Dolphin made from beach-found plastics at Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary.
We are in a climate crisis, and it seems that everywhere we look, we are reminded of this grim reality. It can feel overwhelming, but there are things we can all do on a small, local level to abate this. This morning, before breakfast, I consumed two climate change articles and signed a petition calling for our council to declare a ‘climate crisis’.
Shetland is often at the raw end of climate change, and this is something that I’ve wanted to touch on for a while but have never felt equipped to do so. Where do you start? Where does it end? Which facts can I pick out as truths, and which ones are just scaremongering and political propaganda? These are all questions that have haunted my thoughts when I start to consider writing about this topic. It’s a huge subject. It’s greater than you or I, and it’s snowballing, faster and faster towards … towards what? Another question I can’t answer.
What I can do though is talk from my experience about what I see and how I try to make tiny-ickle changes for the better – ones that you too can make.
We live on an island; a rough, exposed group of over 100 islands in the centre of the North Atlantic. The sea surrounds us, and that’s where I see the problem manifest itself the greatest in the form of plastic pollution.
I’m a baby of the 1980s. I grew up with plastic. I am the plastic generation. And although my mum was a bit of a hippy who wore long floaty dresses, made our clothes and swore by cloth nappies and breastfeeding I still played with plastic toys, bagged up shopping with single-use bags and as I grew older, bought plastic bottles from the shop almost daily.
Yet, when I remember my childhood, I recall playing with old pots and pans (from a nearby dump), scooping up pony manure for mud pies and broths and hunting in the burn (stream) for frogs. I don’t remember the ‘1991 toy of the year’ which was probably plastic and was more than likely tossed aside after a few moments. I do remember the Kinder Surprise Tapsi Turtles – they were amazing, weren’t they? And now, 25-years later, I despair at the trash that comes from those eggs that my bairns insist on buying and almost instantly discard, they’re no longer collected and played with. It’s getting worse, not better.
With almost 1,700 miles of coastline, Shetland is known for its outstanding natural beauty, secluded beaches and wildlife. However, this often harbours a much uglier side and one that anyone living here will know all too well: plastic pollution.
Whenever I go to the beach, I endeavour to ‘pick up 5’. Quite simply, I pick up five pieces of plastic pollution or do a quick two-minute beach clean. I do this with visitors too, and it’s usually met in one of three ways: Some question what I’m doing, some lament at the ‘fuss’ made about plastic these days but most will stop and try to meet their target five items too.
The greatest offenders of our roadsides and beaches in Shetland. Waste from the fishing & aquaculture industries and plastic, single-use bottles.
Of the second group, those who don’t understand the ‘fuss’, I try to thoughtfully educate them and help them see the problem from our local perspective. Earlier this year I had a couple from America, they lived in a land-locked state, in a city where garbage is uplifted by trucks and carted away somewhere out of sight for disposal. They were shocked when I showed them images of entangled animals and took them to Hillswick to speak to Jan Bevington, who runs a wildlife rehabilitation centre. By the end of the day, they too were picking up small pieces of twine, rope and bottle caps for disposal, and that made me feel proud and happy. If we can change attitudes and educate, even on a small, local level, we will ultimately all make a huge difference. We have also to accept that some people will never share this opinion, and that’s fine too, all we can do is try to educate and enlighten and hope that people will listen.
Hillswick Wildlife Centre in Shetland North Mainland.
Another stark reminder from the natural world are found in the impressive gannet colonies across Shetland. Beauty hot spots like Noss and Hermaness feel like you have been transported right into an Attenborough documentary, however, if you look at the nests through binoculars, the sight is shocking: nests constructed from plastic and rope; blue curling where there should be seaweed and straw. The photo below from Brydon Thomason clearly shows the problem of plastic in our breeding seabird colonies.
Gannets nests strewn with rope and plastic at Muckle Flugga, Unst. Photo courtesy of Brydon Thomason, Shetland Nature.
Another example from another beauty spot is the beach at Rerwick in Shetland’s South Mainland where visitors can expect to see dozens of seals on the beach. A closer look with binoculars reveals that several seals are entangled in plastic strapping. Ultimately these animals are on death row, awaiting a long and painful death.
Seals on Rerwick Beach in Shetland's South Mainland. What this photo doesn't show is that several of the seals here have rope around them, which is slowly killing them.
As the climate changes and sea temperatures rise, we also have wetter, windier winters. This has a direct effect on fishermen and farmers who depend on the land and sea. Nature is always the first to adapt in response to these subtle, gradual changes. Seabirds may fail to breed successfully, fish stocks may move into different waters, and land becomes waterlogged and degraded.
What can we do
Plastic is a relatively new phenomenon, and it has some essential uses, in some cases, it is entirely necessary. What we need to do is stop and think a little. Ask our grandmothers how they stored cheese before cling-film. And maybe you could sew that button back on, rather than discarding the shirt?
Climate action doesn’t have to be overwhelming, start small, and here are a few examples:
Some of the things we can do to make a difference: shop with consideration; pick up litter; make or buy wax wraps to store food.
I know that this might seem a bit doom-and-gloom compared to the usual posts I produce, but it’s important to highlight, and I hope that you have read this far and haven’t felt that I am just adding another layer to all the noise out there regarding climate change.
I still have a long way to go personally. Our family still produce too much waste. I still pull plastic wipes from a plastic pack to wipe snotty noses, but I have replaced my disposable face wipes with reusable cotton alternatives, and I buy my loo roll from Who Gives a Crap. I still buy Comfort fabric conditioner because I like the smell, but I have swapped out my washing liquid and shower gels for environmentally friendly alternatives.
We don’t have to turn our lives upside down to make a positive impact, but we can stop and think: Do I need it? Is it reusable? Is there a more environmentally alternative? And most importantly, how can I take care of my own little patch of the world for the future.
Jarlshof Prehistoric & Norse Settlement. Photo: Sophie Whitehead.
As you read this, I will (hopefully) be sunning my weary legs on a beach in the Adriatic, or exploring a medieval town’s backstreets. The reality is, I’ll probably be trying to rub sun cream into sandy skin, stickied with ice-cream while wondering if it’s an acceptable time to order a large glass of sauvignon blanc. As I was planning the holiday, I found myself ‘googling’ “best things to do in Croatia” and realised that this is what many Shetland visitors will also be furiously googling before any trip to our islands. So, I have put together this guide to the ‘Top 7 in Shetland’ for visitors. These are all outdoor activities for varying abilities (and most can be tailored into a shorter or longer experience depending on interest and/or ability). I should also say that this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather it gives an idea for ‘something to do’ for every day of a week-long break.
1. Mousa Broch
Mousa Broch, an imposing 2,000 year-old structure, built during the mid-Iron Age.
Did you know that Shetland has over 120 broch sites and that Mousa represents the best example of a broch anywhere else in the world. That’s a fact.
Many people ask about brochs; what they are, what they were used for, and why we were building them. In a nutshell, a broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, built in the mid-Iron Age. They are unique to the north and west of Scotland and archaeologists are still not agreed on what their purpose was. Were they defensive structures? Agricultural grain stores? Homes for high-status members of the community or bolt-holes in times of strife or trouble? Perhaps we will never know? What we do know is that they have a unique construction; built with a double-wall, giving an inner and outer wall with a staircase between the two, leading to the top.
These trips are amazing, the culminating in a magnificent spectacle of nature all played out under the shadow of the 2,000-year-old broch. If you want more info about this, I wrote about it here.
Mousa has it all; archaeology, geology, hiking, wildlife and much more. I will write a longer blog about this one soon but, for now, add it to the ‘must-do’ list for your Shetland adventure.
