The Taing sits nestled on the edge of the striking red sands of Reawick beach on Shetland's west mainland, offering the ideal rural retreat.
The Taing, Reawick (self-catering)
Half an hour drive from Lerwick and situated on Shetland’s scenic west mainland The Taing offers everything – and more – a guest could possibly wish for. From its eclectic mix of earthenware bowls, plates and mugs, to the carefully selected artworks from locals such as Gilly Bridle and Howard Towll. The attention to detail here is to be marvelled at; from the Farrow & Ball painted door upon arrival, to the luxurious roll-top bath overlooking the beach in the ground floor bathroom. White Company candles, a complimentary bottle of merlot and crisp, white sheets on the beautifully presented beds all made for the most welcome of first impressions to this stunning beach-side property.
A bath with a view. Who wouldn't want to gaze out over the beach from here?
For me, it was love at first sight, as I’m sure it was for owners Shelagh and Peter who say that, “After many years of visiting Shetland, Peter bought The Taing with the intention of living there.
“As is often the case when buying a property, it needed more TLC than anticipated.
“Five years later, after knocking down walls, installing new heating, making it water-tight, replacing the kitchen and decorating etc. it is finally ready to be lived in and enjoyed.”
All they ask of their guests is that, “you enjoy it as much as we do.”
The Taing opened its doors to guests for the first time this year, and you can really feel the heart and soul of Peter and Shelagh in this house, which feels far more like a home than a holiday let.
A quiet spot for contemplation.
The house itself is divided across two floors; with a spacious dining room, kitchen, master bedroom, bathroom and sun-porch on the ground floor, and on the second floor there’s another double bedroom, a spacious lounge with wood burning stove and second toilet with shower. In the lounge, there is a sofa bed and plenty of space to sleep more guests, and each window in the property features a commanding view, and with the exception of the kitchen, these are all out to sea across the sweeping beach.
After lunch – and bearing in mind we were travelling with a two and six-year-old – we went to the beach, where we scoured the tideline for shells and sea glass. Hansi set to work building some sort of dam and water diversion scheme which involved a great deal of engineering prowess (and digging). We found a little brittlestar washed up on the tide-line, which we kept in a bucket for a while before setting it free again. We had a pocket book called The Seashore but could still not identify the little five-legged creature that sprickled in our hands. But that didn’t matter; we’ll call it a brittlestar.
Searching the shoreline to find out who lives there, and why.
It was no hardship to while away an hour at the beach. The sand is incredible, with distinct bands of colour and texture, alternating between sand, gravel and shingle, interspersed with chunks of volcanic rock deposited intermittently across this striking sand. This area of the west mainland is geologically diverse – as is Shetland as a whole – Reawick and the surrounding area sit on a bedrock of red granite which gives rise to this wonderfully rich, burnt orange sand. It’s incredible the wonders that can lie beneath your feet in Shetland, and that’s why we were awarded Geopark status in 2009.
Things to do in the area:
There's plenty to do in the area, particularly for those who have a love of solitude, walking and fantastic landscapes. For the keen hiker, this is the perfect base to explore some of the hidden gems of the west mainland, of which there are plenty. We stayed at The Taing for two days and I have highlighted our walks below.
A note on walking: Here in Shetland you are free to explore and roam. Just remember to leave gates as you find them, and stay safe. For more information, check this.
Coastal circular walk from Reawick beach – Roeness – beach
Walk distance: 4 miles
Time taken: 3 hours (with much stopping and picnicking along the way)
Once we peeled the bairns away from the sand, we headed off up the hill to explore the surrounding coastal routes around The Taing. Despite a few protestations from little legs, and many pit stops to pat ponies, enjoy picnics, examine animal skulls and poops and rabbit hole scree’s, we completed the four-mile walk south from The Taing to Roeness and back. We made this walk into a loop, rejoining the track, and then the road, at the Roeness house. An idyllic walk which took in stunning coastal scenery; sea caves, a natural arch, cliffs teeming with the cackles of fulmars and the alluringly named ‘Johnny Sinclair’s Nose’. What was this feature, which stood out on the OS map like a shark in a fish tank?
Who was Johnny Sinclair and why is his nose on the map? A quick check at Canmore (the national record for the historic environment) reveals that it is: “A 3m wide and 0.5m high earthen bank running perpendicular to the coast. It is eroding over very high cliffs at its S extremity. It lies in rough grazing and is visible for over 50m inland.”
I can’t say that this feature in the landscape stood out as much in reality as it did on the map, but we did discover his nose, and marvel at the land use of past societies farming at Roeness.
But the truth is, nose or not, this walk is worth doing for the coastal scenery alone; for the wild bubble and cackle of the fulmar’s colonies, the dramatic cliffs and the rugged coastline.
Looking out to sea we enjoyed stunning vistas to Hamnavoe to the east, Fitful to the south and Sandsound to the north. This is an area that I hear about every summer as dad makes his annual pilgrimage to the Haddock Sands in search of – yes, you guessed it – haddock.
Arriving back at The Taing at tea time, and with the evening sun shining in on the valley, lighting up the faces of the daffodils that lined the roadsides and verges, I couldn’t resist the pull of the ocean. The low light creating shimmering prisms on the turquoise sea was too tempting. So despite the cool April temperatures, I put on my wetsuit and splatched into the sea (anyone who saw my Instagram stories will have seen this graceless approach, and it is highlighted here).
