DAY 1: Getting There
It’s a LONG way to these beautiful Northern Isles but with time to spare and wanting to get away for a few days, in mid July I finally made this oft-thought of trip happen. With my mind made up on going only the day before, it wasn’t easy getting onto the Aberdeen – Lerwick ferry with the car but perseverance paid off and I got lucky with a cancellation. There were complications on the ferry journey back as my car would go freight, while I would go on the passenger ferry! They don’t charge extra for this arrangement.But I had hopes again, of getting a cancellation and travelling with my car. A quick look at flying to Sumburgh , the airport on Mainland Shetland really put me off in terms of the horrendous cost (flights are often fully booked with oil workers) – it ranged from £340 return to over £700! Plus I’d then have car hire to arrange which a quick check online revealed as not cheap.
Was it all worth the 12 hour overnight sail and back (no cabin available for love nor money) and the 3 hour drive each way, up to and from Aberdeen? Yes!! Many times over! Shetland is far more scenic than Orkney and has some of Scotland’s finest cliff scenery, beautiful coastal views, some fine ancient sites and white sand beaches. It feels very Norse, being almost but not quite as close to Norway as mainland Scotland.Viking longhouses and reconstructed long ships dot the landscape. Norse is prevalent in the names of streets and villages.Shetland is a paradise for birdwatchers and the sheer number of seabirds on the formidable cliffs is a sight, sound – and smell! – to behold.
I set off at 8am on the Friday, saying goodbye to Chris who didn’t have the time to take off work for this little trip.It’s an easy, fast if fairly dull drive from Glasgow to Aberdeen but my plan was to drive initially about 40 mins north of the city to see the Bullers of Buchan cliffs (with possible puffin sightings) and Slains Castle.With my ferry not leaving until 7pm, I had all day to dawdle.
Slains Castle and the Bullers of Buchan
Both sights were interesting enough but not wow or must sees. Slains is a gaunt ruin, spooky rather than attractive (to me) though the drone pic presents it at its best.It’s a less grand and less ornate version of Linlithgow Palace though in a fine location. I parked in the nearby small village of Cruden Bay and walked half a mile or so along a woodland path to finally reach the cliffs and castle. The Bullers is a huge hole formed in the cliffs not too far away from Slains(in fact you can walk between the two).Plenty of nesting fulmars and occasional puffins and a little kestrel chick were a nice sight but could not compare with what lay ahead in Shetland. Always good to see puffins too but again, not comparable with the sheer numbers and proximity of the puffins on the Treshnish Isles trip off Mull.
Jarlshof and Sumburgh Head
I saved over 100 quid by NOT having a cabin (or £38 if I’d booked a triple share cabin) for the overnight crossing. The MV Hjlatland (Norse for Shetland which means the hilt of a sword) was a very comfortable ship, loads of room, not too noisy, clean, decent food on board but nothing to see during most of the voyage apart from empty sea.I soon gave up looking for dolphins, orcas etc and browsed my Tablet.TRIED to sleep hunkered down on the floor between large lounge recliner seats, the upper half of my body finding some comfort from the hard floor by resting on my rucksack.It wasn’t a brilliant arrangement and by 2am it was also FREEZING, despite being inside! (On the return journey, my Therm -a -Rest and sleeping bag did the trick.)So – not much sleep and by 5am I decided to give up the ghost and just sit and watch the dawn light over the cold North Sea, south Shetland itself looming out of the grey half light.
By 7.20am (20 mins late), we were gliding into Lerwick harbour on a flat pewter sea, passing grey houses huddled together very attractively along an endless sea-front, all backed by emerald green fields and low hills. A Viking longboat was anchored in the bay and cameras (including mine) flashed and clicked in the cold, low light.A strange, new Northern land, whose heart perhaps lay more towards Norway than Scotland.
I also noticed an enormous cruise ship behind us and knew where the hundreds on board would be headed for – Jarlshof! This is one of the UK’s if not Europe’s most important ancient sites, an almost 5,000 year old Neolithic village, larger than Skara Brae in Orkney.
