The Shetland Islands

Wednesday 20th September
Lerwick, Shetland

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Arriving into Lerwick at 7am

Arrived into Lerwick on a glorious morning and it was a pleasant surprise to be able to check into my B&B; having booked it just hours ago and it only being 8am. After a visit to the tourist information and a coffee I set off on a self-guided walking tour of Lerwick.  It took in all the sights, doing a full lap of Britain’s most northerly town in just a few miles.  I walked around the informative museum learning about Shetland’s geology, it’s Neolithic significance, the Viking invasion and colonisation, the pawning of Shetland to Scotland as part of a dowry, the Dutch herring trade, Fair Isle knitwear, their role in the world wars and the Shetland ‘bus’, traditions such as Up Helly Aa right up to the impact that finding North Sea oil has had.

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Jimmy Perez’s Lodberry off of the Shetland TV show

Shetland has a distinct feel to it, it has a tangible identity and Scandinavian feel, unlike the Orkneys which feel much more like mainland Scotland.  It’s relative distance no doubt contributes to it’s isolated feel. I’ll now not be so crass as to lump them together as one group of islands off the north coast of Scotland, they’re practically 2 different countries separated by approx. 100 miles of sea (with little Fair Isle sat in the middle!).

 

Thursday 21st September
Southern Mainland

I picked up another hire car to get around more islands and to eventually take me to the northern part of Unst. First I drove south, down the mainland peninsula to Sumburgh Head, the lighthouse and RSPB reserve. At one point the traffic was halted at a level crossing-type barrier and my immediate thought was; ‘there are no trains on Shetland’. My instinct was correct, we were let through and it turned out it was for one of the runways at Shetland’s main airport. It was novel driving across the strip of tarmac and part of me wanted to veer off and see what my Kia Picanto was made of, but the large yellow signs warning of fines did their job.

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Sumburgh Head

On the way back north I visited Jarlshof, a neolithic settlement very reminiscent of Skara Brae in Orkney.  It was buried under sand dunes, revealed in the same storm of 1880 and looks remarkably similar despite nothing categorically linking them. I started making my way towards Voe stopping at Scalloway (the historical capital of Shetland) and an art gallery. I would be spending the night in a böd – the one in Voe is a former salt store and sail loft.  They are unique to Shetland and are halfway between a hostel and a bothy.  They all have custodians who typically live nearby to deal with guests and you have to book in advance but other than that it’s very informal. I followed the instructions for finding the custodian and once inside it felt very much like a hostel but I had the place to myself.  There were 2 dorm rooms, a kitchen with the basics and toilets and showers, and the location right on the harbour was delightful.

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View from Voe Böd

I went for a quiet drink at the pub that was opposite the böd then retired to light myself a peat fire.  Like Orkney, Shetland has no trees but a huge amount of peat which is commercially extracted, dried and packaged much like coal.

 

Friday 22nd September
Western Mainland, across Yell and up to tip of Unst

The previous day had been dreich but by morning it had cleared and was a gloriously crisp morning. The wind was biting but the light is so sharp up here. This time I headed north west to the headland of Eshaness which is a very dramatic coastline, sculpted by the Atlantic which constantly batters the rocks.  There are steep cliffs, stacks, inlets (geos), caves and arches which constantly draw the eye as you wander along the tops.

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Eshaness

Unfortunately I couldn’t wander for hours, I had ferries to catch.  Firstly from the mainland up to Yell, then a connecting ferry from Yell to Unst (with a 30min drive between the two ports). Once on Unst I only had one thought; getting to the most north easterly point and finding somewhere to camp. This for me was the end of my trip; having visited Long Point on St Agnes, all those months and miles ago, by getting to Skaw on Unst would mean I would have travelled across the entirety of Britain from the most south westerly point to the most north easterly.