There is so much to do at The Taing, it makes a great base for exploring both land and sea!
Curry for tea, and a quick cycle, which was cut short when I realised that actually my legs were pretty done in after all the walking. (Not from the snorkelling as I really just floated like a selkie until the cold water seeped into my hood and gave me brain freeze).
As the sun set, we listened to the gentle hush as the waves washed up the beach. A soothing melody as I lay in bed beside two weary bairns on the cusp of sleep; sitting on the edge of a dream. It’s in moments of calm reflection like these that I’m able to really count my blessings, and appreciate the wonders of where we live.
The Taing is carefully and lovingly curated with treasures.
We woke to the call of the shalders (oystercatchers) on the beach, and the waves washing over the sand – the smell of fresh coffee wafting through the house from the kitchen. Or at least that’s what would have happened had we been without children. In reality, we woke with two small humans invading our peaceful slumber, and we argued over who was going to make the coffee. But, with coffee in hand and peace restored, we could lay in bed gazing out the window and plan the day ahead. The wind had freshened overnight, and I could hear it forcing its way down the lum like thunder.
A house with a hundred stories to tell.
We had a slow and easy morning, soaking up the morning light that flooded into the east facing Taing. It was hard to peel ourselves away from the house. It has such a calming effect; it pulls you into its warm embrace forcing you to surrender to its four walls. Steeped in memories and history, I always find myself daydreaming and thinking about the people who lived here, and the lives they led. Old houses do that to me. (Our house does too, and I spoke about that here).
Two cups of coffee later, and after admiring the array of beautiful pottery that seemed to fill every cupboard and corner, we were ready to hit the road again.
After breakfast, we headed out and decided to do the Culswick Broch walk, which you can find full details of here.
The Taing, Reawick.
Culswick Broch walk:
Walk distance: 3 miles (4.6km)
Time taken: 3 hours
The walk is a total of 3 miles (4.6 km) and we did it by bike, but probably only at a walking pace (bearing in mind we had a two and six-year-old in tow). It’s an excellent walk and I would allow an hour each way with an additional hour for exploring the ruined houses of Sotersta, as well as the broch and spectacular coastline along the way – so to enjoy it, allow three hours from start to finish.
Culswick Broch in Shetland's west mainland. A stunning 3 mile walk (or cycle).
A few miles from Skeld, Culswick is a dramatic, lush valley, forking into two with a bog in the centre, separating the east and west side – at the head of the valley, a storm beach now blocks the sea from entering the sheltered confines, or basin, into what would have been a sea loch (or flooded landscape).
Houses are scattered on either side; childhood haunts with familiar and friendly faces. I spent many a happy day in Culswick, and it brings back tremendous memories whenever I have the pleasure of visiting. As bairns, we were always warned away from its boggy soft-centre. Confined to the slopes, we had fun nonetheless and spent many a summer evening camping. Tucked in under the hills, cocooned in a womb of endless summer, the world beyond us was forgotten.
Mother will kill me for this but, – on the night that Nostradamus proclaimed the world would end, I remember vividly, Magnie brought out his gramophone to play, while mam was tearfully mourning the end of the world in our tent, unable to sleep for fear that it was her – and our – last night on earth. Sweeping my two sisters and me tight into her chest, I remember trying to console her, explaining that science had evolved (and so should she!). Thankfully the predictions of Nostradamus (and mother) never materialised, and the sun rose again.
A sweet microclimate, some of Shetland’s best gardens flourish here under the glacially sculpted slopes which shelter it from the worst of the weather – and the world beyond.
Culswick; one of Shetland's hidden gems.
The walk, or cycle (we used mountain bikes, and I wouldn’t recommend anything other as the road is rutted and uneven), is moderately easy and passes through moorland, skirting the Loch of Sotersta before winding its way up the hill where the Broch and the Loch of Brough come into full view. It’s worth taking a little detour down to the abandoned township of Sotersta where the houses now stand roofless and soak up the atmosphere of this once thriving community.
Despite the track taking you across the moor, the landscape doesn't disappoint. Dramatic and rugged; I always try to imagine how the people of this unforgiving and exposed corner of the west mainland eked out a meagre living in this windswept plateau.
Plantiecrubs – small stone structures for growing young cabbage (kale) plants – still stand; a nod towards a crofting past here, a time of industry, hard work and bondage to the land.
Today, look out for the moorland birds, the laverock (skylark); lapwing and shalder (oystercatcher) are all abundant here. And look out for the whaap (curlew); endangered around the UK but thriving here in Shetland. As you get closer to the coast, try to spot the fulmars, shags and other seabirds.
Stuuning coastal views as you walk to the Culswick Broch. Note the lichen on the wall.
At the end of the track, we abandoned bikes and made the final ascent on foot. Passing over a stone causeway that slices through the Loch of Brough, the last leg does not disappoint. The spectacular views that greet you at the top ensure that the final effort is totally worth the throbbing knee-burn to get you there. Take a breath halfway up the climb, and admire the ruins of the house tucked into the lee, nestled in the shadow of the past. The house was built from stone taken from the broch that overlooks it – and now also sits in ruin – representing another strand of the rich history here.
The broch, like many others, has collapsed and been robbed of most of its stone, although the walls can be clearly seen and still stand several metres high in places. The impressive ramparts, internal chambers and a massive triangular lintel stone above the doorway are also still visible, and on a day of chill easterly wind, the remaining interior was a welcome break from the elements to enjoy a quiet picnic.
