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.
Passage down to the shore can often be dangerous. Photo Terri Leask.
Today I took my second dip of the year in the sea; this time it was the North Atlantic (rather than the North Sea) – and this time it was unscheduled.
Shetland’s eastern seaboard is flanked by the North Sea – a marginal sea of the North Atlantic stretching across to the mainland of northwestern Europe – on the west side, our 'wild' frontier plays host to the full force of the powerful North Atlantic, bringing storms, ravaging waves and an abundance of seabirds and mammals. With nothing between us and North America the waves which assault the western coastal fringes have had thousands of miles at sea to grow before expelling their mighty energy on our shores.
Both the Atlantic and the North Sea meet with a rip-roaring clash of personalities at the southernmost and northernmost tips of Shetland – Sumburgh Head and Muckle Flugga.
The sea has provided so much for the isles over the years with fishing, aquaculture, oil and of course – pleasure. It’s said that Shetlanders have saat in da blood. And this was no exception today as I felt the full force of the cold salt water as it seeped into my knickers.
If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen the videos in my stories (which I will highlight in ‘Stormy Shetland’).
While out taking photos and videos I was swept off my feet by an incoming 'rogue' wave, and I captured the whole sorry episode on my iPhone. I shouldn't have been so close to the edge and I shouldn't have been glued to my phone.
The moment I plunged into the icy Atlantic captured on camera...
Bannamin beach in Burra where I fell in the sea.
So, I am writing this post to act as a reminder – and a warning – to both visitors, and locals alike to take care when out and about in Shetland. As someone who grew up here I should firstly know better, and secondly, I have probably become complacent to the power of nature.
So here are a few pointers (plucked from my boring risk assessment on coastal walking) to bear in mind when you visit:
The stunning cliffs at Eshaness. As tempting as it may seem, please stay back from the edge.
And an additional one (added today!):
Bannamin beach, Burra in stormy weather.
At the start, I said that this was my second dip in the sea this year. The first swim was a planned snorkel in the North Sea, and I had on a wetsuit. I wrote about this for the magazine I edit which will be published in April. The magazine – Shetland Life – can be subscribed to here. Or if you’re interested in only one copy, let me know and we can arrange that.
So please – go and explore – we have no restrictions on where people can go, all that we ask is that you do it safely.
So stay safe and enjoy your trip – your Shetland adventure awaits.
St Ninian's Isle tombolo.
Shetland’s jigsaw coastline has every sort of beach - sandy, stony and everything in between. At this time of year, the sea is a vibrant, turquoise green. It sparkles under the sun. After the cold, long, dark winter, there’s lightness and hope, caught in the smell of spring flapping in the warm breeze like fresh clothes hanging out to dry. I love heading to the coast at this time of year. It makes me feel alive, energised and free.
We have almost 1,700 miles of breathtaking coastline, the most well-known of which includes St Ninian’s. This, the largest active tombolo in the UK is breathtakingly beautiful, there’s no doubt about that – an ‘iconic’, picture-postcard image – but one that you’ll find in every visitor brochure and website (including my own) about Shetland. This 50-metre long expanse of pristine sand is pretty unmissable – so you can find it without my help.
I started off this blog post, intending to pick out my top five beaches, but have actually ended up with six – two of them are on the same island (Burra) so, I’m listing that as one!
A word to the adventurous: I’m not including out-of-the-way remote beaches (this may be a future blog post!). The Lang Ayre in Northmavine for instance – spectacular, but 99 per cent of visitors won’t have the opportunity to visit this secluded beach. Every place I’ve listed is basically just off the main road or a relatively short walk (under 10 minutes), so they are easily found and accessible to most – especially those who are limited by time or mobility.
Off-the-beaten-track beaches not listed.
But the reality is, I can’t choose a favourite. I can’t even come close to choosing. There are so many fantastic places – places I haven’t even mentioned yet – West Sandwick, West Voe, Levenwick, Norby and Skaw, all firm favourites too. And what about those hidden gems that are happened on while out walking or off in a boat exploring the coastline? Little treasures at the head of a geo or along an inaccessible piece of coastline.