2. Jarlshof Prehistoric & Norse Settlement
Jarlshof from above; this fascinating site spans 5,000 years of human history in Shetland.
Anyone who follows me on Instagram will know that I harp on about this site all the time. I am more than a little obsessed with Jarlshof (meaning the Earl’s House, and so coined by Walter Scott in his book The Pirate).
Jarlshof makes it onto this list because as far as archaeological sites go – and we’ve got them in abundance – this one literally has it all. It has an (almost) uninterrupted chronology spanning 5,000 years of human history in Shetland – not something to sniff at.
Deep in thought at Jarlshof. Photo: Sophie Whitehead.
The site, maintained by Historic Scotland, will take visitors on a tantalising journey from the Neolithic (New Stone Age), through the Bronze and into the early, mid and late-Iron Age. The journey then changes with the arrival of the Vikings and a period of Norse settlement begins. Society during this time changed on unparalleled levels from anything that had gone before. From there, visitors visit the Medieval (Norse) and the arrival of Scottish landowners.
The site is open all year round, although the Visitor Centre is only open May to September, and information can be found here.
Jarlshof truly is unmissable. It is the largest multi-period site in Europe, and your journey will take you through Shetland’s entire ‘human’ story.
3. Lerwick’s Old Town
Lerwick waterfront; get lost in the rich history of Shetland's fascinating capital town. Photo: Susan Molloy.
This is another favourite of mine; I absolutely love the town that I am blessed to call home. Do I feel like a traitor to my Scalloway roots? Yes, I do, but bear with me.
Lerwick, is a relatively new town, certainly in European terms as it only began to grow from the 1600s. Before this, Scalloway, six-miles to the west, my home town/village, was the economic and legislative centre in Shetland. Lerwick grew quickly throughout the 18th- and 19th-century and by the 1830s was firmly established as the capital in Shetland, overtaking Scalloway.
Lerwick, Shetland's capital town. Photos: Susan Molloy.
Spending an afternoon getting immersed in Lerwick’s streets, lanes and architecture is bliss – in fact, that’s how I spent most of my second maternity leave. Explore the waterfront and surrounding town; look for Jimmy Perez’s house, paddle on Bain’s Beach, take in the views from Fort Charlotte, gaze at the Town Hall’s windows, take a coastal walk around the Knab or simply enjoy some retail therapy on da street (Commercial Street). There is no shortage of ways to enjoy Lerwick.
Hermaness Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland.
Hermaness is a walk to the edge of the world, or at least to the edge of the UK. Barren and wild, this is the most northerly point of Britain. Dominated by the imposing Muckle Flugga lighthouse, precariously perched where the sky meets the sea and solans (gannets) and bonxies (great skuas) rule.
Some views from Hermaness & Muckle Flugga, Unst, Shetland.
The walk is aided by a boardwalk, weaving through dense moor before the smell of the sea, the cacophony of the birds and landscape opens up revealing views across the vast-nothingness of the Atlantic in all her glory. Standing on the edge of the cliffs, knowing that there is nothing between you and North America is quite something. I wrote about the walk here.
5. St Ninian’s Isle
St Ninian's Isle sand tombolo in Shetland's South Mainland.
Picture-perfect St Ninian’s Isle is unmissable, even if it is just for a quick photo on the way to the airport. St Ninian’s is the image that adorns most of the glossy mags advertising Shetland and, the vast sand tombolo, linking the island (St Ninian’s) to the mainland is an impressive sight at over 50-metres long. Take a walk, paddle in the sea, pick up a stone or shell and listen as the water laps onto the sand at either side. In the summer, this is an excellent place to watch tirricks (Arctic terns) feed as skootie Alans (Arctic skuas) chase them, twisting and turning mid-air, till they divulge their food.
If you want to explore a little further then go onto the island and walk to the Chapel site (interpretation panels at the beach will guide you). The 12th-century chapel was excavated in the 1950s and was the site of a remarkable discovery. Schoolboy, Douglas Coutts, helping archaeologists on the first day of the summer holidays uncovered a sandstone cross-incised slab which, underneath, contained a box filled with 28-pieces of highly decorated silverware and the jawbone of a porpoise. Nobody knows why this treasure, dating to the 9th century, was buried and why it was never recovered; perhaps we never will, but it is well worth the walk.
Some of the coastal views on St Ninian's Isle. Note the island of Foula on the image on the right.
Also on the island, take a walk to the south-west corner and marvel at the geology – layers of sandstone – on the cliffs and stacks and spend a quiet moment tracing the flight of a maalie (fulmar).
6. Culswick Broch
Approaching Culswick Broch on Shetland's West Mainland.
This one is a little off-the-beaten-track but is one of my favourites for archaeology, dramatic landscapes, solitude and wildlife.
Culswick Broch is tucked away in the corner of Shetland’s West Mainland, park at the signs for the broch in the deep valley of Culswick and follow the dirt road. By road, the walk is about 3 miles (4.6 km), and the broch is the pièce de résistance at the end, commanding views across much of the West Mainland.
Views across Sottersta and out to sea beyond, on the Culswick Broch walk.
A broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, built during the mid-Iron Age these structures are unique to the north and west of Scotland. Archaeologists are still debating their purpose and use but, for me, the beauty of the broch lies in the mystery and intrigue that these impressive buildings evoke.
I wrote more about the Culswick broch in a blog post that you can read here.
Eshaness cliffs on a breezy winter day.
No guide to Shetland would be complete without mentioning the impressive cliffs at Eshaness. The cliffs that form part of the Eshaness circular walk are part of an ancient landscape formed by the blast of a volcano millions of years ago and is one of the many reasons why Shetland is a Unesco Geopark.
The Grind o' da Navir, Eshaness.
The walk here takes you right through the flank of the volcano and along the way you will encounter lava-flows, geos (long, narrow inlets), collapsed sea-caves (Hols o’ Scraada) and the Grind o’ da Navir, an impressive natural amphitheatre carved out by the power of the sea. On the way back, take a moment to explore the ruined watermills and 2,000-year-old broch that stands in a ruinous state in loch close to the Hols o’ Scraada.
The Hols o' Scraada, Eshaness.
So that’s me, a quick guide to seven unmissable Shetland experiences that will enrich your visit and make you dream of coming back, time and time again. And for me, it’s back to the suncream and sauvignon.
The Lodge in Fetlar; the perfect rural retreat in Shetland.
In early August we stayed in an award-winning self-catering cottage in Fetlar. The Lodge sits tucked above the shore, overlooking Lambhoga, and won the 2019 Lux Life’s most Tranquil Accommodation award. And wow, what a spot. As you drive into Houbie, the heart of the island, The Lodge comes into view. Nestled in the shadow of the impressive, if imposing, Leagarth House to which the Lodge was built to serve; originally as a gardener’s cottage for the early-20th-century mansion. The Lodge was built in 1900 for then-owner Sir Watson Cheyne, a pioneering surgeon who grew up in Fetlar.
Fetlar; the perfect place to get-away-from-it-all.
Fetlar, one of Shetland’s three North Isles has endearingly been known as the ‘Garden of Shetland’ since Norse times, and it’s easy to understand why. The stunning landscapes, fertile valleys and diverse geology give rise to the most incredible display of flora and fauna. As we walked through the island, I was amazed by the array of flowers; scented meadowsweet, wild angelica and hogweed, vibrant bog asphodel, sunny buttercups, carpets of eyebright and creeping willow, and, a personal highlight for the whole family, young and old – heather berries.
