Ghosts and Giants on Hermaness

by | 13 Aug, 2023 | Landscape, Nature, Travel, Weather, Wildlife | 0 comments

As soon as we knew that our trip to Shetland was definitely happening, the first place Simon and I honed in on, independently, was the island of Unst. Unst is Shetland’s most northerly inhabited island. If you were to get in a boat and head directly north from its upper end, between the rocky outcrops of Muckle Flugga and Out Stack, you’d eventually reach the North Pole. Legend has it that the outcrops and skerries around Unst’s northerly point are the result of two warring giants, Herman and Saxa, who hurled rocks at each other. Both giants were in love with a mermaid who coaxed them towards the sea. Her destination was the North Pole, and she promised that upon arrival, her heart would go to the giant who had swum after her. Neither Herman or Saxa could swim, but so ferocious was their love for the mermaid that they threw themselves into the dark waves and drowned. 

The northern peninsula of Unst is now home to Hermaness Nature Reserve, 965 hectares of moorland and cliff which juts into the sea to the north-west of Burrafirth Beach. Now managed by NatureScot, it officially became a nature reserve in the 1950s, but conservation work started here over 100 years earlier, when landowner Laurence Edmondston began to protect Great Skua nests from egg collectors.

Great Skuas, known by many as Bonxies, are powerful birds. Roughly the size and shape of a Herring Gull but mottled brown in colour, they are renowned for stealing other bird’s food. They harass small and large birds with equal vigour (even larger Gannets aren’t immune from their assaults) panicking the pursued bird until it disgorges its catch. They also take other bird’s eggs and chicks, drown adult birds and pluck small birds like Puffins from clifftops for an easy meal. Furthermore, if they think their own chicks are in danger, they readily attack predators, including humans, repeatedly dive bombing until the unfortunate creature retreats. As such, they have a notorious reputation. Even I, who had never been in close proximity to Great Skuas until I visited Shetland, knew about this behaviour.

By 1906, protection of the Great Skuas passed to the RSPB, who built a Watcher’s hut on Hermaness Hill to accommodate their staff. The original hut burnt down, but was replaced by another, constructed of corrugated iron on a wooden frame with windows facing south. RSPB Watcher’s would use the hut in the summer while monitoring the Great Skuas, and in the winter it was used as a refuge for visitors during stormy weather. On New Years Eve, 1991, an Englishman and his Canadian partner hiked to the hut, intending to stay the night, but they were caught in a severe storm. Hurricane force winds battered Hermaness, with gusts reaching 200 mph. The hut was destroyed and sadly the couple lost their lives. The man’s body was found on the 5th January, close to the site of the hut. The woman’s body was discovered half a mile away, below a 90m cliff. Nobody knows if they stayed in the hut as intended or were on their way when the storm hit, but I get chill sense of terror when I think about that night – the cold and the dark, and that relentless wind. I had no idea about their story until Simon and I reached the site of the old Watcher’s hut and read the information board. We stood in silence, our thoughts haunted by ghosts and giants.


I wish I had taken more photographs of our walk across Hermaness because I don’t think I’ll ever have another walk like it. The weather was dreich. Low cloud smothered the landscape, and the wind, unfettered by trees or buildings, buffeted us so that words flew from our lips and were lost on the moor. In a blur of eight hours, we had boarded an overnight ferry from Orkney, docked in Lerwick and immediately headed north in Simon’s truck. The landscape slipped by through rain-streaked windows. Empty roads, moorland, Sullom Voe Oil Terminal; across the water to Yell, another ferry to Unst and then we walked, over burn and peat, through the belly of a cloud across the wide, wet moor. And it is a vast moor – a blanket bog toned umber and green, flecked with the white, fluffy seed heads of Cottongrass; bright accents in the mist. Every gust of wind sent them reeling, rippling and writhing in the gloom. Occasional dark pools punctured the peat, surrounded by mosses and other plants I didn’t know. Cloud wicked light like wind wicked words. Prompted, perhaps, by the uncanny landscape, the words that remained close circled for a time around the subject of death – something I am grateful to be able to speak freely about with Simon. Some people shy away from the subject, but not him.