‘What is a broch?’ I hear you cry! A broch, in simple terms, is a round stone structure which is constructed using two drystone walls – an inner and outer – with a staircase built between the two to reach the top. They date to about 2,000 years ago – the mid-Iron Age, and they are unique to the north and west of Scotland. We have about 120 of them here in Shetland – most lie in ruin (and Mousa is the best example in the world – you can read about that here). Archaeologists still dispute what they were used for – whether they were defensive or offensive; or were they storehouses, or high status ‘manor houses’ of local chieftains? We don’t know. All that we can be sure of is that they are shrouded in mystery, and carry so much intrigue about past societies and how people lived and worked here in Shetland.
These are illustrations of the Mousa Broch, but they give a good understanding of broch construction.
After the cycle, we were all pretty done in so we had a leisurely afternoon taking in the play parks of Skeld and Waas (Walls), with a pit-stop at the Waas shop for a Muckle Puckle loaf from the bakery and some ice creams for the bairns.
Another night of inactivity with cheeks burning and legs aching. What a feeling to be beside the fire warming and listening to the rhythmic sound of the sea crashing on the beach, it’s incredibly soothing, and certainly good for the soul.
I felt very connected to the landscape while we were staying at The Taing. Being so close to the sea, I was aware of the rise and fall of both tide and wind. I watched as the shalders (oystercatchers) assembled on the tide line after the dog-walkers had left, and how the fulmars settled down as the sun dipped. The shag, in low flight, made a steady ascent across the bay to bed down too. It was magical. This is the home of the bird. The fulmars conquer the cliffs in a heady display of flight – of graceful elegance as they soar into the wind. Meanwhile, the shalders command the shoreline, fleeting back and forth with the approach and retreat of every wave. And from above, the laverock (skylark) rules the moors, while the blackbirds congregate in a merry babble of noise from surrounding outbuildings and telegraph poles.
Reawick stole our hearts.
Bedtime, often an ordeal at home, was a pleasure at The Taing. As the bairns were tucked into the sumptuous bed, nestled in a flurry of white cotton, I read to them. We read My Naughty Little Sister because Lena is the very epitome of the character in Dorothy Edwards’ iconic children’s classic. And then we read How to Train Your Dragon, because Hansi is six, and when you are six, dragons are life.
As they fell into a deep, fresh-air induced coma, I watched out the sash windows as the water tickled at the edges of the red granite beach and a lone gull plucked at the tang on the tideline. It’s easy to understand why this house was built on this sleepy beach at the foot of the lush green valley of Reawick.
The Taing, tucked away under the hill overlooking the Reawick beach.
Our time at The Taing was too short; I would happily base myself here for a week, or longer if time would allow. It’s the perfect place to escape to – and yet only half an hour from town. I certainly wouldn’t tire of the coastal walks, the archaeology, the scenery, the sounds and all the hidden corners we discovered along the way. I imagine The Taing would be as good in the depths of winter as it would be in the height of summer, and as every hour brings a change here; in the light as the sun traces around the gable of the house, in the sounds as the cacophony of birds fill the sky from first light till last. And of course, the ever-present sea, with the constant ebb and flow of the tide.
Well done to Shelagh and Peter for creating such an inspiring space, and thank you for letting us stay.
There is so much to do in and around Reawick and I would highly recommend Peter Guy’s book: Walking the Coastline of Shetland: Westside (No 5), which you can buy here.
Another great walk, a few miles from Reawick, is to the Stanydale Temple, a Neolithic site which you can read about that here and here.
Westerwick is also a great walk, especially between Silwick and Westerwick. The views are unforgettable. Westerwick is only a few miles from Reawick.
Sand Gairdins is a great place to visit if you have young children.
Hopefully this review and itinerary are helpful in allowing you to begin your Shetland adventure here.
To contact Shelagh and Peter about booking you can visit their website here, or follow them on Instagram here.
If you are interested in a tour while visiting just drop me an email for information here.
East-Gate, Vidlin, the perfect retreat for a family holiday.
Interested in staying somewhere but not sure what to do in the local area? Let Shetland with Laurie help you. In this post, I have teamed up with Karen & Neil Hay who gave us the keys to their newly established self-catering chalet in the village of Vidlin on Shetland's east mainland and told us to explore...
East-Gate self-catering chalet, Vidlin.
East-Gate is a modern, new build which is fresh to Shetland's self-catering market. Just a few miles outside the village of Vidlin and only a stone's throw from the Whalsay ferry terminal at Laxo, East-Gate is ideally placed for exploring this corner of Shetland's beautiful east mainland.
East-Gate is the perfect place to watch the Whalsay ferry coming and going.
East-Gate is run by Karen & Neil Hay both from Vidlin. Karen says, “I literally married the boy next door!” The couple has two young bairns, and Karen plans to manage the chalet while Neil works shifts at Sullom Voe Oil Terminal.
Recently completed, 2019 is the first year that East-Gate will open its doors and welcome visitors. The initial thing which you notice as you enter the chalet is that the standard of finish is very high, and the smell of fresh paint still fills the space, making for a warm and welcoming first impression.
