Midsummer in Shetland, diary for week three.
Midsummer in Shetland, diary for week three.
Suddenly we found ourselves back on the Shetland Mainland this week. On our last evening on Fetlar our fridge flickered to alert us that our gas has run out, the gas that heated our water, cooked our food and cooled our fridge!
No problem we thought, it would mean no pancakes for breakfast but surely we could get gas on Yell. We rose early and caught a morning ferry over, asking at the ferry terminal where we could purchase some and learning that Culivoe stores – the very same shop where our leisure battery had been left outside on the picnic bench – sold gas.
Heavy clouds loomed over Yell as we took the now familiar road up to Culivoe only to discover they had very gas little left in stock and nothing that would fit our gas cupboard.
“Where else could we try?”
“Ah, you’ll need to go to Lerwick.”
Hmm, head back to Lerwick. That’s not exactly how we planned the beginning of our third week, in fact we had no plans to go back to Lerwick until the very end of our trip yet twenty-four hours later saw us driving around an industrial estate in Lerwick looking for the Gas Centre.
We did stay the night on Yell however, on the lovely little campsite in Burravoe, on the south of the island. The rain fell without relief the entire afternoon and evening, our only consolation was that the campsite had a microwave and kettle in the amenities block, a small white building with a black upturned boat hull as a roof.
Microwaved soup and coffee kept our bedraggled spirits from drowning. We had hoped to spend a few days on Yell, after having to rush through it on the way up. Now we would have to leave as abruptly this time as well.
The boat-hulled amenity block also had a washing machine and dryer so I laundered our clothes and the bedding which at least made the camper smell fresh. The wet afternoon wasn’t wasted.
Driving into Lerwick was a bit of a shock to the system, after a couple of weeks on the northern isles, the reasonably heavy traffic seemed alien. We stocked up at the supermarket, where it – being a Saturday afternoon – was very busy and difficult to park. I longed to be back on the quiet islands, I wasn’t ready to return to civilization!
Unsure of our next move, our plans completely jumbled by the gas crisis, we ended up heading to Scalloway. The leaflet we had promised a beautiful corner of Shetland, yet low mist shrouded everything and we left not seeing anything, the Scalloway Museum was just closing unfortunately too. We shall return!
Heading back out we stopped at Tingwall Loch, this quiet stretch of inland water holds a silent yet historically monumental secret. An islet on the north of the loch was once the site of the Norse Parliament back when Shetland was under Nordic rule: hard to imagine now, it is simply a green islet on a still loch. The mist added a sense of drama and mystery to the site though.
A rainy day made a perfect excuse to visit the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale. This lovely building was once a barley mill and it has now been converted into an art gallery. The current exhibition that we saw was work by Fraser Taylor. Downstairs in the cafe were wonderful graphic drawings exploring the land clearances in the 1800s in the Weisdale valley. The work – Shadowed Valley – is based on the eviction of the crofters to clear the land for sheep grazing, which happened not only here but also throughout much of the highlands and islands of Scotland.
In the upstairs gallery the exhibition became even more visual, with fabric banners hung from the roof, the same theme and style of the drawings conveyed in cloth. It was wonderful and thought-proving to wander through.
We made a decision to head south, back to Sumburgh where we had (almost) begun our time in Shetland. As we took the road south we left the unseasonable weather behind, the clouds parted and for the first time in a couple of days we saw blue sky.
We had been unable to properly visit Sumburgh Head on our first day due to filming crew closing the lighthouse. It was great to be back to be able to see the cliffs, and with better weather.
The driech day had cleared to a glorious clear evening, we took a stroll out to the headland cliffs just after 8pm and saw lots of sea birds, including puffins. The sun set spectacularly to the west and when I looked out of the van after midnight and saw it was still clear I went out to photograph the near-to-midsummer light night.
My friend Fiona had talked to me a while ago about some amazing clouds that can be seen in the UK around midsummer. These Noctilucent clouds cannot usually be seen, they are found at the very edge of the atmosphere, some fifty miles up (normal clouds are about a mile up), and are formed of tiny ice crystals.
At this time of year the angle of the setting sun illuminates these clouds making them highly visible against the night sky, even a light night sky.
I walked out to the cliff from the truck, padding quietly over the thrift. It was a half hour after midnight yet I could see perfectly clearly. Looking north the sun was still casting a low lingering orange hue and when I looked upwards there they were, a gauzy veil of noctilucent clouds.
Fiona had described them to me, but I hadn’t grasped quite how extraordinary and beautiful noctilucent clouds really are. Regular clouds whisped across the sky in the foreground. With no sunlight, these clouds hung dark yet behind them were the exquisite noctilucent clouds, gleaming silvery white, shimmering in the pale night sky.
