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Shetland: The birds

The collective noun for a group of gannets is a ‘company’. However, when the Shetland breeze is up and you’re faced with the sight of several thousand of these busy, beaky white birds covering a 500ft-high sea cliff — guano and all — it’s a word that seems far too mundane. The spectacle — not to mention the unlovely smell — is a genuinely dumbfounding one.

Shetland: The birds
Hermaness Puffin

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Gannets are flipping through the air in their dozens, buffeted by North Atlantic winds. Gannets are plunging torpedo-like into the sea to catch fish. Gannets are soaring past you at clifftop height and gannets are whistling far below you past wave-bashed rock stacks. All this is being played out against a backdrop of frankly ludicrous numbers of gannets. A ‘domination’ might be more apt.

I’ve come to the Hermaness National Nature Reserve, where the seabird breeding season is well underway. It’s heavenly walking territory, with raw green hills, swollen ocean headlands and barely another soul around. I’ve travelled a long way to be here — the reserve sits at the extreme tip of the Shetland island of Unst, the UK’s most northerly inhabited landmass, on the same latitude as southern Greenland — although it’s as nothing compared with how far the birds have come.

In addition to the gannets, you see, Unst welcomes annually around 25,000 pairs of puffins (tiny, clownish and really rather wonderful) and 800 pairs of great skuas (solid, aloof and fond of dive-bombing travel writers). The bulk of these birds return to the same spots each year from distant parts of the world when the summer breeding period kicks in. Adding to the ornithological orgy are fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills. When you factor in the gust-blown beauty of the cliffs themselves, it’s some place to visit.

The northerly location means that in summer the sun barely sets. So you can find a tuft of clifftop grass to sit on and look out at the birds for as long as you might care to, safe in the knowledge that you won’t suddenly find yourself curtained in by the dusk. It’s wildlife-viewing with no time limit, no fences and no crowds. Beyond the avian activity, Muckle Flugga and Out Stack, the excellently named rocky outcrops that officially mark the most northerly crags of land in the British Isles, can be seen just offshore.

I’m getting a real kick out of the puffins. When they catch a tailwind they travel at immense speed, swooping bullet-fast arcs through the sky before applying webbed orange feet as ungainly air brakes and plopping back onto land. I watch one particular bird for several minutes as it scythes across the towering cliff-face and doubles back on itself, then repeats the move again, then again. It seems to be flying for the sheer, puffin-paced joy of being alive. And why not?

For centuries, the Shetland archipelago belonged to Norway, before passing to Scotland in the 1400s (as part of a royal dowry, no less). But it’s nice to imagine that even back then, in the days when Norse longboats would have sailed under these same cliffs, those who really had ownership of the summer slopes also had wings.