24 November 2020
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.
By Peter Exley for ACE Cultural Tours
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 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.
Muckle Flugga © Peter Exley
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.
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.
Bonxie © Peter Exley
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.
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.
Gannets © Peter Exley
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.
ACE’s tour to the Shetland Islands in June 2021, led by Peter Exley, will include a visit to Hermaness, where we will walk up to see the gannetry and bonxie colonies.