Delting, Lunnasting & Nesting

The parishes in the north of the Shetland Mainland have a great variety of scenery and wildlife, from high moorland with Mountain Hares and Golden Plovers to the rocky shores of Lunna Ness with their seals and otters. The birdwatching is superb, with everything from swans to seabirds.

A Tour Around Nesting

Ten miles north of Lerwick, the 'Nesting Loop' side road (B9075) winds through an intricate landscape of sheltered inlets, scattered crofts and bold headlands. There are scenic surprises around every corner.

Catfirth, once a First World War naval air station, is a favourite bird-watching spot. The Catfirth and Quoys Burns, both popular with anglers, have relics of the woodland which covered Shetland thousands of years ago: willows, rowans - and our only surviving hazel tree.

Turn right at the Nesting shop and the road leads past the Loch of Benston and its wild swans to the landlocked inlet of Vassa Voe and on to the promontories of Gletness and Eswick. Gletness is one of the most picturesque corners of Shetland and also home to a stud of Shetland Ponies. If you sit quietly and scan the Isles of Gletness with binoculars you may see 'Dratsi', the Otter.

The coast road to North Nesting passes a prehistoric standing stone at Skellister and an ancient settlement and field system below the Loch of Skellister. From Brettabister a side road leads to the headland of Neap, the starting point for a fine coastal walk out to the Staney Hog and Stava Ness - where Ravens and Puffins nest.

Back on the B9075, the road turns inland from the war memorial at Brettabister and climbs the steep hill of the Kirk Ward. For one of the finest views of the islands, stop the car and walk up to the First World War watchtower on top of the hill on your left. These hills are a good place to see Red Grouse and Hares. You may also meet local folk working their peats.

Over the hill, the hamlet of Billister is another favoured spot for sea trout. A walk along the coast to the east brings you to the 19th century granite quarry used to build the lairds' mansion at Symbister in Whalsay.

Exploring Lunnasting

North of Nesting lies Lunnasting, in which the main village is Vidlin. It lies on Vidlin Voe, a sheltered inlet with a marina for local boats at its head. There is also a ferry terminal here, used when the weather prevents use of the terminal at Laxo. Vidlin is an ancient settlement with an Iron Age broch lying under the foundations of the present Methodist kirk.

The landscape of Lunnasting is formed from schist and gneiss rocks, eroded relics of the ancient Caledonian Mountains, formed over 500 million years ago and carved by ice into whale-backed hills and long inlets. When the ice melted around 12,000 years ago it left many textbook features of a glaciated landscape - channels cut through hilltops, over-deepened valleys, curiously-shaped rock outcrops and huge amounts of debris, or moraine.

The road north from Vidlin leads to Lunna, where there is a tiny whitewashed church. Lunna Kirk dates from 1753, though there was a church on the site before then. There was also, it is said, an early monastery on Chapel Knowe, just to the north, and the whole area has more than enough lumps and bumps to set any archaeologist’s pulse racing. The church is the oldest in continuous use in Shetland and it is also one of the most beautiful.

Lunna preceded Scalloway as the secret wartime base for the little fishing boats that smuggled spies, saboteurs, radios, ammunition and explosives into Nazi-occupied Norway and brought back refugees from the Gestapo. The operation was known as the Shetland Bus and the story of these heroic and terrifying voyages, in midwinter darkness, storms and often under enemy fire, is told in the book of that name by David Howarth, the British naval officer who helped run the operation from Lunna House. Below the house is the stone pier from where so many brave Norwegian Resistance fighters sailed to their deaths. Howarth is commemorated in the churchyard.

North of Lunna lies some wild and wonderful walking country - Lunna Ness, studded with the ruins of croft houses from the Clearances in the 19th century. The area teems with wildlife: in summer there is a constant stream of seabirds passing the headland - Gannet (solan in Shetland dialect), Common Guillemot (lomvi), Razorbill (wilkie or sea craa), Kittiwake (wheeg) and Puffin (tammie norie) - while migrant birds such as Pied Wagtails, Waxwings, Redwings and various geese alight here in spring and autumn, when sheltered bushes at Larrimas, Garden, Sweening and Lunna attract warblers and thrushes.

A thriving but elusive Otter population has made Lunna Ness a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Lochs and streams provide the fresh water essential for coastal otters to bathe after fishing in the sea. Banks of soft peat conceal their holts, or hadds.