The point of Bruna Ness – a hard-to-reach sandy beach – where I swam with friends on a long summer night, friends no longer with us, but never forgotten. The beach on the island of Papa – Granny Tam’s beach. Small and understated, but where my ancestors came from, where the family landed their boats and provisions. The beach which welcomed visitors and was where women watched from as the men went off to sea. The island is now uninhabited – women no longer wait expectantly on the beach for loved ones to come home, boats are no longer shoarded up against the might of Atlantic winter storms. All that remains are the remnants of a pier, and the gentle lull of the sea washing over pebbles as wading birds pick among the waar (seaweed).
These places all hold memories, dear to me, they have moulded my personal connection with this place I call home and continue to do so, every time I set foot on a beach and feel the wind in my hair and the salt on my skin.
Growing up here in Shetland, places become ingrained – stamped to memory – like postcards from the past; of long summer holidays as children, of beach bonfires and beer as teenagers, and now, as I raise my own family, of hope that they too can add happy memories to their own life tapestry.
So what I’ve done here – apart from stirring deep memories – is compile five of the best beaches, five that I go back to, year after year, taking my children too, beaches that I also hope you have the opportunity to visit and enjoy too.
Exploring islands. Photo: Stella Winks
Here they are:
Minn beach, Burra.
1. Meal or Minn beach in Burra
I’ve selected two beaches in Burra, the Meal beach and the Minn beach (not Bannaminn, as it’s often incorrectly called).
The beach at Meal is more exposed and is brilliant for building sandcastles and the peerie (small) hidden beach is perfect if you can stake claim to it on a busy day. But, for swimming with children, the undercurrent can be powerful and dangerous, so you need to be a strong swimmer and be aware of the undertow. Meal can also be linked into a circular walk which you can view here.
2. Easting, Sandwick, Unst
This beautiful, wide, sweeping bay is my favourite place to come and soak up our history and archaeology. At the head of the beach are the remains of a Norse longhouse, a nod to our Scandinavian Viking past, and out along the bay the historic graveyard of Framgord which has hogback ‘Viking graves’ dating from the 9th to 11th centuries. In a previous life, I studied this site, and explored how the roots of Shetland’s mainstay industry – fishing – had its roots in the ruins of this longhouse, and other like it, in Unst. Maybe this could be a future blog post?
On that note: Norwick, also in Unst also has very early evidence of Norse settlement and is often thought to be the first point of landing by the Vikings in Shetland (although the jury is still out on this point!).
Easting beach, Unst. Photos: Rachel Laurenson
This beach is stunning – the sucking noise the sea makes as it passes over the stones is mesmerising – and it’s the only stony beach that I’ve included in this list, which is a bit counter-intuitive as I actually much prefer exploring stony beaches. Stone beaches always have much more interesting beachcombing opportunities, and I love scouring the shoreline for treasure. Beaches like this always remind me of fictional character, Timmy Folster, from George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, who whiles away his days beachcombing and slugging back meths. There's a strange appeal about the mystery stony beaches hold.
Photo: Stevie Catlin.
4. Maywick Beach, south mainland
Another reason for choosing this one is because it’s only a couple of miles from St Ninian’s Isle and while everyone is busy soaking up the tombolo, generally Maywick is empty. Total tranquillity, peace and freedom. It’s a real treasure of the south mainland.
Maywick beach. Photo: Ailish Parham
5. Tresta beach, Fetlar
This is the beach, on this list, which is best for getting-away-from-it-all. To get to Fetlar, you need to take two ferries, and a visit must be well-planned as ferries in and out of the aptly named, Garden of Shetland, are limited (if you’re interested, you can read more about Fetlar on my blog, here and here).
Tresta beach, Fetlar.
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Shetland, a rugged and exposed island group – or archipelago – sits about 200 miles north of Aberdeen. Its western seaboard is battered by the unbridled power of the North Atlantic, while, on the east coast, the North Sea challenges the ever-changing coastline. The 1,400 miles of coastline is an ever-changing landscape, at the mercy of the sea. Put simply, Shetland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to the UK's urban powerhouse, London.
Getting to and from Shetland is really quite simple - you can get here by sea or air.
A rail link is out of the question as there are no trains and the biggest risk to travel arrangements will always be the weather. Being the only land-mass in a vast ocean brings its fair share of difficulties with wind and fog being the biggest perpetrators of travel chaos for visitors hoping to arrive and depart from the northern isles.
One of the first questions that I always get (along with where should we stay) is ‘what’s the best way to get to Shetland?’ The next question is, ‘should we take the boat or plane?’ To simplify this for you and to make it easier to make an informed decision, I’ll go through the pros and cons of each, here on the blog so that you can choose the best option to suit your needs, budget and time.
