Visit Northmavine

Visit Northmavine

Northmavine (north maev-eid – north of the narrow isthmus) at 17 miles north to south and 11 miles east to west, is the largest parish in Shetland and the most northerly on the Shetland mainland.

It is almost an island – joined to the mainland by a 100 yard strip of land at Mavis Grind.

Mavis Grind (gate of the narrow isthmus) separates the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea and until the 1950s, fishermen carried their boats across as a short cut between fishing grounds. If you feel strong you can try to throw a stone from ocean to sea!

Northmavine – both wild and glorious – has some of the best scenery in Shetland, with many beautiful viewpoints accessible by car. It has a spectacular coastline with rugged sea stacks, cliffs, waterfalls, beautiful, deserted beaches and boasts Shetland’s highest hill, Ronas Hill. (1,486 feet, 450 metres).

Hillswick and Eshaness

Hillswick was traditionally the centre of Northmavine life, from the days of the Hanseatic traders and probably before.

It is still the Northmavine bus terminus, and has a community owned shop, a hotel, an art gallery, seal sanctuary and the Northmavine Health Centre. Along the road is the Hillswick Hall, scene of many concerts, games night and other events.

The historic St Magnus Bay Hotel provides tourist accommodation, bar facilities and a selection of local cuisine. self-catering accommodation is available at various places in the Hillswick area.

Hillswick remains a prime draw for tourists, and its seafront car park offers lovely views and all important public toilets. The wide sweep of stony beach was once used for drying cod and ling. There is ample space for parking motorhomes overnight, and the nearby Hillswick Ness and West Ayre offer some of the most spectacular walking in Shetland.

Nearby is Eshaness, a wide headland with probably the best seascapes in the entire Shetland archipelago. The cliff walks from the lighthouse are legendary, and there are stunning geological formations to see, such as the Holes o’ Scraada, and the Grind o’ da Navir, Shetland’s own Giant’s Causeway.

The Eshaness community centre is a particularly welcoming local hall, with many events organised throughout the year.

Tangwick Haa is Northmavine’s own museum, and is a fascinating way of journeying into the area’s past.

Tangwick Haa

Tangwick Haa is Northmavine’s own museum, and is a fascinating way of journeying into the area’s past.

Nearby is a modern café and caravan site offering teas, coffee, meals, snacks and alcoholic refreshments. Musical evenings are also a feature of the café. Mountain bike enthusiasts will find many enticing tracks nearby.

On the shores of Ronas Voe, Shetland’s longest sea-loch or fjord, lies the scattered township of Heylor, with its extraordinary views of the deserted northern shore of Ronas Voe, and Ronas Hill, Shetland’s highest point. The

fine sand of The Blade, the beach at Heylor, is a popular spot for children to play and for adults to dig, in season, for spoots (razor clams) but the shingle shore to the north west of the ruined pier is, in summer, a nesting site for arctic terns or tirricks, and must be avoided. The birds will attack if you do walk there while they are nesting, and you may crush their eggs or kill their chicks.

Often ignored is the hilly expanse of moorland bordered by Heylor, Hillswick and Eshaness. This is a shame, as it harbours abandoned crofts, secret lochs, ancient burial sites, fantastic walking routes and much more. It is an easy, but rarely undertaken climb to the summit of the White Grunnafirth (a trig point and unexcavated tomb) from where virtually the whole of Northmavine is spread before you, assuming the day is fairly clear.

At the moment, Hillswick and Northmavine’s biggest industry is probably agriculture. Tourism, however, must be number two. One such site of interest for visitors is the memorial known as the Hollanders Grave, on the road between Heylor and Ollaberry. A short walk up the hill brings you to the site where the bodies of Dutch sailors, the crew of a privateer sunk by the Royal Navy, are buried. Anyone thinking of moving to the area should be aware that while housing is, by mainland standards, cheap, it is becoming more expensive by the year and properties rarely come on the market, either for purchase or long term rental. Education is, in common with the rest of Shetland, superb and the school at Urafirth is not only very modern, but houses the free nursery for the whole of Northmavine.


Ollaberry mostly lies around the shore of Yell Sound, looking out to sea. Historically it must just have been a couple of very small hamlets, defined by the names Lower Ollaberry and Upper Ollaberry. The upper was a few crofts on the edge of what used to be scattald, leading to other long abandoned crofts like Norwick and Corrabreck. These were cleared in the 19th century.

Lower Ollaberry, where all the Ollaberry business was once executed – with a shop, post office, a pier, a haa hoose, a transport business, and further back, weaving, a slaughterhouse, and most likely some fish drying – is above the old pier. The post office is now within the current Ollaberry shop alongside a busy garage two miles up the road.

The rest of Ollaberry proper is up the hill and, at right angles, up the valley. Up the hill there are long established crofts, and out over it as well, until the Ollaberry loop road rejoins itself on the way north. Up the valley, and opposite the fine community hall, is a strip of crofts which came to pass around the mid 19th century; witness the names you find there. Delhi, Lucknow, Perth, Cawnpore – all of which names would have come into common parlance around the time of the Indian mutiny, in the late 1850s (Mutiny for the British, the first great act of national rebellion, were you on the other side).

All this is interspersed by fine new houses, evidence of recent prosperity, from fish and oil. We also pass a thriving primary school, which likewise attests to the successful and youthful nature of the Ollaberry community.

These valley settlements connect more ancient Ollaberry with the historic hamlet of Heogland, a small group of houses opposite the shop – a very ancient settlement indeed. Accounts connect it with Viking times.