Bog cotton, bog asphodel and meadowsweet in Fetlar.
Today Fetlar has a population of 60, with two new families set to move into the isle before the year is out. We were joined on the 25-minute ferry crossing from Yell by one other car – the ‘shop’ car. The Landrover was stacked to the rafters with boxes marked ‘Fetlar shop’, having made the weekly journey to the mainland, bringing vital supplies to the island. The shop is in Houbie, just up the hill from The Lodge, and is very much the centre of the community here. Well-stocked and friendly, I think we sold them out of both ice-cream and Lerwick Brewery’s ‘Tushker’ beer (and I can only apologise to the residents who were left disappointed after a long day in the sun to discover that their local shop was out-of-stock!).
Loch of Funzie, Fetlar.
Despite being a remote and picturesque getaway, Fetlar has not been without its share of problems over the years. In the 19th century, the landlord (laird) evicted many of the tenant farmers from the land to make way for large-scale sheep farming and the island never really recovered. By the 1990s the population was at an all-time low. So it’s heartening to hear that new life is coming to the island as new families, and life, move in. The clearances undoubtedly left many scars on the community, mostly in the form of ruined houses and homesteads; homes once filled with warmth and happiness, reduced to gloomy ruins with empty hearths. I wrote about this last year, and you can read about it here.
Views from the front door of The Lodge across the Wick of Tresta and Lambhoga.
Fetlar has been inhabited for about 5,000 years, and it has been argued that the first Vikings in Shetland arrived in Fetlar, although Unst could well dispute this claim! One thing is clear, as you walk through the island, the hand of ancient man is all around you, and if you tune the eye to the landscape, you can read it like a book. The story of Fetlar is the story of Shetland’s broader past.
Getting to Fetlar
Fetlar is relatively easy to get to, although ferry booking is advised. The journey involves two crossings; from Toft (Mainland) to Ulsta (Yell), and then Gutcher (Yell) to Hamars Ness (Fetlar), often with a drop in at Unst to pick up more passengers en route. To get to Toft, follow the A970 from Lerwick then the A968 towards Mossbank. The first crossing takes about 15 minutes. Allow half an hour to travel through Yell towards Gutcher. The final leg, Gutcher to Hamar’s Ness, takes 25 minutes on the ferry.
Fetlar ferry at Hamar's Ness.
The Shetland Islands Council operates Shetland’s network of Inter-Island ferries, and timetables and bookings can be made here.
The Lodge, situated in Houbie, Fetlar.
The Lodge, Houbie
It’s hard to fault the accommodation provided at The Lodge. The setting is so serene and relaxing that it’s little wonder it won an award for tranquillity this year. The Lodge itself is a three bedroom self-catering cottage that is well kitted out and thoughtfully renovated. It oozes serenity and calm, and the pastel-coloured wood-lined walls throughout the house give the place a soothing sense of peace – sure to relieve any stress or anxiety.
There are two doors; one at the front of the property with off-road parking, and one at the back that leads onto the main road. But don’t fear, traffic is not an issue here, and the roads are quiet. We used the door at the front of the house, a sunny spot with breathtaking, uninterrupted views out to sea. My only criticism here is that the freshly mowed grass presented a never-ending problem as little feet trooped in-and-out the house in a flurry of grass-cuttings. As a result, I was continually sweeping grass from the house. A path to the front door or a mower with a grass box would provide a simple solution.
The house is well-equipped with everything that you might need during your stay; well-stocked kitchen, wifi, TV, information, games and books and the glorious views across the Wick of Tresta.
Houbie, Fetlar, with Leagarth House in the foreground and The Lodge behind.
A weekend in Fetlar (some ideas for your stay)
I have written a lot about Fetlar; last year, I wrote two blogs about things to do in Fetlar that included:
Returning this year, we stroked off a few more ‘must do’s’ from the list from an island which has a tremendous amount to give.
Houbie, Fetlar, with views to Leagarth and The Lodge.
Houbie itself has a lot to offer within a stone’s throw of The Lodge. Fetlar Interpretive Centre is just across the road, offering a glimpse into the island’s history, culture, tradition, people and folklore. It is well worth spending an afternoon as there is a lot of information to get through. A testament to the quality of this community-run museum is its four-star Visit Scotland rating.
Fetlar Interpretive Centre, Houbie.
The Centre is open from May to September (Monday to Saturday 11 - 4 pm; Sunday 12.30 - 4 pm).
Also in Houbie, just beside The Lodge is a beautiful, sandy beach, complete with a 19th-century stepped pool system, designed to encourage trouts to breed in the stream. The beach has a pier and slipway, and we spent every evening of our stay in wetsuits exploring the shoreline and bay beyond.
The beach at Houbie, beside The Lodge, with the trout pools on the left.
Coastal walk from Houbie to Tresta
Houbie is an excellent location to explore every corner of Fetlar, and we began our stay by walking the coast between Houbie and Tresta before returning to The Lodge via the main road.
Walk distance: 5 miles
We began at the Lodge, following the coastline to Tresta Beach. This part of the walk is 1.5 miles and incorporates stunning scenery, geology, archaeology and cliffs.
Along the way, in Dammins and Clemmel Geo, we discovered a steatite quarry with bowl-shaped carvings and initials engraved in the rock face; documenting years of human history in this area.
Steatite/soapstone workings in Fetlar.
Steatite, better known as soapstone, is a soft rock that is extremely easy to carve. It has been used here since prehistoric times; Neolithic people using it to temper pottery. The Viking and Norse settlers later arrived, using it for almost every conceivable purpose in the home and beyond. Steatite/soapstone is synonymous with Norse occupation in Shetland, and its use can be traced all through the North Atlantic. It’s a topic that is close to me, and it formed the basis of my masters thesis, exploring the rise of fishing in Shetland. The thesis tracked the growth of our mainstay industry from Norse times, using the artefactual finds – steatite line-sinkers – as evidence. Outcrops of this versatile rock are found in various places throughout Shetland; notably Unst, Fetlar, Fethaland and Catpund.
Steatite/soapstone items in Shetland Museum. (l-r) line-sinker; toy quernstone; loomweights.
Moving on, we rounded another headland and came on more archaeology; more evidence of Fetlar’s past people. Standing proud on the edge of the cliff sits the Broch of Houbie; a 2,000-year-old Iron Age structure, cloaked in mystery and intrigue. These towers of the past, erected in the mid-Iron Age, still cause archaeologists to stop and scratch their heads, wondering at their purpose and use. The broch, like most of the other 120 broch sites in Shetland, now stands in ruin, but the ramparts are still visible. The conical-shaped mound, rising from the landscape is sure to stop you in your tracks and wonder for a while. We had a picnic here, gazing out over the Wick of Tresta, watching the maalies (fulmars) in their elegant flight, soaring high in the thermals on a warm southerly breeze.
Broch of Houbie; note the ramparts on the right. Hansi and Lena stand on top of the now collapsed structure. It has commanding views across the Wick of Tresta.
The next part of the walk takes you around to Tresta Beach, where the church and Papil Water come into view. Sheer cliffs, geos and caves punctuate the coastline here, and the path between the fence and the cliff-edge can be narrow in places. This is where we happened on the grumpiest crofter (farmer) I think I have ever met. With many profanities and gesticulations, he tried to clear us from his land – concerned, I suspect, that we were going to drive his sheep and lambs over the cliffs. He needn’t have worried. Growing up in Shetland, we are well aware of how to respect the countryside and everything in it. It was just a shame that the children had to be subjected to such ill-temper and bad language – scaring them as we proceeded to the beach.
Tresta Beach coming into view with Papil Water behind.