I should also say that:
My Shetland readers may as well tune out now – you know all this inside out!
Photo courtesy of @shetlandadventure
The first option for getting to Shetland is by boat. This service is currently run by Northlink (although it’s up for tender at the moment and we all await the outcome nervously), bookings can be made via their website, here. Two boats operate this life-line service – The Hjaltland and Hrossey – running between Lerwick and Aberdeen daily – each boat passing each other on their respective passages north and south – the journey times vary between 12 and 14 hours (depending on whether or not the boat calls in at our island neighbour, Orkney 50 miles to the south-west).
The boat can be booked via Northlink's website.
Photo courtesy of Ronda Hill.
Now this is where I must try not to be negative as flying does have its benefits…
Flights in and out of Shetland are fairly easy from all the main Scottish airports. There are daily flights, operated by Loganair, to and from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Orkney, Manchester and in the summer we have a weekly service to Bergen.
Undoubtedly, this is the quickest option (if all goes to plan), flights are between an hour and an hour and a half (compared to the 12-14 on the boat). However, this it’s not always the most reliable way to get here (or away) and as any islander will probably confirm, if you want to avoid the risk of lengthy delays and cancellations – take the boat (and bang, there goes any chance of sponsorship from Loganair).
Flights can be booked via the Loganair website.www.loganair.co.uk
Benefits of flying:
This next point has absolutely no bearing on getting here or away, it’s just interesting. The east-west runway spans the entire width of that part of of the island so one end is flanked with the North Sea and the other by the North Atlantic, and in order to get to the airport, vehicles must drive over the runway – so remember to look both ways!
A few points to consider:
One thing I personally always take into consideration is the time of year which I’m travelling. In the winter the boat is more likely to be cancelled or delayed due to weather and in the summer the fog can bring the airport to a halt. It really is a gamble and the savvy islander will make sure that they have a backup ferry booking (just in case!).
One amusing anecdote I always tell people about is ‘Brussels Sprout Gate’. A few years ago we had some particularly stormy weather in the lead up to Christmas. This meant that the boat – which also brings in our food and fresh goods (turkeys and sprouts) - couldn’t get in for some days. People began panic-buying – a frustrating reaction to cancelled sailings – fearing that Christmas would be a lean one if the boat didn’t make it in time. And as the shelves emptied, tensions soared. What ensued was probably one of the most amusing headlines of the year. Two women in Tesco actually began to argue in the aisle over the last solitary bag of sprouts on the shelf. So, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they almost caused a riot in our leading supermarket (one other supermarket is available). And, in order to stop the escalating crime spree, Tesco chartered a military Hercules plane to bring in the much needed fresh supplies the islands craved.
Photo courtesy of Ronda Hill.
So, there you have it! Two sides to every coin and two options – both with pros and cons – on how to get to Shetland.
I hope that this has maybe given you some answers – I still don’t know the best way to get here and I’ve been coming and going from my island home for 32 years now.
A still evening at Aith skimming stones in the water.
We recently spent a few nights in Fetlar, endearingly known as 'the Garden of Shetland'. In anticipation of the schools going back, and trying to make the most of the time we had left of the holidays we booked the Aithbank Camping Böd, former home of storyteller Jeemsie Laurenson. The weather was glorious and Fetlar shone, like a glistening jewel in the North Sea, giving us the best it had to offer.
In this, the second (belated) part of this blog, I will outline a few of the things we found on our travels through the 'Garden of Shetland' and what we discovered along the way, and if you missed the first Blog entry you can look back and catch up!
Walk 2 - Aith beach and the Viking Boat burial coastal walk (to shake down the dinner)
Views from Aith beach.
From the beach we headed west along the impressive coastline, through golden fields which shone against the low, setting August sun. The bairns ran free, bare legs jumping from knowe to knowe with hair shining in the sun and echoing the colours of the landscape. It all felt very 'earth-motherish' until they started fighting and shergin' through over-tiredness.
Lena enjoying the sunshine and the freedom.
We then followed the coast, in search of the Viking boat burial. Reputed to be the final resting place of a Viking man who had washed ashore during a storm, the crew were all washed away and this one remaining man asked that upon his death, he be buried with his boat and treasure. When he died, his wishes were honoured and he was given a Viking boat burial. Time Team excavated the site (often referred to as the Giant's Grave) in 2002 and they discovered a great number of iron nails but no skeletal remains were uncovered.