The shop itself is a successful and very friendly community co-operative, a matter of some pride to the residents of Ollaberry, most of whom invested in setting it up when a private shop closed and no replacement seemed to be on the horizon. It is on an industrial estate established by Shetland Islands Council, and nearby is the garage, where all manner of motor and machinery work gets done.

Beyond that, we get out of Ollaberry proper, but continue with the Ollaberry postal district. Forking left instead of going to the shop, we find ourselves heading for other crofting townships, Gluss, Bardister, and Nisetter. Gluss, was always very agricultural, and has the finest and longest riggs (fields) in the district.

From the same starting point, opposite the shop, but just carrying on to Eelawater, and then turning right, after couple of miles, we look down on the crofts of Voe and Swinister, (Sweyn’s Setter) nestling by the head of Ronas Voe, and right under Ronas Hill, the highest hill in the islands.

Carry on north, and you pass more crofts, Oxensetter (Yokn’s Setter), Barnafield, and Collafirth. The setters, by the way, would have been Viking farms, and so we can get an idea of the age of settlement there, too.

Further still, and look out to your left, and you will see a small road winding up a steep hill. This is the road up Collafirth hill, created by the Ministry of Defence, which spent 20 or 30 years up there watching out for the Russians. On a clear day, a drive up there can be rewarded by magnificent views, and the best stepping off point for a walk to the top of Ronas hill, the very top of Shetland, all through the scattald held by the crofters of Collafirth and Ollaberry.

The postal district ends at Roer Burn, where the road turns sharply around Roers Brig. There we find a splendid pier built in the 1980s by Shetland Islands Council. And north of that, North Roe and Lochend!

North Roe

Let’s take a circular tour, starting from the North East tip. There’s Fedeland, full of stories of the days of the haaf fishing and in the banks a great rockface of soapstone where people carved their names over generations. Come Southwards and speculate about the ancient buildings out on the Kame of Isbister.

At the back of the hill at Burravoe deep clefts related to the Great Glen Fault allow flowers to bloom safe from grazing. Come by Oot Toon and down among the rock pools and the sea anemones. At the North Haa, try the steps in front of the former North Roe shop building down to the sea, a curiosity from bygone days. Walk past the war memorial on your way South, noting how many lives were lost in both World Wars from such a small place. Past the modern pier, there was once an old fishing station and beyond the ayre, there’s the Vadil which was such a safe place to play with toy boats.

Over the burn-mouth below the Ness of Houlland we gathered shell sand for the hens. Down the coast from there, you come to Brei Geo where we collected the rare grottie buckie shells. Leaving the East coast now, head West to explore the rocky hills of the Beorgs where trows and giants used to live (and may still thrive unseen). The lochs between there and the waterfalls at the West Banks are full of trout and the heather ripe with berries to purple the mouth of any bairn. Uyea fascinated me as a bairn, but I especially liked the “Stone Age Factory” as we called it, where ancient axes were manufactured. Then it’s round the hilly coast to Roermill where the sea monster Shoopiltie tormented the folk and from Turvy Hill step down to Sandvoe, a place to gather razor shells when the tide’s out.


Sullom is the first area in Northmavine to be reached after crossing the boundary from Delting. The postal district of Sullom begins just north of the isthmus at Mavis Grind, where the North Sea almost meets the Atlantic Ocean, and continues north to include all areas as far as Olnesfirth, almost at the top of the Clave at Urafirth.

Examples of Neolithic houses at Mavis Grind and Mangaster show that man has made the Sullom area his home for over four thousand years. Sullom is also home to a wide range of birdlife, taking advantage of the plantation of trees set by Peter o’ Clothister in the early 50s. In more recent years the Shetland Amenity Trust have added ‘wings’ to each side of the plantation.

The 1950s were an industrious time for Sullom. As the Sullom folk were planting the ground, the Canadians were extracting from it. 1954 saw the opening of the Sullom Mine by a Canadian company to extract magnetite (iron oxide) ore from a seam found at Clothister Hill 20 years previously. The operation used the ore to clean coal and lasted until 1957. Today the magnetite mine is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Rusty red water in some of the drains and ditches give a constant reminder of the iron content of Clothister Hill.

Thawing of the glacier after the last Ice Age has left many lochs in the area that have become an ideal nesting ground for a variety of birds. The red throated diver (Shetland name – raingoose), swan and grey heron (Shetland name – hegri) to name but a few, can be seen in several of the lochs in and around Sullom. On a boannie night da greater spotted fisherman can also be seen trying to catch the elusive troot! – Lunnister, Mangaster and Hamar are amongst popular areas for loch fishing.

Wild, unspoilt scenery is plentiful in the area. Coastal walks at Mavis Grind and Nibon guarantee stunning land and seascapes and prove popular with folk ‘oot for a Sunday run’. Sullom Voe is listed as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for the rich faunal community, including horse mussels and sea cucumbers, inhabiting the large shallow inlets and bays.

Decades before oil tankers entered Sullom Voe, the waters were ploughed by ‘flying boats’ such as Catalinas and Sunderlands using the voe as an aquatic airstrip during the World War II. Sullom saw the landing of the first bomb dropped in WWII, luckily the only casualty was a solitary rabbit. This event was said to have inspired the well-known Noel Gay song, ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’.

The popularisation of the car, and the increase of folk’s ability to travel, has meant the demise of the school, shop and post office in Sullom. Although these services have been a loss, community spirit continues to thrive. The community hall plays host to various local events during the year.

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