Leaving the truckcamper parked at the car park for Sumburgh Head we walked the loop walk to Jarlshof, the pleasant trail taking us along the water to this incredible archeological find.
Jarlshof is remarkable, there are few places on earth where you can see so many layers of human inhabitation from the Neolithic to the 1700s. The site was unearthed a hundred years ago during a wild storm and it is fascinating to walk through the ruins.
One minute you are gazing at the remains of 6000 year old round house, the next you are wandering though an Iron Age wheel house – a circular house with internal stone ‘spokes’ forming separate areas and a support for the roof.
Not only are there Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age homes, there are also Norse longhouses – which are the first on the site to be rectangular – and later Pict dwellings. Finally, a stone house built for a laird was constructed on the site it the 16th century and this would have been all that Sir Walter Scott saw when he visited.
The Laird’s house was already a ruin, inspiring Scott to fictionally name it Jarlshof in his novel The Pirate. The name stuck.
I could have explored these ruins for hours, they are so captivating.
Leaving the very south behind, we drove up to Sandwick where I managed to upload a blog post in the lovely Hoswick Visitor Centre cafe. The centre has an interesting display of weaving equipment, old radios and local history, and the scones in the cream tea are delicious.
The day was too good to spend all day indoors so we went for a coastal walk along the Noness headland where we had great views of a pair of Skootie Alans (Arctic Skuas) and we sat in the sunshine next to a sea inlet where fulmars soared past us so close they made eye contact.
We hoped to go to Mousa, to visit the world’s most complete Broch but a sign on the Mousa Ferry waiting room door announced that the ferry was cancelled due to a poor weather forecast, hard to believe as there was barely a cloud in the sky.
It was a south-easterly wind that increased throughout the day making our walk around Noss rather blustery.
As we couldn’t visit Mousa, we decided to go to Noss instead.
This small island is reached via Bressay, the island that sits in front of Lerwick. Noss is a National Nature Reserve because birds have taken it over to nest, from noisy gannets and skuas to many little puffins and guillemots.
From all the things we’ve done in Shetland over the weeks so far, Chris has highlighted Noss as his favourite thing!
To begin with, the boat over was fun and exciting. After crossing to islands on the small ferries we were now crossing to Noss on a tiny inflatable rib being manned by Craig, one of the Noss wardens. The swell that had prevented the Mousa ferry from sailing bobbed us about as we cross the narrow sound.
I’d dressed for a little wander around Mousa, I wasn’t dressed for a rib on a swell, by the time we landed on Noss my jeans were sodden from the waves splashing into the boat. It didn’t matter, the wind and sunshine dried them as I walked around the island.
We’d been told “Go to Hermaness to see puffins”, “Sumburgh Head is the best place to see puffins”; No one said go to Noss to see puffins. Noss, as far as we’re concerned, is the best place to see puffins in Shetland: we saw more than we’d seen anywhere else on the islands.
Craig gave us an introduction to the island then pointed out what to look out for as we walked around. The birds became more plentiful the nearer we got to the opposite, eastern edge of the island and we could smell the gannets before we came to the Noop.
The Noop is the highest point on the island, a white pointed cliff that juts out angularly into the sea. In the summer it is covered with gannets, noisily nesting, and they swirl and swoop over the water.
The grassy cliff edges around the south of the Noop are full of rabbit holes and cute puffins have moved in for the season. We sat for a while and they barely acknowledged our presence, allowing us to snap a few photos of them, it was charming to experience.
From the top of the Noop it’s possible to see most of the Shetland Isles on a clear day, but while it may have been sunny, it was also quite hazy and the view wasn’t quite that magnificent.
Noss is a wonderful place to walk, the path goes all the way around the beautiful coastline, mostly high up on the cliff tops. Deep inlets cut in from the sea and the grass is peppered with wild flowers.
A ruined wall runs around the cliffs, built two hundred years ago to prevent the Shetland ponies and sheep from leaping to their deaths. The island was once a Shetland pony stud farm, used to breed ponies to work in the coal mines in Northern England. Their small size, considerable strength and hard-working nature made them ideal for pit work.
So, that was our third week in Shetland, we had some highs with the nature on Noss and the spectacular Noctilucent clouds, as well as the low of having to leave the northern isles quite suddenly to get gas.
I probably should come clean to you as well: in my original road-trip plans we intended to travel from Shetland to Orkney, however we have decided to spend the entire four weeks in Shetland instead.
Our ferry back to Aberdeen is now booked and we travel back this coming Thursday. In the mean time we have now visited Mousa and had an incredible experience visiting the island at midnight. All of that will be in next Monday’s post!
Have your travel plans ever been scuppered by a trivial, yet important, matter?
Have you ever seen the magical noctilucent clouds?
Enjoyed this post? Subscribe by email!