|OS Name:||Isle of Noss|
|UK Grid Reference:||HU545401|
|Population:||none; abandoned in 1939|
|Ferry Services:||summer service on request (inflatable)|
|Notes:||The whole island is scheduled as Noss National Nature Reserve.|
The name of the island goes back to the Old Norse Nos meaning nose and indicating a sharp point of rock as visible at the Noup of Noss (181m) when looking from a northerly or southerly position.
The high cliffs of the east coast and the hillside covered with moorland and heather show a stunning contrast to the gentle and grassy low-lying western half of the island.
Settlement and Population
The oldest relic of human settlement on Noss is a Bronze Age burnt mound at Helia Cluve in the south western hillside, some 4000 years old.
In historical times the major settlement was at Hametoun, the place which is today known as Gungstie at the west side of the island. The remains of a medieval chapel and burial ground (the latter still in use in the 19th century) are still visible near the farmhouse of Gungstie which itself was built in the 1670s.
A second - and as the name indicates - younger settlement was at Setter in the south west of the island. It was linked with Gungstie (from Old Norse the landing place) by the so called setter road. Between Setter and the south end of the dyke dividing hill from arable land, this 'road' is remarkably wide, and oral tradition says that it was designed to allow two ox-drawn carts to pass each other.
The population of Noss soared to 24 in the earlier 19th century, with 20 inhabitants still reported in 1851. The island was abandoned by 1870, later resettled for some time, but the last full-time inhabitants left the island in 1939. From 1940 to 1969 it was occupied in spring and summer only, and from 1970 onwards it has remained uninhabited, apart from the presence of wardens/ferry personnel during summer months.
Noss Pony Pund
From 1871 until 1900 Noss was leased to the Marquis of Londonderry. He was interested in breeding extra small and extra strong Shetland Ponies to work in his coal mines in northern England. He built the Pony Pund, not really a stud but purpose-built to house his mares and to keep them away from the half-wild stallions living in other parts of Shetland.
Londonderry's attempts failed because the ponies proved less suitable for the coal mines than other horses. Consequently the island was converted into a sheep grazing which houses up to 350 ewes today.
Today the remaining buildings of the Pony Pund serve as the Noss Visitor Centre and host a small exhibition providing more detailed information about the "dark ages" of the Shetland Ponies.
Noss Nature Reserve
Seabird City or Garden of the Cliffs - both nicknames attributed to the small Isle of Noss was declared a National Nature Reserve under an agreement between Nature Conservancy, the predecessor body of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Garth Estate which owns the island as early as in 1955.
Seabird City refers in particular to the rocks that form the cliffs of Noss. These rocks were originally laid down horizontally in a desert of the Old Red Sandstone period 400 million years ago. The cliffs have weathered to become parallel ledges, providing an optimal habitat for various birds to set up nests or breeding places allowing them to harvest the rich fishing grounds around the isle.
Nevertheless, the population of the seabirds has changed significantly in the past. There always have been large colonies of guillemots (today about 45,000), razorbills, puffins, herring gulls, shags and black guillemots, but gannets (today 8,600 pairs) and fulmars (5,000 pairs) arrived as new settlers on the isle during the last 100 years. Later bonxies - now about 400 pairs breeding on the moor - arrived on the island as late as 1914. In contrast, the kittiwake population has fallen from about 10,000 breeding pairs down to around 2,000 pairs and actually we do see the puffins, razorbills and other birds which are the most dependent on the decreased stocks of sand eels under stress.
A colony of great black-backed gulls nests on Cradle Holm. This is a high rock stack where once Shetlanders risked life looking for an extra sheep grazing or collecting bird eggs for their diet. They ferried over to the rock with the cradle, a box which ran on two ropes between Noss and the holm carrying sheep or egg hunters. Besides some brochs and other antiquities, the cradle represented one of the oldest tourist attractions on Shetland having been visited and described by all important travellers to bygone Shetland.
Garden of the Cliffs does not only refer to the spring squill and thrift which paint large areas of the cliff tops blue and then pink during spring and the early summer. Splashes of colour also occur in the moorland which covers much of the island. Dominated by heather, crowberry and grasses, colourful spots are set in the form of cotton grass, lousewort, heath spotted orchid, tormentil or Scots lovage, the deep pink of red campion, the yellows of roseroot and birdsfoot trefoil, just to mention a few of the great variety of plants.