It took an agonising 35mins for my car to finally be directed to disembark, North Link not using the excellent Roll – On Roll – Off (RoRo) ferries employed by Caledonian MacBrayne in the west. So all sorts of awkward, time-consuming manoeuvres were required before my little Megane’s tyres rolled onto Shetland tarmac for the first time.
A Lerwick Airbnb
Lerwick is surprisingly big but my first port of call was to pick up the keys to my Airbnb (this suited the owner best) in a wee place 6 miles outside town, all on its own.Well, it would have been better if it HAD been on its own as per the description but in fact it was part of an untidy, quite ugly cluster of mostly ill-kept looking property down a broken track. Thankfully, the lady owner, a local, was an absolute gem and her house, with available space filled with ‘stuff’ – valuables, junk, old newspapers, plants, general clutter – was actually very charming.Or my room and own bathroom was at least, up a creaky wooden staircase, the resting place for several pairs of shoes.It was an old house with lovely pine panelled walls painted in soft blue/green and cream, pretty floral curtains and ancient furniture – the place had oodles of character, a bit like it’s owner.£45 for the night, a lot for one person but for two, excellent value.
But once that was done, I was keen to head south and beat the crowds from the ‘Viking Sea’ who would also be heading for ‘The Earl’s House’, way down in the south of Mainland, about a 40 min drive away.
One thing I knew right away was, Shetland appealed to me already in a way Orkney never had, despite today’s gloomy skies and flat light.It had hills – rolling moorland and peat and an indented coastline of beautiful looking cliffs and dramatic little bays.Farmland too, but less uniform than on its southern neighbour (6 hours sail away.Not that neighbourly.) It’s a wealthy place too – all that oil money has been put to good use; wide, first class roads, mostly newish houses with well kept gardens( though not as attractive as the whitewashed cottages of the West), neat farmland.) I would find out just how wealthy the island was next day during a quick conversation in the Fjara cafe queue.
The names of villages were out of Lord of the Rings – Quarff, Gremista, Fladdabister, Aithsetter. Actually some were similar to those on Skye and the Outer Isles, islands also ruled by Vikings.
My heart sank as I saw two big coaches already parked at Jarlshof and throngs of mostly elderly people milling around.Thankfully, they were all waiting on their guides so at the witching hour of 9.30am when the place opened, I was one of the first in.Flashing my Historic Scotland pass, I was soon looking down upon the remains of prehistoric houses and tradesmen’s dwellings.Uniquely, as well as the Neolithic houses, there are also superb remains of an Iron Age Broch and wheelhouse, a Bronze Age village, Viking longhouse and a 16th century ruin.This has long been a prized place to live!
Out of keeping with all this ancient wonder was the regular roar of jet aircraft landing at the almost adjacent Sumburgh Airport, a surprisingly large affair but of course reflecting the constant stream of oil workers (heading for Sullom Voe) and healthy commerce of this remote but thriving group of islands.But overall, an absolutely fascinating place.
I was really keen to do the walk along a signposted coastal path, up to Sumburgh Head which promised cliffs, puffins , possible Orca sightings and – a cafe!I was now desperate for tea and a scone or cake ( really, it’s a serious addiction.)
It was a nice, springy-turf path with easy stiles over the beautiful dry-stane dyke walls, a feature of Shetland, past a rocky shoreline of low cliffs, rising significantly as I approached the Lighthouse. Some very dramatic cliff scenery once near the top, with wheeling and crying fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots.Wildflowers everywhere, on every crevice and slope, very lovely.
The cafe with its promised panoramic windows was shut, so it was bottled water and an apple instead.But there was so much to enjoy, I soon got over that shock as I watched puffins preening themselves on the cliff face; ducking into their burrows as predatory Great Skuas swept over.Many people had simply driven up here and the coaches were already bringing the cruise folk up from the ruins. It was a majestic spot alright.
I walked back via the road, a mistake , as the short cropped grass was much nicer underfoot and the views weren’t any better (and it was longer).I had to use the facilities of the Sumburgh Hotel, which is allowed if you’ve visited Jarlshof. Slightly oddly, there was a woman positioned as a sort of security guard to stop visitors from inadvertently wandering into the main guest area, which was also roped off. The dated 80s decor didn’t make me want to explore it further. And that aircraft noise too…..
