Midsummer in Shetland: diary for week one.
Midsummer in Shetland: Diary for week one.
I’ve now been in Shetland for a week, and already I’ve been – as previously mentioned – chased from a field by bonxie birds, ran the gauntlet walking through the world’s third largest colony of them six days later, drunk tea inside one of the gorgeous nordic-style houses with a lovely local couple, watched the sun set over the atlantic as the rain blurred the edges as we camped next to a lighthouse, found the UK’s loveliest charity shop, had a Shetland Sunday Tea at a community hall, stood inside a 3600 year old building and caught two ferries up to Britain’s most northerly inhabited island where the sun barely sets in June!
In my last Shetland post we had been down in the south of the mainland, somewhere we hope to return to for further exploration in a few weeks.
Our road trip took us to Shetland’s Westside where we camped at a neat little marina-side campsite at Skeld. A volunteer at the campsite gave Chris a few tips for finding otter and that’s how we ended up at Culswick beach.
It was a brief walk from where we left the truck to the beach, as the grassy path opened onto the pebbly beach the smell of the sea struck us, a salty breeze. It was the tideline ribbons of rotting seaweed, streaky lines of black and pink crusted with salt, drying in the sun.
Terns were feeding in the enclosed bay, suddenly dropping, diving like arrows into the water. We sat on the rocks and watched them, mesmerized.
I climbed up to the headland, leaving Chris down on the beach photographing the birds. Looking down, the seaweed swirled around in the current like golden hair, while the coastline spread out in front of me.
An oystercatcher piped demandingly at me at the summit, I must have strayed too near its invisible nest; the terns were up here too and their high-pitched agitation showed they must also have a nest. I left them all in peace; later in the week I saw a tern draw blood on the head of an older man – through his hat – who strayed too near its nest on a beach on Unst: terns are fearless protectors of their eggs!
Heading inland from the beach we found, after some backtracking, Stanydale Temple: a large Bronze Age building on a hillside, a half-mile walk over saturated fields from the road. My boots were rather wet by the time we reached the site but I didn’t care, I find it so incredible to stand in these ancient buildings, knowing that people were here, using the space three and a half thousand years ago.
The wonderful thick stone walls are topped with turf, a carpet of daisies ringing the history where once the roof would have been, supported by trunks washed up on the coast from Scandinavia.
We continued to explore the Westside, stopping for supplies at Wall. The narrow roads wove round lochs and inlets; over moorland where freshly cut peat was neatly stacked, to be used for fuel, an ancient practice that leaves dark scars in the landscape.
At Sandness we took a walk out to the ruined watermills at Huxter. A series of four ruined 18th Century watermills stand crumbling in a narrow water-cut valley. Lushly bordered by grass, a little stream winds its way down to the sea, dancing through rocky channels lined with yellow flowers. It was such a pretty scene.
We wild camped on a bare patch of land just off the road in the center of Westside, overlooking a small loch, surrounded by moorland. I woke in the morning to the baa-ing of sheep, peeking out of the window they were right outside the truck, checking us out.
Our motor-wandering took us north, towards a waterfall marked on our map. On the way we passed a roadside sign for ‘Fresh Home Baking’, a well stocked chiller cabinet was a treasure trove of cakes and treats.
If you are driving the B9071 you must stop for ‘Hufsie cake’ at Hayfield Croft, we bought one of these cakes, along with some tiffin, and ate it further down the road with a cup of coffee after visiting the waterfall. I need this recipe, this Shetland cake is so delicious!
The waterfall is along the impossibly pretty Burn of Lunklet, a stream that tumbles over jagged rocks as is flows down through the heather. The footpath from the road follows the stream to a small waterfall.
Continuing through Voe where we stopped for a second to photograph the buildings down at the pier, strikingly Scandinavian. I learned later that one of the buildings used to be a clothing factory that knitted the sweaters worn by Sir Edmund Hillary when he conquored Everest with Tensing Norgay. I’ve seen how woolly the sheep are here in Shetland, I bet those jumpers were super-cosy!
We only visited Hillswick because the map showed it had public loos; it was pouring with rain yet the toilets were wonderfully cheerful, with a mermaid gracing the garden at the front.
I was drawn to a little shop along the waterfront that turned out to be Britain’s most lovely charity shop! Inside, the volunteer explained that it raised money for the wildlife sanctuary next door. It has a selection of clothes and trinkets, a room of books and at the back a gorgeous ‘living’ room’ area where you can relax for a while!
The lady told us to walk up the street to see the garden of a local man who uses driftwood to decorate the front of his home, all the more dramatic in a land where there are few trees.
Jawdropping scenery opened up as we drove west to Eshaness, dramatic red cliffs and sea stacks rose up from the turquoise ocean. We combed the pebble beach at Stenness unsuccessfully for agates, I found other exotic treasures though, litter washed up by the current from far away lands: a dvd and an empty toothpaste tube from Russia, an orange juice carton from Germany, a milk carton from Norway. Curiosities in an otherwise pristine landscape.
We camped overlooking the ocean at the Eshaness lighthouse, going for an early evening walk along the spectacular cliffs to the north.
A deep gully of black basalt rock near the carpark was dark and brooding despite the bright sunshine. Young fulmars soared effortlessly from their nests on the vertical cliffs, flexing their wings, their white plumage flashing brightly in the narrow shaft of light beaming into the ravine.
As we walked north the cliffs dropped dramatically down to the wild sea below, fractured volcanic rock, rough and black. Cutting back to the lighthouse via the Hols o Scraada, an inland fallen cave, from where further along a couple of islands on some shallow lochans are reachable by stepping stones. One has a fallen broch, now just a jumble of stones.
