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Gannet colonies on the cliffs at Hermaness Reserve, Unst, Shetland



A walk to the end of the world - Hermaness Point


Some places are definitely worth the long journey to reach them, and for me, Hermaness is amongst the best! This rugged headland is the northernmost part of the British Isles. Standing on the cliffs here, due north it’s clear all the way to the North Pole. Iceland to the northwest is nearly 200 miles closer than London, Norway to the east is closer than Edinburgh.


Hermaness is the northernmost headland on Unst, the most northerly of the inhabited Shetland islands, themselves our most northern island archipelago. For visitors arriving in Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, to reach the tiny car park across from the former lighthouse-keepers’ cottages requires a further two ferry crossings and a three-hour drive. The weather here can be awful… the highest windspeed ever in the UK was recorded here. But on a dry summer’s day, the walk up to the eastern cliffs is remarkable.



The view to Muckle Flugga


The first part, a steep climb up a gravel track, reveals early glimpses of what will unfold. A golden plover alarm calls to my left, a mournful whistle. Twite feed on thistles and heather. Oystercatchers pipe down in the bay. A small bridge leads to steps that bring me up onto a wooden boardwalk, initially incongruous in the wide open, treeless, moorland landscape, until you look at where you are. All around is bog, shallow pools amidst bright green sphagnum mosses, rushes and sedges, white tufts of cotton grass buffeted in the constant breeze. Step off and you risk sinking deep into the peat.


The boardwalk is also there to protect you from Hermaness’s famous fearsome residents. You begin to feel you’re being watched. To my right, a large brown bird stands, puts its head down, and stretches its huge wings back and upwards to reveal large white patches, before uttering a guttural gull-like call. This is a great skua, a bonxie to use its Shetland name – an old Norse word alluding to the island’s Viking history. This territorial display is saying, “this is my patch, keep off”, and with good reason. All around are nesting bonxies.



A great skua, or 'bonxie'


However, staying on the path allows you to watch these magnificent birds, and also start to pick out the other birds breeding here. There are more golden plover, and their smaller cousin, dunlin, both resplendent in mottled brown upperparts, white undersides and smart black chests. A snipe displays in the distance, rising and looping in a distinctive flight, its weird rising whirring ‘song’ produced by vibrating outer tail feathers.


But the greatest spectacle requires me to walk on, the hill levelling out as I eventually reach the eastern edge. To the north, two incredibly rugged outcrops stand out brilliant white. This is the wonderfully named Muckle Flugga. The white is not rock, it’s gannets… or, to be precise, gannets and gannet poo! Thousands of them. It’s a long and steep walk north to see them close up, but the better option is to turn left and, climbing to the clifftop, you become aware of a mass of life just beyond. A guttural clamour grows, your nostrils are assaulted by the unmistakable acrid smell of ammonia, and the grass is covered by thousands of white feathers.


I creep towards the edge and peer over. Below me is one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Tens of thousands of gannets line the steep slopes and outcrops, whilst thousands more circle and glide. The noise is remarkable, a cacophony of thousands of calls as birds seek out their mates, or squabble angrily with their neighbours. To me this is prehistoric, a reminder that these are the living descendants of dinosaurs.



A colony of gannets at Hermaness


The nearest gannets are just metres away down the slope, and seem completely uninterested in their human watcher. These are large birds, creamy white with custard powder-yellow heads, and black wingtips as if dipped in ink. But it is their faces that fascinate me. Large, dagger-like grey bills with fine black edges lead to sky-blue eyes with deep black pupils, and blue eyelids. These bills are also integral to gannet life. Below me, a bird comes in to land, hovering skilfully on two-metre wingspan, before alighting beside its mate. An initial squabble of pecks with neighbours is followed by bill-fencing, the pair facing each other and vigorously shaking their heads in unison, clattering bills together.


These are truly pelagic birds, only coming to land to nest, spending the rest of their lives out at sea, those stunning blue eyes witnessing thousands of miles of ocean as they fly with consummate ease, superbly adapted to a life at sea. To be this close to such masters of the oceans, in such vast numbers, is humbling.


My long journey and walk to get here seems tame in comparison to what they do. But the sight, sounds, and smells make the long walk back to the car park worth every step. I collect a handful of feathers as a keepsake, a reminder of the seabird city at the most northerly part of Britain, and head slowly downhill, hoping I will be back next year.



Birdwatching at dusk on Mousa



The Simmer Dim, midsummer on Shetland


For me, our midnight visit to the uninhabited island of Mousa is the highlight of our summer tour of Shetland. Storm petrels are remarkable birds. Smaller than a blackbird, they spend almost their entire lives far out at sea, only coming ashore to nest, and then only at night. Mousa is one of the few places in the world where you can see this, and it is an experience never to be forgotten, unique and ethereal. 


We depart the mainland around 11pm for the short trip to the island. You might expect it to be dark, but we are just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, the land of the Shetland "simmerdim", the sky light enough to follow the short path from the quay to the towering Iron Age broch. Here we wait at midnight, hushed and expectant. 



A European storm petrel


Suddenly the first birds appear out of the gloom like bats. Within minutes, the air is full of petrels zooming around us and the stone tower, whilst all around their weird burbling calls emanate from the stones as their partners lure them back to the nest. To be this close to nature in such a wild place is truly special.


I'd love to stay all night, but sadly our boat awaits. 




To discover more about Peter's ACE tour to The Shetland Islands in June 2024, click the button below:


View 2024 tour details


View tours with Peter Exley


Image credits:

Photos of Muckle Flugga and the great skua © Peter Exley

The Simmer Dim by Ronnie Robertson licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED via Flickr

European Storm Petrel by Charles J Sharp licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED via Wikimedia Commons

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