The island of Bressay (say Bress-uh) is in the Shetland Islands just east of Mainland, and is the most accessible island from Lerwick. It's a peaceful place of lochs and sea caves, arches and migrating birds - great for hikes, panoramas, historical sites, and wildlife. The island's name is probably Old Norse for "broad island", or it might refer to Brusi, an 11th century Earl of Orkney.
The population of Bressay was 368 in 2011. Its western side, visible from Lerwick, is pastoral with sheep-farming, with houses straggling along a narrow but well-tarmacked road. Another good road heads east over the hill into lonely moorland, Lerwick's industrial sprawl is hidden from sight, and suddenly it feels miles from anywhere. This road ends above a track down to the little boat to the island nature reserve of Noss.
The Shetland pony is a small sturdy beast, seldom much over a metre tall, with a thick coat and short legs. They probably crossed from Scandinavia during the last Ice Age and became genetically isolated, fending for themselves under harsh Darwinian weather. They're docile and nowadays often a pet animal, a child's first horse ride, but they've always been valued as working animals that could be left out on the scattald - the common grazing heath - then rounded up whenever there were loads to be hauled across rough island tracks. In small numbers they were exported to the British mainland and to Holland, but lowland agriculture and haulage needed larger horses such as the Clydesdale. By mid 19th century, there were about 10,000 Shetland ponies.
The Mines Act of 1842 made it illegal to employ women and children down coal mines. The mine owners were furious, with the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry turning an especially lurid shade of puce. Other sources of haulage were needed, preferably expendable, and Shetland ponies were already used down mines, but now demand for them soared in Britain and America. About 500 per year were then exported, taking the best, so the bloodstock was diminished. Numbers and quality dwindled. By the late 19th century modern breeding practice was established for several animals such as race horses, but for Shetland ponies this was haphazard until 1890. A stud book and systematic breeding were then established, notably by the 5th Marquis of Londonderry with farms on Bressay and Noss, to supply his coal mines in Durham. Along with other equine breeds collectively known as "pit ponies", they worked well into the 20th century, and it was mechanisation rather than anti-cruelty laws that brought about their retirement. Roads and haulage had also modernised so the Shetland pony became a leisure breed, further boosted by a premium stallion scheme from 1957. Today there are 100,000 worldwide, half of them in the Netherlands - Dutch fishermen had long bought them, but this reflects a post-war fashion. A thousand ponies live in the Shetland Islands: they're friendly and approachable and will appreciate you saying hello, but don't feed them.
Car ferries sail from Lerwick, leaving from the Albert Building (the big red corrugated metal building) in town centre. The ferry is a small ro-ro sailing daily, hourly from 07:00 to 23:00 (F Sa to 01:00), a ten minute journey. Until April 2024, the return fare is £2.80 per adult, child or conc £0.80, car £16.50, pay on board outbound. The landing in Bressay is at Maryfield next to the Heritage Centre; there are toilets here and on the ferry.
Leisure craft drawing max 1.5 m should use the marina half a mile further south, which is more sheltered and avoids obstructing the ferry pier. This was the traditional landing point until the pier at Maryfield was built in 1975 to accommodate ro-ros.
The few roads on Bressay are in good condition; other tracks are suitable for off-road bikes.
Public transport is very sparse. If you walk to Noss, it's four miles from the Maryfield ferry landing to the Noss boat on the other side, then a two-mile walk to reach the sea cliffs there. On M W F, a bus meets the arriving ferry at 09:00 and runs to the Noss landing, but you'll be walking back as it immediately returns to the west-side settlements and Maryfield. On Tu morning one bus starts from the island, crossing on the ferry and running to Lerwick health centre and Tesco - they know what the islanders need - and returns to Bressay early afternoon.
- 1 Bressay Heritage Centre (next to ferry landing from Lerwick), ☏ +44 1595 820700. May-Sep: Tu-Sa 10:00-16:00, Su 11:00-17:00. Exhibits and archived material on Bressay's history: until the 17th century it was a bigger herring-fishing port than Lerwick. With reconstructed Bronze Age Burnt Mound, which they rescued from being washed away by the sea. Adult £2.
- 2 Stane o' Cruester is a slender 3 m slab on the hillside in mid-island, with views all round. It's even visible from Lerwick.
