The Shetland Islands - Scotland
Sun: Today I flew from London to the Shetland Islands (stopping down for a hour in Aberdeen). We descended to meet an overcast day in Sumburgh airport and touched down around 12:30. I quickly collected my hire car, a diesel Scoda Fabia, a drove to Lerwick (the capital of the Shetland Islands) for a quick scout around. Unfortunately the tourist office was closed. I purchased some food supplies at the local supermarket (in case of accommodation failure) and began a ring-around to secure a bed for the night on the isle of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands. I drove directly up to Unst (via two car ferries), a drive which took less time than I had expected. To fill the hour or two that I now had to spare I went for a 4.5 mile walk beginning at Muness Castle and from there out along the south-eastern coast of the island. I got the key (and a torch) to explore Muness Castle from a nearby cottage and had the whole castle to myself. The walk took in some ruggedly beautiful coastline that was dotted with the leftovers of countless sea-bird snacks - empty crab carapaces, all on there back; smashed sea urchins; and scooped-out shells of all kinds. The low cliffs were regularly punctuated with 'geos' (a narrow chasm into which the sea flows), as though clawed by some Kraken unwillingly dragged out by the sea. Another highlight along the way was the ruins of Framgord chapel and burial ground. Returning to my car I continued to Baltasound, my place of rest for the evening. My landlady directed me to the local pub for dinner (and a pint). I was tucked up in bed by 22:00 even though it was still light outside. A very pleasant first day despite the weather.
Mon (the Queen's Jubilee): I was up by 07:30, downed a quick fry-up and was off out to start my first full day in the Shetland Islands. First up, I booked some accommodation for the coming evening. Next I trundled up to the Keen of Hamar for my first walk of the day. Just before the entrance to the track, however, I was greeted with an unusual sight - a fully furnished and flag-bedecked bus shelter, complete with a couch, a microwave oven, a TV, a bird cage, a computer, pot plants, lamp shades, a table and a fish tank. The flags there were for the Jubilee weekend, but the rest was part of this bus shelter's standard livery. The local person most responsible for this entire venture was a young lad by the name of Bobby. Five years ago, when Bobby couldn't have been much more than 10 years old, he petitioned the local council to build a bus shelter to protect him and the other locals from the worst of the weather. He got his wish, but the shelter was constructed without anywhere to sit. Then one day a sofa mysteriously appeared in the shelter (a bit 'Douglas Adams', if you ask me). Before long more furnishings started turning up, until the place was more reminiscent of a bed-sit in London (the size is about the same but the view is better). Since then a regular turnover of contents has enabled Bobby to vary the theme of the shelter on an annual basis. This year he embraced the theme of the Queen's Jubilee and thus had attracted a film crew from Sky News and a photographer from the Daily Telegraph on the day of my visit. Bobby took time out of his busy filming schedule (I was in the small audience for the live national broadcast of him playing 'God Save The Queen' on the trumpet) to give me a brief guided tour of his shelter. I was also treated to a cup of Earl Grey tea (in a bone china cup) and a cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off. Bobby's website can be found at www.unstbusshelter.shetland.co.uk (sadly, no more - instead try The Unst Bus Shelter on shetlopedia.com) - it is well worth a look, if only to gain an insight into the strange things that Shetland Islanders come up with to pass the long dark winter months. Continuing on from this rather unusual diversion I made my way into the Keen of Hamar Nature Reserve. The short circular walk (1.5 miles) took me through a unique natural habitat, much like an enormous rock garden, that apparently resembles what much of Northern Europe must have looked like just after the last ice age (i.e., some 10,000 years ago). Amongst the surprising array of miniature flora that can be found here is the cute little Shetland Mouse-eared Chickweed (or Edmonton's Chickweed) which can be found nowhere else in the world bar Unst. Returning to my car, I drove on up to Burrafirth for my second walk of the day, a six mile hike around Hermaness nature reserve. The visitor's centre here is just exceptional. The first (and last, as it turns out) stretch of the walk crosses a protected area of peat bog, home to many birds including the kamakazi-esk Great Skua ('Bonxie' in the local tongue). I was strafed by two of these giant birds as I made my way out to the cliffs. The walk along the cliff-side track was like being inside an aviary. Phenomenal numbers of all species of bird filled the air, land and sea. I got to see Puffins ('Tammie Nories') in the wild. The cliff track culminates with a spectacular view of Muckle Flugga and Out Stack, the most northerly point in all of Great Britain. A brisk climb up to the top of Hermaness Hill and a trek back across spongy ground pocked with tiny pools had me back at the car. By this time I felt I had done enough walking for an hour or two, so I decided to do a bit of driving instead. I pootled down to the south-eastern corner of the island and paid a visit to the ruin's of St Olaf's Church and Cemetery. Along the way I got to see my first Shetland pony foals - very cute. Returning to Belmont pier I caught the ferry back to Gutcher on the island of Yell. From there I drove to Gloup to see the Fishermen's Memorial, erected in 1981 to commemorate the disaster-at-sea that had occurred exactly 100 years earlier when 58 local men were killed during a single, freak storm (more on this story below). My final diversion for the day was to brave the closing weather and walk down to the golden Breckon Sands, a lovely little beach at the top of Yell. My evening's accommodation was back at Gutcher, in the Post Office (also a B&B). I was taken in by a lovely couple called Margaret and Lawrence Tulloch. Lawrence turned out to be a retired lighthouse keeper who had worked on the Muckle Flugga light for several years. Being a bit interested in lighthouses, I quizzed him about the job, etc. One of the more surprising things he told me about had to do with the days before electric lights. As a rule, the lights were rotated by the motion of a falling weight that had to be manually winched to the top of the lighthouse shaft at regular intervals. In a tall lighthouse that had a relatively slow rotation period, this winching process was only required every three hours or so, but in a short, fast light it was required as frequently as every 20 minutes! 365 days a year, during all hours of darkness or poor visibility. What a job! We also got to see Bobby on Sky News, too. I retired well before sunset again.