I arrived at Skaw (marked on the map as the most northerly house in Britain), parked the car, wandered down to the beach and found it to be an idyllic spot for one last wild camp. I made sure I was pitched just north of the house, likely making me the most northerly person in Britain for the night! I watched the sun set behind me, listened to the sea birds squawking and the waves crashing. It was a nice moment to reflect on the trip. It wasn’t the most serene night; the waves continued to crash very loudly (I had checked that I was camped above the strand line but the doubt crept in; ‘could there be a freakish high tide, it is the autumn equinox tonight, are they linked?’), and the wind whipped up the beach contorting my tent into all sorts of shapes.  I had faith that it would stay in tact but if it didn’t, I could move to the car and fix the tent when I got home. The sky was clear so it was a cold night and the stars were truly awesome.  The milky way was obvious, there were shooting stars a plenty and the horizon to the north glowed a dull yellow/orange.  I would learn later that this was the northern lights but since it wasn’t dancing green shafts of light I didn’t give it a second look and leapt into bed.

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Me on my beach
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Last wild camp on Skaw beach
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The most northern house in Britain

 

Saturday 23rd September
Unst to Fetlar

The morning was bright but still cold and I packed away the tent for the final time with 2 seals watching me. I then wrote a note to accompany the pebble that I picked up on St Agnes, Scilly. I placed them in a jar and threw it into the sea. I wonder if anyone will find it?

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Message in a bottle

I drove back down Unst, more slowly this time, stopping at the attractions:

Left: This one’s for Ronnie and Julie. Me with the most northerly post box I could find!
Right: Bobby’s bus shelter (the previous bus shelter was demolished and once the new one was installed it acquired furniture, it now has a makeover every year).

I caught the ferry to Fetlar where I was spending another night in a böd, this time it was much more traditional.  It was a croft that had belonged to a local storyteller called Jamsie and was very well looked after.  Whilst on Fetlar I watched an episode of Time Team in the museum (hosted by my new mate Sir Tony) where they uncovered some stonking Viking finds on Fetlar, went twitching at the reserve and spent some time on the beach.  Back at the böd I met fellow dweller; Neal. A local, he had retired from the oil refinery at Sullum Voe the previous year and had started a project to walk the 1,000mile coastline of the inhabited islands of Shetland. He was almost finished, seeing this as training for doing LEJOG next year so we had a lot in common and spent the evening talking in front of the fire. I was honoured to have met him, there are far fewer people in the world (approx. 2) who’ve walked the coast of Shetland than have walked LEJOG.  Neal – feel free to get in touch. If I can, I’d like to join you on a day of your LEJOG trip.

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Jamsie’s böd by the beach

 

Sunday 24th toWednesday 27th September
Fetlar to Home

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Fetlar Pony

On the way to catching my 4th ferry out of 6 in 2 days I stopped to feed some Shetland ponies and watch the gannets dive bomb into the rough sea. I then drove back down Yell, down the mainland to Lerwick to catch the overnight ferry to Aberdeen.

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Goodbye Shetland

 

On the way home I stopped off in Edinburgh to have dinner with an old friend, and in Durham to spend an evening with Ronnie and Julie who’ve cheered me on from the sidelines since their LEJOG trip came to it’s premature end.  They’re support has meant a lot to me and I feel like I’ve made friends for life. I just hope I’m able to provide the same level of support when they attempt the trip again next year.  Once I’d finally made it to London there was just enough time to swing by the pub for a swift drink where the Rockhoppers were having their monthly social.  I hadn’t told anyone I was back, I just walked into the pub with my bag on my back and said ‘surprise’!

On the very final leg of my journey, on the train from London to East Sussex, I finally came to terms with the trip coming to an end.  I’d put it off for nearly 2 weeks but now I was ready for some of lifes luxuries; slippers, central heating, a fluffy towel, my own bed, clean clothes and home cooked food. I think the reality of what I’ve achieved will take some time to sink in and I look forward to looking back on the high points and the low points.

