Postcards from Southern Shetland

South Shetland-8625

Postcards from Southern Shetland,

We rolled off the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to be greeted by an overcast morning in Lerwick.

From the deck of the ship I’d stood for a moment, shivering, taking in the view as the ferry slowly made its way up the Bressay Sound to the Terminal.

Low green hills were dotted with houses, I couldn’t see Lerwick standing at the back of the boat but I was already struck by difference, this didn’t feel or look like Scotland.

Lerwick sits low and grey in a natural harbour, the grey sky pierced by clock tower of the town hall.

Lerwick has the familiarity of a Scottish harbour town yet as we drove through and out colourful houses fringed the old town, a rather nordic sight: I was transported back to Scandinavia.

Little communities of these brightly coloured houses appeared often as we drove south, the complete antithesis of the ubiquitous grey bungalows found throughout the rest of the country.

It was barely 8 am, the sun was trying its best to break through the clouds but a feisty wind kept it at bay. We followed the main road south, passing picturesque little harbours, the road weaving through the undulating green landscape, the sea to our left.

Reaching the very bottom of the mainland, crossing the tarmac of the airport we followed the road up to the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head.

Ravishing, we sat in the camper and ate some breakfast while sea birds wheeled above the cliffs outside, the wind buffeting the truck. I quickly changed out of my summer wear, it was too cold for that here. I layered my beloved merino thermals under jeans, tee shirt, cashmere jumper (best travel clothing tip) and my winter coat. It may be June, but hell that wind it icy!

Sumburgh Head is an RSPB reserve, protecting the thousands of birds that nest on the precipitous cliffs of the headland and there is a visitor centre at the lighthouse but it was closed while we visited for a film crew.

We wandered the cliffs; pretty fulmar sat nesting among the pink thrift and the comical puffins battled the wind to find their nest burrows at the top of the rock face. Lower down hundreds of guillemots seemed to defy gravity nesting on sheer rock bleached white with their guano.

Sumburgh Head is a popular place to spot minke whales and orca, we didn’t see any but a minke whale skull displayed on the path reminded us of the unseen nature out there in the ocean.

We had one of those unbelievable coincidences while at Sumburgh: we were in the camper, I was combing my hair in front of the mirror and I noticed a woman outside taking a photo of our number plate.

I opened the door with a curious hello, the unfamiliar couple standing there asked if we were from Yorkshire, from Settle?

“Um, sort of.”

It turned out, this couple have just moved next door to Chris’s mum, they recognised the Thunder Truck from the very brief time it has been parked outside her house.

What are the chances of meeting them on a windy morning on a most southern point of Shetland? 

It’s a small world!


St Ninian's Isle, ShetlandOn the recommendation of Chris’s mum’s neighbours we headed to St Ninian’s Isle on the west of the southern mainland. A narrow strip of tarmac wound off from the main road then ran bolt straight through patchwork farmland to the tiny community of Bigton.

A sign just past the community-owned shop and post office pointed left to St Ninian’s Isle and we took it not entirely sure what we were expecting to find.

The beach appeared before us as we turned a bend, I say a beach, in fact it is a tombolo: word of the day, a tombolo is a spit of land connecting an island to a mainland. So now you know!

This particular tombolo is the finest example in the British isles, a spit of pristine white sand linking the St Ninian’s Isle with the Shetland mainland.

Some beaches are irresistible, a stunning tombolo with an enticing path up onto the island at the opposite side is just too tempting to ignore!

We parked up, packed some snacks and set off across the beach.

A 12th century chapel ruin stands on the beach side of the island but we veered left and decided to walk around the island and see it on the way back.

The walk took us around the edge of the island where huge rocky outcrops reached out like craggy black fingers into the choppy sea.

The grassy edge was clipped short by wooly sheep and tiny blue flowers mingled with the pink thrift, every now and again the land would suddenly fall away, a deep gorge cutting into the island down to the frothing sea below.

Wooden stiles bridged the old stone walls crossing the island and after traversing most of the island’s circumference we decided to take a short cut, cutting off the northern end, back to the tombolo. 

Crossing a field we saw a bonxie (Great Skua) sitting in the grass ahead of us. Now I’ve had experience with bonxies before, they are aggressive birds and I was nervous to approach it. 

We could see the stile crossing the stone wall, the only thing between us and the stile was the bonxie. I hoped, and expected it to fly as we neared it and finally it did.

It wheeled up, circled round then swooped down directly at us, its big brown wings slicing through the air as it got closer and closer.

I thought it would swoop up at the last minute but it didn’t. I dropped to the ground in fear. It wheeled round again and repeated the attack.

Suddenly, from a leisurely wander around a picturesque island I was now in a Hitchcockian nightmare.

Chris tried to fend it off by waving his camera, we edged forward towards the safety of stile but another bonxie appeared and now two were challenging us to cross the field.

We were driven back, there was no way they were going to let us pass. We turned and walked away from them in the opposite direction than the way we wanted to go, we were defeated. My heart was pounding!

The views back onto the mainland from the island calmed my frazzled nerves, the nordic-style hamlets across the water  filled me with joy.

We had a little look at the ruined chapel. It sits in a spectacular location overlooking the sandy tombolo and is thought to date from the 1150’s making it most probably Norse.

In the 1950’s a schoolboy found a larch box under a stone slab when he was helping archaeologists working on the ruins. Inside the box was treasure, 28 silver items with Pictish designs dating from the 800’s. How amazing is that! The treasure can be seen at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and there are replicas in the Shetland Museum in Lerwick.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my first post from Shetland! I’d love to hear your thoughts, do comment!

By Rachel A Davis   Follow on Bloglovin

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3 Responses

  1. Glenn Mainland says:

    The lack of trees in Shetland is related to the weather, rather than just sheep farming. There is one small grove in the middle of the island, in a fairly sheltered location. Around 1960 the Scottish Forestry folk planted an experimental grove on the Ward Hill, at the south end of the island. It was protected from sheep, but the little trees never amounted to anything. Much of the wood in Shetland buildings used to be driftwood form deck cargos washed of ships coming from Scandinavia. In the barns you could identify the driftwood by the small holes that marine organisms had made in them.

  2. Ah Rachel, this all looks amazing! I’m glad you’ve found somewhere that reminds you of your love of Scandinavia. I’m sorry to laugh but the story of you and Chris being chased by the birds made me chuckle! 😉 So pleased you are having such a great time and I can’t wait to see more of your pictures xx
    thegrownupgapyear recently posted…Thoughts on San SebastianMy Profile

    • Rachel Davis says:

      Thank Em!
      The Bonxies were so scary, I’m nervous whenever I see them now. There are hundreds up here in northern Unst! Eek, I’m going to be a’waving my arms like there’s bloody bears around! Hahahaha.
      I look forward to reading about San Seb, it’ll have to wait till I get back to the mainland, I’m sat in a leisure centre foyer trying to cram everything web-based in! Ah, the joys of trying to find wifi! xxxx

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