From the outside the building is understated and modest, giving away no clue to its bright and modern interior. The chalet really packs a punch as you enter into the deceptively large open-plan kitchen-living space which boasts vaulted ceilings and additional skylights – flooding light into the already bright and spacious room. Karen and Neil have carefully considered the finish – which is flawless throughout; with a modern, high-gloss kitchen exuding elegance, to the generous bathroom with walk-in shower, and an additional en-suite shower-room, servicing the master bedroom.
Their attention to detail is obvious; not just in the architecture and design, but in the boxes of toys in the cupboard – for both boys and girls, of all ages – the highchair, and all the children’s plates, bowls and cups. All this combined, made for a stress-free visit.
The bedrooms are clean, fresh and welcoming, with crisp white sheets and roman blinds. Karen has also provided a hairdryer (which is far better than mine at home) – so save space in your case and leave that behind!
Despite being finished to a high standard, the chalet is very practically laid out, and the kitchen is well-equipped for any cooking that you may do on your stay. Often in self-catering, it's the case that you begin to cook and realise that the familiar sieve, grater and parer are absent – this is not an issue here, the kitchen contains everything (even the things you didn't know you needed!), including a filter coffee machine.
If you are looking for a family-friendly stay, then this is the place to book. East-Gate is perfect for the young family who wants space to play and explore. The bedrooms are at one end of the house, with a door into the hall to block any noise from the living-room, and outside there is safe space to play with a fenced garden and a path around the house – perfect for running off energy or cycling before bed!
East-Gate is the perfect place for a family escape.
Things to do at East-Gate:
The first thing that struck me as we pulled up and got out the car was the sound of the laverock (skylark), this is a species of bird that is endangered throughout the UK, but here in Shetland, we have about 30,000 breeding pairs – representing a significant proportion of the UK population. Farming techniques have hampered this little songbird throughout the country, but here in Shetland they are common in rural areas like Vidlin, and the little laverock at East-Gate never let up her merry song the whole time we were there. It truly is an uplifting sound and a real sign that spring is in the air (we were staying in mid-April).
Not sure what to listen for? Hear the laverock sing, here.
So that’s the first thing to do, get out the binoculars and look at the birds – they’re in abundance here. Watch the lapwing fleeting and diving through the air in a frenzied flight. This impressive wader has distinctive broad, dark wings with rounded white tips – the dark wings and collar contrasting sharply by a white underside. The shalders (oystercatchers) can be seen – generally in pairs – working the shoreline. Watch as they use their strong orange bills to pick limpets from the stones – and listen for the ‘pop’ as the conical-shaped mollusc is torn from its rock.
At night, step outside and hear the haunting call of the horsegok (snipe) as it tumbles through the air (to listen to the horsegok, click here). Another haunting call is that of the whaap (curlew), and you can listen to that (and more) here. Both the horsegok and whaap can be heard from East-Gate, and with no surrounding noise pollution, the birds are yours to enjoy.
I sat and watched these pair of oystercatchers feeding for a while. Funny, busy little birds!
East-Gate is the perfect place to do a bit of otter spotting. Karen snapped this photo of an otter just a few days before our visit. The banks (shoreline) in front of the chalet is home to at least two otter families. So how could I resist a little otter spotting? And with a spring in my step and brimming with excitement and hope, I took my small herd of elephants down to the shore to look for the otters.
Fantastic photo of an otter near East-Gate. Photo: Karen Hay.
Anyone familiar with otters will know that a two and six-year-old are not a great combination to take when trying to seek out this elusive mammal. So, with this in mind, I left them on the beach gathering shells and sea-glass (with dad), and set off silently – stealthily – in search. I knew they were around – their poo was everywhere, but I had no luck and never spotted any. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to track them down, and if you follow me on Instagram, you can see my ‘otterly shite otter-spotting commentary’ here.
Otters are tough to seek out, and if you want to do some homework before you arrive, I would recommend Otters in Shetland, The Tale of the Draatsi by Richard Shucksmith & Brydon Thomason – both local experts (unlike me) who know a lot more about these elusive animals and their habits than I do. You can buy that book here, or borrow it from Shetland Library.
I would say that you are best to look for otters either at first, or last light, or a few hours either side of low tide and you will need: patience, a flask of tea (or stronger) and thermals.
Perfect otter-spotting territory at East-Gate, Vidlin.
Otter-spotting is not for everyone. It’s certainly not for the herd of elephants that I call my children. But, the little beach is a treasure trove of pretty shells, stones and shoreline creatures to find and explore. We spent hours just playing on the beach and scouring the shoreline.
This area was a favourite of local poet Rhoda Bulter (1929-1994) who often stayed at Da Horn, a croft which now stands in ruin at the water’s edge. It is said that Da Horn inspired much of her poetry.
There is more information about Rhoda and her poems in The Cabin museum and again, Shetland Library have many of her poetry books to borrow.
Da Horn where poet Rhoda Bulter spent many holidays.
Open May to September on Tuesday, Thursday & Sunday from 1-5pm.
The Cabin museum, Vidlin.
If military history and the First and Second World Wars are one of your interests then this is the place for you. The Cabin museum sits just at the back of East-Gate, a short walk across the road.
The late Andy Robertson founded what began as a small collection of medals in 1978. The collection has since grown, and now fills the museum to the rafters — an eclectic collection which has branched off into everything and anything related to Shetland’s social history.
The Cabin houses a vast assortment of histoic items; from war uniforms, weapons and tin hats to wedding dresses, photographs and an extensive archive belonging the Lunnasting History Group. The list is endless, and all the items are as exciting as the story associated with them.
