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Published: 19 May 2018

By Andy Ross

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Burra Ness and a broch

This week we have had wonderfully sunny weather, just right for a walk along to Burra Ness.

From home in the settlement of Gutcher, whence the ferry plies the waters to Fetlar and Unst, Burra Ness is clearly visible as one looks eastward. To get there is simple enough; either along the banks, or from North Sandwick, or around the promontory from Sellafirth. Any of those routes takes in the sea and beautiful landscape but my favourite has to be the first route. There are four distinct areas through which to pass; the houses in Gutcher and the banks sparsely littered with the ruins of crofts and a standing stone, an empty quarter which, in the season, is filled with streams of fluffy white bog cotton, the higher almost-cliffs at North Sandwick and the low beach and burn overlooked by another ruin of a croft house. A gentle meander, steadily climbing, suddenly reveals a wide sweep of bay and sandy cove far below. It always comes as a surprise; the walk seems so easy that to be this high up is a revelation. 

Descending the path, for a path is visible on this side of the rise, the beach at Burra Ness is beautiful. The sand underwater gives the bay a tropical look and there are always shells and wood and birds and, sometimes, an otter's tracks and traces of otter meals to be seen. Colour there is here aplenty. Red rocks of various hues and shades, creamy sand, green seaweeds, and pink, black, brown, gold... It is a place for inspiration.

At the end of the sweep of bay the land rises where sea has etched its way into the hillocks and it is here that Burra Ness broch stands, festooned with lichens and moss, and surrounded by close-cropped grass where generations of sheep have grazed (and fertilised) the ground. The broch is built of grey stone and parts of it have subsided, disappearing into a gentle swell of green-covered mounds where the ancient rocks have fallen in heaps. Nearby the remains of a 19th Century farmstead stand and, as if custodians of these former dwellings, sheep graze and meander through tumbled walls and open doorways. 

This is a place of rest and repose, a charmed place of memory and memories. Seated overlooking the sound where porpoises hunt and, once, whales rose and fell with their breathing, it is somewhere to collect thoughts and reinvigorate the soul. 

Walking back feels like a return to the world. Burra Ness is so far removed from everyday life, despite the salmon cages in the bay, and the ferry and boats, that decades could have gone by while in that reverie. It is easy to believe stories of trowie folk stealing people away for years before returning them unchanged to a world completely altered by the passage of time. Pangs of hunger and thirst drive the traveller on, back to a warm house and hot drink and company. But thank goodness we have these places in our world where we can sit and watch the passing of light peacefully and quietly.