Monday, 13 March 2017


Hillswick Church
(Note the eastern and western stairs to the mezzanine)

Hillswick: it is a small settlement in Northmavine, the large, rugged, fragmented northwest promontory of Mainland, Shetland that extends halfway along, up the map, opposite the west coast of Yell. It is precariously linked to the main land mass at Mavis Grind, the location of the legendary ‘gateway’ squeezed between and dividing Sullom Voe and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a narrow neck of land over which Vikings are said to have pulled their longships. After having seen this ‘grind,’ the Shetland word for ‘gate,’ the story of this shortcut seems to be mere myth, strange legend, as the rocky edges make the detour look like an impossibility. Perhaps landscapes were much different centuries ago? Have the road builders filled in what might have been a shallow, sandy isthmus, a tiny tombolo?

Mavis Grind, the land link between Sullom Voe and the Atlantic Ocean, joining Mainland to Northmavine

The road into Hillswick

Hillswick from the Voe when the hotel was white (church on left)
The road to Hillswick is the route taken on the drive to Eshaness, the location of a Stephenson lighthouse: see - Instead of turning right at the Hillswick Hall, one continues following the A970 southwest. This track leads directly into the village, passing the church and the hotel on the right before reaching the narrow lane that leads left to the waterfront, and to the local shop that still exhibits the conglomerate, cluttered wonder of older times. The church had been passed for years and had never really been noticed or recognised as anything other than a dark void. The old hotel next to this place of worship was always the centre of attention. Its history established its titillating identity and credentials.

Driving into Hillswick; the church is on the right

Hillswick (hotel and church in background - centre left & right)

St Magnus Hotel

Hotel being renovated

Hotel today - still being renovated

Old postcard showing St Magnus Hotel, Hillswick  (Shetland Museum & Archives)

Old photographs of St Magnus Hotel (Shetland Museum & Archives)

Trout fishing

This iconic, double-storey timber structure was remembered from the old photographs as a marvellous, stark, black and white image. Sadly, after a recent refurbishment, it is now ochre-coloured, a smudgy, mustard yellow with a peaty, chocolate trim, looking more modern Norwegian than smart, swinging British twenties. The hotel was built in 1900. Something of its pizzazz is missing: yet the stories linger. This was the destination of the steamers bringing the wealthy tourists up the west coast of Shetland from Glasgow. It was here, at the Hillswick Hotel, that the indulgences began - fishing for trout on the voe and lochs, motoring to the various nearby natural attractions, or shooting grouse in the hills during the day; partying throughout the evening. The old photographs record the exotic times in group images, displaying not only the dress of the day and the vehicles of those times, but also the proud, self-satisfied features of those participating in these romps. ‘Famous’ folk came; the signatures can still be seen in the old visitors’ book that once casually fell open on the desk at the ‘Maggie Thatcher’ scrawled entry. One struggled to see her in this hedonistic context that appeared to suit Dennis more than this self-proclaimed ‘Iron Lady.’

Old photographs of St Magnus Hotel (Shetland Museum & Archives)

Eshaness Lighthouse (Shetland Museum & Archives)

St Magnus Hotel brochure, 1966  (Shetland Museum & Archives)
Times have changed; there are no steamers now. All transport comes into Shetland at other locations: into Lerwick, where the ferry from Aberdeen via Kirkwall terminates; and into Tingwall, Sumburgh, and Scatsta where airports link travellers to local regions, UK and the world. Hillswick is remote from all of these places. Scatsta is the closest, but it is the airport servicing the oil and gas terminal at Sullom Voe. Sumburgh is the main airport for Shetland and is located at the most southern point on Mainland. The airport at Tingwall services the local regions.

Mavis Grind
The road to Northmavine from Sumburgh takes one up to Lerwick, through Tingwall, past the turns to Nesting, Weisdale, Vidlin and Voe, and on to Brae where it branches west. The approach passes over Mavis Grind as a highway that soon changes to a narrow track that twists through rocky hills and beside water, turning at Urafirth around the Voe of Hillswick, passing the sign to Braewick and Eshaness on the right. Hillswick is a quiet backwater known for its unusually, large historic hotel rather than for its church. The grand older times that appeared so flippant were also strict, church-going eras that respected the Sabbath: see –  The church, located right next to this historic hotel, its neighbour, once held a central role in the community. The building is massive, dour and bland, looking gray and somber, awkwardly squeezed into its mean, meagre site, constrained as it supervises the waters of the voe. This looming, dark presence of the kirk is in stark contrast to the more romantic identity of the twin-gabled hotel; perhaps appropriately so. The hotel sprawls widely, confidently, graciously; generously embracing its open space that overlooks the width of the voe and offers a grand welcome not seen at the stymied church.