Tue: I was up for breaky at 08:00. I returned to Breckon Sands to do the full 3 mile walk around the coast. It turned out to be a less than interesting route, but pleasant enough, and I did get to see a group of Grey Seals up close along the way. I returned to Gutcher to catch the 12:15 ferry to the isle of Fetlar. This island was the most uniformly barren-looking landscape I'd seen so far, a feeling enhanced by very low cloud. By the time I'd crossed the island to the Loch of Funzie (pronounced 'Finnie') the 'low cloud' had dropped to ground level. The two walks from my book that I had planned to join together (a total of 9.5 miles) proved, after several false starts, to be too ambitious for the abysmal visibility conditions. The walks were mainly based on visual way-points, rather than any kind of track and, for the most part, it was difficult to make out objects further than 30 metres away. I retired to the Fetlar Interpretive Centre for an hour or two of education about Fetlar and then went and dozed in my car at a spot known for its otter population. I didn't see any, but it might have helped if I'd had my eyes open a bit more. At 19:00 I drove back to Oddsta to catch my ferry back to Yell. I stayed the night in the Gutcher Post Office again.
Wed: Not such an early start today, what with one thing and another. First up was a 5.5 mile walk from the Post Office to Burraness and back - the otter walk, according to my walking book. The fog was still about which dampened my spirits a little a first. Then I got to see my first otter, and from quite close up, too. "This is a bit easy" I thought to myself. During the next three hours of hiking, however, the total number of additional otter sightings, up close or otherwise, was precisely zero. Ah well. The broch (an Iron Age, fortified dwelling) at the end of Burraness was impressive, though. The return path culminated in a half-mile road walk. A toothless gentleman driving a car held together by the mechanical equivalent of fossilisation offered me a lift. When I declined in favour of completing my walk on foot, he then proceeded to pace me in the car, chatting all the while. He thought New Zealanders were simply obsessive about discovering their roots, which is why they all flood to the Shetland Islands. I was beginning to feel really thick for not ever being aware before of the many and varied ties that exist between Shetland (Zetland, in the local tongue) and New Zealand. Basically the story goes something like this: in the mid 1800's a group of the local ruling gentry got together and decided that farming sheep was significantly more profitable than croft farming, "but what to do with all the croft farmers on the land?" Answer: "Got any new colonies that need populating?" "Yep, some place called New Zetland (or was that New Zealand)". So a load of Shetlanders found themselves on the other side of the world. Today the New Zealand Shetland Society is based in Wellington and every year a load of my fellow country-men and -women trek all the way over here to trace their roots. So there you go. Next up was a circuit of lower Yell by car, taking in Mid Yell, the (haunted) Windhouse and Burravoe. Visibility was still poor, so I cried off my second walk on the island. I opted instead for an early ferry to the mainland and a late afternoon arrival in Northmavine, the north-western part of mainland Shetland. I selected a 4 mile walk around Esha Ness to round out my day. This turned out to be the most spectacular walk yet. One of the geographic features they do very well here are known locally as 'geos'. Geos are shear-sided gouges in the cliffs hacked out by the fearsome seas. Most are 10 or even 20 times deeper than they are wide. The walk from Esha Ness lighthouse took in two giant geos. The sound of the birds calling as they flew around inside was very eery. The rain returned before I finished my walk and I lopped a mile off the end in order to finish a bit early. I then drove (via a detour to see Nibon) to Muckle Roe, an island connected to the mainland by bridge and my home for the next two nights.
