings or check with Visit Scotland.
Books, maps, guides and gifts are available from The Shetland Times Bookshop.