In a land of skuas and gannets

The sunniest day on our honeymoon was when we went furthest north. Hermaness is a stunningly wild and beautiful nature reserve – and because of the weather and the wildlife we saw it at its best.

The Hermaness coast - absolutely magnificent.

The Hermaness coast – absolutely magnificent. In real life it’s even better.

Bonxies - or great skuas... piratical birds that live by nicking the food off other birds, and dive-bomb any humans who dare to venture anywhere close to their nests. They certainly add to the air of wildness at Hermaness!

Bonxies – or great skuas… piratical birds that live by nicking the food off other birds, and dive-bomb any humans who dare to venture anywhere close to their nests. They certainly add to the air of wildness at Hermaness!

Puffins at Hermaness - as cute here as anywhere else!

Puffins at Hermaness – as cute here as anywhere else!

Hermaness coast, looking north. The rocks are white because they are covered in gannets...

Hermaness coast, looking north. The colour of the white rocks is because they are covered in gannets…

A small part of one of the gannet colonies on the Hermaness coast.

A small part of one of the gannet colonies on the Hermaness coast.

These stacks are the most northerly parts of the British Isles - and Out Stack (to the right) is the last solid surface before the Arctic ice cap. The rocks on the left are white because they are covered by a large gannet colony.

These stacks are the most northerly parts of the British Isles – and due north of Out Stack (to the right), the next solid surface is the Arctic ice cap. The lighthouse on Muckle Flugga used to be the most northerly habitation in Britain until it was automated in 1995. The rocks on the left are covered in gannets.

Norwick Beach

Norwick beach - you might think this is a photo of a normal sandy beach, but actually it's a photo of a rather unusual geological boundary.

Norwick beach – you might think this is a photo of a normal sandy beach, but actually it’s a photo of a rather unusual geological boundary.

Just over 400 million years ago, an ancient ocean was being squeezed out of existence by the collision of two large landmasses (which in later ages, and after more geological dramas, would become Europe and North America). One of the results of this collision was unusual: a section of oceanic crust was thrust above the continental crust. Remnants of this form about a third of the Shetland islands of Unst and Fetlar. The boundary between the two bands of ancient crust can be found at Norwick Beach: in the photo, the continental crust is the dark rock to the left, the oceanic crust is the light rock to the right.

Jen was keen to swim at Norwick Beach - but not for long!

Jen was keen to swim at Norwick Beach – but not for long!

Lerwick Baptist Church

Both Jen and I were keen to find a good church on the Shetlands, so we decided to go to the Lerwick Baptist Church. This required a three hour trek from Norwick Beach, including a couple of ferry crossings but we were well rewarded by a lively and welcoming congregation and excellent preaching. They have a recently-built church and have about 150 in the mornings (there were about 50 that evening).

We then spent a night at Shalders guest house, which was a uniquely delightful place to stay. We were a bit puzzled by the St George’s flag that was flying outside, but all became clear when Jen asked Ann, the proprietor, the following morning: she has 23 flags in her cupboard, and flies the one appropriate for the home country of her guests.

The end of Britain

This is it: thus far and no further.

Muckle Flugga lighthouse: the rock to the right, Out Stack, is the northern limit of Great Britain.

Muckle Flugga lighthouse: the rock to the right, Out Stack, is the northern limit of Great Britain.

Out Stack, to the right of Muckle Flugga lighthouse, is the northern limit of Great Britain. The next solid surface north of here is the Arctic ice cap. This is a wonderfully wild and rugged area which seems to vividly portray the battle against wind and sea.

When the first lighthouse was built in 1854, it was designed to withstand only the wind and the rain: but the force of the stormy seas during gales soon became apparent, and the sodden light-house keepers were soon requesting a stronger and higher structure. [ref]

Then there are the bonxies (or great skuas): large, brown, gull-like birds which are notorious for bullying other birds into giving up their food. Over half of their global population is in the Shetlands. I’d only ever seen one from a distance before, but as I walked  across Hermaness Nature Reserve to get to the Muckle Flugga view, I found myself being watched by one after another. I knew that I was in their world. At one point there were more than 15 overhead. I might take a few herrings next time to see what happens.

Bonxies (great skuas): two of the many around Hermaness.

Bonxies (great skuas): two of the many around Hermaness.

View from Hermaness

View from Hermaness