Glancing down at the notes that I keep on my phone, to remind me of things to write up for my blog, I see that I have quite a lot of things on my list. Hope you are sitting comfortably – this is a long post!
Car atlases are probably the main maps we look at. The Orkney and Shetland islands are almost always an inset on our maps. It’s hard to grow up with a realistic idea of exactly where they are. John O’Groats seemed like a long way north when I arrived there last weekend. But the northern isles disappear off into the far distance. Open up your Google Map (or whatever you use), and take a look. You’ll see that the top of the Shetlands is about as far away from the top of the Scottish mainland as Manchester is from London. Circle your finger around a globe and you’ll see that the Shetland islands are level with Anchorage in Alaska, with the far north of Canada, with Greenland, and halfway up Norway.
My goal was to get to the northernmost of the Shetland islands – an island called Unst. My feet had run their course, so it was ferries and buses for me. But it still felt like quite an adventure. From John O’Groats I took a passenger ferry over to the southernmost Orkney island. It just took 40 minutes, as the Orkneys are quite near to the mainland. Then it was onto a bus to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. In the evening I caught another ferry which steamed north for 7 hours, all through the night, to reach Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. I got a few hours sleep on the floor of the lounge, but mainly looked out of the window, mesmerised by the blue sky at midnight.
After half a day sightseeing in Lerwick I took a bus north to Unst. It was a two hour journey, and included two ferry crossings, since we needed to travel through the island of Yell, as well as the northern mainland, before reaching Unst. Shetland is composed of a melting pot of different types of geology, (it was once part of America), and thus the scenery of each island varies a great deal. Yell, to my eyes, looked grim. Boggy and barren and dark.
Once ensconced in a cosy little hotel in Unst, well, the only hotel in Unst, I had two days to explore. The first day I walked 14 miles (not done with the walking yet!), and reached the point at which I could no longer travel northwards. Apart from the wonderful and wild Muckla Flagga lighthouse in front of me, nothing stood between me and the North Pole. Quite a feeling. The second day I walked to another northern peninsula, and stood on Britain’s most northerly beach.
I hired a bicycle so as to be able to cover more ground. My thinking was that I am fit as a fiddle, so it would be a doodle, and refreshing to bike about rather than walk. Hmm. I am fit, but fitness is a very specific thing. Boy, did I struggle with that heavy mountain bike – even up small inclines. It was still fun though.
The walk over the moorland to Muckla Flagga was interesting. It was the only place on Unst where I came across other walkers. There were about 12 cars parked up when I arrived on foot to the place where people normally set out for the 6 mile circuit. It was sunny, and to me, quite a warm day. So I was in rolled up trousers and a T shirt. To my surprise, every single walker I passed was kitted out as if for a day in the Himalayas. Down jackets, winter mittens, woolly hats, soft-shell winter trousers. The lot. They were all keen bird watching people, I think. So perhaps bird folk feel the cold more. I don’t know. They looked at me as if I was a weirdo. The scenery was stunning though. High cliffs, views for miles and miles of islands to the south, the North Atlantic in all its glory. And the wildlife. I knew before coming that Shetland is famous for its wildlife. But you literally only have to stand in one place for a minute or two and you’ll see lots of birds. Seals are all over. And of course there are the very photogenic ponies. Even the sheep are handsome. I saw lots of Oyster Catchers, Wheatears, Fulmars, and Cormorants. My favourite bird was the Arctic Tern, with its delicate lines and go faster pronged tail. Oh, and of course the little chubby fellas with the orange beak. I was standing at a cliff edge (not on my phone this time), looking out to sea, when all of a sudden I became away of something waddling towards me, just 6 feet away. I looked down to see a dear little Puffin. Before I could say hello he disappeared, like some Alice in Wonderland creature, down his burrow.