Walk 3 - Airstrip to Haltadans stone circle (this took a moment as we stopped for a picnic but the walk itself was short and could be achieved there and back within an hour).
For this walk we headed inland, leaving the coast behind us, into the hills and the land of the mythical trows and njuggels. We parked at the now disused airstrip, built in 1972 the gravel runway is now only used for emergencies and training purposes.
Haltadans, believed to date to the Bronze Age, is a circle of thirty-eight stones with two positioned upright in the centre of the ring. This was our mission, to find it, and making our way north from the airstrip beyond Skutes water, across the boggy moorland we saw a number of Skootie Alans (Arctic Skuas) with their distinctive pointed tail feathers. I wondered if the loch took its name from these birds or was it some other obscure etymological explanation? Haltadans, or the Fairy Ring, wasn't that easy to find, with heather covering many of the stones it was difficult to pick them out in the blanket moor landscape. The OS map was handy to have on hand and thankfully Skootie Alans are much less aggressive than their larger cousin, the Bonxie (Great Skua) which made our passage easier. Despite this, we found the circle (eventually) and after some head-scratching, agreed that this was the spot of the famous 'fairy ring'.
Haltadans stone circle dating to the Bronze Age, often referred to as the Fairy Ring.
This unassuming stone circle has a number of folklore stories associated with it. One suggestion is that the circle represents a fiddler and his wife (the central stones) and the surrounding stones are trows (trolls) who, whilst dancing, were startled and turned to stone with the rising sun. Trows, popular in Shetland folklore were said to be a cheerful and mischievous race who had a great love of fiddle music. The name Haltadans, according to etymologist Jakob Jakobsen referred to the fact that in Shetland folklore and tradition, trows and fairies were often said to limp when they danced and the expression "to had (hold) a haltadans" or "to rush about noisily" was still an expression used in Fetlar and Yell, noted, by Jakobsen when he published his place-names book (1936). Further evidence of this fiddling idea can be found on the OS map of the area which notes the Fiddler's Crus cairn just a short distance NW of the circle.
Quite possibly the perfect picnic spot? A plantiecrub in the hills.
A few other points of interest:
There are many more fantastic walks to take on Fetlar, and certainly plenty for the walker without young children. The coastline offers an ever-changing panorama and more information can be found in Peter Guy's, 'Walking the Coastline of Shetland: The Island of Fetlar (No. 3)'.
Houses and Haa's
One thing that struck me immediately was that there are many grand historic houses in Fetlar. Once supporting a large population, the fertile island boasted some of Shetland's grandest homes, and some remarkable characters too! In Part One of this blog I looked at Smithfield Haa and the round-house at Gruting, and below a few more are outlined, although this is not an exhaustive list.
Brough Lodge, home of Sir Arthur Nicolson.
Brough Lodge is a very unusual house, and unlike anything else built in Shetland. It was built in 1820 by landowner Sir Arthur Nicolson of Lochend (who we heard about in Part One). This striking building was designed and built in a Georgian Gothic style, in stark contrast to the Haa of Smithfield for example (Part One) which was built at a similar time (1815). Brough Lodge had everything a grand house of that time 'should'. It boasted, among others, a drawing room, library, butler's pantry and a counting room (where the landlord dealt with the rents from the island), and it also had an astronomical observatory (obviously). The house was last inhabited in the 1970s. Sir Arthur was an eccentric man, who also built the round house 'his folly' at Gruting (again, discussed in Part One).
Leagarth House, built in 1901 by Sir William Watson Cheyne. Photo: © Fetlar Interpretive Centre
The young William Watson Cheyne, at Edinburgh University, an enthusiastic student to Lord Lister's became his House Surgeon, helping to develop an antiseptic solution to keep bacteria out of wounds. This really was pioneering work at the time and research which we are still grateful for today. The Fetlar Interpretive Centre has excellent displays on Sir William Watson Cheyne and opening hours are available on their website here.
Tresta is a place to note for its beauty and is situated in the heart of the island. The area is dominated by the spectacular beach with Papil water behind. When we went initially, the beach was narrow and rocky, but arriving in the early evening, a few hours later the beautiful sandy shores were revealed, offering a large expanse of beach with the spectacular cliffs of Lamb Hoga to the west. Nearby is the Kirk which was built in 1790 and has memorials to both the Nicolson's and Cheynes as well as several graves from the Second World War.