The sun wasn’t quite managing to get out but I didn’t care, I was at nearly 60 degrees north and it was dry and looked set to stay so.What I had dreaded was hitting a few days of fog (which was on its way!) something the Northern Isles can be prone to.
St Ninian’s Isle
A quick stop at the Iron Age Broch and village at Old Scatness, but it was closed.Then a drive to West Mainland to see the famous Tombola beach which connects to the sacred isle of St Ninian and what promised to be a fine circular walk.This was where the St Ninian’s Isle treasure was found, now in the National Museum of Scotland – 28 pieces of exquisite Pictish silver jewellery, from around 800AD.
After only 20 mins drive west from Sumburgh , I pulled in quickly to admire the fine Atlantic coast landscape above Spiggie Loch and a cracker of a white sand beach which I detoured off the B9122 road to explore.
It was Hebridean standard, dunes and marram grass, white sand and turquoise water. The map told me it was Scousburgh beach, in a part of the island which was now far less populated, far wilder altogether with wonderful coastal views of cliffs and headlands.
It was stop -start from now on, as I passed above more wonderful beaches and cliff headlands.One pristine and deserted white strand was dotted with pupping Harbour Seals.It reminded me a little of watching the Elephant Seals (though ours were smaller of course) hauled out on the beaches of California, at Ano Nueva.
Finally, St Ninian’s Isle appeared across the white sands below the village of Bigton (which wasn’t really.) A busy car park but plenty spaces and after packing my day sack with water, apples and crisps, off I went.There were quite a few people about on this now bright Saturday in August but I left everyone behind as I headed to the far end of the beach and up the track which led onto the island itself.
The walk is less than 4 miles, mostly flat but oh…the cliff and ocean views are a joy.I didn’t meet another soul as I followed the grassy path round geos (fissures in the cliffs), inlets and bays, admiring the wildflowers, a very benign ocean and fulmars flying by me at eye level, making sure I wasn’t a threat to their nests on the ledges below. I was fascinated by a headland far to the south – Fitful Head I think it was – wild and lonely and cliff-girt.It looked an amazing area.Larks sang their hearts out overhead and there was the occasional ‘mehhhh’ of sheep.Utter peace.
I sat at the Trig point looking way, way north towards the faint outline of the cliffs of Eshaness (another objective) and just gazed at the ocean and the birds and the headlands for ages.It wasn’t cold; I was walking in shorts and t-shirt. After the mad dash to get to Shetland, just to relax and breathe for half an hour, to ‘be’ and to acknowledge that I was here and enjoying it all immensely , was bliss.
The final section of the walk took me to the remains of the tiny , 12th century, Celtic St Ninian’s Chapel. This is the site of the earliest Christian burials on Shetland and where the St Ninian’s Hoard was found.
I was back at the car in 90 mins or so, surprised that no-one else was enjoying that little slice of paradise. Albeit, one where you have to watch your step , given the ring of cliffs which protect it.But on a calm, bright, dry day, no danger.
Lerwick and food in Scalloway
Back to Lerwick ( or as my Airbnb hostess called it in her wonderful accent , ‘Lerrick’) where I strolled the attractive backstreets looking for somewhere to get some food.The local Fish’n’Chips shop was, weirdly, closed at 7pm on a Saturday night and nothing else much appealed.So back over to Scalloway, about 10 mins drive away, where the Hotel looked promising and proved so to be. Excellent Monkfish Scampi and chips in their very quiet bar, nice friendly staff and altogether a very pleasant wee village, with its own ruined castle and some very Scandinavian looking houses on the outskirts.
What a fantastic day it had been on these far flung isles. I was excited already about tomorrow and my plan to visit Mouse Broch by boat.These ancient structures, a kind of Iron Age roundhouse, are found only in Scotland and Mousa is the best preserved of all.Built in 300BC and 13m tall, it is a sight to behold. With calm seas continuing to be forecast(not always the case and it’s a small boat) tomorrow was the day to do it.