You know that feeling, as the days start to change and the seasons begin to switch, it feels as though we’re falling into autumn at freefall speed. That’s when I anxiously try to squeeze in as much as possible, squeezing those last drops out of summer as if I were squeezing a lemon.
August is a month that makes me uneasy; it feels like the best of the summer has passed. The flowers are spent and shrivelled on their once-proud stems, the colours in the landscape begin to mute, and the sun that hung suspended in an eternal summer sky through June and July drifts lower in the sky as the day slowly gives way to night once more.
Yet, real poetry comes with August and an urgency to tick off all those things you wanted to do in summer. June and July are like a high-octane ride, but August forces us to slow down and we appreciate the little things in nature so much more, as we know they are drawing to a close for another year, to return again on the wind, in another season.
Still, my mind begins to wander into the months ahead, towards autumn and winter, and as I blow the dust from the candles that have been left unlit since spring, and fill the basket with fire kindling once more, I reflect on the summer’s adventures.
The following walk stopped me in my tracks as I considered the tragic loss of life that took place on a lonely and remote hillside in the heart of Yell, Shetland’s largest North Isle.
A few months ago, during the school’s May long weekend, we headed north to the most northerly island of Unst to stay at Noosthamar – a picturesque self-catering holiday home overlooking the sandy shores of Burrafirth.
Unst is a two-ferry hop from Mainland Shetland and has a community of about 650 people. Getting to Unst is easy on the inter-island ferries that serve the isles and are operated by the Shetland Islands Council.
The return of the seabirds is one of my favourite times of the year. It’s filled with hope and the reassurance that, despite everything, the cyclical processes that guide the natural world continue regardless of the latest news story that’s making the headlines and keeping us awake at night.
Shetland is a birders paradise, with over one million nesting seabirds returning to their noisy colonies every summer, breeding on cliffs, moors, beaches and, even within the walls of a 2,000-year-old broch, their return is a welcome sight after a long winter.
People often ask why the seabirds only return to land in the summer, and the answer is simple. Seabirds can’t lay an egg at sea, so they have to come ashore to breed. Once breeding is complete and the chick/s has fledged, they return to the sea – sometimes thousands of miles from the breeding grounds.
Last weekend we visited Sumburgh Head and the fantastic new Unken Caffee. With commanding views out to sea and north across the South Mainland, it got me thinking about how past people lived and about the architecture, defensive or otherwise, that they built here.
Shetland’s South Mainland, at one time, was a highly fortified area. If we rewind about 2,000 years to the Iron Age and place ourselves at Sumburgh Head, the landscape would have been very different and, likely, quite intimidating.
At Sumburgh Head, where we stayed, an Iron Age fort, now lost to history, stood proudly on the headland. The next prominent headland to the southwest is Scatness and, right at the point of this headland sits the Ness of Burgi, the subject of today’s walk.
Folklore was a huge part of Shetland’s society and culture in pre-modern times. Many of the folktales have been written down and, although many have now been forgotten, they can still be found in books and literature.
The dramatic coastline and moorland expanses have given rise to a rich and deep-rooted culture of folklore, superstition and deeply-embedded traditions.
In the past, education, literature and access to news was limited, even within the isles. Travel for pleasure was almost unheard of, and a venture out into the neighbouring parish or district was a novelty. Friends and neighbours, particularly in winter, would gather together beside the fireside and share stories and tales of the past to occupy the long winter nights. This blog will look at some of the creatures associated with the sea.
Winter can be a really special time to go for an adventure. On a cold, calm day, the air is crisp, and the low light casts dramatic shadows across the parched landscape. We’ve been fortunate this winter in that the ground has been frozen. If it’s not frozen, sticking to coastal routes can help keep feet warm and dry in Shetland’s (usually) wet winters.
The smugglers’ cave in Burra is a brilliant walk to do with children because there’s plenty to see and it’s not too far to walk. Once they reach the destination, there’s the added promise of smuggling and piracy to keep them curious and engaged.