However. However, there was a bird that I took a dislike to. This is probably not the done thing as one maybe ought to be super excited and reverential about seeing the biggest colony in the world of its type. I’m talking about the Great Skua. They come to the Orkneys, Shetland, and the Outer Hebrides every summer to breed. And the Hermaness peninsula on Unst is their capital city. These are hen size birds, which have a shape like the Batman symbol when they fly. They are known to be aggressive, both to other birds and to humans. There were so many Great Skuas on Hermaness, as well as other birds, that it felt like one of those places in which for once, us humans were very much the weaker species. They sit, with cheeky faces, right on the path, so that you have to divert around them, so as not to incur their wrath. On my walk, I’d finally crested a hill and come to the point at which I could see Muckla Flagga lighthouse. For me, an exciting moment. So I wasn’t paying attention to all these evil looking flying menaces. Oh lordy me! Swoosh! Squawk! A dark shape getting larger above me. It’s an angry Great Skua, coming straight for me. I know I’m a lot larger than the bird, but when you have a nasty looking oversized bird flying straight at you, at speed, I can tell you, it’s not pleasant. Did I stay and fight my corner? Nope, I ran, swearing at the ghastly bird. Fumbling, I undid my rucksack straps as I scarpered across the moor, and waved it over my head. Partly as a weapon and mainly to protect my head from the bird with an anger management problem. Luckily the creature gave up the chase and I was able to resume my walk, this time, more careful about where I trod. Its very politically incorrect to say this, but I wondered what a small cull might do to put them in their place. Would they taste good with bread sauce? Probably a bit fishy. (Bird loving folk, please don’t take me too seriously at this point).
What else to report? That I chanced upon a weekly high tea, served in the church hall. Three pounds got me a place at a beautifully laid table, groaning with cakes, and as much tea as I could drink. “Keep eating, we don’t want to take any home with us” insisted the lovely ladies of the church. After 14 miles of walking, a Great Skua chase, and 6 miles of cycling a heavy bicycle, I took their request so seriously that I ended up rounding my contribution up to a fiver as I felt guilty for the amount of scones and drop scones that I consumed. Homemade rhubarb jam too. It was heaven. Plus, the locals were ever so friendly. First I met a school teacher couple, who told me of their annual trips with the children over to Norway. There are close ties with Norway here. But for an inability to pay a marriage dowry back in the 1400s, this would still be Norwegian territory. The couple were keen geocachers, and explained this activity to me. It sounded a bit like a modern, electronic version of a message in a bottle. They left, leaving me to eat more scones. And a very jolly lady with a badge proclaiming she’d just turned 70, appeared. To my amazement she’d heard of my grandfather, when she was a district nurse on the island of Foula in the 70s. (My grandfather was a Swedish artist, who painted the landscapes lonely Atlantic islands, as well as the beautiful Stockholm Archipelago). Swedish connection established, she then kindly took me back to her house to look at a book that some other visiting Swedes had left her. Then she drove me to see the Swedish Stone, a monument to a large Swedish herring fishing community that once lived on the island. The small sound around which a small community now lives, used to hum with thousands of boats and workers each summer, around the turn of the 1900s. Amazing to imagine. But this was the case all around the islands which border the Atlantic – Cornwall, Scotland, Iceland, Norway – all had herring ports and thousands of migratory fishing boats and workers. Until we ate up all the herring.
Changing tack, I was caught in the act of locking up my bicycle. Seems like an innocuous thing to do. And the bike hire place had instructed me to use the lock whenever I left the bike somewhere. But when I first went to lock it, a passing couple explained that people would be offended. Apparently, locking things like bicycles, cars, or your front door, is rude as it implies that you distrust your fellow man. My impromptu tour guide said that she’d not locked her door in a year. And in fact, a year ago she had a new front door installed, and she was unsure as to how it actually did lock.