- 3 Cullingsburgh. 24 hours. This abandoned village (pronounced "Culliesbruff") was inhabited for over 2000 years, and reached by sea by the voe or inlet into the little "Bay of Cuppa". It's best known for its Iron Age broch, but only an overgrown mound remains of this, as its stone was used to build the adjacent 12th century St Mary's Church, now itself a ruin. The Bressay Stone was found in the graveyard, an 8th / 9th century Pictish slab with Ogham inscriptions. The stone is now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, with a replica placed here. Other features are the ruins of the church manse, crofters' cottages and fishing huts. Free.
- 4 Wadbister is an abandoned crofting village; there's also a prehistoric souterrain. Grimsetter north bank of the nearby loch is a similar smaller settlement, and there's a ruined watermill on the stream flowing out east from the loch to tumble over the cliffs.
- 5 Bressay Lighthouse. "Building a lighthouse in Shetland is too dangerous and expensive, and any ship's captain who sails this route is mad" . . . fortunately the Stevenson brothers changed their mind, and they built this and three other lighthouses around Shetland in the 1850s. It's still active, though its foghorn has been replaced by a radar mast, and the light has been replaced by a modern gantry with a LED. The two light-keepers cottages here are available for let.
- Cliffs line the coast south of the lighthouse, with caverns, arches and swirling seabirds. But they're difficult to view by land: best take a boat tour from Lerwick.
Bird-watching is your main amusement here.
Ward Hill is the highest point at 226 m (741 ft), with the telecoms masts on top. The track up it is driveable but better to stroll.
Noss Nature ReserveEdit
The island seabird haven of Noss is a National Nature Reserve. There's a Visitor Centre with toilets at the ferry landing.
It's a two-mile hike along a grassy trail to the south tip, where the sea-cliffs come into view. Cradle Holm is a meadow atop a rock-stack swirling with sea-birds: the cradle was an ancient contraption, now dismantled, to carry islanders across to gather eggs, and terrified sheep for grazing. Carry on up to Charlie's Holm for an unforgettable view across the Wick to the great Noup of Noss, a guano Manhattan of birds nesting, cackling, and criss-crossing the air like a vast screensaver. You can hike onwards, and even circle the island, but consider the distance, the weather and the last boat back to Bressay.
No dogs allowed, wear stout boots and weather-proof clothing.
In 2022, the reserve was closed in July and August to reduce the spread of avian flu.
- 1 Noss Ferry (from east end of lane across Bressay, scramble down track to boat landing), toll-free: 0800 107 7818. May-Aug: F-Su & Tu W 10:00-17:00. In summer, weather permitting, a little Rigid Inflatable Boat sails on demand. Call the 0800 number to confirm that it is operating. Anyone with restricted mobility will do better to take a boat tour from Lerwick. Adult £5, youth 5-17 £3, under 5 free.
- The Mail Shop. The island post office. It has limited hours and is the only shop here, as islanders can easily reach Lerwick.
Speldiburn cafe is open in summer Tu W & F 11:00-15:00 & Sa 09:30-15:00. It's by the primary school, inland from main crossroads.
- The Crofthouse, Garths of Ham, Bressay ZE2 9ER (on main island road, 1 mile S of ferry landing), ☏ +44 1595 820332. A pleasant holiday house for 2, with a kitchen for self-catering. From £250 for a week.
- Maryfield House Hotel, Maryfield, Bressay ZE2 9EL (just inland from ferry landing), ☏ +44 1595 820203, email@example.com. 3-star hotel with 3 bedrooms en suite. Restaurant and bar open to non-residents. B&B double £130.
- Newhall, Newhall, Bressay ZE2 9ER. Renovated croft house with 3 bedrooms, sleeps 5, self-catering.
- Lighthouse Keepers' Cottages (at the end of South Road). Two self-catering cottages at the lighthouse. Each sleeps six, with two double bedrooms and one twin. Closed for renovations as of Sep 2022. No pets. The same company also lets the lighthouse cottages at Sumburgh (south tip of mainland Shetland) and Eshaness (north tip).
There's 4G coverage with all UK carriers throughout Bressay and Noss, as the mobile relay mast for Lerwick stands on Bressay. As of Nov 2021, 5G has not rolled out in the Shetlands.
Back to Lerwick it must be.