Hermaness Boardwalk

To keep visiting feet off sensitive plants and away from nesting birds, a boardwalk lead us through the moor. On a wind-whipped, wet day, it’s difficult to believe that anything could nest in such an exposed landscape. Yet they do. Alongside the Great Skuas, which often circled over our heads, Red-throated Divers, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Snipe, Curlew, Twite and Skylark all raise families here. Aside from the wind, it was the Skylarks I heard most keenly as we walked, rising up from heather and grass. They sing as they ascend to proclaim their territory, but their song; a tumble of trills, whistles and chirps which is unquestionably cheerful, is so doggedly persistent that they conjure acres of respect from me. Uninhibited by the weather, they lifted into the wind and murk, pouring song into the sky. When pursued by an aerial predator, a healthy Skylark keeps singing. I have even heard them singing in the dark. They don’t know they’re on the Red List, and it’s a tragedy that we’ve allowed a bird with such an iconic voice to dwindle so, but even from this precarious position, they keep singing. 

Although I have been known to research places thoroughly before visiting, I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew almost nothing about Hermaness. Consequently, I can honestly say I had no idea what to expect once we reached the edge of the land. Like Simon, all I knew was that I wanted to get to the furthest point, to be as far north as I could possibly be. I wasn’t paying attention to the time, but I’d guess it took an hour, or maybe two, for us to reach the point where the moorland gave way to sheep-cropped grass above the cliffs. Field mushrooms bloomed in clusters of four or five. I found the smashed remains of a Guillimot’s egg, turquoise with chocolate brown splotches. Then, for a few minutes, the cloud drew itself up and exposed the vista to the north. Above the slate blue sea, we saw dark, jagged cliffs circled by numerous birds. Closest to us were the sea stacks of Clingra, Humla and The Greing, stained white with guano and Gannets. In the distance, over the rise of Toolie, we could just see the tip of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse. 

We headed west, up towards an area called the Neap. The cloud descended, wrapping us in greyscale again. Seabird’s voices rushed up to us in gasps of wind, flung from the sea to the cliffs to our ears. Rain rushed in, but we kept going, lost in the cloud and the adventure of it all. We had made it. For this moment in time, it felt like we were at the edge of the world. 


It seems obvious to me now, but before I visited Orkney and Shetland, I had never considered the smell of seabirds. But of course, if you mix together thousands of fish-eating birds on a rocky cliff, where they will stay for most of the summer to raise their chicks, they will create a smell. And what a smell. It is a mixture of ammonia, fish and death. No amount of wind seems to dislodge it. It rises off seabird-smothered cliffs in a steadfast plume, permeating every breath.

Following their voices, and odour, we peeked over the edge of the cliffs near the Neap. Below, through wafts of cloud, were thousand of Gannets. Some swirled like snow in a zephyr. Others perched in orderly rows across the cliffs, each bird just out of reach of neighbouring beaks. Seeing them from above like this, through fast moving cloud, gave the impression that we were flying. I stared downwards in disbelief. It was a magnificent sight. There are around 30,000 Gannets nesting along the cliffs at Hermaness, sharing the area with Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar, Shag and Puffins (Tammie Norries, as they’re known in Shetland). 

Hermaness Gannetry, Unst, Shetland. Photography by Kerrie Ann Gardner

But all is not well. Overfishing of Sandeels, a small, bottom dwelling fish, has had a worrying effect on seabird numbers. Populations of Kittiwake, Fulmar and Guillemot are all declining because there are no longer enough Sandeels to support them. Unfortunately, this in turn has caused Great Skuas to predate more eggs and chicks, because there is little point in them wasting time and energy pursuing birds if those birds have no food to disgorge. In an attempt to bolster seabird colonies, Sandeel fishing has been banned by the UK government for a few years now. But I do wonder how well this policy is policed. Who monitors the fishermen? And how many Sandeels are caught as bycatch? And then there is Avian Influenza, a devastating disease which has decimated seabird colonies in the UK and around the world. (It’s estimated that 90% of Hermaness’ Great Skua population has fallen victim to the virus.) In every sense, seabirds are on the edge. But standing above the Hermaness gannetry, it was easy to forget this. There were so many Gannets, brightening the cliffs like Cottongrass on the moor, their raucous voices seething skywards in a spectacular cacophony.

Heading northwards past Puffin-lined clifftops which fell in and out of view, we found ourselves on Hermness Hill. There were Dunlin there, resplendent in their breeding plumage – black tummies with golden backs – a world away from the ‘dunn’ winter colouring which gave them there name. They flitted ahead of us through grass and moss, as the Skylarks continued to sing, and the wind ushered us southwards. And we went, back out across that open moor, the wind still snatching our voices, through the belly of a cloud which swallowed us whole. Back southwards towards Lerwick, and the familiar, where grey houses nestled by the sea, and Hermaness seemed like another world. 


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