The Fetlar flit-boat at Ugasta.
One of the saddest sights for me, was the old Fetlar flit-boat at the Ugasta pier, just a stone's throw away from Brough Lodge. It lay in its noost above the high-water mark, still tied to the winch, as it was when it was hauled up for the last time.
The old Fetlar flit-boat at Ugasta pier.
Flit-boats were common in Shetland before the extensive road system was introduced, and sixerns (six-oared) like this were a common sight around Shetland shores, ferrying people, passengers and mail throughout the islands.
I found it quite poignant to see the knot, still holding the boat in place to the winch, secured against weather and tide, and I wondered whether the hands tying her up that last time knew that this would be her final resting place?
And on that note of reflection (it is a Sunday after all), I think I've said enough. Fetlar was a real treat and there is so much more to see, do and discover. I hope that this has given you a taste of the island and a reason to visit.
We recently spent a few nights in Fetlar, endearingly known as 'the Garden of Shetland'. In anticipation of the schools going back, and trying to make the most of the time we had left of the holidays we booked the Aithbank Camping Böd, former home of storyteller Jeemsie Laurenson. The weather was glorious and Fetlar shone, like a glistening jewel in the North Sea, giving us the best it had to offer.
In this blog I will attempt to give you a 'blow-by-blow' account of our travels through the 'Garden of Shetland', and what we discovered along the way, and you're in luck as this one's a two-parter!
Getting to Fetlar is relatively easy, although booking ferries is recommended. We made the short journey across Yell Sound, from Toft before heading north through Yell to catch the ferry from Gutcher to Hammersness, briefly touching base at Belmont (Unst) en route. I sat out on deck (mainly to avoid the boredom induced WW3 which was brewing in the car) and watched the seabirds as they dived and the tysties (black guillemots) bobbing around on the glistening sea as a distant yacht, made steady progress around Urie Ness, catching the wind coming off the hill. It was all very peaceful and the experience of being in this area on the open water reminded me of when I was young and went to the fishing with dad. I remember towing (for scallops) in a spot called (I think) the 'trink', not far from Fetlar, on the East coast and listening to the traffic report on Radio 2. I remember thinking at the time, just how far removed we were from the 'rat race' and the stresses and strains of the ever congested M25, and in that moment 'civilisation' seemed to me, a faraway world, yet to dad, a fisherman, this was his 'everyday', this was his '9-5'. Isn't it funny how a moment can transport you back in time and shake out old memories?
Upon arrival in the 'Garden of Shetland' we made our way to the camping Böd for lunch. Böd's, located throughout Shetland, were traditionally buildings used to house fishermen and their gear during the fishing season. Today they form a network of basic accommodation, operated by Shetland Amenity Trust for those who want a simple, no-frills holiday on a budget. The Böd, despite being sparsely furnished was clean and sited in a beautiful location, overlooking the Aith beach and across the bay to Lambhoga.
Aithbank, Camping Böd and former home of Storyteller, Jeemsie Laurenson.
Walk 1 - Everland to Gruting circular (3 hours inc. picnic & short legs)
The sandy beach at Honga Ness.
From the beach there are views across to the house at Smithfield, a grand home, now roofless. It was formerly the home of the Smith family until they emigrated to Australia in the 1860s and the house became uninhabited. The roof was later removed and it is now a cat C listed building which is designated as 'at risk', the house, built in 1815 is described as:
'unusually grand for this type of building in Shetland, and its formal relationship with the booth (nearby, by the shore) serves as a reminder of the importance of the sea in trade and communication during the 19th century'.
From here we made our way to arguably the most unusual building on the island, the round-house at Gruting. Not a neolithic or iron age round-house but the 'bolt hole' of an 19th century eccentric!
The round-house at Gruting, built by Sir Arthur Nicolson of Brough Lodge.
The round-house has a very curious story attached to it, which I'll share, and any brave campers or 'would be ghost-hunters' can go there, stay, and report back with their findings. Does that sound like a good deal?
The house was built after the fertile valley at Gruting was cleared during the 1840s. Fetlar was badly hit by the clearances which affected much of the Highlands and Islands throughout the 19th century when landowners decided that large-scale sheep farming was more profitable than tenant farmers who were in turn forcibly removed from their homes in favour of sheep.
