NEW HERMANESS VISITOR CENTRE ON UNST

The grand opening of the new Hermaness hill path and welcome area on Unst  took place on Tuesday 17th May, with NatureScot’s Operations Officer Juan Brown greeting a gathering of invited guests, including those involved in the construction, to the new visitor centre and enhanced walkway.

He handed over to NatureScot’s Chief Executive Francesca Osowska, who cut the ribbon to mark the formal opening, held by Lorna Leask and Christine Murchison from NatureScot’s Lerwick office. She said, “Hermaness is a truly special place, with spectacular cliffs that are home to internationally important populations of seabirds including puffins, great skuas and gannets.

“As Scotland’s nature agency, we aim to inspire many more people to discover and value our natural world. These fantastic new facilities will help locals and visitors alike connect to nature at Hermaness for generations to come, as well as protect the nature reserve and provide many benefits for Shetland communities.”

Francesca expressed her thanks to the various funders involved: the Natural and Cultural Heritage fund (£581,000), the Rural Tourism Infrastructure fund (£290,000) and Nature Scot themselves (£20,000). Further assistance came from SIC and Visit Scotland. The land is owned by Captain David Edmondston, who gave permission for the work to go ahead. She went on to pay tribute to the work completed on the reserve by Sandisons Ltd at the visitor hub and by Steven Johnson and Harry Cartwright on the walkway.

The National Nature Reserve has attracted roughly 9,000 visitors a year in the past, with a slight dip in the last two years due to Covid. This number is likely to increase to over 10,000 as the extended walkway through the middle of the reserve makes it more accessible and less damaging to the peat moor and bird nesting sites.

The Visitor Centre itself has large display boards about the history of Hermaness and the birds that can be seen there. Some of the photos were supplied by Unst Heritage Trust. There is a toilet block to one side of the building and on the other, a graphic display of the different bird’s silhouettes etched in aluminium. A listening post that forms part of the “Wild Skies Shetland” project has a recording of local man Tony Mouat telling a story connected with the area.

At a gate to the side of the Visitor Centre, the trail takes you up in to the Reserve itself, with the existing walkway taking you west to the puffin cliffs and now the new walkway taking you north on the “Muckle Flugga” trail towards a viewpoint overlooking the lighthouse. From there you can see the vast gannet colonies, as well as seeing the great and arctic skuas, and other seabirds.  There are over 50,000 gannets and 1,000 breeding pairs of great skuas or bonxies. Local bird counter and ornithologist Mike Pennington said that many species of birds were suffering from bird flu just now but that gannet numbers were still very high.

Steven Johnson and Harry Cartwright laid the entire two kilometre length of new walkway, which took them just under 24 weeks through the winter and spring of this year. The walking boards and other materials weighed 150 tonnes and were dropped in sections by helicopter, outwith the breeding system, to allow Harry and his boss to get to work. The boards are made from recycled plastic, are very hard-wearing and should last for fifty years.

VisitScotland Development manager Steve Mathieson commented, “The Hermaness project is a great example of an initiative that enhances the visitor experience and enables more people to access the incredible natural wonders of the UK’s most northerly nature reserve, whilst still helping to preserve the fragile ecosystem. The 2km of new boardwalk helps to create a fascinating circular route around the reserve, highlighting the amazing seabird colonies and providing spectacular views of Muckle Flugga lighthouse. The interpretive panels around the new shelter provide a wealth of information on both the natural and manmade history associated with the reserve. We all need to play our part in being responsible visitors and RTIF projects such as this one in Hermaness will help ensure our visitor destinations remain sustainable for years to come.”

Councillor Ryan Thomson, one of the councillors for the North Isles ward, said: “This is great news for tourism in Shetland and for Unst in particular. Hermaness NNR is an outstanding natural visitor attraction that draws many folk to the isles every year. These upgraded facilities will improve the visitor experience and help to protect the natural environment for the future.” 

Photograph by Mike Pennington

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