For anyone concerned about walking the countryside in Shetland, you needn’t be. We have the ‘right to roam’ here, meaning that you can freely explore as you wish. The only requirement is that you respect the land, leave gates as you find them, take away your rubbish and keep dogs on a leash if sheep are around. It is worth bearing in mind that some areas can be dangerous; with sheer cliffs, overhangs, bogs and ground-nesting birds, it is worth doing your homework. I did write a blog about staying safe in the outdoors in Shetland and you can read that here.
Papil Water, Fetlar.
From Tresta beach we walked around Papil Water, skirting past a colony of bonxies (great skuas) who eyed us with as much suspicion as we gave them. Both parties – us and the bonxies – keeping a respectful distance from the other. Incidentally, this is one of the best trout lochs in Shetland. We then re-joined the road and made our way lazily back to The Lodge with little feet beginning to tire and belly’s rumbling.
Bonxies (great skuas) taking off from Papil Water, Fetlar.
Tresta Beach, Fetlar.
This beach deserves a special mention. Outstandingly beautiful, picture-perfect and flanked by the steep slopes of Lambhoga, it commands uninterrupted views across the Wick of Tresta and the North Sea beyond.
Not only is it outstandingly beautiful, but it is also one of five beaches in Shetland to have been awarded a prize in the Keep Scotland Beautiful beach awards in 2019.
The bairns had a ball playing in the crystal-clear turquoise water while we adults enjoyed the picnic benches and a cold beer just above the sand.
Whiling away an afternoon on the beach was no hardship as the wildlife provides a never-ending drama performance overhead. I was most heartened to see scootie Allans (Arctic skuas) – a cousin to the larger bonxie – swiftly flying around. They were chasing tirricks (Arctic terns) and bonxies – their agility, a real sight to behold as they danced above the ebb-stanes, keeping their pursuers at bay. I idly watched a family of dunters (eider ducks) gingerly make their way across the sound, avoiding detection and staying close to the shore. The mother keeping her young close as the acrobatic terns and skuas swooped and dived overhead – nature’s fighter jets fighting for supremacy.
Coastal walk from Tresta to Lambhoga peat shed
This was predominantly a hill walk rather than a coastal walk, although it could be done as a coastal (longer) route. The walk took us four hours but could be achieved much quicker – we stopped along the way to pick heather berries, admire the views and picnic.
Walk distance: 4.5 miles
For this walk, park at the Tresta beach and walk along the beach to the other side where you will find a path/old road that makes the steep passage up the side of Lambhoga. From here, there are spectacular views across the Wick of Tresta, back to Papil Water and Tresta Beach and across to Houbie – and The Lodge, our home for a few days.
The track that we followed continues for about two miles up the hill and inland. On the way, we were distracted by the glut of heather berries. Sweet little bursts of tangy delight, a proper taste of Shetland’s summer. (These are now at home soaking in gin for Christmas). We picked enough to satisfy our needs, leaving enough behind for the birds who depend on this essential late-summer food source.
Searching for heather berries in Fetlar.
As you scale the ridge of Lambhoga, spectacular views across to Yell – Mid Yell and Aywick – emerge. We tracked the passage of a sailing boat heading north through Colgrave Sound and marvelled at the beautiful flush of moorland colour as the bog asphodel transformed boggy depressions into carpets of vibrant, sunshine-coloured flower.
The track that leads through the hill is very boggy and wet in places. Long neglected, the former peat road weaves haphazardly through the bog. After a wet summer, even my Gore-tex hiking boots failed me as brown, peaty water soaked through to my toes, slowly warming in the heat.
The path is very wet in places on the walk to the 'Peaty Hoose'.
The reason for following this track was to see the “Peat Shelter” at the end of the road. Described by Peter Guy in his Walk Shetland series (1991) as a “derelict shelter” where “peat cutters could rest from their labours in the nearby [peat] banks, now disused. During the ‘flitting’ of peat (bringing home) workers of both sexes lived in such ‘peat hooses’ amongst the peat banks”.
My family were pretty unimpressed when I announced that I had found our target; a tumbledown shack, with nothing more standing than part of the corrugated roof and a few empty lemonade bottles. Peter Guy had more luck, saying that: “A plank covered bed-space occupied at least half the space at one end of the ‘hoose’. Thirteen such houses still existed here in the 1960s”.
The 'Peaty Hoose' in Fetlar that I dragged the family to. It has seen better days!
Nevertheless, it was a fantastic spot for a picnic, with panoramic views across the east side of Yell and mainland Shetland, with the Noup of Noss standing proud on the southern horizon.
I tried to wade through the heather that Peter Guy says “elephants could graze”, in search of the ruins of a croft, but the bonxies won the day, and we were forced to turn back to the safety of the ‘peaty hoose’.
It felt like a forgotten place, ruled by the bonxies that glided overhead, diving on us now and again, reminding us that this was their territory and we were trespassers.
It was lovely to bring Grandad along too. Even if he did insist on wearing his hankie on his head to protect from the sun!
Our three days in Fetlar came and went too quickly. The Lodge provided us with the perfect base for exploring and a relaxing place to kick off our boots and wetsuits at the end of the day, with sun-kissed faces and weary legs.
Despite having visited two years on-the-trot, there is still so much to see, do and explore. I left feeling, again, like we had merely scratched the surface of this tantalising little island, tucked away off the north-east coast of Shetland. Next summer, when we return, I will certainly be booking back into The Lodge.
If you too would like to stay in The Lodge, bookings can be made here.
Commercial Street, Lerwick on a busy summer day.
A beginners guide to Shetland
You’ve read the travel guide? Great. You’ve seen the Shetland TV series, even better; now read a real guide from a local. Delve a little deeper into the fascinating culture of the place I call home: Shetland.
Our island’s culture and tradition is unique and distinctively ‘not Scottish’ – if that’s a thing? We’ve only been part of Scotland for 550 years so don’t expect to find any haggis, kilts or bagpipes here.
So, for those arriving here for the first time, I’ve compiled this little Survival Guide – a beginner's guide to Shetland, if you will. It’s by no means comprehensive and should be taken a little tongue-in-cheek, but here you go:
First things first, welcome to Shetland – hiyi, noo den, whit lik’, or whatever – you’ll find a few variants of this common greeting. We’re a friendly bunch, and you’ll find that people will be only too happy to help you while you’re here, so please, don’t be afraid to ask locals for directions, tips or any other little thing which might spring to mind.
If it’s your first time to Shetland then pop into the Tourist Centre and meet the staff – a more helpful team you couldn’t ask for. You’re sure to leave feeling inspired and bursting with ideas for your holidays.
Lerwick Tourist Centre where a friendly welcome awaits.
*note* WE DRIVE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD.
With introductions over, it’s likely that one of the first things you’ll do as a visitor to our islands, is rent a car (several car rental companies are available, such as this one, this one and this one).
You will then find yourself on one of our minor, single-track roads with passing places. We have rules for these, which are unwritten, but strictly observed by islanders. Below is your handy guide to Passing Place Etiquette:
A Shetland passing place, many people visiting ask what "passing place" means on the road signs.
Using one of Shetland's passing places in Fetlar.
A few notes, or additional points to consider when driving in Shetland:
Be aware of vehicles displaying car hire logos. They may, or will almost certainly be unsure of where they’re going, or how to navigate the roads. We expect this from self-drives. Remember that for many, they’re driving on the opposite side of the road to what they’re accustomed to. This is as much a reminder to locals (and myself) as anyone else because it can be frustrating when rushing to get somewhere only to come up behind a car going at 35 mph on a 60 stretch.