The Cabin is well worth a visit and is now run by the family of founder, Andy Robertson, and the Lunnasting History Group who help out one day a week.
Visits to The Cabin can also be arranged by appointment, and we are very grateful to Stanley for opening up for us and putting on the heating.
It's worth stopping at Lunna and parking up just to have a walk around and explore the area.
Lunna Kirk sits by the sea in the shadow of the impressive Lunna House. It is well worth a visit. The kirk is said to be the oldest church which has been in continuous use in Shetland for Christian worship. It's thought that there has been a kirk here since the 1100s and an early monastery on Chapel Knowe, just to the north.
The kirk itself is an unusual design, with thick buttresses and a leper's squint, designed to allow lepers to hear the service and see the altar without physically coming into contact with the congregation.
Lunna kirk is open, and visitors are welcome to go in and have a look around. There is a donations box for anyone who would like to leave a gift to help with church funds.
Lunna House, a 17th-century laird’s house, is also an important location for anyone interested in the Shetland Bus Operation. A secret operation which took place during the Second World War between Shetland and Nazi-occupied Norway. The Operation which ran from 1941 aimed to remove refugees from Nazi-occupied Norway and bring weapons and supplies in.
Lunna House was a base in the early days of the operation before it was moved to Scalloway. Lunna provided an excellent sheltered harbour, secrecy and a base in the form of Lunna House which sits proudly on the hill. For anyone interested in the Shetland Bus story, a visit to the Scalloway Museum is a must.
Lunna House, early base for the Shetland Bus Operation.
Lunna House and the surrounding area has a fantastic ‘designed landscape’ – the formal structures built around the house were laid out in the 18th century and furthered in the 19th century. These include; Gothic ornaments, such as the beach cobble finials of the gates to the south-west of the house, and a small folly on the hill, known as Hunter's Monument – that was formerly used as a lookout by the lairds (landlords). The harbour was constructed in the 19th century, along with a walled garden and an impressive lime kiln which sits near the pier.
Walking in the area:
There are some fantastic walks in this area. Karen has provided a copy of Walking the Coastline of Shetland: Eastside by Peter Guy in the chalet. This has some fantastic walking options. Below I have outlined a few walks that I recommend in the area.
There are some fantastic walks in this area of Shetland.
Stones of Stofast
Walk: 2 hours
2 miles (3.5km)
This is a beautiful walk which will take you from the road, over the hill and onto Fugla Water and the Loch of Stofast. Between these two lochs – straddling the hill – are the great glacial erratics that make up the Stones of Stofast – dumped there, as if by the hands of giants. An imposing sight on top of the hill, commanding incredible panoramic views.
The Stones of Stofast.
The walk begins from a non-descript lay-by beside the cattle-grid on the road from Vidlin to Outrabister. The trail is helpfully signposted with an arrow pointing to the hill and a small route-finder map pinned to the fence post. This is enough to get you on your way, and I’d recommend snapping a photo of the map on your smartphone (providing you have one) to orient yourself along the way.
(please note that this walk, and none of my walks, are on a bus route, the nearest bus would take you into Vidlin (3 miles away), so I would recommend using a car to get to the walk start point).
From the starting point, head straight over the hill, sticking to high ground to avoid the bog (particularly in winter, early spring, or after heavy rain). We returned to the car across lower land, skirting Fugla Water and very quickly began to play hop-scotch in the bog as we tried to pick a route through it – although this may be fun, it does require a certain amount of agility (and patience), and it is worth remembering that bogs can be dangerous.
As you make your way to the crest of the first hill, stop and take in the breathtaking views. To the north-west, views across to Mossbank, Firth and Burravoe (Yell), as well as the islands of Linga, Fish Holm, Orfasay and Samphrey. And to the east, views to Skerries and Whalsay. Further south-east, the Noup of Noss can be seen clearly on a fine day (like we had). It feels like a unique vantage point, as you’re able to view Yell and Skerries almost in one breath – areas we assume to be remote, closely-tied together by the sea.
The landscape is a glacial one, like much of Shetland, it has been carved by the last Ice Age to pass through about 10,000 years ago. The massive stones have been laid down – not far from where they originated from – by a glacier. The Stones were originally one large boulder, weighing an estimated 2,000 tonne, now broken in two by the action of repeated freeze-thaw, the Stones were once part of a nunatak (an exposed, rocky ridge rising above the ice), which collapsed following the retreat of the ice.
It is only once you get up-close-and-personal that you can appreciate the tremendous power in that ice that carried, and moved these enormous stones – no photo will ever do justice to their sheer enormity. Being the romantic that I am, I still like to think they were put there by giants, and are now home to the trows (trolls). The whole landscape has that eerie ‘trowie’ feel that is so familiar in the wilds of Shetland.
The Stones are a great spot for a picnic, to sit and soak up the history and geology of this special hidden corner of Shetland's mainland.
This walk is a short one, but a much longer version of it can be done, taking in the entire Lunna Ness peninsula. Route details for that can be found here.
A little word on the wildlife – Lunna Ness is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) because of its thriving (yet elusive) otter population. And although we didn’t spot otters at East-Gate, I did catch a glimpse of one at Lunna, but it evaded my camera lens before I could capture it as proof – so you’re going to have to take my word on that one!