That evening, the sun seemed to set for hours colouring the sky with pinks and golds. Out at sea the rain was falling, blurring the backlit clouds like a watercolour painting. By the time the sun met the horizon, the rain had reached us, grey clouds screening the final moments of the day.
The following day drove up to the north of Northmavine. At Colla Firth pier – where a big fishing ship, the Altaire, is berthed – we had only been parked for a couple of minutes when another truck camper came down the slip road.
The owners, Ewen and Kit, lived nearby and were collecting fish from some stacked crates by the ship. They came over to us and after a short chat invited us back to their home for a cuppa.
Can you imagine my glee when we turned up the steep drive to be confronted by a red Scandinavian-style wooden house: I was going to get to see inside one!
This lovely house overlooked a bay, and it was filled with treasures Kit and Ewan have collected on their travels. We talked for hours about travel and wildlife. Not only have they seen incredible wildlife on their adventures in Canada, Alaska, Antartica and Siberia, they also see orca from their living room window, and Ewen has seen many things during his life as a fisherman in Shetland’s waters, including a beluga whale once.
They bought a truck camper for trips over to Norway, in what was an easy trip from Shetland, hopping on the ferry from Iceland to Bergan at Lerwick. Well it was easy when they bought the camper, shortly after the ferry stopped calling at Lerwick.
This short tangiable link to Shetland’s Norse heritage has been cut, now it’s a ferry to Aberdeen, a drive to Newcastle, a ferry to Holland and then a drive to Norway via Denmark. An epic roadtrip to a country that is just a stone’s throw across the sea.
Rubbing salt into the wound somewhat, the ferry still passes, Kit and Ewen can see it from their house.
That afternoon we drove up to the North Roe community hall for Sunday Tea, a Shetland summer Institution. A long table was overflowing with homebaked cakes and sandwiches, tea and coffee was available at the hatch.
We’d checked the noticeboard in the shop in Hillswick earlier in the week to see where and when the next Sunday Tea was, the sign had advertised Teas and Claes (clothes) at North Roe so it was no surprise to find a secondhand clothing sale going on as well.
What a great way to raise money for the community; from what I can gather the Sunday Teas kind of rotate from one community to another. A delicious way to spend a rainy afternoon!
We actually ended up going back to the Colla Firth Pier and stayed there overnight as it offered basic camping with one electric hook up for £5. It was great to have a shower, we even did our laundry as they had a machine. It was also good to have an electic hook up, we had come to realise our leisure battery, that we run our heating, hot water, lights and water pump on, is completely defunct.
A call the next morning to a marine supply company had a replacement heading our way from Lerwick at midday, we were to meet it, from the courier, at the ferry terminal for Yell, at the north of the mainland. Our route took us past Sullom Voe, Europe’s biggest oil refinery, a lowslung industrial spread of huge drums.
We hunted high and low at the ferry terminal at Toft for the battery but it wasn’t to be found, even after a number of inquiries to ferry workers.
When we eventually got hold of the marine company (we had a very sketching mobile signal) they made inquiries. It turned out the courier hadn’t wanted to leave the battery at the ferry terminal as there was no one around and he didn’t just want to abandon it so he’d taken it onto the ferry with him.
Our battery had finally been left on a picnic bench outside a shop at the very northern end of the island of Yell! Well, that solved our where to go next dilemma!
We caught the next ferry and drove the full length of Yell to the shop, and there it was, our new £100 battery, sitting just as told on the picnic bench, the staff in the shop apparently didn’t even know it was there! Ah island honesty!
It was getting towards the end of the day and we were so close to the ferry terminal for Unst we decided to make the short crossing that evening and found ourselves on Britain’s northernmost inhabited island.
Unst is virtually where the British Isles end to the north, just a few tiny islands and an unmanned lighthouse are all that is beyond it. We were now higher in latitude than Helsinki!
That night we found a wild camp spot in the south of the island after finding the campsite full (we wanted to give our new battery a proper charge). I was exhausted by the day, we’d done so much waiting around, I crashed and had a nap.
Because of my early evening nap I had trouble sleeping, at two in the morning I gazed out of the window. It was the middle of the night yet I could see clearly, it wasn’t dark at all, this was the (almost) white nights I’ve been wanting to experience.
Up here the sun only sets for around five hours at midsummer, not long enough for darkness to fall, it’s quite magical.
We ended our first week camped next to a beach up in the north east of Unst. In the morning we had explored a few ancient sites in the south of the island including the picturesque ruins of a Norse farmstead right on Sandwick’s glorious beach and Muness Castle.
This small fortified castle belonged to a tyrant lord and is now quite ruined. A torch was available for visitors which allowed us to enter the dark castle and locate the stairs to the bright upper levels.
Over on the south west we visited a hoary old chapel ruin at Wick, the grassed over ruin and earthworks of Underhoull Broch and the foundations of a viking longhouse.
And so, the world’s third largest Bonxie colony. A fine afternoon had us checking out Hermaness. This northern peninsula is a national nature reserve and its western cliffs are a seabird metropolis, nesting on the vertiginous rock faces are thousands of gannets, auks and gulls.
It is a sight worth experiencing, even if it does mean you must run a Bonxie gauntlet to the cliffs!
I jest, in fact these Bonxies are so used to people trekking along the boardwalk across the peninsula, and their moorland nest sites, that they aren’t bothered at all. It was a nervous me that walked across for the first time, they were so docile compared to the ones on St Ninian’s Isle that they have cured my fear of them!
I think I’ve filled a blog post with enough for now. I will share more of Hermaness next week, as well as where we end up for midsummer’s day. After all, that’s why I’m here: to experience the longest day in the most northern part of the UK!
Have a great week!
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