Be aware that unless specified, you’re probably going to end up with a manual car if you rent one, and one that has about as much power under the bonnet to get up the hills as my hairdryer. That said, Shetland’s car hire companies are very good, and the vehicles are usually reasonably new.
Cyclists are a problem here too. I joke (kinda). Please just be aware that we have a lot of cyclists on the roads and there are no dedicated cycle paths, other than a few around town and one leading into the village of Hoswick. I wrote a blog about cycling in Shetland that you can read here.
I should also give you a little heads-up about roundabouts in Shetland, especially for our American visitors who have never encountered this quintessentially British intersection. Basically, on entering a roundabout, give priority to traffic approaching from your right. You will find these randomly situated throughout the isles, and lots of people living here are quite unaware of how to use them too (!). Be prepared for lengthy stand-offs – the roundabout stare-off – as people unblinkingly gaze from one car to the other, wondering who dares to go first. It can be quite fun (if you’re not in a hurry) and I like to treat it as if it were a competitive sport – always disappointed when someone has the guts to enter the roundabout before me. Basically, this system to ‘keep traffic flowing’, more often than not brings traffic to an absolute standstill.
But don’t worry, traffic hold-ups in Shetland are short-lived and infrequent and if you’re still unsure about navigating a roundabout check out this advice from the Highway Code.
If you want to understand a little more about how to use passing places and general ‘Shetlandy stuff’ check out this helpful YouTube video.
So that's the roads covered.
Who lets a little rain stop them anyway? A rainy day in Yell. Welcome to Shetland summer.
Small talk & weather
Despite a surge in tourism in recent years, visitors can still come here and catch a glimpse of the islands distinct culture. Shetland remains true to its roots in many areas – despite the fact we all have iPhones, instant messenger and wifi.
I’m listing small-talk and weather together here because they seem to come as a package. All small-talk begins with the weather, and the weather is the first thing that we ever talk about. We have weather here in abundance, and it can change in a millisecond – providing us with endless opportunities for small-talk.
If you meet a local, be prepared to be given a run-down on the weather (especially if you meet my mother-in-law), it’s how we start most conversations here.
‘Fine day, daday’ – It’s a good day, today.
‘It’s a day o’ dirt’ – It’s a horrible day today.
‘It’s steekit’ mist’ – It’s extremely foggy.
‘A laar o’ wind’ or ‘a scaar o’ wind’ – Not much wind, or, a little more wind...
‘It’s a day o’ shite’ – I’ll let you figure that one out for yourselves.
And one of the nicest things you can hope for is ‘a day atween wadders’ – a calm day between storms when the birds come out singing, and everyone appears outdoors after being stuck in! (As I write, we’ve enjoyed a ‘day atween wadders’, and I’m writing on the rainy end of it).
On a serious note:
Be prepared for four seasons in one day. And, be prepared for the wind chill – It’s a real thing here despite our temperate Oceanic climate. It will surprise you – it still surprises me!
So, pack wisely and layer up.
I wrote a blog about what to wear in Shetland that can be found here.
What not to say to a Shetlander:
Never say that you are ‘on Shetland’, or ‘on Unst’ for example – us Shetlanders can’t abide it (even if it is grammatically correct). Just bear in mind that when visiting; you are ‘in Shetland’ or you are ‘in Unst’, never on.
Another never never is – the Shetlands. We’re not the Shetlands; we are just Shetland. Period. Call us the Shetland Isles, or an island archipelago, or da auld rock, or da rock – whatever, just don’t call us the Shetlands. This is a sure-fire way of getting off on the wrong foot, or most usually, corrected.
Although, as mentioned, Shetlanders are a friendly bunch and will probably helpfully correct you with a smile of knowing sympathy at your error.
Fair Isle knitwear is the national dress in Shetland; not tartan.
Don’t ask what our tartan is; a real Shetlander doesn’t have a tartan – our roots are very much Scandinavian (if you want to know more about our ‘non-Scottish’ culture you can read my blog post here).
You will perhaps want to buy some of our locally made Fair Isle knitwear, and this can be picked up all over the isles from larger shops on Commercial Street to small community museum shops.
Knitwear has always been important to our economy – much more than tartan ever has. But that’s for another day.
One of the Shetland fishing fleet; supplying fresh local fish to market.
Food & Drink
Again, this is another blog post, but for now:
Private Karl Manson in full Seaforth Highlander uniform before departing for France, 1916.
“If we think only on his life, and count, like the sun-dial, only the sunshine hours, we shall not let the gloom and daily fear which has so long overcast the sky for us at home, spread the dullness and dread of our last few months over our former remembrance of those who have died for us”.
Haunting words, written in memory of Karl Manson, offered as comfort to his mother following his untimely death.
We are told that almost 10 million men were killed during the First World War; we are told that the average life expectancy of a man on the front line was a mere six weeks. These shocking statistics alone are too great to comprehend. In order to begin to understand the human cost of the First World War it is easier to consider individual stories. Putting a ‘face to a name’ enables our minds the opportunity to place ourselves in their shoes.
Lerwick War Memorial, Remembrance Day 2017. The war memorial was opened in 1924 by Janet (Jean) Hardy who lost three sons to the First World War.
Last week our local war memorial was vandalised with graffiti. It struck a chord deep inside me. It pulled at every heart string imaginable. I know that 100 years has passed since the First World War ended, but how could I not feel utterly heartbroken at such sacrilege? The memories of these brave men and boys should be respected, cherished and remembered. I feel privileged to have been allowed access to so many personal letters from servicemen during my time at the museum; windows into the lives of those who fought hard to ensure our freedom today. Many of these letters are all that remain of these brave young men; letters now age-worn and yellowed, creased and folded from being read, re-read before being carefully slipped back into an apron pocket.
Graffiti on the Lerwick War Memorial last week (August 2019)
The desecration of such a sacred place of remembrance has spurred me to revisit the story of Private Karl Manson from Lerwick. I hope that in publishing this again, it will make people stop, think and remember. Give a thought each time you pass a war memorial or war grave, and remember them. Putting this to paper has always been difficult for me. How can words today describe the realities felt by those serving in the trenches? How can I convey a mother’s grief on receiving the news that your worst fears have become a reality. In this blog, I would like to pay homage to the memory of one boy who served among millions. His story, is replayed in the lives of many more, like him, who fought on the frontline of the First World War. This is his story.
Private Karl Manson
Karl Manson (b. 11thJune 1897) was the son of Thomas and Margaret, Hillhead, Lerwick – just a stone’s throw from the current day war memorial. A Private in the 1/5 Seaforth Highlanders, Karl, was killed by a sniper, aged 19, on the first day of the Battle of Arras (9thApril 1917). A keen scholar with an enquiring mind, Karl was destined for great things before his life was tragically cut short by war.
On 13th June 1915 the troopship H.M.S Cambria left Shetland carrying the 240 Territorials, the Shetland Companies Gordon Highlanders. Karl writes in his diary "Terriers went tonight, saw them off". Unable to depart as he was still at school, Karl signed up, in anticipation of the completion of his higher education at the Anderson Institute. Three days after finishing school (May 1916), and raring to go, he was bound south on the boat to embark on army training.
Like many other young men, Karl was keen to sign up and get, what he describes as, “a taste of war before it was over”. In one letter to his father from the training camp, he writes "the 'great push' has begun and is going so successfully but whether this means that the war will soon be over is hard to say, any how I should like to have a glimpse of it before it is ended". Following training with the Seaforths in Dunfermline, his division was sent to France (October 1916). His frontline experience was to be short, for he contracted trench fever on his way to the line, causing him to be hospitalised for a short spell. But, on 11th March 1917 he had his first taste of life in the trenches.