Hansi assures me that these are in fact the footprints of a T-rex. I believe him. These are dinosaur footprints that you'll see on the walk. If you spot them remember to tag @shetlandwithlaurie so I can show Hansi.
Sandwick, Sweening Voe
Walk: 4 hours
3 miles (4.8km)
This is a walk which I didn’t do with my two and six-year-old, but I have enjoyed it immensely in the past. This would be a great hike to do if you are staying at East-Gate, but it is challenging.
For this walk, park at the end of the Sweening road and follow the ‘sheep-gaet’ (sheep path) along the sheer steep-sided slopes of Sweening Voe until the track opens out and reveals a sandy beach and wide bay.
Sandwick, Sweening. A beautiful walk.
At the far end of the beach is the ruin of the croft of Sandwick which was home to the Morrison family until about 1980 when they moved to Vidlin. The house quickly fell into disrepair and now stands in ruin.
Please note that this is quite a challenging walk and anyone with a fear of heights should avoid it as it is a steep drop from the path to the sea in places (certainly not a trail for the two and six-year-old). I allowed an evening to do this walk and explore the area (c. 4 hours). So arm yourself with an OS map and explore – I promise, it’s worth it!
There are some beautiful photos of the house when it was inhabited on the Shetland Museum & Archives photo archive which can be seen here
Another great walk is out to the house at Bonidale, looking across to West Linga and Whalsay.
For this walk, park at the end if the road at Lunning and head south (again using an OS map for reference).
Bonidale when the roof was on in 2009.
Laxo burn is another great walk and a fantastic spot to explore – even for an hour or so after tea. Just a mile from East-Gate you can go and throw sticks, race siggy-boats (boats made from the leaves of the water iris), or simply follow the course of the burn.
If you read my blog post about making trench cake in my great-granny’s mixing bowl, then you can see her old house (the big white one) at the head of Dury Voe (Laxo House). If you missed it, you can read that blog post here.
It was a real joy to wake up to the morning sun at East-Gate and eat breakfast at the sunny dining table while watching the sheep outside. It really was such a relaxing experience. I would thoroughly recommend this fantastic chalet, particularly if you are looking for a good base to explore this part of Shetland, or a family-friendly retreat to escape for a few days.
There are plenty of amenities in the local area: Vidlin shop is only a couple of miles away, as is the village of Vidlin with its marina and well-equipped play park.
There is so much to do in this area, and these suggestions are by no means exhaustive. Why not take a trip to the island of Whalsay, the ferry is in walking distance of East-Gate. Or, head to Busta House Hotel for a bar supper to save cooking? Or explore Nesting? Take the ‘Nesting Loop’ and visit the First World War naval air station at Catfirth, or count the swans on the Loch of Benston. Do you have a two and six-year-old-too? How about a trip to the Mud Kitchen at the Nesting Primary School which welcomes visitors – whatever you decide, let this be a guide, and most of all – enjoy everything that this area and East-Gate has to offer.
If you have found this useful and have tried any of the routes while staying at East-Gate then I would love to hear from you, remember to get in touch and tell me how you got on. Alternatively, if you would like a tour, just let me know.
I can't wait for our next holiday at East-Gate, thank you again to Karen & Neil for a fabulous stay.
To book a stay at East-Gate and unlock your Shetland adventure you can contact Karen here.
El Gran Grifon wrecked on Fair Isle, Shetland.
Welcome back to my blog. This is a real break from my norm. What I'm giving you today – with a certain amount of trepidation – is a children's book I wrote when I was on maternity leave a few years ago and it's based on the wreck of the El Gran Grifon. There are very few illustrations (because I can't draw!) so you'll have to use your imaginations until I can persuade someone to do the pictures. I'm posting here because I would really love your feedback on it. Please feel free to comment or click on the following link and send me a email.
Note to Adults:
The following is a little historical background to this tale...
This story, like most of its time, begins with a king. And like most kings of this time, he was obsessed with power and religion. This king, Philip II of Spain, was intent on overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Queen, who had once refused to marry King Philip was a Protestant. This was seen as a threat to the Catholic Philip who decided the only way to solve the problem was to invade England.
Now, in order to defeat Queen Elizabeth, King Philip needed more ships. He had a great army which he was proud of, and his ‘Blackbeards’ were good soldiers, but his naval prowess was lacking. So, he and his well-groomed military men commandeered the nation’s merchant ships, including the El Gran Grifón. This 650-ton merchantman was fitted with 38 guns and brought into military service.
Philip II of Spain & Elizabeth I of England.
The Galleon Girls of the El Gran Grifón
This is the story of how two hens, after four months at sea, found solace in the most unlikely of places – somewhere in the middle of the North Sea, lying between Shetland and Orkney, in a small byre on the remote island of Fair Isle. The tale unfolded onboard the wide-bellied, clumsy hulk, El Gran Grifón in the year of 1588. El Gran Grifón was a merchantman in the ill-fated Spanish Armada fleet.
Fair Isle from the air. Photo: Ronda Hill.
These hens, sisters by birth, could not have been more different. One was mischievous and full-of-fun, and the other, well, she was prim, proper and toffee-nosed – to the point of almost cantankerous! Not your average sea-goers, these girls were often teased and called landlubbers. Nevertheless, small and plump, their beady hen-eyes missed nothing.
A traditional Shetland hen. Photo: Mary Isbister.