Thu: First up was a 7 mile walk around Fethaland which took in some mighty coastal scenery and a lighthouse. The Isle of Fethaland is joined to the mainland by a narrow strip of land/beach. On this strip is an old abandoned fishing village. Whilst on the walk I ran into a farmer who gave me a little history about the village. This is where the fishing crews commemorated by the Gloup Fisherman's Memorial came aground. Of the eight 'sixereens' (six person rowing boats used for fishing) that attempted to land, only two crews survived. The explanation of how two of the crews were rescued requires a quick look at a couple of photographs of the area 📷📷. See the large rock peeking over the brow of the headland on the left-hand side of the first photograph? Well, the two surviving boats used it as a marker and, by choosing a good sized wave each, they proceeded to surf over this rock in order to get dumped on the beach on the far side of the spit. Locals then dashed out to drag the crew members to safety before the next wave came over. The six other crews that didn't try this were each lost with all hands. Bloody buggering hell! I was a bit knackered after this walk so abandoned my afternoon walk around Muckle Roe in favour of a trip into 'Da Toun' (Lerwick). Here I ran a few errands and had some fish and chips with peas and carrots for my tea. Two hours later I had my head down a toilet throwing the lot back up again. Apparently a stomach bug had just arrived in the Shetland Islands and the best way to catch it was by staying in guest accommodation. I spent a dreadful night throwing up every hour, on the hour, until well past the point that there was anything to get rid of. Not a great laugh at all, I can tell you.
Fri: I spent all day in bed feeling very fragile. By midday I was able to keep water down, which was a bonus. That was about it really. Fortunately I was able to stay at my B&B for an extra night.
Sat: Up out of bed and in for my first lot of food for 36 hours. Off back to Lerwick to arrange my final three nights accommodation and an activity for the afternoon. I chose to go out to Mousa island, home of the impressive Mousa Broch. A broch is an Iron Age defensive structure and the broch on Mousa is the finest example of their kind. The Mousa Broch is a hollow, twin-walled tower with several spiral staircases that wind up to the top between the walls. It was built around 100 BC. The base of the inner wall also contains wonderful corbelled chambers, presumably once living quarters. The central chamber is open to the elements and contains seating surrounding a central water pool. Currently the tower stands at over 43 feet high and has only lost a row or two of stones from the top of the structure in the 2100 years it has been standing. Pretty cool, if you ask me. Also on the island was a good selection of the by now familiar Shetland wildlife - seals and a plethora of seabirds. The boat returned to collect us at 17:00. My grotty, but cheap and friendly, hotel was five minutes drive away.
Sun: Today I was gripped by a total motivational meltdown - presumably a combination of travel-induced sensory overload and post-sickness malaise. I was up for breakfast at 08:00, but not actually out the door until 11:30. First up was a drive north to Lerwick to book a boat trip around Bressay and Noss for tomorrow morning. Next was a slow drive out to the Westside. There I found a spot by a pretty loch and sat and read the paper for an hour or two. After a wee car picnic I drove to Scalloway to look at their castle (designed, as it happens, by the same chap that built Muness castle on Unst). All tired out, I returned to the hotel for an evening of bizarre TV and Jaffa Cakes.
Mon: Up early in order to have breakfast and get up to Lerwick in time for my boat trip. Got a phone call whilst I was eating to say that the trip had been cancelled due to 'unfavourable wind conditions'. Probably just as well, really - two weeks of fried breakfasts was beginning to give me unfavourable wind conditions n'all. Returned to bed to plan an alternative day's activity (yeah, right). Finally I dragged my bones out to the car and again drove up to Lerwick, this time to have a wee look around the town that I had been passing through at least once a day for the last week. The harbour is very pretty and is presided over by the impressive Fort Charlotte. My favourite oddity in the village was a repair shop entitled "Dave's Last Ditchology Repairs". After more aimless driving around through yet more glorious coastal scenery I returned to my hotel.
Tue: My last day in the Shetland Islands dawned clear and blue. I had until 15:00 before I had to return the car, so I made the most of the South Mainland attractions. First up was the premier archeological site in the Shetlands - Jarlshof. Jarlshof emerged from the sandy topsoil after a gale in the late 19th century. The site dates back 4,000 years and is many layered, with settlements ranging from a Stone Age hut; Neolithic dwellings; an Iron Age broch and wheelhouses; an entire Viking village; through to a 16th century laird's house. Each successive era of building seems to have used something from the last - the wheelhouses nestle up against the Neolithic walls, the lairds house uses the broch as it's foundations. A truly magical site that visitors can explore inside and out. Next up was the Quendale Watermill, an unexpectedly fascinating little treasure of a place. The mill was built in 1867 and was fully operational until the mid-1940s. The workings of this sophisticated 'one stop shop' of a mill are entirely made out of wood and iron. Visitors to this still functional mill are able to get inside every piece of the workings and find out just what makes it all tick. It was simply magic. My final visit was down to Sumburgh Head to bid my farewell to the Shetland Islands (and the gannets). My return journey to Mr Whitten's house in London was uneventful and pleasant enough as these things go.
