Whalsay is one of the Shetland Islands, 5 miles northeast of the Shetland Mainland, with a population of 1061 in 2011. It makes its living from fishing and crofting, and is seldom visited by tourists though it's easily reached.
One notable resident from 1933 to 1942 was the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, real name Christopher Grieve (1892-1978). Hard lines for the luckless intelligence agents assigned to watch him here: he'd twice been expelled by the Communist Party and had at some point advocated every extremist philosophy you could think of. But he's now recognised among the founding figures of Scottish nationalism: "The rose of all the world is not for me. I want for my part only the little white rose of Scotland that smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart."
Whalsay is reached by a 30-minute ferry ride from 1 Laxo - these sail hourly M-Sa and every two hours Sunday, year round, to the harbour of Symbister. Until April 2023, the return fare is £6.20 per adult, child or conc £1.20, car plus driver £15.50, pay on board.
From Lerwick take A970 north then B9071 to Laxo. In high winds this pier is too exposed, and ferries sail instead from Vidlin three miles further up B9071 - don't visit under such conditions. Bus 19 runs 2 or 3 times M-Sa from Lerwick to Laxo and Vidlin.
On M, F and Sa a ro-ro ferry plies between Whalsay and the Out Skerries, an 80 min crossing, and the first ferry of the morning from Laxo to Whalsay connects with it. A day-trip from Mainland or Whalsay to the Skerries is possible on those days but not vice versa.
2 Symbister is Whalsay's main settlement.
There's an emergency landing strip at the north end of the island but no air service.
There's no bus on Whalsay, and it's a long island so bring a car or bike.
- 1 Whalsay Heritage Centre is a small museum normally open May-Sept W, F-Su 14:00-17:00. It didn't open in 2021.
- Sodom is more correctly Suðheim or "South Home". 300 yards east of the Heritage Centre, it was the home of Hugh MacDiarmid and his family from 1933 to 1942: a monument is surely overdue.
- 2 Whalsay Parish Church (C of S) perches on a headland. It's 19th century, over the site of an 18th century predecessor.
- 3 Standing Stones of Yoxie are 4000 years old. They resemble a megalithic circle, but are now believed to be the ruins of a building - whether dwelling or religious is debated.
- Bennie Hoosie 100 yards northwest of Yoxie is of similar date. A great variety of tools and pot shards were found; perhaps it was the dwelling of the priests of Yoxie.
- Pettigarths Field Cairns a further 150 yards northwest are a pair of Neolithic burial cairns.
- 4 Skaw is the end of the lane north, by the airstrip, lochan and golf course. Near the shore is the chunky prehistoric "Stone of the Toon", about 1.5 m tall, with two smaller stones nearby.
- 5 Inner Holm of Skaw is the islet just 20 yards off the tip of Skaw, with the rubble of a medieval chapel. Beyond is a smaller outer islet called - oh go on, guess.
- 6 West Linga has been uninhabited since the 18th century: lack of anchorage and the brackish water supply were the problems. Linga is Norse for heath or ling so there are some 15 islands so-named in the Shetlands alone; don't mistake this one for the Linga off Walls which was for sale in 2021. Maybe that's why Hugh MacDiarmid visited so briefly but yarned about staying longer.
- Angling: contact Whalsay Anglers Association for sea and shore angling.
- Golf: Whalsay GC is Britain's most northerly golf course, par 71. It's at Skaw at the north tip of the island.
- Ward of Clett is the highest point at 390 ft / 119 m. Follow the lane south from Symbister to its end at Clate then a track zigszags up the hill.
The island convenience store wasn't open in 2021. It's relatively easy for islanders to drive to Lerwick to stock up.
No cafes were open in 2021.
1 Oot Ower Lounge is a mile east along the lane from Symbister. They don't serve meals.
There is no visitor accommodation on Whalsay. A day-trip will be long enough.
Don't bother. As of Nov 2021, there is no mobile signal on Whalsay, the highways to the Mainland ferry pier, or on the ferries.
- Back to Shetland Mainland: if the weather has changed, your Mainland return port might be different from your departure.
- Out Skerries can be reached direct from Whalsay on three mornings a week.