Hillswick is a small village on the south side of the west-pointing lobe of land that projects from Northmavine, the most northerly part of Shetland's Mainland.
The centre of the settlement faces east, over sheltered Ura Firth. What is less obvious is that it actually occupies the east side of a narrow neck of land leading to the Ness of Hillswick, a headland shaped for all the world like a bunch of grapes hanging from a vine. Only a couple of hundred yards to the west of Hillswick is the much rockier and cliff-bound Sand Wick, facing out onto the open Atlantic.
Hillswick has an unusual history. In the 1700s it was developed as a fishing station by Thomas Gifford, the Laird of Busta. It's been said that the pebble beach you see today is artificial, which seems a remarkable undertaking if true. What is less debatable is that the beach was used to lay out fish for drying.
Overlooking the end of the beach is the gable of Da Böd or "the Booth". This started life in 1684 as the trading booth of Adolf Westerman, and more recently achieved fame as Shetland's oldest public house before conversion to a cafe. It now serves vegetarian food. Profits go to support the seal sanctuary next door. The Booth forms one wing of the attractive Hillswick House, built in the late 1700s.
What makes Hillswick most unusual was the building here in 1900 of the large, white, wood-clad St Magnus Hotel in the centre of the village. It was built as a speculative venture by the North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Co., who operated most of the ferries from mainland Scotland to Orkney and Shetland from 1875 until (as part of P&O) 2002, when it was replaced by NorthLink Ferries.
The North Company, as it was more usually known, used Hillswick as the terminus of its Westside service from Scrabster near Thurso to Stromness in Orkney and Scalloway on Shetland. Although roads had not reached Hillswick the shipping company was successful in turning the village into a desirable resort destination. Today the St Magnus Bay Hotel still offers 33 rooms, and still dominates both the village and Ura Firth. Sadly, however, the Westside steamers have long since ceased.