I’ve also very much enjoyed keeping this blog, although at times it has been hard to motivate myself to do it. So a final thank you to anyone and everyone who has read it, I hope you enjoyed it, and you never know there could be a book so keep your eyes peeled for that and you can read it all over again!

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Back home with balloons, whiskey and cake – what more could one want?

 

The Orkney Islands

Saturday 16th September
Orkney Mainland – Kirkwall and Stromness

After spending Friday recovering, come Saturday I was ready to jump aboard the ferry from John O’Groats to Burwick which is on the south east island of South Ronaldsay. The bus would then take me across 3 more islands to the capital of Kirkwall on the mainland – that would be 5 out of 70 Orkney islands in just 30 minutes, if I keep up this rate I could see them all in one day! To give you an idea of the archipelago; 20 of the 70 islands are inhabited by approx. 21,000 people.

I checked into the hostel, visited the cathedral, the museum, the high street and then hopped on another bus to the other main town of Stromness. It was hosting to the Orkney Blues Festival this weekend so I went to check it out. After exploring the town, including a well established museum of modern art I left the main streets and walked up to the nearest trig point. I have a hill walking habit now and needed a fix.

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Brinkies Brae

The Blues Festival started slowly but by 8pm the hotel was rocking; standing room only. Unfortunately, the last bus back to Kirkwall was at 9pm so I missed the BBC Blues Band but I still had a toe tapping time.

Sunday 17th September
Island of Shapinsay

The pier opposite the hostel was used for trips to Shapinsay (pronounced Shap-say I think), so that is where I went. A few thousand years ago the Orkney Islands would have been covered with trees, but the early farmers tore them down and it’s been that way ever since. Farming is the way of life up here, with its resulting products being the main export and so they use every square meter for this purpose. The vast majority of the island is a network of fields with the occasional track between 2 fences which as a wanderer is a bit frustrating. There was however an RSPB reserve with a hide, kitted out with binoculars and a telescope, bonus! So I spent a couple of hours enjoying lots of twitching firsts; widgeon, shovelers, teal and possibly a hen harrier. Very exciting!
In the afternoon I went down to the beach for some relaxation and a bit of beach art.

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Beach stones

Further along the coast, I took a track that led to the shore and as I got close I could see some seals lying across the rocky shelf that stretched out into the water. They spotted me straight away and started to shift towards to the water in their inelegant manor, so I stopped dead and crouched out of sight. I waited for them to relax, I took my bag off and left it by the path. I then proceeded in a Grandmother’s footsteps-type way creeping towards them and frequently ducking out of sight. There were a few adults and a couple of younger ones – common seals I think, not the really cute furry grey ones – but seals nonetheless. Once I got to within about 50m I went down on my hands and knees to crawl up behind a mound of dirt and popped my head out occasionally to watch them. It was a lovely moment and as I watched them behave very naturally, with others swimming about in the bay.

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Seals

Monday 18th September
Island of Hoy

Another day, another off-island and ferry ride. This time to Hoy, with one of Orkney’s most recognisable natural features sitting just off the west coast – the Old Man of Hoy. As the boat navigated around the island of Graemsay just outside Stromness harbour, the hills of Hoy loomed ahead. Shapinsay and Hoy couldn’t be more different. As I eluded to earlier, the former is flat (a high point of 64m), fertile and one big field system, Hoy on the other hand is home to the highest point on the archipelago (492m), is mostly wild moorland and peat bog, and feels much more like part of the west coast of Scotland.
At the port, a minibus was waiting to take a few of us to Rackwick from where we could walk up and over to the Old Man. We arranged a return time for the bus; 4hrs later. The driver and a sign indicate that it takes 3hrs to walk out and back to the coast to see the sea stack. I needn’t have been cautious about the time, as it turns out I’m a bit quicker than your average tourist these days. I reached the viewpoint within 40mins and admired the geology. It’s an interesting thing, but I thought that the view looking north along the west coast was far more dramatic (they are some of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe). I checked the time and the map. I needed to get my fix for pathless, mossy, boggy peaks so headed off the beaten track to Moor Fea. From here I could see back across to mainland Scotland; Dunnet Head (the most northerly point of mainland Britain) and the mountains in the background. I enjoyed some frivolity on the summit in the company of some mountain hares and then pootled back to the hostel at Rackwick. There was still 90mins to wait so I wandered down to the bothy and the beach.