Hillswick Church (north elevation - note Latin cross on east gable, Celtic cross on west gable)

The kirks at Whalsay, Lunna and Tingwall had trained the eye to recognise their 'sideways' type: see -;; and These unique little moody surprises all present as simple, somewhat bland, ordinary, but pertinacious buildings. Only the church at Lunna is happily more noticeable in its historic setting as being different, with its smart white walls with black trims that remind one of the old St Magnus Hotel; and old car tyres, and spats of the period too. The other structures are both awkwardly large, gable-roofed boxes with a vapid, pebble-dash finish. They are easily dismissed as an irrelevance, such is their naive, natively glum appearance. The church at Hillswich is no different externally, spruiking the cliché 'gloom and doom' with its mass and bulk. The question was: is it a ‘sideways’ church? - see: sidebar THE SIDEWAYS KIRK. It was not clear. All of these other churches, those at Whalsay, Lunna and Tingwall, with an east-west orientation, are set out sideways internally. They are different to what one might expect in a typical church plan. The pulpit is located in the centre of the long southern wall in a double-height space with the congregation spread around it, wrapping this centrepiece in a ‘U’ form with two levels of seating. Stairs tucked into the northeast and northwest corners lead up to the mezzanine level. These are truly intriguing interiors, each with its own quirky variations. Unusually, Lunna has only an external stair leading to its mezzanine space that gives the place a haunting sense of class difference. What was the plan of the Hillswick kirk? Could it be another interesting version on this theme?

Gate, stairs, ramps in approach
Instead of driving past this gloomfully glum, gabled mass to gawk at the hotel as we usually did, the car was stopped as close as possible to the modestly decorated gate. Art Noveau never really flowered in Shetland. Was it locked? The church was approached: the churchyard gate could be opened, but the approach was not auspicious or spacious. One had to almost step around the swing of the gate to reach the main door up a few stairs on the landing of the ramps leading off north and south to a no-man's-land; to nowhere but the squeezed church surrounds. The dark brown front door just inside this depressingly tight site, almost ‘in your face,’ was tested, and tested again: locked. Why are some Shetland churches secured when others are left open? The hotel would be open!

Faux porch

Latin cross on east

Stair on south: 'Renaissance' nonchalance

Stair on north
With some resignation, the eye wandered over the public face of this gloomy edifice that had become more so with this exclusion. The blank, gabled eastern wall was profiled with a faux portico surrounding the entry, a mediorce Gothic gesutre to grandeur. High on the gable of this facade was a small crucifix standing above an unusual corbelled shelf. Lower down, a modest industrial lamp hung over the entrance. On each side of the central door one could see what looked like stairs through the pointed arched windows, Corbusier-style: see - So there was an upper level; but was the planning ‘sideways’? Moving along the eastern front to the open north side of the kirk through tall, damp dandelions and god-awful long, wet grass, the first of three side windows was reached. Peeping in on tiptoes through the lower pane of glass, one could see a column support for the upper level mezzanine. It seemed to have a decorative top bracket. No, the planning was not sideways: the lower seating was set out in parallel rows across the width of the space as one has come to expect in traditional ‘basilica’ church architecture. The next window revealed the configuration of the mezzanine as the traditional ‘U’ form on axis with the eastern entry door and the western pulpit. The third opening displayed the grand, double-height space of the pulpit on the west that had an unusual Renaissance flavour of excessive display about it, more than one expects in the Church of Scotland. It looked to be an interior similar to those of the Norwegian style of church, but not nearly as decorative; just timber and white, without any Nordic pastel blues, pale creams, pinks and gleaming flashes of gold trim: see -

Pews are arranged across the width of the church facing west away from the voe

Decorative post bracket for mezzanine

For photographs of the interiors not taken through the windows, see entry below

Note the transition from pointed arch externally to semi-circular arch internally

The pulpit is on the right, at the western end of the church

The western wall: what does the window illuminate?

The washroom window

The annex window
Moving on, battling with the undergrowth around the rear of the church while hoping for more openings that might give better views of the interior, one was very quickly disappointed. There was just more high, blank, pebble-dash walling devoid of any expression beyond that on high: the remnants of a plaque; a small, pointed-arch window; and a Celtic cross on the gable. This bold rawness returned around the southwest corner to lead into what was discovered as a dead-end space with a depressingly small, toilet annex window. The church barely had a three-metre perimeter zone between it and the surrounding dry stone wall, but even this could not be continuous. The building annex, the added toilet, completely filled this portion of land, blocking off the possibility of a perimeter stroll, and giving the development not only a sense of meanness, but also a feeling of constriction suggestive of religious intolerance. Sabbath rigour came to mind. Retreating along the pathway previously made in the dewy overgrowth, pushing back to the entry stairs and ramps, and then turning along to the other side elevation of the church, the southern windows revealed no more than those on the north, such was the glare of this aspect. One has to remind oneself that in the northern hemisphere, the sun comes from the south. Only partial glimpses of the same modest interior elements could be gained. One wondered with some frustration: why not open these churches to display and celebrate Christian good will?