Karl Manson's letters to his mother from France. The one on top is dated April 8th 1917.
A clear picture of Karl’s life emerges in the letters he wrote home to his mother. Being literary minded, his correspondence is detailed, frequent and concise, allowing the reader a unique insight into the remarkable mind of this 19-year-old soldier and scholar.
Through letters and diaries, a young man with boundless ambition emerges. Writing to his father from France, thinking ahead to his future career in the civil servic, he says that he would like a job that “affords the opportunity for reading and a little quiet study”, as “after one has dabbled in literature a little, it becomes more or less part of one’s life”.
Karl’s father, Thomas Manson, was the then editor of the Shetland News, and as the weeks of the war progressed, the paper kept islanders up-to-date on news of local casualties. In the years following the war Manson collated Shetland’s Roll of Honour & Service (1920) that details all those who fought and were lost to war from Shetland.
Battle of Arras
On 9th April 1917 the British assault which aimed to gain ground from the Germans began. This offensive gained significant ground for allied forces, most notably, Vimy Ridge. Despite the gains made on the first day, the successes of this attack were offset by the high cost to human life. This onslaught resulted in 159,000 British casualties, including about 20 Shetlanders who were killed on that day. Despite a shorter duration of fighting that the Somme or Ypres, the daily casualty rate at Arras was higher.
Karl’s company were the first over the parapet on that fateful morning. The Battalion War Diary notes the events which unfolded on that dark morning:
"All preparations having been completed, at 5am, on 9th April all the artillery on this front opened a terrific fire, and then over went our infantry. It was a bitterly cold morning with a strong wind and heavy rain showers, changing into snow later on. Line after line of enemy trenches was taken, although the Bavarians on our front, the finest fighting material in the German army, fought stubbornly, some groups holding out until every man was killed […] Machine guns […] did most mischief, but snipers also accounted for many. Our own men, along with the 6th Seaforth Highlanders, formed the attacking waves of the left half of the 152nd Brigade's front”.
Captain Sutherland continues, “I visited the field of battle the day after and what a sight I saw! Surely after the carnage and misery among the nations of the world by this wholesale slaughter, nations will agree that war is to cease and that peace is to reign hereafter! Here were our own men, one here, another there, each lying as he had fallen from bullet or shell, his rifle still in hand. Here were men carrying in the dead and collecting them in one place, while others were digging a huge grave in which the men are now buried side by side.”
Once over the parapet, Karl paused to dress his friend Charlie’s hand that had been shot, before continuing on to his objective. This objective was never met. Shot through the heart by a sniper at the tender age of 19, he was killed outright after little more than a month on the front line. Charlie’s sister, writing to Mrs Manson from their family home in Brechin describes the event recalled to her.
“Charlie and Karl went over the top together and evidently kept together as it was Karl who bound up Charlie’s wound and left him in a shell hole to go forward”.
It wasn’t until 26th April that the telegram arrived bearing the dreaded news. The Commanding Officer wrote that Karl “was killed while playing a brave part in the first advance east […] He was a good soldier and well liked in the Platoon”.
Historians have long argued about the strategic importance of the gains made at Arras on that day, most have conceded that the territorial gains were unimportant in the greater context of the Western Front – a tragic loss of human life for little benefit.
“A queer thing happened last week after we had taken the line [at Arras] & things had quietened down a bit I was having a look round and there was a chap lying just over the parapet, a Seaforth Highlander he was, he had been killed by a German sniper. I thought I had seen him somewhere so I looked for his pay book to see his name, it was Karl Manson (a son of Tom Manson of the Shetland News) he had a photograph of his father & sister in his pocket, so I took them and will send them on to his father after he has heard from the office. The Seaforths were attacking on the left that's how he came to be so near us. I expect he has been on their right, it was queer for me to be the first to come on him though wasn't it?”
Willie later writes to Karl’s mother, enclosing a photo of Karl’s grave in France. The ring, now in Shetland Museum & Archives, was brought back to Shetland by Private Laurence Harper, Hoswick. Harper returned to Shetland after being gassed in France and took the ring with him for Mrs Manson.
In a letter to his father, Karl speaks about choosing souvenirs, saying, “I don’t know if I have made a very good selection for I don’t know what is most pleasing to the female mind […] I meant Mama to have that satchel affair, which I was told was for holding handkerchiefs”. When imagining ‘souvenirs of war’, images of bomb-shrapnel and shell-casing spring to mind; not delicate silks. This cushion speaks volumes; it shows a young boy trying to put his mother’s worried mind at ease, despite being fully engaged in all the horrors of war.
Karl’s letters are full of kind words; reassurances and patience for his mother’s worried mind. He tells her not to worry as “you may be sure I’ll turn up again like a bad sixpence” and he assures her that “all trenches are provided with dug-outs, good deep dug-outs, in which we live when off duty, they are certainly not very roomy, but they are quite warm. So don’t remain under the impression that we live six days and nights in the open […] I hope I have eased your mind a bit.”
He also scorns her for not telling him about Shetlanders who had been killed, and asks, “did you really think, my dear mother, that I should be too much upset if I heard sad news. I have heard and seen too much of that sort of thing to pay much attention to that. I am not so young as I was, you know”.
The final letter to his mother, dated 8th April reads:
“We will be going up to the line in about a days time, so I must warn you that you must not expect a letter for a good while. I might manage to send a field p.c. [postcard], but you must not worry”. This was the last letter Karl would send home, he was killed the following morning.
Whether he was afraid or not, was never given away to his mother. Proud to serve, and to have signed up before he was conscripted, we do see a glimpse of fear in a letter he wrote to fellow Shetlander, Tommy Morrison, whose brother Bertie was also killed at Arras. Tommy recalls Karl’s last words to him, “Well, it’s all past now, Morrison, and I’ve had a first class time… remember if anything happens to me, it’s quite possible, promise that you’ll stand by mother. You’re the only one I’d care to ask this, and I know you’ll do what you can.”
Roclincourt Cemetary, France.
Karl was laid to rest in the Highland Cemetery, Roclincourt. In recognition of his services to King and country he was awarded the 1914-18 War Medal and Victory Medal. The Shetland Archives holds another poignant token of remembrance for Karl’s life; a fragile pressed rose from his grave, collected in 1925 and treasured by his mother until her death.
Bob Gray says: “No matter what situation had to be faced, he did it with a cheerfulness that we all admired. I had come to look on him not as a friend but as a brother”.
Friends echoed this sentiment, Mrs. Little whose family had become close to Karl in Dunfermline said that she would miss “that bright yet thoughtful face [...] he has fallen on the field of battle as every true soldier would elect to fall, facing his duty in his country's hour of extremity.”
From Shetland to France with love
In July 2015 my father-in-law, Jim Pottinger, and his friend, David Robertson, arranged a trip to Europe on their motorbikes. I saw an unmissable opportunity to have a piece of Shetland delivered to France.
Karl’s pre-war diaries describe (held in the Shetland Archives) many a ‘dip’ in the sea, so I decided that the most fitting offering would be a handful of sand from Bain’s beach – a special piece of foreshore that remains in the heart of his hometown, Lerwick. Jim and David duly set off for France with a jar of sand stowed away in the luggage boxes, heading for the beautiful northern town of Arras.
The road to the Highland Cemetery at Roclincourt turns to grass and the cemetery is set amongst beautiful fields of golden barley, within a flint-walled yard. Three hundred soldiers killed during the Arras offensive are laid to rest here under the shade of four large limetrees. Captain Sutherland wrote that “the men are now buried side by side […] in no-man’s land between where our own and the enemy front lines were”.