Landowner, Sir Arthur Nicolson who stayed in the sprawling estate at Brough Lodge in the north-west of the isle decided to build a summer house in the now quiet valley, secluded from his family home at Brough. He designed his summer house in a French fashion, the lower part being made of stone and the upper floor constructed of wood. Once complete Sir Arthur, on his horse Jolly made their way to the newly constructed bolt-hole to spend the night, in solitude, away from the family demands at home. The evening went well until Sir Arthur went to bed where he was then kept awake, and afraid by an incessant banging and knocking which echoed through the darkness outside. Nobody was there and eventually the noise became too much for him to bear and he abandoned his bed and with Jolly, galloped back to Brough Lodge, much the wearier of his 'staycation' in the summer house.
An explanation, provided by the minister, said that the noise could be the spirits of the crofters whom he had evicted from the surrounding area coming back to haunt him. That was the only time anyone tried to stay in the round-house, and as I said, if you are brave enough, then please do, and report back your findings!
Lucky Minnie's Oo (Bog Cotton) at Gruting, Fetlar.
To be continued in Part Two so stay tuned for more forays in Fetlar...
The first thing that struck me was how varied the programme was and how many different things there were on offer. It really packed a punch, filled with events for even the most reticent of nature lovers, like myself. 'Our' Nature Festival began with a visit to the fish-beds at Shingly Geo, Dunrossness, and as we couldn't make the guided walk on Wednesday we decided to go it alone. Along the way we were treated to a spectacular show of seabirds and we passed the natural arch at the famous 'Red Pool' (the sea was washing into it on the day so it lacked the deep, blood-red appearance, but was spectacular nonetheless). Once we arrived at the geo it didn't take long before we found our first fossil. These siltstone beds are 390 million years old and were formed when several continents collided, leaving fish trapped in lakes, and once dead, they were fossilised in the silt deposits. It's fascinating to think that these fossils, which we were able to touch, have been around for that length of time and that they have travelled this far north, to our island archipelago from where they began life 390 million years ago, close to the equator. Is it any wonder Shetland enjoys Geopark status!?
Our walk to the fish beds at shingly Geo, Exnaboe
After the fossil beds we had an hour or so to kill so we went to Sumburgh Head in the hope of spotting some puffins. Having done a number of tours over the season and seen plenty, I was pretty confident that there would be some, and for the second time this summer, dragging the bairns along, we didn't see any. The comical little seabirds appeared to have all 'Gone Fishing'! Just our luck.
The bairns weren't really that bothered, being far more excited by the plastic Killer Whale which they were desperate to be photographed with so we went on up the hill to see Sally Huband's exhibition in the Stevenson Centre Cafe. 'Eggcases and other Beachcombed Treasures' displayed items, both natural and man-made which have been found on Shetland's beaches. It featured information about egg-cases (frequently found in Shetland) and the ways in which the Shark Trust are logging them for research purposes. It's very easy to get involved and you can find more information via www.sharktrust.org.
"The Great Eggcase Hunt aims to get as many people as possible hunting for eggcases that have either been washed ashore, or are found by divers and snorkelers underwater. In recent decades, several species of shark, skate and ray around the British coast have dramatically declined in numbers. The empty eggcases (or mermaid’s purses) are an easily accessible source of information on the whereabouts of potential nursery grounds and will provide the Trust with a better understanding of species abundance and distribution".
Rachel Laurenson was also on hand with information about the #2minutebeachclean and #plasticfree campaigns which have gained rapid momentum via social media sites such as Instagram over recent months and now involve a growing number of participants both locally and nationally who are assisting in cleaning up our beaches and shorelines.
Rockpooling event at Sandsayre, Sandwick
Feeling like social butterflies, we then moved on to try our hand at Rockpooling at Sandsayre where, when the tide goes out the most fantastic rock pools are left behind which extend far out from the shore, marooning any unsuspecting sea-life in its path. A nightmare for navigation but a treasure-trove for the 'would be hunter-gatherer'; and armed with a few nets and buckets we began our quest, and the pools certainly didn't let us down. Finding shore crabs, edible crabs, hermit crabs, red seaweeds, brittlestars, sea urchins, whelks, limpets and anemones, the bairns went home tired and happy after their successful day at the Nature Festival.
