Despite being in the Shetland Isles, Noss is one of the more accessible seabird colonies in the British Isles, at least for humans. There is a small roll-on roll-off car ferry from the centre of Lerwick to Bressay, from where a road leads directly to the Noss ferry. It is quite a stiff 3.5 mile walk across Bressay taking an hour and a half. When combined with the 6 miles circuit of Noss it makes an overall walk of 13 miles. A long day is required if you want to stop at regular intervals to take photographs and admire the scenery and wildlife, which you will.
Other options include hiring bicycles in Lerwick, or taking a car to the Noss ferry. Neither are ideal as bicycles have to be left unsecured on Bressay and parking is very limited. The Noss ferry is a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) so space is restricted. Dogs are not really permitted as it is a nature reserve with a lot of ground nesting birds, as well as a sheep farm surrounded by high cliffs. The sea crossings are very short, in the case of Bressay to Noss just a couple of hundred yards at high tide. If you are very lucky you might just be able to takes bicycles and dogs onto the island and leave them at the small visitor centre, but don’t count on it.
The island slopes up from sea level in the west to the Noup of Noss in the east at around 595 feet. The Noup is very exposed and nearly always windy. This far north you are on the same latitude as Greenland and even in Midsummer feels like it. The Noup is the big sheer cliff that is a very prominent landmark off the starboard bow when approaching Lerwick by ferry from Aberdeen. It is also the location of the main seabird colony which is like something out of a science fiction film. You start to realise how fragile and transient the grasp of humanity is on the Earth when confronted by so many birds in one place. If these are the descendants of Dinosaurs, then Dinosaurs still rule the World.
Noss is one of the oldest Nature Reserves in the British Isles with origins in the 19th century under the auspices of the RSPB. This partly came about because it was also used by Lord Londonderry for breeding pit ponies, used in the mines of County Durham. The Nature Reserve is now operated by Scottish Natural Heritage and corresponds with two environmental protection areas. The Noss Special Protection Area includes the Island and surrounding waters and is part of the Natura network of sites designated under the EU Birds Directive, while the Noss Site of Special Scientific Interest applies only to the Island excluding even the coastal skerries. Bird species listed for protection include the Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Guillemot, Gannet & Kittiwake. Great Skua are quite prepared to attack people as well as Puffins so a walking pole or golf umbrella is strongly recommended for self-protection. There are seals and sea otters around the island that are both curious and camera shy. When I was there they were on the North shore around Papil Geo.
The Reserve History including a map can be found at The Story of Noss National Nature Reserve.
The island has an area of about one and a third square miles and is made entirely out of sandstone. It has been settled by people for at least 4,000 years although until around 500 years ago was simply a promontory attached to Bressay. (I am not sure if I believe this as the position of the Broch suggests a much earlier date for separation of the islands). A Celtic Christian community was established here in the 6th or 7th century and survived into Viking times. The 19th century farm steading is now only occupied during the summer months by reserve wardens.
This is the bottom of the Noup in the preceding photo with a fishing boat for scale.
While the weather may not look brilliant, it was relatively good for the time and place. Friends who visited a few days before were faced with driving rain and visibility below 50 yards and saw almost nothing. They suggested it was not worth the effort. The highlight of the trip was watching a sea otter diving in and out of the surf around a rocky reef, unfortunately almost impossible to capture on camera.
© text and images Bebi Seasick 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file