The walk from Vementry to Clousta, and then around the Ness (headland) of Clousta on the Westside of Shetland, follows a rough track for much of the way and explores the coastline of sheltered voes (inlets of the North Atlantic). It’s a great way to experience the wild landscape as well as offering the chance to encounter both marine and moorland flora and fauna. Walking from Vementry, the total distance is about 4.5 miles - map at the end of the blog. Alternatively, you can park in Clousta (HU308574) and just walk around the Ness, which is then about 3 miles. Last weekend we parked at Vementry (HU311595), where there is a small parking area large enough to take a handful of cars, next to a beautiful small freshwater loch - here swans sometimes nest on the small island in the loch, but I didn't see them last weekend.
Before walking to Clousta, it is worth exploring the small beach just north of this loch, accessed by a gate just over the cattle grid and a grassy track round to the small beach. On the approach to the beach you will pass the ruins of a watermill, once powered by the burn from the loch. There are hundreds of these small ruined mills around the islands – most communities had at least one for grinding their grain. From the small beach, you look out to the island and cliffs of Muckle Roe (big red island – because of its red granite) across a stretch of water known as Swarbacks Minn, which had a significant role in WWI. This was the only entrance to a series of sheltered voes which became the Naval base for the 10th Cruiser Squadron of armed liners and destroyers that patrolled the northern seas. With multiple defences across this stretch of water, the German u-boats could not get in to attack the Allied fleet. After exploring the beach and watermill, return to start the main walk following the track signposted to Clousta, next to where you parked.
The track was walked daily by children as recently as 100 years ago. Clousta school was one of the first to be built after the Education Act of 1872, which made elementary education compulsory for all children aged 5 to 13. Pupils from Vementry used this route to walk to school. It can be seen marked on the first edition Ordnance Survey map of 1882. The postman also used this route to carry out a non-motorised delivery until about the 1930s.
As you walk through the heather clad hills, the view is always changing. Look out for golden plover and there are hares around too - last weekend I almost trod on one hiding on the side of the track. After about a mile, the track descends to a beautiful spot called Da Brigs, where an old stone causeway crosses a tidal pond. A wooden gate takes the footpath through an old drystone wall. With the freshwater Loch of Clousta off to your left, and the saltwater of The Brigs running into the North Voe of Clousta on your right, this makes a great spot for a picnic. You return along the North Voe later in the walk, so head up the hill following the marker posts across rough grassland and soon the community of Clousta comes into view. On the small hill to the left are the Church and Old Manse, close to the site of a short-lived angler’s hotel, which was timber-constructed and built in 1895. The hotel burnt down in the early 1900s.
Through 2 gates and across the front of a house, the track turns down to the sea, where you turn right, around the outside of a fence to follow the north side of the Voe of Clousta. There is a sign here showing the circular route around Ness of Clousta that we are using. Keeping to the water’s edge, head west to Mid Head, using a gate and stiles. As you approach Mid Head, follow the marker posts slightly away from the sea, avoiding a steep section of rocky coastline, then drop down to the water again before Muckle Head – the most westerly point on this walk. From Muckle Head, look north-west to a headland known as Neeans Neap. The Neap cliffs are about 90m high and local folklore says a cave near the cliff top was the hide-out of 'Da Tief o da Neean' – a notorious sheep-thief who ended his days in a Scalloway prison cell. Looking south-west from the Head, you may be able to make out the mound of an old Iron Age site, across the voe at Noonsbrough on a small promontory. This is the ruin of a broch, a double-walled tower from which the settlement takes its name.
The geology of this area is interesting and the Ness of Clousta to The Brigs is designated as an SSSI – a Site of Special Scientific Interest - for this reason. This area exposes the middle Old Red Sandstone Clousta conglomerate and volcanic tuff rings formed in a similar time period about 390 million years ago. The outcrops indicate that the conglomerate was deposited by a braided stream - I feel a bit of explanation is required (taken from https://stage.geolsoc.org.uk/ and http://www.seddepseq.co.uk/DEPOSITIONAL_ENV/Fluvial/Braided/braided.htm):
1. Volcanic tuff is a type of igneous rock, formed from material ejected during an explosive volcanic eruption. In these eruptions, fragments of volcanic material are blasted from the volcano, propelled through the air and then deposited in the surrounding area where they become compacted and cemented into rock, which can be instant if the material is still hot. Tuffs consist primarily of volcanic ash, however they can contain lapilli (2-64mm volcanic fragments) and volcanic bombs (>64mm lumps of lava that cool into solid fragments before they reach the ground). Closer to the vent, a tuff is likely to contain larger blocks of material catapulted from the volcano in a matrix of ash. Further away from the vent, tuff deposits are more likely to be exclusively made from fine volcanic ash particles, carried by the wind.
2. Conglomerates are coarse grained sedimentary rocks that contain rounded pebbles or clasts. The gaps between these clasts are usually filled in with a mixture of sand, silt and clay, or with a mineral cement. Conglomerates are deposited in settings where the energy is high enough to move large clasts, for example on beaches exposed to wave action or during floods. During a flood, rivers have more energy so are able to transport large, heavy clasts. After the flood, the river no longer has this increased energy, and so the large rounded clasts, now too heavy to be transported, are quickly deposited.
3. Braided Rivers exhibit numerous channels that split off and rejoin each other to give a braided appearance. They typically carry fairly coarse-grained sediment down a fairly steep gradient. Consequently, braided rivers usually exist near mountainous regions, especially where water discharge tends to be highly variable. Deposits of Braided Rivers tend to be coarse-grained and contain abundant amalgamated channels.
Here at Ness of Clousta of particular interest is the presence of tuff rings intermingled with the conglomerates. The outcrops of Muckle Head and Muckle Billerin (the highest point on the headland) show the way the braided rivers were displaced by, and then slowly buried by the tuffs - a remarkable demonstration of sediment/volcanic relationships. If you want more information on the geology, this link will take you to an in-depth article.
Once you’ve got your head around the geology, time for more walking. After Muckle Head, there is a tiny island just off shore (usually accessible depending on the tide), near a small ruined wall – presumably used for some fishing related activity. Further on there are small green peaty islands in a tidal pool. When I posted a photo of them last week on Instagram, Janette Budge (a local knitwear designer and tutor - www.janettebudge.com) who grew up in Clousta, told me she used to imagine they were a map of foreign lands – great imagination and I agree they do.
Continue to follow the waymarked route along the coast, looking out for birds and flowers. Depending on the time of year, there will be lots to see (and hear). Last week’s flowers included lousewort, spring squill, thrift, dog violet, milkwort and the first few cotton grass of the summer. (See my blog on 'May flooers' for more information). Amongst the birds we saw were arctic terns, great skuas, arctic skuas, oystercatchers, golden plover, snipe, curlew, wheatear and skylark. I have more success photographing flowers - they stay put! Just before you reach Da Brigs causeway, there are a few old walls. I’m not sure what they were used for, but they look like sheep pens (cros) and punds (enclosures to hold animals) to me. If anyone has any more information about their use, I’d love to know. Depending on the route you are taking, now turn left to follow the track back to your car at Vementry, or turn right to Clousta and follow notes from earlier. If you are returning to Vementry, the views north to Muckle Roe and beyond are quite spectacular as you approach your car.