These two feathered beauties had been taken onboard as Captain Juan Gómez de Medina’s prized layers for he just loved a soft-boiled egg with his morning helping of wine and grog. Now, you might think it unusual to be drinking wine for breakfast? Well, on board this great 16th century ship, it was far safer to drink the wine than dare drink the water which would almost certainly have sent you running for the chamber-pots!
Wine, gin or grog?
When they were taken aboard, Captain Gómez had stowed his ‘ladies’ away in the hold. Tucked up in nest boxes, between crates of musket balls and teetering towers of cannonballs, he spoke to the two perplexed chickens, Carlota and Anna, and waving a bony finger, said, “You two must continue to lay eggs for me as this may be the only fresh food I get on this godforsaken voyage.”
Carlota and Anna looked at each other, eyes blinking in the darkness, gunpowder rising in clouds of dust around them.
“Well, this is an adventure,” Carlota said excitedly, puffing her feathers. Anna, who was prim and sensible scowled at her courageous sister.
“Settle down in your nest box, let’s see what tomorrow brings.” And under a setting Spanish sun, the two hens bedded down for the night, lulled to sleep by the hustle and bustle of sailors loading the ship for departure.
Next morning, Carlota and Anna were awoken with the warm fat hand of the cook, reaching in under their feathers to remove the perfectly formed porcelain-like green eggs which they had dutifully laid for their Captain. Out on deck there was a hush of excitement as the final checks were made and the great ship released the mooring ropes, groaning as she left the quay to join the assembled Armada who lay-in-waiting for the signal to depart.
The route the Spanish Armada took in 1588.
“Where do you think we’re going?” Carlota asked, her voice filled with anticipation. “I don’t know, but look at all those ships! We’re bound to have a collision if they don’t watch where they’re going,” tutted Anna in response. Carlota rose from her warm bed of straw, and fluttered onto a large bronze cannon gazed out the gun-port, and what a spectacle she saw!
Stretching across the horizon, as far as the eye could see, were the 130 ships which made up the great Armada. With sails billowing in the wind, they appeared majestic and graceful. The ornate carvings and figureheads of architectural wonder took Carlota’s breath away. The gold gilding shimmered in the sun, sending reflections across the bay. It truly was a sight to behold. Carlota stood, spellbound, watching as they left the safety of Lisbon harbour and ventured north towards the English Channel.
The Spanish Armada depart, 1588.
“Carlota will you get down!” came the shrill voice of her over-cautious sister. “You’re going to have me egg-bound at this rate! Come away before you fall, you can’t swim. Do you think you’re a duck?”
“Oh stop your fussing and flapping. I’m coming” she said petulantly, as she stumbled in a flurry of feathers down from her cannon-perch. “Let’s explore!” she said, rushing past Anna, gracelessly attempting to make her way up the ladder and on to the deck. Anna hurried after, scorning her sister’s careless attitude and thirst for adventure.
As they made their way along the decks, weaving in and out between sailors’ feet, they spotted their Captain, standing proud on the quarterdeck, gazing over his crew who were busy setting the sails. Carlota, unfazed by the hush of activity around her continued, fluttered onto the deck beside Captain Gómez, where she called for Anna to join her. Unamused, Anna followed her sister, who was now perched on a stanchion watching the fleet as they gathered speed under a favourable wind.
A 16th century ship.
Hearing a door creaking, the sisters turned, to see the chef carrying a silver platter and disappearing into the Captain’s cabin. From the open door, came a great sound of laughter and a plume of acrid tobacco-smoke almost knocked them off their perches. Before Anna had time to stop her, Carlota had disappeared, tail feathers and all, after the chef and into the Captain’s dimly-lit cabin.
Carlota entered, her eyes adjusting as a slither of light cut through the smoke, illuminating the great table. Draped in finery, the officers who ate here enjoyed the best linen, pewter and enough food to satisfy even the greediest among them. A little man, with piggy features, sat, hunched over a great platter, gnawing on a succulent chicken leg. Carlota took one look at this grotesque little man and froze. She turned on her spurs and left as quickly as she had arrived. Anna chastised her, “You know what they say - curiosity killed the chicken!” Carlota, flicking her comb to one side made her way back onto the quarterdeck and into the bright sunshine, ignoring her sister’s warnings.
A few days passed and they familiarised themselves with the ship, the crew, the smells and the constant rolling and pitching of the Grifón as they made their way North. Living conditions for the sailors were grim, the men cramped together below decks, packed like sardines and given only meagre rations to eat. Despite this, morale was good and the two hens enjoyed listening to the men singing and playing dice games on top of barrels of gunpowder and casks of wine.
16th century sailors.
A few days into the journey the fleet ran into bad weather. This hampered progress and the hens and crew alike, grew miserable. The smell of the sick and dying wafted through the decks, reminding everyone of their own mortality. Fresh supplies were dwindling and they still hadn’t reached England. Those who made up the great Armada simply had to ride out the storm, and wait.
Finally, two months after leaving Lisbon, and after an unscheduled month-long stopover to carry out repairs, the fleet were once again underway. They departed from Corunna and sailed out into the open waters of the Bay of Biscay. But, as they approached the English Channel, the mood on board changed again. The crew became graver, more serious and the singing and games stopped. Carlota appeared oblivious to this as she continued on her single-handed, one-hen crusade to explore every nook, crevice and cranny of the great ship. But Anna didn’t like it. The constant mutterings from the crew, that the English were laying-in-waiting, did nothing to calm her nerves or settle her feathers.
