Three days at the South End - Shetland April/May 2016

When given a long Bank Holiday weekend back on Shetland it’s sort of inevitable (for me at least) that I would spend three days exploring three of southern-most headlands on the Shetland Mainland.  And when the three days include an awful lot of dry weather and bright sunshine there really isn’t any better place to be.

Spring on Shetland comes a little bit later than down south.  The Oxford daffodils passed long ago, but the Shetland ones are still in full flower, and while the southern lambing season started weeks ago, up here there are lots of little lambs still trying to figure out how their feet work.

Daffodils at Virkie
Lambing Time on Shetland
Let sleeping lambs lie

Scat Ness

I always list Scat Ness as the place I most miss when I’m not on Shetland.  This is the middle (of the three headlands) geographically speaking - with Quendale Bay on the west side and the West Voe of Sumburgh on the east side.  There is also a old block house out towards the end of the headland, the Ness of Burgi, which always makes me think about the people that live around this area almost 2000 years ago.  Life would undoubted have been hard for people living around here, but for me this is a place to go to simply be surrounded by the waves and the winds.

Ness of Burgi blockhouse
Quiet Day on Scat Ness

Sumburgh Head

This is the main tourist attraction at the South End of Shetland.  Until recently the main draw had been the RSPB reserve, and its incredibly accessible sea bird colonies, particularly of puffins, around the cliffs below the Stevenson-era lighthouse.  In the last couple of years some of the unused lighthouse buildings have been developed as a wonderful little visitor and interpretation centre, and this year a tea shop too.  

The displays around the visitor centre tell the story of life at the lighthouse from when it came into service in the 1820s through to the point in the 1990s when it became automated and no longer needed resident keepers.  These days Lerwick is 40 minutes drive away on a good road - in the 1820s there was no road at all, and the lighthouse supplies all arrived at Grutness by boat before being dragged up the track to the lighthouse buildings. 

The displays also tell the tale of Sumburgh Head’s role in the Second World War, when the newly built RADAR station helped prevent “Scotland’s Pearl Harbour”, when a massive air raid directed at Scapa Flow in Orkney was detected over the North Sea early enough to allow air defences to be put on alert.

Sumburgh Head lighthouse
Looking along West Voe from Sumburgh Head
Sumburgh Puffins

Garths Ness

Having contemplated history two thousand years ago on Scat Ness, and 200 years and 70 years ago at Sumburgh, the final stop on my historical tour of the South End brings us to events of the 1960s and 1990s.  

Garths Ness is the westerly of the three headlands I’ve been visiting this weekend, this is a low lying headland in the shadow of Siggar Ness and Fitful Head at the south west corner of Shetland.  On top of the headland is a little group of abandoned 1960s buildings - it took me ages to discover than that these were part of a network of LORAN stations.  LORAN was a navigation system developed after the Second World War to aid maritime navigation mainly in the North Atlantic, long before GPS became the navigation technology of choice.

The other reason that Garths Ness gets a mention in the history books is as the place where the oil tanker Braer ran aground in 1993.  For several weeks in the early months of 1993 this headland was the focus of a disaster, a media frenzy and a clean up operation.  Wandering around the headland today there isn't any sign of the wreck or of the thousands of tons of oil released as the tanker broke up.  The lack of long term damage was entirely down to good luck - the tanker was carrying very light oil (not typical North Sea oil) and the storm that drove the tanker onto the rocks carried on without letting up for several weeks preventing the oil from spreading too far and effectively breaking up the oil so that it could evaporate.  The older local farmers still talk about the fumes spreading across the fields across the south end of Shetland.

Garths Ness LORAN station
Looking across Garths Wick to Siggar Ness from Garths Ness