I packed up the tent in whiteout conditions – low mist swirling around me in the eery, silent world that was my lonely camping spot on the summit of Watch Hill. My heart sank; not another day of fog, surely? There was no point in spending more hours wandering along a cliff edge with no views so after a few cups of tea, I headed to the car with my gear, glad to get out of the damp, clammy air.I drove AWAY from Eshaness and made for Hillswick, not really sure what to do until the 2pm boat trip I’d booked myself onto in Lerwick, taking me out to the Noss Bird Cliffs.
It was nearly 10am. A couple of big coaches swept past me, cruise ship folk.They were making for the cliffs, rubbish weather or not.Suddenly I felt a bit of a wimp, giving up on the day so early.When the sun really began to rise higher and heat things up, might it not, as it often did, burn this clag away?
So , 10 mins later, braking hard, I made a quick U-turn and went back the way I came, carrying on past my camp spot to Braewick Cafe. My heart sank a bit when I saw the coaches parked outside; the cruise folks had already descended on this little outpost in the middle of nowhere. Aargh..a LONG queue looked likely.
Thankfully, although the cafe was almost full, everyone had been served and were chattering away with each other, unfazed by the gloomy weather.Mostly Americans it seemed, given the various accents I heard – they always sound so happy and upbeat! A contrast to our gruff, more cautious voices.
Sat with my tea and warm fruit scone, looking out on the bay and the cliffs, wishing the mist away.A quick loo visit also let me wash my face and freshen up a bit more than I’d managed with the fragrant Nivea Wipes I use when camping ( these have to go; not environmentally friendly at all.) One lady opened the big glass patio doors beside my table and stood outside in the mizzle, then came in again, shaking her head.
‘It’s SO beautiful, ‘ she said, a big smile on her face.I asked her where she’d sailed from and she explained that they’d been in Norway (Bergen) yesterday and had woken up in Lerwick today. An overnight sail between the two countries these days compared to a 2 day sail in a Viking Longship 1,200 years ago.
‘I’ve been to Scotland before but I’ve never seen scenery like this,’ she gushed, glancing out again at the foggy outline of peach coloured sand, pewter sea, emerald grass and precipitous headlands.I was a bit surprised at this and wondered where she’d been before (only Edinburgh and Inverness/Loch Ness?) as the view wasn’t a highly unusual one in coastal Caledonia.
After 45 mins in the cafe, catching up with and sending messages and photos, hoping the weather would improve, lo and behold, it was already looking like a different day! Oh the relief that I’d hung around and had a bit of patience (not one of my strongest qualities.)
The car park at Eshaness, just 10 mins drive away, was quiet apart from two coaches. And the cliffs were clear – not as dramatic perhaps as Hermaness but impressive enough and really, it was a perfect day for a wander along the coast.Cool, mild breeze, cloud high.
Always good to get underway on a walk, initially skirting one of several ‘geos’ – deep cut , precipitous gashes in the cliffs – which require a detour. Wheeling fulmars and kittiwakes again, though on a lesser scale than yesterday.
It’s a very broken coastline, Eshaness (ness means headland), with offshore arches and islets of very dark rock.It must look even better on a really wild day.
I spent 90 mins or so just wandering along the firm dry grass, admiring the next bit of rock architecture and crashing ocean, breathing in the cool salty air.Shetland is well set up for walking, with nicely built stiles over the drystane dyke walls and fences. It’s a wealthy island, given the big oil terminal at Sullom Voe; a local chap told me that the community has over £340m tucked away in a fund to support various developments on the islands.One reason there are 16 swimming pools in Shetland, unbelievable for a rural, remote community! Shetlanders were very smart when oil was first discovered, making the islanders benefitted.If only mainland Scotland had been similarly smart (or had been allowed to be so) instead of oil revenues going straight into the coffers of the London govt (and wasted on foreign wars).
Back to the car and time to head for ‘Lerrick’ as Wilma called it.( When I was in Orkney a few years ago a local weather forecast was broadcast over the radio and the woman presenter said ‘..so on Monday, it’s shooers…and on Tuesday, more shooers.’ Sounded so much better than showers or rain!)
