Morag Fleming discovers this northern Shetland Isle has plenty to shout about . . .
Morag Fleming enjoys a fine day in the Shetlands
YELL is one of the larger Shetland islands, just to the north of the mainland of Shetland. It’s very often the through road to the other two islands accessible from here – Unst and Fetlar – but that is unfair as it has a lot to offer in its own right.
The canny traveller (that’s me, of course, in case anyone was wondering) holds off, however, and gets a later ferry, so as to explore this island further, and is rewarded for their restraint. On Yell there is plenty to shout about.
I travel to the very top of the mainland for the short ferry journey to Yell. Once on the other side, the main road sticks to the west side of the island and there are great views across the Yell Sound to Northmavine, which is part of the northern mainland.
Small islands dot the blue sea and often big ships add some interest as well. The land slopes gently down towards the sea, only to be interrupted by the odd beach or inlet. It’s a beautiful drive north, if I take my time and keep looking west.
I take a small side road to West Sandwick to find the sandy beach promised to me by the guidebook. I am in no way disappointed as it is quite the bonniest sight, with wild flowers thick on the banks flanking the perfect sandy bay.
The banks protrude past the sand, meaning this beach is sheltered from all but the most westerly of breezes. This one is a beauty.
A walk north up the coast takes me to the site of an Iron-Age fort and more of those views across Yell Sound – it’s worth doing this to make the most of this coastline, as when I return to the van, the road starts to curve inland beyond West Sandwick, towards Mid Yell.
Mid Yell is a very accurate moniker, being almost dead centre both north-south and east-west. East and West Yell are extremely close here as two voes (sea lochs, to any nonShetlanders) creep in on either side and are a mere mile away from meeting and creating two islands in Yell’s place. Mid Yell itself, probably due to its location, is a practical place with a shop, pier and school.
Before I get there, however, I take the small road up to my left which follows the voe called Whale Firth some way west and north, falling short of the end of the peninsula which, after a wee walk almost out to the point, affords a great view, this time of the north-west Yell coastline.
As I drive I look across the voe to the remains of what has clearly been a sizeable settlement at one time. This was called Volister and is typical of many of the signs of Shetland being much more populated in times gone by than it is nowadays.
I keep an eye out for otters on the shorelines, as there are many of them on Shetland and they love these voes, but no luck today, unfortunately.
BACK at the main road I glance up to my left and an involuntary shudder runs through me. Could this be due to the ruin up on the hill? This is Windhouse and it is said to be haunted.
With its gaping windows unblinking in the dark façade it certainly looks haunted, which is enough for me! I’m thinking about staying in the nearby lodge which has been turned, as many notable buildings have been in Shetland, into a Camping Böd, which is a basic hostel run by the Shetland Amenity Trust, but perhaps it is too scary and I’m better off with my Terry, who is a much more friendly orange campervan.
This is the mid-way point of Yell where the east and west roads meet, but before we continue northwards let’s skip back to the south of the island where the ferry from the mainland came in.
We had a choice at that point, so let’s try the smaller road this time, “the one less travelled by” as Frost would say, and take the eastern coast up to Mid Yell for a change of scenery.
Burravoe is the first stop a few miles east of the southern ferry terminal at Ulsta. Burravoe is a very bonnie village with the Old Haa dating from 1672, which now
houses an art gallery, museum and visitor information within its very smart whitewashed walls. The pier is a busy place with children fishing and campers doodling about the small but well equipped campsite right at the water’s edge.
The road now turns north and passes various coastal quirks such as the Horse of Burravoe, which is a natural stone arch, the White Wife, which is the figurehead of a sunken German training ship wrecked in 1924, now looking out to sea on a remote cliff top, and the peninsula of Vatster with its narrow land-bridge between the loch and the sea.
All of this is incredibly beautiful as well as being very interesting, and this is compounded by the views out to Fetlar and Unst, Whalsay and the Skerries beyond. In what seems like too short a time, I have come full circle to Mid Yell and the junction with the main road, overlooked by the haunted Windhouse.
Beating a hasty retreat from all the ghosts and bogles, I continue north and soon I find myself at the top of the hill looking down towards Gutcher, the ferry terminal to Unst and Fetlar, and a ferry is coming in.
But I haven’t finished with Yell quite yet, so I skip this one and take the road west which is signposted for Cullivoe. In a few miles I come across the very pretty harbour of Cullivoe with its lovely views across the Bluemull Sound to Unst.
AT the end of this road is the deeply penetrating Gloup Voe, which looks like a dagger cutting into the steep hills. This was a deep-sea fishing base in the 19th century when the fishermen would take off in their small open sixareens – rowed by six men, or blown by the wind if they used the flimsy sail.
The boats would go miles and miles off shore to the deep-sea fishing and they battled huge swells and suffered many storms in the meantime.
One of the most devastating storms hit these fishermen on July 21, 1881, and 58 poor souls perished, leaving wives and families destitute. The statue of a woman gazing out to sea holding a baby is a moving memorial to these dead and I spend a moment on quite a calm day trying to imagine the scene. It certainly is a lonely and haunting vista, even on a good day.
Back I go to the ferry terminal and have time for a visit to the fab Wild Dog Café, leaving Terry in the queue. There are different queues for booked and unbooked vehicles at each ferry terminal on Shetland and, of course, the booked cars go on first, but I was never left behind on the regular ferry crossings, although there would only be half an hour or so till the next one anyway.
I feel like interviewing all the people in the queue for Fetlar and Unst to check if they have properly explored this island before dashing off to the next. I have explored Yell, I want to tell them, and it’s wonderful – in fact, I want to shout it from the rooftops!
A poignant memorial to the men lost at sea in the great storm of 1881.
Cullivoe’s pretty little harbour offers shelter from the stormy North Atlantic.
Best avoided at night – Windhouse is said to be haunted.
Islands linked by a thread of land called a tombola.
The calming view from Burravoe.
Bring a picnic for the fine beaches.
It’s amazing what can grow on these wild islands!