Wed: Today was errand running day. First up, though, was the 07:30 England World Cup match, which we watched in our pyjamas on the sofa. I then traipsed into the city to tackle such exciting jobs as collecting some slides I had had in for development and getting my hair cut. I also attempted to do some shopping for gifts, but didn't get very far. At around 17:00 I bowled up to Southwark Towers (the PwC building where I used to work) and made my way up to the 24th floor. It was like coming home - I had missed the place a great deal. There were a number of new faces, but the bulk of the old soldiers were still there. Mike had organised a space down at the Hornyman pub and a very large contingent from the office came out to play. It was bloody good to see them all, and I got to chat with most of them over the course of the evening. The night concluded with a trip back up to the top of Southwark Towers - the view from the top at night is just breath-taking. Pity the batteries of my camera had run out, eh! A fabulous night out.
Thu: After a bit of a late start, I made my way back into the city with two priorities - a new bag (to contain all the additional crap that I had collected during my trip) and a visit to Foyles (my favourite bookshop in the world). These two tasks took me most of the rest of the day and I didn't get back to Mike's until late afternoon. That evening we wandered over to Wimbledon to collect Lou, Richard and Robert for our last pint together for a while. This of course had to be followed up with my last English curry for a while, too. A fab night, and a nice way to say good-bye to a few, special friends.
Fri: Up and off to the airport pretty much first thing. Bid farewell to Old Blighty and boarded my plane to back to Oz. What a cracking holiday!
The week after I returned from the UK, Andy was due to go to Perth for a few days with work. I decided to tag along and so I booked a cheap flight that would get me there a few hours ahead of Andy's arrival by 'posh plane'. Unfortunately I mixed up my departure and arrival times. We awoke about 08:10. Andy had some nagging doubt about when my flight was due to depart (as far as I was concerned it was 11:55 - plenty of time), so at 08:15 she got up to check my ticket. 11:55 was the time the flight got into Perth. It departed at 08:55, i.e. in forty minutes. Cue sudden panic! I leapt out of bed, threw on any clothing that came to hand and pegged it for the end of our road in search of a taxi. Once in the taxi, the full situation began to hit me: here I was on the other side of Sydney, in a taxi, in the middle of rush hour, with no luggage, expecting to cross the city, check in, get through security and into my aircraft to the other side of Australia all in the next 30 minutes. Yeah, right! The cab pulled up at 08:50 - I had five minutes to be on my plane. Fortunately, Virgin Blue is still all a bit new and operates out of a port-a-cabin on the side of the runway. I was able to jump the check-in desk queue, check in (which was where having no bags was a bonus), and get a special dispensation to breeze though security and out to my gate where the door was being held for specially for me - I like Virgin Blue! As you can imagine this was a bit of a hectic way to start the day!
I was met at the airport by Aideen, Andrea's cousin who lives in Perth. We climbed into her lime green MG convertible and she took me on a tour of the city of Perth. Perth is a pretty and compact city that basks in year-round sunshine and is the most isolated city in the western world - it is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney. After our car tour, Aideen dropped me at my hotel and sped off to her afternoon shift at work (she is a veterinary nurse). I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city on foot. Aideen collected me later that evening and I was the guest of honor at her family's weekly get together dinner. Andy's flight arrived in at 22:00 and Aideen dropped the both of us back to our hotel.
The next day Andy took the day off and we explored Perth together. Aideen again collected us and brought us out to Freo (Freemantle) for the morning. Freo is very pretty, but the wind was up a bit so we chickened out of any kind of walk in favour of a nice warm café instead. The afternoon was our own. We met Aideen and her boyfriend, Chad, for drinks and dinner that night.
I spent the next two days wandering the city whilst Andy was at work. I spent most of the time compiling the beginnings of my 'City Secret Treasure Hunt' clue bank for Perth. On Saturday Andy and I spent the day in Freo, this time having a good explore of this vibrant township. We met up with Aideen's flatmate, Beth, in the evening and went and saw 'Spiderman - The Movie'. It was cack. On Sunday we took Aideen out for breakfast to thank her for her hospitality, before returning to the airport for our flight home. Nice.
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