The hotel is out of the frame to the left

Celtic cross on west (top left)

Chimney over window - where is/are the fireplace/s? - memories of Notre Dame in Paris that also has a chimney

Glimpses through church (from south to north)

The annex gable is in the foreground behind the grassy knoll

Moving out of this snug enclosure into the void of voe and sky was almost exhilarating. It was only after walking towards the hotel, away from this southern elevation, that the full scope of the scale of the church could be appreciated. The alignments of the window openings across the width of the church became obvious with the slots of transparency that enlivened the prospect of a wall topped with a puzzling chimney located directly above a window opening. The irony was that one had to retreat to the spacious hotel forecourt to understand the form and scale of the religious neighbour. The building could never be called a beautiful: it was as bleak as the kirks at Whalsay and Tingwall. The pieces of the interior that could be seen suggested that, like that of these others, the Hillswick interior was bonny, handsome, hardly beautiful, sternly present with its church rigour. It is a true Shetland characteristic. Most older Shetland homes look ordinary, bland, modest habitations, like tidy hovels; but the rugged exteriors enclose stunning, friendly, very comfortable interiors: the homes are like rough diamonds.

Looking southeast from hotel

Church with hotel in background

New 'Norwegian' houses in Shetland

The newer Norwegian imports are changing this, introducing unfortunate, slick Nordic vistas into the stark, remote wonder of Shetland. This church at Hillswick holds the raw integrity of traditional Shetland that is almost careless of any public performance, but is far more considerate with the intimate inner qualities of a place and its people. It is a lesson that the modern era might consider. The strategy is unaffected, modest, honest; unpretentious. Unlike the Gehry performances, these Shetland churches enrich with substance as they present a real, but simple compassionate approach to enclosure that responds with appropriate rigour to its harsh context without any unnecessary, exclamatory guff or glee, much like the landscape itself that is solid and sparse: see sidebar THE REAL AND THE IMAGINARY. Every frivolous 'trinket,’ piece of irrelevant prettiness and loose delicacy has been blown away leaving things looking apparently stubbornly hard and brutish; but this is a place of the heart, much loved by many in spite of what the Aberdonians have called, somewhat appropriately, 'moonscape.'

'Traditional' Shetland homes

A real church at Hillswick: raw Shetland character
There is something geological in these churches that are coarse, plain, grim, almost dirty, grimy outside; but, to consider an analogy, when the rock is split, the wonder of internal sheen and colour, even the glittering glow of crystals, is revealed. Shetland, ‘The Auld Rock,’ is known for its complex and varied geology. In this way, as symbols of the 'rock' - St. Peter - these places of worship enshrine a native richness as all good architecture should, with intelligence and love, to create spaces that can be true refuges from ordinary life and its living; places that are transformative and supportive, enriching, unlike much in our present times that thrives on what looks like lies and cheating through smart branding: c.f. Waterford (see:; and also Shetland Reel products (distilled spirits), the latter said to be ‘produced’ in Shetland; but has any product ever been there other than as bottles of gin or whisky for sale? Is this the selling of a fake identity enhanced by branding suggestive of Shetland landscape, light and beauty? Apple also comes to mind with its i-pad that no one seems to want to criticise, even though it does not appear to be able to manage a completely flat battery with ordinary recharging- see P.S. below. Why have there not been more squeals? In our modern era, folk seem to cringe, feeling perhaps as conned fools, fearing any admission that might acknowledge the lie, the difference between what has been loved, and purchased, and what one actually has: a thing that is not as friendly as it is promoted to be. One can never say this of the old Shetland churches, or the Shetland landscape.

The impressive show rooms at Waterford is a visitors' centre that maintains the illusion of manufacturing at Waterford for the brand?

Only a very small number of 'Waterford' pieces are still manufactured at Waterford, Ireland: reportedly 30,000 workers were sacked

Crystal made anywhere but Waterford, Ireland?