Once there, the sand from home was poured over his grave. Jim said it “was eery visiting the grave, it was very peaceful and quiet, and the only noise they could hear was a lark singing nearby.”
Jim pouring sand from Shetland on Karl Manson's graveside in France. We will remember them.
Perhaps this was Karl, and like in the words from his favourite Hymn, perhaps he has found peace and built his nest:
“The little birds of Anwoth,
I used to count them blessed,
Now, beside happier altars
I go to build my nest:
O’er these there broods no silence,
No graves around them stand,
For glory, deathless, dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land”.
(The Sands of Time are Sinking)
In memory of all those who fought and died in the First and Second World War. We will remember them.
With love, and remembrance.
A sheep at Hermaness, Unst.
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to stand on the edge of the world? When I was little, I had big dreams. Dreams of sailing away to far-flung places in the world, but as I grew older, my career advisor told me that that wasn’t possible. “You can’t sail around the world,” she said. Despite this dream-shattering moment, I often find myself thinking about the vastness of the world, and our place in it, as I gaze out over the rolling North Atlantic. We are but one small cluster of islands – a rock – rising proudly from the sea. Standing on the point of Hermaness looking across to Muckle Flugga gives an incredible sense of place. With the Arctic to the north and Newfoundland to the west – it feels so much more.
Muckle Flugga lighthouse. The most northerly point in the UK.
Hermaness is the most northerly point of mainland Unst – and the UK for that matter – with breathtaking views across to Muckle Flugga, a small sea-worn skerry with the UK’s most northerly lighthouse. The walk takes in much of the bird life on offer in Unst, including great skuas, a gannet colony and puffins.
Distance: 5.5 miles (9km)
Time: 3 hours (we took 5 hours, soaking it all in and picnicking with our three and seven-year-old in tow)
Difficulty: Moderately challenging
Dramatic and sheer, other-worldly and awe-inspiring; just a few words that sprang to mind reflecting on this walk. In a landscape ruled by the birds; puffins, gannets and fulmars proudly dominate the crags, stacks and cliffs, while nesting great skuas command the moorland (with an estimated 1,000 breeding pairs). Their dark silhouettes camouflaged by the heathery hills until the discerning eye homes in on them. Once the eye is trained, they appear everywhere the gaze falls; piercing eyes a reminder to respect their territory.
So that’s how the walk begins – in bonxie (skua) territory. Park at the designated Hermaness National Nature reserve car park where an information board outlines the route and leaflets are provided. Follow the path. The initial stages of the trail are gravel before it gives way to a boardwalk. The boardwalk has been much improved since I last did the walk with a friend a few years ago. I don’t know if it was the old wire-covered walkway or the hangover, but the path ran before my eyes, leaving me feeling sick, dizzy and uninspired.
The walk to Hermaness follows a boardwalk for most of the way. Look out for native flowers and ferns along the way.
The boardwalk that carefully weaves through the boggy moor, safely navigates you away from the bonxies. Spongy and soft underfoot, it’s a nice easy walk with the laverock’s (skylark) song providing an uninterrupted playlist. This area of blanket bog is vitally essential to the birds that nest in it, providing the lungs for Shetland’s environment. Without trees, this blanket bog is a crucially important carbon store.
Breathtaking and dramatic scenery at Hermaness, Unst.
The views from the clifftop at Toolie are breathtaking; rugged stacks, sheer faces and a babble of noise rising from the birds below. This western promontory stands tall in the face of the wild and unpredictable North Atlantic. On the day that we visited, the sea was calm with a warm breeze from the south and the sky and horizon merged into one vast blueness. But judging by the coastline, and the salt-burnt clifftops, it’s clear that this north-western frontier takes a battering from the elements in the winter.
Heading north, we went down the steep slopes into Sothers Dale, stopping halfway down in a drystone sheep enclosure, or cro, for a much-anticipated picnic. From the shelter of the cro, we continued north, making our way to Muckle Flugga. Along the grassy slopes, puffins busily came and went, periodically congregating in groups for a natter and a spot of bill rubbing. A lot of time can be spent just watching these sociable little birds. Comical and proud, we whiled away a bit of time just observing as a pair went about their chores – on this day, lining the burrow with dried grass. Puffins are always found at the top of the cliffs. They lay their single egg in a burrow, so to nest, these guys need soil! What this does mean, is that you can get up-close-and-personal to these animated little auks.
We had a wonderful family day out at Hermaness, Unst.
But it’s not all puffins and picnics. On the way to Muckle Flugga, we passed the impressive and noisy gannet colonies. With 25,000 breeding pairs returning here every year, it's a fantastic place to see these – the largest British seabird – in their natural habitat. Down at sea level, on the lower reaches of the cliffs, guillemots nest in dense and noisy colonies, laying their single egg directly onto the rock. Above, fulmars make their presence known, soaring like gliders in the air currents.
Eventually, we arrive at our zenith – Muckle Flugga (large steep rock) – topped with its impressive lighthouse. The lighthouse, built by Thomas Stevenson, is carefully woven into the barren rock that hosts it, and has stood up to 150 years of assault from the Atlantic. Until 1995 it was arguably the most northerly inhabited island – home to a lighthouse keeper throughout the year until the light became automated.
Muckle Flugga: The UK's most northerly point.
And here I sat, with a bottle of 60 North beer in hand, marvelling at the wonders of this truly amazing place we call home. Maybe my career advisor could see I was just a dreamer, or maybe one day I will sail around the world. Who knows. What I do know is that the walk to Hermaness really makes you feel like you’re perched at the edge of the world, and that is a very humbling experience.
Happy bairns: delighted to have made it to the UK's most northerly point; Muckle Flugga.
I hope that one day you have the opportunity to do this walk too. And if not, I hope that these photos have opened your eyes to another truly marvellous place. If you want more Shetland inspiration, remember you can sign up to my monthly Newsletter via the website.
'Cheers' from Muckle Flugga and 60 North!
"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you." ~ Jane Eyre
When I was about 12 years old, I wrote a poem about a caged bird. It wasn’t that great; nobody really liked it but me – not even my mother. For me, it spoke more about how I felt when I put the words on paper than what the words actually said. I dumped it, although I wish now I’d kept it as it sticks in my memory like that little grains of sand between the toes after a stroll on the beach.
In my day-to-day life I’m often asked what I do for work all year round: ‘Is this [guiding on the buses] all you do’, or ‘what do you do in the quiet season?’. My life used to be clearly defined, my vocation straightforward – I worked in the local museum, I worked 9-5 Monday to Friday. It was a nice simple explanation that people understood. I went to work and then came home to my family. But I felt like that 12-year-old writing about a caged bird – except now I was the bird. My role now is less defined; harder to explain. I wear several hats, and it takes a little longer to unravel it to people. But that said, I have never felt freer. I no longer feel caged.
I tell my guests that I gave it all up and have never looked back. I’m now self-employed doing tours that I love and writing about all the things that make me feel alive. In January I took over as editor of Shetland Life magazine – a monthly lifestyle magazine all about, yes you guessed it, life in Shetland. I feel now like my life is full of opportunites and adventure, every door that creaks opens unlocks another wonderful experience or opportunity. My mind is bursting with ideas and my heart is full.