Another aspect of the Shetlands that I love is the accents and place names. I feel I’m somewhere quite foreign. More like Scandinavia than Scotland. The accents are different from Orkney, which is special too. Here, I really struggle to understand people talking in full dialect. One evening in the hotel, a local couple got chatting to two tourists over dinner. Once the tourists had gone, I was really interested to hear the local couple’s dialect change and become loads broader and pretty much unintelligible (to me). It’s a lovely, lilting, soft language to listen to. There are quite a few Norwegians and Swedes among the tourists here, so that also adds to the linguistic mixture and the Scandinavian feeling. The visitors harbour in Lerwick is full of Swedish and Norwegian yachts. The architecture too, is a juxtaposition of stone built stolid grey dwellings and colourful wooden Scandic buildings.
The next on my list is Bobby’s bus shelter. It’s become one of Unst’s tourist attractions, but it is a working bus shelter. I walked passed it as I headed up to the top of the island. The full story is best told by Bobby himself – the bus shelter has its own website. In essence, as a 7 year old, Bobby wrote a letter complaining about the poor state of the bus shelter to the local paper. A new one was installed, so all well and good. But then a mystery person put a sofa and a table in it. And things ballooned from there. Do have a read of the story, because it is lovely.
Talking of buses, the mini bus to Unst is quite special. Both on the way in and returning south today, I found paying for my fare quite hard. Basically, people get on the bus, sometimes mumble something to the driver about where they wish to disembark. But not always. In some cases it seems that the driver is required to be psychic. But no one pays when they get on. Instead, at a time of their choosing during the journey, they wander forward and hand the coins to the driver. Or they pass the coins to other passengers, to hand on up the bus to the driver. Usually, no one speaks. All very odd!
On my last day in Unst, I walked to a small beach, Skaw beach. The only inhabitants of the beach were families of eider ducks, with adolescent ducklings in tow, bobbing about on the shoreline. The sand is a wonderful pink colour, from the ground down reedy-pink granite that’s only found here – Skaw Granite. It was formed when magma forced its way into existing older rocks and then cooled down. I chose a shell and some small pieces of granite. Then I got my other two shells out of my rucksack, and Little Flora, and my two Peckham bus tickets. These, along with the shamrock necklace that the brilliant people at Best Western Hotels and Beacon Purchasing gave me when I departed, are my lucky items. I’m afraid that I have a mental age of about 7 when it comes to lucky things. I have worn my necklace every single day of my journey. The bus tickets are old, ’60s or ’70s London bus tickets, given to me by Bernard the B&B owner from near Newquay.
I chose a shell on the Isles of Scilly, and wrote the date and place inside it. When I got to John O’Groats I did the same. Now, in Unst, I found a third shell. When I get home I think I’ll probably try and glue all three to a little map of the UK, and frame it.
After my explorations of Unst I travelled back to Lerwick (that bus again, and the two ferry rides). Lerwick is a super little place, again, full of names that make it seem exotic. Like Da Wheel – a pub. And the Peerie Cafe – the little cafe. And the Peerie Cake Shop – the little cake shop. It has a busy working atmosphere, and there are two ‘floaters’ moored here. Floatels are floating accommodation units. Shetland is experiencing good times, with BP expanding its operations here to the tune of 500 new jobs, and unemployment is the lowest in Scotland, basically negligible. The floaters are temporary accommodation to house the influx of workers.
Last night I hopped onto a ferry, and steamed south for 14 hours, to Aberdeen. I’ve just met a friend for breakfast, and from here I’ll catch the train back down to Yorkshire. It’s VERY strange to be travelling south rather than north. I’ve been heading north ever since the 28th of March. Basically through all of the spring and half the summer. I’ve been in Scotland since the start of June. I’ve got used to the 20 or so hours of light, and the vast open landscapes, the hills, the cries of the oystercatchers and the continual accompaniment of skylarks high above my head. And the simple goal; get to the top of Britain. By tomorrow evening I’ll be home, in lush, flat Holderness. There will be tall trees, green grass, and traffic on the roads. I’m happy to be going home. I have a ‘mission accomplished’ feeling. A feeling of contentment and gratitude. Later on I’ll write a little bit more in another blog post about what I learnt about long walks.