A brand marking that does not ensure that the item has been manufactured in Ireland?
Maybe Shetland beauty lies in its core necessity, its being only what it is, nothing more or less. Our mental health today might improve if we had places and objects that we could trust without reservation or cover ups, without lies and self-promotion: consider the possibility with politicians! Modesty and humility are needed - true selflessness. In this context, true beauty can thrive, survive the farce that supports nothing but its own apparent deception, like that seen in brand ‘Waterford’ that makes most of its boldly, place-named pieces elsewhere, to be transported to its warehouse in London without ever seeing Ireland, in much the same way as Shetland Reel products seem to have never seen Shetland prior to their shelving there for sale: see ON BRANDING in sidebar. Why should Shetland wool processors complain about Chinese wool being labelled 'Shetland’ wool when marketing sees no problems with the Waterford model?

Is it 'reely' all produced ('distilled' rather than 'brought forth') in Shetland on Unst, at Saxaford?

Shetland Reel promotes its products in the context of Shetland landscape: but where is it distilled?

Whiskey - from the same mini-gin still at Saxaford?

A 'Shetland' product or brand?

The location of the still? June, 2016 - there was no obvious daily activity at this old, derelict stores building 

The still that supplies the world with gin and whiskey from Saxaford, or just an image of one somewhere? What is the context here?

The old RAF camp at Saxaford, Unst

The Stores Building at Saxaford (with the blue doors) shows no sign of any daily activity (June, 2016)
The Valhalla Brewery is in the building to the right with the matching roof: it is a working brewery making good quality beers

The tasting room (there was no sign to direct visitors - June, 2016)
How frequently does it open? Was it built just for the musical promotional event?
Are we being encouraged to love lies, to praise clever performances: just look at Trump, (for the record this is 9 March, 2017), and his presidential games? Little wonder that Gehry gets away with his obscure distortions, (crumpled paper?), that appear only to prove yet again that architecture reflects its times. The kirk at Hillswick certainly does; its place too. One can easily come to like this grim monster of a building, yes, even more than its popular neighbour that carries a surplus of lively images and stories more suited to the modern eye and marketing.

The road from Hillswick - typical stark Shetland wonder


The promotion
The silly stupidity of the (older?) Apple i-pad that cannot handle a completely flat battery is like a smart new car that needs to be returned to its manufacturer for a new motor if it runs out of fuel. The concern is: why has this feature of this modern icon never been exposed? I was presented with a friend's flat i-pad that would start recharging, flash, and then immediately stop again and again, making it impossible to recharge. On checking Google on my Android tablet, I discovered that this was not an uncommon or unknown problem. So I reviewed all of the suggestions to solve the problem. Apple's solution was to connect to i-Tunes and perform some specified downloads, but this needed another computer. Others offered programming tricks for one to perform, but these intimidated. Then one blog suggested turning the i-pad on, and then quickly off again before it ran itself flat; and repeating this about forty or fifty times. The idea sounded simpisticly crude, but it was tried, to no apparent immediate effect, so the unit was put aside until the morning. With a new start and a new, hopeful attitude, the unit was switched on once more. Astonishingly it did not cut off. The red light glowed, eventually reaching the 10% green. Things only got better. It seemed that the on-off strategy had generated and stored just enough power in the battery for it to keep the reboot going. This is hardly good design; (hopefully newer models do not have this issue!) The problem was that the unit would start charging, and then apparently begin to automatically open up, only to flatten the battery because of insufficient power for this automated action.
Very attractive until it goes flat?

Good design is more than the shiny sheen of skinny, sheik appearances. It accommodates ordinary life that does let batteries fully drain from time to time and be recharged just by plugging in. After all, this is what batteries do - they drain to work and get charged by being plugged in to the charger. Do only i-pads ignore this simplicity and insist on a charged battery being maintained by manually switching off and ensuring power levels are sustained? Putting specific requirements on to users when these problems can, and have been, programmed out, as Google's Android system has achieved, seems just too rude and onerous. Strangely, Apple claims a heroic position in its marketing that appears to brainwash folk and create a demand that drives 'needs' - the essential requirement to have an Apple product, (see:, even when they are, (hopefully ‘have been’), almost irresponsibly designed with programmes that cause chaos with a simple flat battery. Why has the world accepted this nonsense? What else is this tablet concealing - the great void of meaning? We live in interesting, but very testing times.

The 'new' Hillswick hotel, complete with the'new' entertainment - raunchy videos for the local men?
(It must have been a good evening, because when we arrived at 4:00pm for a drink, everything was still an untidy mess of empties everywhere)

Braewick, on the road to Eshaness (looking south)


Location: Hillswick Northmavine Kirk
Built: 1733, The galleried interior was rebuilt c.1825 to hold 600

Service times: Sun 12 noon (fortnightly)

Somewhat enigmatically, an earlier listing in the same site reads:
The original church at Hillswick stood in the round churchyard on the north shore of the ayre. Named the Church of St Magnus it was used as a place of worship until the new church was built in 1869.
R.A.C.M.S. Cat. No. 1381

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