Not far away are the lonely Loch of Stofast and the mysterious Stanes of Stofast - a 2,000-tonne 'glacial erratic' boulder, rafted from Norway on the ice and split in two by frost. Like the nearby Lunning peninsula, this is a heavily glaciated landscape with eerily-shaped rocks associated with the trows (trolls) of Shetland folklore.

Delting Diversions

The parish of Delting, which lies north-west of Lunnasting, has seen many changes since the discovery of oil off Shetland.  Hundreds of new homes needed to accommodate the workforce were built in Voe, Brae, Firth and Mossbank.  Today, the district is well endowed with modern facilities, including schools, community halls and an excellent swimming pool.  However, the residents of the area don’t work exclusively in the oil industry.  Fish and shellfish farming are important, some people are employed in public or private services and some pursue crofting.

One of the most appealing corners of Delting is the old village of Voe, at the head of Olna Firth.  Visitors remark on its distinctly Norwegian character.  The older buildings owe their origin to the 19th century merchant firm of T. M. Adie & Sons, which was involved in fishing, hosiery and tweed.  One of them, the old Sail Loft by the pier, is now a Camping Böd.  The company made the woollen jumpers worn by Edmund Hillary when he and Tenzing Norgay tackled the first ascent of Everest in 1953.  On the north side of Olna Firth, the ruined Olnafirth Kirk is the burial place of the Adies and of the Giffords, former lairds of the Busta estate.

Five miles north of Voe, Brae is the largest village in Delting.  To the west, across the water, lies Busta House.  Now a hotel, the oldest part of the building dates back to 1588.  It was the seat of the Giffords and is forever associated with the tragedy of 1748, when the four sons of the laird, Thomas Gifford, were drowned while rowing back from Wethersta.  The eldest, John, had secretly married Barbara Pitcairn, companion of Lady Gifford.  After John’s death, Barbara gave birth to his child, Gideon, but she was banished to Lerwick and the boy was brought up by the Giffords.  Gideon’s descendants were later embroiled in a dispute about inheritance that dragged on for nearly a century, the legal costs of which eventually bankrupted the estate.  From time to time, today’s hotel guests report sightings of Barbara’s ghost.

Beyond Busta is the ruggedly beautiful island of Muckle Roe, linked to the mainland by a new bridge.  Along its coast, contraband from Faroe was once landed in the Hams (or havens) of Roe.  There’s plenty of evidence of former settlement among spectacular red granite cliffs at the north end of the island.  This is a favourite destination for walkers. 

Just north of Brae, at the hamlet of Voxter, two more aspects of Shetland’s past can be explored.  In a former quarry beside the road to Sullom Voe, geologists have identified rocks altered by heat and pressure 400 million years ago when, as the ancient Iapetus Ocean closed, the European and North American tectonic plates collided.  Nearby, a delightful walk up the narrow valley of the Burn of Valayre will reveal some of Shetland’s surviving native trees, safe here from the attention of sheep.  The former manse at the head of Voxter Voe is now an outdoor centre accommodating school and university groups who study these and other features of the area.

During the Second World War, Sullom Voe was the base for Sunderland and Catalina flying boats that patrolled northern waters.  Since it was constructed in the 1970s, the Sullom Voe Terminal, the largest export terminal of its kind in Europe, has handled up to 40 million tonnes of oil and gas a year.  However, strict environmental controls have minimised its impact on the area and the voe is still home to a wide range of wildlife, including seabirds and otters.

Firth, north-east of the terminal, saw substantial housing development in the late 1970s.  Recalling earlier, harder times, a memorial by the roadside commemorates the twenty local men, ranging in age from 16 to 75, who died four days before Christmas in 1900.  In search of haddock many miles from land, their boats were caught in a violent storm.

The direct road from Firth back to Voe climbs over the Hill of Swinister then heads south, clinging to the west side of Dales Voe and offering superb views.  Three tombolos, or ayres, connect Fora Ness to Swinister and enclose a lagoon, the Houb.  Here, pollen found in the submerged peat indicates that large areas of Shetland were once covered by a layer of dense scrub. 

A little farther south, before Voe is reached, a minor road climbs steeply over the Easter Hill of Dale to the secluded hamlet of Collafirth.  Although there is evidence of abandoned crofts, the landscape here has otherwise changed little for hundreds of years.  It’s no more than five miles, as the crow flies, from the tanks and high technology at Sullom Voe, but a world away.

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