Shetland’s South Mainland is a long, thin finger of land, just three or four miles wide, but 25 miles long, ending in the cliffs of Sumburgh Head (262ft), which rises sharply out of the land only to drop vertically into the sea. The road up to Sumburgh lighthouse is the perfect site for watching nesting kittiwakes, fulmars, shags, razorbills, guillemots, gannets and puffins. South Mainland also harbours some of Shetland’s most impressive archeological treasures – in particular, Jarlshof and Mousa Broch.
Jarlshof is the largest and most impressive of Shetland’s archeological sites. Only half of the original broch survives, and its courtyard is now an Iron Age aisled roundhouse, with stone piers. It’s difficult to distinguish the original broch from the later Pictish wheelhouses that now surround it, but it’s great fun to explore, as you’re free to roam around the cells, checking out the in-built stone shelving, water tanks, beds and so on. Inland lies the maze of grass-topped foundations marking out the Viking longhouses, and towering over the whole complex are the ruins of the laird’s house, built by Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland, in the late sixteenth century, and the Old House of Sumburgh, built by his son, Earl Patrick.
The island of Mousa boasts the most amazingly well-preserved broch in Scotland. Rising to more than 40ft, and looking rather like a Stone Age cooling tower, Mousa Broch has a remarkable presence, and even makes an appearance in the Norse sagas. The low entrance-passage leads through two concentric walls to a central courtyard, divided into separate beehive chambers. Between the walls, a rough (very dark) staircase leads to the top parapet; a torch is provided for visitors. Mousa is only a mile wide, but if the weather’s not too bad it’s easy enough to spend the whole day here. From late May to late July, thousands of storm petrels breed in and around the broch walls, fishing out at sea during the day, and returning to the nests after dark.
A small passenger ferry runs to Mousa from Sandwick. The ferry runs special late-night trips, setting off in the “simmer dim” twilight around 11pm.