Shetland – Episode 5 : North Mavine

Jimmy Perez visits Mavis Grind to ask if she knows the whereabouts of ‘Otter’ Macbeth

North Mavine begins just beyond the small settlement of Brae – which sadly doesn’t have an inn called the Prancing Pony but does have a health centre and a Co-op which makes it a pretty big place in these parts.

At Mavis Grind you can park your car and make what is said to be the shortest coast to coast trek in the UK, and quite possibly the world. On the east is the North Sea, on the west lies the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. The distance between them is 80 metres so we make the long and arduous journey of several seconds, able to at last say that we have completed a coast to coast walk.

The odd name of this feature is accounted for by the fact that it comes from Old Norse, like many of the place names in Shetland, and in this case means ‘gate of the narrow isthmus’. And the grind has long be used as a boat ‘drae’ or haul. Mariners could avoid the long and potentially dangerous sail aound the northern tip of Shetland by hauling their boats the short distance and it was used in this manner until the 1950s.

A sign today tells you that not only boats may be crossing but Otters as well so we took a waymarked path to the Atlantic side and along besides the voe, or inlet, looking for signs of Otter. It was a beautiful walk to an ancient chambered cairn and although we failed to find an otter this time we did see plenty of sea birds, including the Red-throated Diver, an iconic bird of loughs and sea inlets.

Mavis Grind, the Atlantic side

The ‘capital’, if you can call it that, of North Mavine is Hillswick. It must be the capital because it had a school, a well stocked shop, a hotel (which had wi-fi, yea!) and a public convenience. The hotel, like our chalet on Unst, was manufactured in Norway, flat packed, shipped over and re-erected about a hundred years ago.

Set in a wonderful, secure and calm bay, Hillswick offers shelter for a number of otters. The owner of the hotel told us that they are wonderful creatures and he wouldn’t be withour them but they do have a tendency to leave half eaten, rotting fish in his garage/shed by the sea. He also told us that the bay has visits from Shetland’s resident pod of Orca about 4 times a year, which must be just brilliant to witness.

Hillswick

We didn’t find any Otter in Hillswick but exploring further along the coast we dropped into Tangwick bay to have a scout around. On the shingle beach there were Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Plover and on the rocks in the water a group of Common Seal lounging about. And then Jane spotted a shape near the shoreline amongst the kelp and seaweed – an Otter. We were able to watch for at least 20 minutes as it swam amongst the kelp, coming up with what appeared to be crab and then climbing onto a rock to devour the meal. What a privilege.

Sea Otter

This part of the coastline in dotted with impressive geological features, including an island whose rocks appear from a certain angle to resemble a horse drinking water.

You can lead a horse to water

There are also red coloured cliffs and a walk on Hillswick Ness gave us great views of The Drongs which are said to resemble the sails of boats. Indeed, in the distant past these rocks have lured unsuspecting sailors to set course for them because they thought that other boats were sailing safely in the waters. Unfortunately, a number of ships were wrecked by this fatal mistake.

The Drongs from Hillswick Ness
Red Cliffs

North Mavine is fantastic walking country. The cliffs and beaches around Eshaness hold an obvious attraction but the very far north of Mainland Shetland offers what became probably our favourite walk. Travelling past Shetland’s highest mountain we passed into North Roe, keeping an eye out for Mountain Hare. At this time of the year they are brown coloured and blend in perfectly with the peaty landscape. But in winter they turn white to blend in with the snow, though that seems to fall less and less all over the British Isles.

We finally reached Isbister from where a circular walk of the Fethaland peninsula commences along the coastal hills by the side of Sullom Voe. The path weaved between cliff edge and moorland machair and several times we followed sheep tracks only to realise that we were heading in the wrong direction. We passed by an ancient monastic settlement at the Kame of Isbister which is inaccessible to ordinary folk like us but not to archaeologists as it featured in a TV programme called Extreme Archaeology last year.

Along the route we had good views of the island of Yell until we eventually approached a beautiful stony beach at Fethaland itself. The ruins of buildings around us attested to the fact that in times gone by this was the largest of Shetland’s fishing stations. It was operational from the 15th to the 20th centuries and at its height there were upwards of 60 fishing boats working out of this one small bay because it provided ready access to the fishing grounds of the North Sea, rowing out 50 miles to the continental shelf. The boats were sixereens, open sided, six oared boats built to a traditional Norse design. Those must have been tough men to live here and row all that way out.

Fethaland

We ate our sandwiches resting against one of the ruined lodges and looking at seals lounging about and at an Arctic Tern busy fishing and feeding its youngster further away. We also got talking to a girl from Hawaii who was travelling in Scotland. She told us that that the ruined buildings all around us would have been levelled, not to build new but because the owners would be scared of being sued by anyone injuring themselves on the loose rocks and uneven floors.

Common Seal
Arctic Tern fishing

Fully rested we walked further out to the final section of the headland which has a small lighthouse on it and some very steep cliffs. Walking back we followed the track up the Rigg of Breibister and along the Lower Loch of Setter. It was a wonderful day’s walk.

Our time at Eshaness Lighthouse was coming to an end. It had certainly been a novel experience – the cliffs late at night were wonderful provided you wrapped up in as much clothing as you could manage and the skies were amazing. North Mavine is a spectacular area of sea stacks, vertical cliffs, stunning bays, wild moors and exciting wildlife. But we had less than 2 full days left of our holiday and it was time to head down the far south of Shetland and make one final exploration.

Eshaness Lighthouse

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