If you have read my previous blogs, you will hopefully realise that we have some fantastic hill and coastal walking here in Shetland. On Sunday we did one of our Westside favourites and realised the last time we had been there was January, so it was a very different walk and experience. When we were there in winter, there was ice on the ground and passing sleety showers. I have included photographs from both walks, as I love the contrast.
The walk is at Burrastow near Walls, with fantastic coastal scenery in a very quiet area and apart from a small section of road to walk, you're almost guaranteed not to meet anyone. Burrastow is about 4 miles outside of Walls and the best place to park is next to an enclosure used for working with sheep (map reference 217482). Please ensure you park considerately to allow the local crofter access to the sheep pen and gates if needed.
To start the walk, go about 200m back up the road you came along, following the delightful narrow inlet of Lera Voe - a beautiful spot where there are usually a couple of small boats moored in the bay. Turn left up a rough track / driveway where a new house has been built on the hill to the left. Continue along the track uphill through a couple of gates and within half a mile you’re on the hills well above the few houses. Pass between the Lochs of Littlure and before long, if the visibility is good you start to get great views of Foula – Shetland’s remote western island out in the North Atlantic. Views of the South Mainland of Shetland also start to open up in the distance, with Fitful Head and its radar dome for the airport just visible on a clear day.
A track then leaves on the left, but continue right and on through a gate. From there you make your way down to the sea. Once at the coast you're on one of the core paths designated by the local council, so you will start to see the occasional waymarker post. The main walk I am describing goes left, but yesterday we took a detour at this point, turning right along the coast as far as The Hamar and the entrance to the Voe of Footabrough. As it was breezy, with the wind from the north-west, there was a reasonable swell with some good breakers to watch. The gannets were diving, fulmars were soaring and there was large group of shags on the rocks around Ellen Gray’s Bottom (yes - it’s marked on the map and in fact is the name used for the core path!) It’s a great exposed stretch of coastline to just stand, watch and feel nature. Lots of small rocks (up to about 150mm diameter) on the grass many metres from the sea show the power and why you shouldn’t stand there in a raging westerly gale! All around were the remnants of many wild flowers and it reminded me to make sure we return in June or July next year to see them in all their glory.
We then returned along the coast to the area around Barni Loch and continued south-east towards The Peak - a small rocky ‘island’ giving protection for a lovely sheltered bay with some small shingle beaches. At low tide is possible to scramble over rocks to access The Peak. There is an old croft house and buildings above the bay worth exploring. Both yesterday and in January, the bay was a playground for seals – several hauled up on the rocks and others frolicking in the water.
As you continue around the coast, there is a lovely glimpse of the mass of Foula through the gap between The Peak and the low cliff on the mainland. Just before a stile, a fence provides protection from the cliff edge. However, at one point, erosion means that the edge is exposed and the unwary may be caught out. Further round the bay after a Jacob’s ladder, there is a wonderful small camping hut which can be hired – contact details on the door. It is the most spectacular spot looking west to the Atlantic - a real get-away-from-it-all.
There are small climbs after Uskie Geo, past Rusna Stacks and round Outer Head, before dropping down to Quinni Geo – all the while circling the Loch of Quinnigeo. By now there are great views out across Wester Sound to the island of Vaila, with a tower obvious on the opposite coastline and the main house of Vaila Hall also coming into view. About 10 years ago, we had the chance to visit the island and saw how beautifully the owners had restored the tower and were managing the huge task of maintaining the amazing hall, whilst coping with the restrictions that owning a listed building can bring. After Quinni Geo the going is moderately difficult in places as you follow a contour across slopes, but all field boundaries that must be crossed have a stile or Jacob’s ladder with waymarker signs. After the final headland, there is a lovely surprise to find another camping hut – again available to hire – called the Dragon’s Hus.
Beyond that, Burrastow House comes into view - a fine, two storey "Haa" raised on a basement, built in 1759 for the Henry Family. The dictionary definition of a ‘haa’ is 'a lairds house' (or land-owners house). Burrastow is a typical haa – a tall, narrow, gabled building often with pronounced garrets - with associated outbuildings and grounds. It has been much altered, particularly internally at the end of the 19th century, and a new wing was added in 1995 (reference: haas.redhouss.co.uk/Haahouses/Haa introduction.htm). It has been run as a guest house since 1980 – now offering seasonal accommodation.
Approaching the house, you cross a stile then walk over rocks in front of a click mill ruin right on the edge of the sea, which used to be used by the community to grind grain. The rocks were slippery with and without ice! By the click mill is a small gate, on the reverse of which is a map of the route we had just walked and confirmation that it does indeed go to Ellen Gray’s Bottom! Crossing the lawn at Burrastow gives you a chance to look more closely at the House and its splendid views across to Vaila. From there the minor road takes you back to your car.
Including the detour up the coast to The Hamar, the total distance was about 6 miles. Missing out the detour would reduce it by just over a mile. It really is a great walk and not too challenging – most of it on track or on grassy surfaces good under foot. However like most Shetland hill-walking, it is very quiet and quite exposed for most of the route, so having appropriate gear and supplies for the conditions is recommended.