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Lucy on Hoy!

Tuesday 19th September
Orkney – Western Mainland

The main sites are not accessible by bus, so I hired a car for the day.  I visited; the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, Skaill House, the Kitchener Memorial, the Orkney Brewery and another bird hide. Eventually returning the car in Kirkwall before catching the overnight ferry to Shetland. It was a very busy and educational day, so prepare for a history lesson!

The Orkney landscape is littered with ancient monuments, villages, temples, cairns and burial chambers. Historians believe that Orkney was a centre for the Neolithic people, having found examples of their society and culture that surpass all others in Europe.  Firstly, the standing circle of stones at Stenness is one of the earliest in Britain, having been placed there about 5,000 years ago. The stones are massive and the space they create is evocative, especially if you visit early on a blustery weekday morning and virtually have the place to yourself.

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Stenness

The Ring of Brodgar is another stone circle which has been well documented, but the land it stood within; the Ness of Brodgar had been overlooked. Archaeological digs are currently in progress which are revealing a new ancient wonder of the world which is on a par with or even supersedes the pyramids of Egypt.

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Orkney Traffic Jam!

Next stop was Skara Brae; a settlement occupied from 3180BC to 2500BC.  Unbeknownst to the local laird, the set of 8 neolithic houses was lying beneath sand dunes in the bay of Skaill until 1850 when a huge storm scoured away the sand. It revealed a perfectly preserved world.  The walls and features were so immaculate that I almost didn’t believe the story. I was sceptical because I couldn’t comprehend that something so old could look so new.  I could visualise people (although historians don’t know what they looked like) going about their daily lives; cooking at the hearth, eating from bowls, sleeping in their beds, making tools and playing games with their neighbours who’d come through the underground passages.

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Skara Brae

I then skipped very quickly through time; fast forwarding about 4000 years to when the first part of Skaill House was built.  It’s Orkney’s finest manor house but given how spoilt I was growing up in a National Trust hot spot, it didn’t capture my imagination as much as the neolithic history so I didn’t spend long there.  Next stop was another 300 years forward in time; the Kitchener memorial. It was built in the 1920’s in memory of not only Lord Kitchener (from THAT WWI recruitment poster; “Your country needs you”) but the other 736 lives lost and the 12 survivors of HMS Hampshire.  They had been ordered to sail to Russia for a meeting with the Tsar despite an incoming storm. It is believed the ship struck a German laid mine.  This, along with the atrocious weather is what led to the scale of the disaster.  It’s location upon the cliffs at Marwick Head is poignant but the weather could not have been more different from the day of the catastrophe. I spent some time watching the sea birds (fulmars I think), the bunnies and looking out to sea where, if you took a bearing exactly west, next landfall would be Newfoundland having just bypassed the southern tip of Greenland.

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Kitchener Memorial

The final stop on my whirlwind tour of west Orkney is only 29 years old; the brewery. I found it a hard pill to swallow that I had had to drive to the brewery and therefore couldn’t properly sample their fares. I did however purchase a few bottles of ale to sample at a later date. Once I had returned the car, I put my feet up at the Kirkwall hotel for the evening.  The ferry was at 23:45 and the lovely hotel receptionist who clocked off at around 10pm offered me a lift to the port. She considered 2miles far too far for me to walk and I agreed, not letting on that I had just completed LEJOG. I didn’t want her to rescind her offer!

Next stop Shetland.