Flowers and Pollinators at the Crofthouse Museum, Boddam
At the end of the week we attended the Flowers and Pollinators day at the Crofthouse Museum, Boddam. I was working at the event, with my museum hat on and it proved very popular. My bairns made it down in the afternoon with granny which was an added bonus. The highlight (for me) was the moth traps which had been set the previous evening using a UV light to attract these nocturnal flyers. There were an incredible 590 moths captured, with 26 different types represented, including Silver Y's, Golden Y's and Yellow Underwings (I can't name any more, I have to admit my 'moth ignorance' now). I was however shocked at the large variety we did have here in Shetland and the great distances they can travel, I was also impressed by Paul Harvey from the Amenity Trust's Biological Records Dept. who could just reel them off, effortlessly and he could tell me that there are over 60 species found here in Shetland - It was an education! After the excitement of the moths we settled down to the various crafts and bug-hunts - Lena creating an interesting three-eyed specimen painted on a beach-stone and Hansi producing a lino-print of a fern (or Dinosaur grass as it's called in our house), I even tried my hand at lino-printing some Wild Angelica (it's the taking part that counts).
All in all the bairns had a ball at the events we attended together and I even managed to attend three of the four lectures, sans-children. The first was a look at 'Shetland Beneath the Waves' by Richard Shucksmith which gave an insight into a landscape which few have the privilege of seeing (and as I don't actually have the balls to dive then it was nice to see it from the comfort of Shetland Museum's auditorium)! The second event was a lecture by Jon Dunn called 'Orchid Summer' which followed his journey from the Scilly Isles to Shetland to see all the UKs native orchids in their natural environment - it was fascinating and his passion was contagious! One thing I couldn't get over was how much some of these orchids look like people, unlike our 'curly dodies' (see photo below) and I kept seeing faces in the photos on the slides (and no, I wasn't tripping)! If Orchids don't do it for you then his book certainly should. It is so beautifully illustrated, bound and presented that it not only needs to be read, but it needs to be curated too!
Finally, for my last foray at the Shetland Nature Festival I attended a lecture by Martin Heubeck who has been monitoring the changing seabird populations in Shetland for 40 years. His talk focused on the findings and trends associated with seabird numbers and the monitoring methods used here in Shetland and at the end he was presented with a gift as he is retiring from the Shetland seabird scene - a bittersweet but fitting ending to a fantastic week!
Going into Mousa at night is a completely different experience to going in on a day trip. Landing in the summer dusk at 11pm was slightly eery and the island had a more mysterious feel. On the short walk to the Broch we saw the latest addition to the island, a wooden bench which sits on the 60 North latitude line. Rodney, from the Mousa Boat built it using driftwood which washed ashore on the island during last winter's gales. Driftwood has always been important to Shetlanders, as we live in an almost treeless landscape, and I believe it's engrained into every one of us to squirrel away every last piece! A walk along the shoreline proves this as there are numerous piles of wood of varying sizes and quality 'laid up above the tideline' to be collected at a later date for some project or another and despite best intentions this 'later date' often never comes! That said, it's still an unwritten rule here in Shetland that wood laid up above the tideline must be left for the gatherer to collect, even if it has been there so long that it has started growing a fine coat of moss, or that it has been there for all of living memory and has begun the long process of rotting back into the ground, the wood is sacred and should be left well alone! However, rules of the shoreline over, back to the bench! Mousa lies on the 60 North line, meaning that it is on the same latitude as St Petersburg, Helsinki, Oslo, parts of Alaska and Labrador Bay, and given the choice of any of those 'exotic' destinations, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather have been on that particular Wednesday evening. Approaching the 2, 000 year old Broch was very atmospheric, it was shrouded in mist, giving a real air of mystery and intrigue.
Mousa is home to 11, 000 breeding pairs, with 3-400 breeding pairs making their home within the walls of the Broch. Prone to predators they return to the breeding grounds at dusk to avoid capture from the Great Skua (Bonxie) and Black Backed Gulls. Mousa is the perfect place for these vulnerable little birds as there are no ground predators on the island. Yes, Mousa has no rabbits, hedgehogs, rats or even mice! So, as midnight approached the birds began to flock back to land, their flight was quite erratic as they circled the Broch seeking out their own nest site and I even witnessed a mid-air collision!
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.