I just had time to stop off in Fjara Cafe for tea (and no window seat as ever) before stepping onto Thule Charters’ MV Ruby May at 2pm.Stewart and Frank were brilliant, giving a running commentary about Shetland’s history as we chugged slowly out of the busy harbour area.Then the throttle was opened and we began to speed along the coast on calm if misty seas. There were a couple of very young children from London, desperate to see seals close up – they were promised that and more.It was a 3 hour trip and I hoped they wouldn’t get bored. In fact, there was never a dull moment!
We detoured to enter an enormous, colourful seacave, where nesting kittiwakes with fluffy grey and black – spotted chicks watched us warily from their nests.Then along the precipitous coast past sea stacks and rock arches as the cliffs got higher and more impressive.Suddenly we turned a corner and the famous Noss Bird Cliffs loomed above.
The pungent stink of fish was an assault, solid .On every ledge and crevice of the 600 foot rock face sat snow white gannets, thousands of them, croaking and chattering.Then one would sweep out over the sea, before rising ever higher then turning quickly and hurtling like a bullet into the depths.The children on the boat squealed at the sight, as hundreds of these graceful seabirds plunged not far from the boat before surfacing again, some lucky with a fish in their huge arrow like beaks, others taking to the skies to try again.
Great Skuas watched them carefully, ready to mob and steal.They often worked two at a time, harassing and threatening the gannets, forcing them to drop their catch out of fear.Amidst all this, thousands of guillemots and puffins fluttered to and from the cliffs.It was a wildlife melee, a thrill for anyone who loves being in the very heart of the natural world.
Half an hour or so later and we moved on but the spectacle wasn’t over.Now Stewart began to hold pieces of fish up in the air (now I knew what the bucket was for) and soon, three or four Great Skuas began to fly alongside until one was bold enough to deftly pick it off his fingers.Wow! These predatory birds are usually to be avoided, I’ve fended off an attack many’s a time but now they were being encouraged to get as close as possible.I took a fish when offered and it was quite a sight to watch these powerful brown seabirds cruise closer and closer to me, before the hooked beak of the bravest eagerly picked the fish from my hand with not even a nip.
Next up in the bag of tricks that was Thule Charters, was Frank dropping a line with mackerel flies over the side. In less than a minute, the children all watching wide-eyed, he reeled in 6 huge Mackerel, beautiful fish and very easy to catch if a shoal is in.They bite at anything.These were being saved for the trip’s final flourish.
As we pulled into Lerwick Bay, the heads of three Harbour Seals bobbed up behind us, and began swimming towards the back of the boat. Stewart cut the engine and the next thing, two seals pulled themselves up onto the back fender, incredibly large now they were up close.With the children (and adults) warned not to touch them , no matter the temptation – and it was tempting, they were so endearing somehow, big gentle dancing eyes – Frank began to feed them fish, throwing the mackerel not the water. The seals did a quick about – turn and slipped effortlessly into the sea to enjoy their feast. Then they were up on the boat again, inches away from us before more fish were thrown to them.
In all , we spent about 10 minutes with the seals, they were fascinating to watch. In fact once the boat was berthed at Lerwick and we all paraded off, Stewart continued his own conversation up close with one big male.Quite an incredible encounter.
It was drizzling again when I got to the car and I had nowhere to stay tonight; the forecast didn’t make a camp sound too pleasant. On the spur of the moment I drove to the ferry terminal where the MV Hjaltland (Shetland in Norse) was loading cars reading for her sailing to Aberdeen in an hour.
I had a booking on the Freight ship tomorrow evening and had had no luck trying to change to the passenger ferry.Not really imagining that I’d get on (given how it had been almost impossible to get the car booked in the first place)I asked the guy directing things if there as space. He sent off a young bloke at the reception cubicle to check and 5 mins later, I was being told to park up and get inside quickly to get my tickets changed.There was space for me AND the car! (It’s possible for a car to travel freight with the driver on the passenger ferry albeit there’s a couple of hours difference in timings.)
So at 7pm, I watched solid little Lerwick disappear in a drizzly haze, headed for Aberdeen with our arrival due 12 hours later.A brilliant short exploration of a very rewarding set of islands, far more scenic than Orkney and islands I’d felt very comfortable in from the start. A bit of a bucket list for me too, these Northern Isles – so near, yet seeming so far away – but now no longer a strange land.