Carlota and Anna awoke one morning to an unfamiliar smell which was coming in through the gun-ports! With beaks sniffing the air, they hurried up on deck to investigate. Peering over the port-side they saw, all along the coast and on every headland, smoke pouring from beacons which had been lit to warn people of the Armada’s imminent arrival. They had reached England. And as the Channel narrowed, the Armada got into formation, a tight crescent-shape, with strong-hulls bearing down on the outnumbered English ships.
And then, the deafening cannon-fire assault began. The English, with their superior guns started the bombardment on the seven-mile-long line of Armada vessels. Carlota and Anna hunkered down below, heads tucked under their wings, deafened by the crashing and banging, wondering what on earth was going on. For days, no hand came to rummage under their feathers to collect their daily eggs, no sailors’ songs were heard, no laughter from the galley. Just the constant boom and the deafening cry of those wounded and dying.
The English were not going to give in easily and the Spaniards retreated to Calais. The English pursued, and this is where the El Gran Grifón took a hit, at Gravelines, that almost certainly sealed her fate. Just when all on board thought they had heard the last cannon fire – BANG –a gun-fire which shook the boat till even her stern-post shuddered. The explosion was felt throughout the ship and the hens heard the cry of “man the bilge-pumps!” echoing down from the deck.
Suddenly, a rush of sailor’s feet went flying past the hens, still hunkering in their nest boxes. The sound of water pouring in could be heard from the deck below. The sailors worked the pumps tirelessly, packing holes with hessian sacks and wooden plugs. Carlota felt her bed of straw turning cold and wet, and to her horror discovered a small hole, from a musket ball in the hull below her. “Anna,” she gasped, “we’re going to sink!” and suddenly, the fearless, brave Carlota, began to panic. Anna, stoic as ever, was quick to act. She flew from her nest, rolling a green egg before her, and plugged the hole, before settling back down.
The English had won the battle at Gravelines. Anna and Carlota only needed to look at the drawn expressions on the sailors’ faces to know this. The El Gran Grifón, with the remaining Armada, scattered, heading north into the open water of the North Sea – away from the confines of the English Channel where the enemy waited. The two hens listened as the crew discussed plans. It was said that they were going to head north around Scotland, passing the west coast of Ireland, back to Spain. The two hens were relieved at this news, they had endured quite enough of the seven-seas for one lifetime!
Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The El Gran Grifón faced storm, after storm, and was forced to sail back and forth between Shetland and the coast of Norway. And now, many hands came to rummage for eggs and with supplies dwindling, these two hens became the most important creatures onboard. Captain Gómez even made them nest boxes in his own cabin, just to ensure the hungry sailors in the decks below didn’t steal the eggs, or worse still, eat his prize hens! Things were becoming desperate. One evening the two hens were awoken by a group of men bursting into the cabin, waking them from sleep they said, “Captain, you must come immediately. The Barca de Amburgo has gone down. The Trinidad Valencera have taken half the crew but they need assistance!”
“Very well,” replied a groggy Gómez, “Turn her around and go fetch the men. I can’t think how we’re going to feed them though, we haven’t enough to eat as it is.” Carlota and Anna looked at each other nervously, they had heard the crew calling them “chicken broth” already and they hoped to avoid the cook’s cauldron!
With almost 300 men now, the Grifón lumbered along laboriously, still trapped in the North Sea. And three weeks after they rescued the men from the other ship they ran into trouble again off Fair Isle. Whilst trying to make repairs, anchored in Swartz Geo, the cumbersome vessel was driven ashore and wrecked on the rocks at Stroms Hellier. Carlota and Anna watched, dumbstruck, as the desperate men clambered the rigging in order to reach land. The wind whistled through the damaged rigging and the once great ship, lay broken and beat.
Shipwrecked. By Jean Baptiste Pillement.
“What on earth do we do now?” Carlota asked nervously.
“Well, we can’t go down with the ship! And the Captain has just left us here, after all we’ve done for that man,” tutted Anna.
“We’re going to have to fly!” Carlota said, her eyes sparkling into life again.
“What have I told you about flying,” Anna scorned “With that clipped wing, you’ll just go in circles!”
“Do you have a better idea?” asked Carlota, as she made her way to the porthole in the stern aftercastle.
The two hens could see the men gathered on the edge of the cliff, gazing down at the broken crang of their wrecked ship, the land beyond, desolate and empty. Anna and Carlota, glancing at each other, plucked up the courage and flew onto the cliff to join the others.
And as they took to the sky – flight for the very first time – they gazed at the world beneath their wings. A world of chaos and anger, of suffering and plight. The crashing waves below, tearing at the cliffs, removing great chunks of earth – earth which had been there for millenia. The churning seas, foaming and angry, ripping great chunks from the once strong and proud ship they had called home. The island, a storm-blasted, barren landscape, a few small houses tucked into the hillsides, braced against the prevailing wind.
The men, anxious and disoriented took no notice of the two hens who had landed and were picking at their feet, happy to be on terra firma once more.
A traditional Shetland "galleon hen". Photo: Mary Isbister.
And this, according to folk legends, is said to be how the ‘Galleon Hen’, with her distinctive ‘tappit’ head and porcelain-like green eggs, came to be in Shetland.
I really hope you enjoyed my tale...
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Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.