It’s not often that January brings prolonged periods of still and frosty weather, but that’s exactly what we had here throughout January and, as we battle with homeschooling and the ever-present threat of cabin fever, it’s definitely nice to get out into the fresh air for a few hours.
We recently walked around St Ninian’s Isle and, as well as being great for adults, this walk is also fantastic for anyone with children. It’s not always easy to persuade bairns to go on a hike, but this one is perfect as there’s a beach, plenty of wildlife and the promise of buried treasure at the end to keep them engaged.
Similarly, this is a walk that is just as rewarding in all seasons. I have highlighted it in winter because, unlike some other walks that can be too wet and boggy at this time of year, this walk is still relatively dry in winter (although you will need walking boots).
This is also a walk that I often do on tours of the South Mainland as the walk and distance can be adapted to suit everyone’s mobility. If you book a tour with me and want to do all or part of this walk, we can discuss that.
We’ve had some incredible winter weather here in Shetland these past few weeks; still, frosty and bright, with very little wind. The usual rain that generally punctuates January, leaving the hills looking washed out under a grey sky, have been notably absent. Instead, Shetland has been dressed in a white frosting, and we’ve been enjoying long walks and snowy picnics.
With this cold snap, the freshwater lochs have frozen over, and they glisten in the low light of winter as the sun merely lifts her head above the western horizon and gently kisses the land before disappearing once more.
The beauty has brought many people out with sledges and cameras to enjoy and capture these precious frosty days, which are little experienced here nowadays. In the past, prolonged periods of frosty, cold weather were frequent, and winter sports such as ice skating and curling were commonplace. Today, our climate is milder, and we have less extended periods of cold, and the ice, when it does form, is fragile and thin.
It has been worrying to see so many foolhardy people attempting to walk over and cross the frozen lochs. It is this that has prompted me to write this blog, to act as a warning and a reminder that ice, as tempting as it may seem, can be incredibly dangerous.
The most tragic of tales is set in the picturesque Tingwall Valley, dominated by the beautiful lochs of Tingwall and Asta.
For this story, I draw you back in time to the 19th century. The tragedy befell the Turnbull family and is centred around the parish minister, John Turnbull, who served the community from 1806-1867. He and his family were based in the Manse, a grand two-storey building overlooking the Tingwall Loch.
As we move into the New Year, it’s difficult not to feel as though we’ve been short-changed. We all liked to imagine that 2021 would be like hitting the reset and bring a fresh start, a line in the sand of sorts. Yet, we are still fighting the same struggles we were in 2020, and coronavirus is still an ever-present threat to the world.
Travel looks like it may well remain hampered into 2021 as restrictions continue and nations race to get mass-vaccinations rolled out as our health systems, as ever, bear the brunt of the coronavirus fallout.
I’ve received many emails looking to book tours for 2021 and, at present, my diary remains closed as the situation continues to change and develop on almost a daily basis. That’s not to say things won’t improve as the year wears on, but for now, I believe we are best to wait, dream and plan.
This blog is earlier in the week than usual but, let’s face it, who wants to read my blog on Christmas Day! – big thanks to you if you do!
To celebrate the 12 days of Christmas I thought I would share some of my blog archives with you. So, over the 12 days of Christmas, I will share a new (old) blog every day from the archive. It occurred to me that I’ve been writing a fortnightly blog for almost three years and there are many that you may have missed, not had time to read or you may be new to the blog so I hope this will give you a chance to read back and discover more.
I hope these will give you a deeper insight into life here and some holiday inspiration for when it’s safe to travel again.
It was funny going through all the old blogs, and amazing that there were a few I forgot I’d actually written. I’ve picked out a few of my favourites, your favourites, and ones that I hope will help with holiday planning (for when it's safe to do so again).
For those who don’t want to wait for a new instalment every day, I’ve summarised them below and I will share them on Facebook and Instagram throughout the 12 days of Christmas.
A little about Laurie
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.