I’ve always enjoyed playing with words; dabbling in poetry that nobody is allowed to read, fiction that no one will ever want to read, and the dreary academic stuff that leaves your eyes feeling droopy and your brain aching from the weight of words that you don’t even recognise as your own, all written in an attempt to appear more intelligent, or accepted by your peers. These ventures into academia never left me feeling alive; in fact, the opposite was true; they just left me feeling a bit hollow and unfulfilled.
My blog was a turning point; a revelation of sorts. I could write what I wanted, and if people chose to come along and read them, great. If not, I was left with an assortment of musings and some nice photos to act as a reminder of the motivations that caused me to write them in the first place. I began to feel inspired again.
So, if you are dabbling in words, or worse still, if you are feeling caged, then take a pen and some paper and write it out. You never know what doors –or cages – it might open for you too.
This was never supposed to be a blog post about life. I was supposed to just come here and tell you that I also worked in winter. It was just a little memo I wrote to myself in the notes on my phone while I stood outside in the rain musing about life and philosophising about the road that it takes you down. That road might be bumpy – and if I’d written this a year ago, that would certainly have been the case – but if you remain true to yourself and listen to that intuition that burns somewhere deep inside you, then you too can find that little golden key to unlock your own cage and set yourself free.
Now, for anyone that is worried that I have finally lost my marbles – I’m sure that I’ve dropped one or two along the way – then please don’t worry; my next blog post will be back to basics in a few weeks. But for now, here’s the answer to ‘what I do’; I tour, write and muse.
I’d love to hear from you – what unexpected journey has your life taken, how has it shaped you, and how did you set yourself free?
The Lang Ayre, Northmavine. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
If a Munro is a small mountain, then a Marilyn is a small Munro. And a small-small mountain is exactly what we climbed (and some) a few weeks ago. I was invited to join a lovely group of folk on a hike to the Lang Ayre in Northmavine in Shetland’s North Mainland. The Lang Ayre was a bucket list goal of mine, the long walk which takes in the small-small mountain, Ronas Hill – the highest in Shetland – is one that I have been meaning to do for years.
The stunning Lang Ayre in Shetland's North Mainland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
It was a beautiful summer day, the kind that remains etched in memory for long after it has passed. And as the group assembled in dribs and drabs at the old NATO station on top of Collafirth Hill, the sun hung high, throwing warm rays over us from a sky that promised nothing but pure unadulterated sunshine. Leaving our convoy of cars and 4G signal behind us, we finally set off into the hill at about midday.
Walking up Ronas Hill, Shetland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The walk is in Northmavine, a landscape characterised by the red granite stone intrusion – or batholith (as I was told) – that makes up this fascinating corner of north-west Shetland. The area is dominated by Ronas Hill (our small-small mountain) that stands proud at 450 metres and often lies cloaked in low cloud and hill fog. But not on the day we visited, the sun shone off the red granite, illuminating the steep slopes and bathing all the miniature Arctic Alpines in light, making them stand from the rough rock like tiny beacons.
On top of the world; summit of Ronas Hill, Shetland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
Ronas Hill is home to several varieties of Arctic Alpines that have survived here, presumably from before the last Ice Age retreated about 10,000 years ago. Of these miniature marvels, there is Mountain azalea, alpine lady’s mantle and spiked woodrush. These hardy little miniatures are usually only found on high mountains, or in the Arctic, but they thrive here, and as we ascended to the upper heights we spotted all three clinging to the unforgiving slopes of the rocky tundra.
Mountain azalea (left); Alpine lady's mantle (right).
Ronas Hill rocky tundra. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The day was hot, and the walk was steep, but it didn’t take long to reach the top, at our leisurely rate we made it to the chambered cairn on the summit in an hour. From the peak, the views are breathtaking. To the north, we could see the dome on top of Saxa Vord Hill (on the most northerly part of Unst) and to the south, Fitful Head (the southern point of Shetland) that stood out on the horizon like a great sleeping dragon, snoozing in the summer sun. Every corner of the isles laid bare in front of us; the vista was spellbinding. We spent a bit of time at the top, catching our breath, eating homemade scotch eggs (thanks Shaun) and flying drones to get even more spectacular photos and video footage (for images and footage from the top, check out Southspear Media and Shetland by Drone on Facebook or Instagram, here and here).
Rona's Hill chambered cairn.
Two features on top of Ronas are notable (other than the alpines), the geocache and the chambered cairn.
Geocaching in Shetland is a popular pastime, and they are found all over the landscape – basically, small Tupperware boxes containing trinkets and a visitor’s book are hidden and using GPS, people seek them out, leave a signature and something they may have in their pocket or rucksack.
The chambered cairn is an older structure, made from the weathered granite the structure dates to the Neolithic – about 5,000 years ago – and contains a large chamber inside. It has been added to over the years by climbers who place a rock to mark their achievement of reaching the summit of Shetland.
Views across Shetland from the top of Ronas Hill.
Hunger satisfied and photos snapped we set off on the climb down to the Lang Ayre (Long Beach) on the other side of the hill. The downward climb was a lot easier on the legs, but you know what they say; everything that goes down, must come back up!
With the heat beating down on us, I stopped to fill my water bottle from the crystal clear burn, fed from springs deep inside the heart of the hill. The water was icy cold and refreshing, forced up through layers of granite before meeting the earth in a gurgling babble before winding its way through deep ravines down to the sea. ( A note of caution: take care when drinking from burns or streams, and only drink from a clean water source, make sure there are no dead sheep upstream!).
A long way down to the other side and the Lang Ayre.
As we descended the hill, the bonxies (great skuas) began to circle above us, swooping stealthily in great circles overhead before landing again – scoping us out; a warning to us that we were in their territory.
Surveying remains in the landscape; trying to read the stones for clues about the past, Ronas Hill.
Sweating less, I was able to reflect on the landscape around us. The area is barren and wild, yet there is evidence of people from the past all around. Just over the hill, at Grutwells, a Neolithic axe factory that produced highly polished felsite axes and knives that were exported all over Shetland by a prehistoric people. Halfway down the hill, built structures and field systems indicating lives lived here long, long ago – but the OS map and Canmore could offer up no indication of what these structures may have been, or who may have used them, and why.
Thinking about the people who inhabited these wild northern reaches, exposed to the elements and eking out a living in thin, unforgiving soils, I could only imagine what they may have thought about their Neolithic counterparts in Shetland’s lush and fertile South Mainland. They must have appeared to have had a very easy life in comparison to these northern people.
The route to the Lang Ayre, following the course of a burn down a steep ravine. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
As the coast comes close, follow the deep ravine that terminates on to the red stones of the Red Ayre – this is the only way down on to the beach, and at the top of the cliff, there is a rope to aid your passage on to the beach below. This is a walk that would probably be inadvisable – if not unachievable – during the winter months.
Getting down on the Lang Ayre is made easier by a helpful rope to assist down the steep slopes.
The beautiful Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The Lang Ayre itself is a veritable palette of colour; reds, oranges, greys and blues, all thrown together, rocks polished and smoothed in nature’s very own rock-tumbler. Each one placed and formed by the violent North Atlantic that ravages this impressive and imposing coastline. On the day we visited, it was calm, shimmering and still. A creel boat puttered around the stacks, hauling in creels; glistening jewels of water falling from burrop and buoy into the turquoise ocean below. Sitting, for a moment, by the water’s edge I listened as the sea washed over the stones, rushing in at haste before slowly making its retreat, water noisily finding its way around every pebble – sucking and gurgling as the power of the ocean pulls it back to sea. It was transfixing, the way it comes rushing in with such velocity, and pulled out again, almost reluctantly, clinging to every rock on its retreat.
The sea rushing up the beach; a transfixing sound on the Lang Ayre.
The rugged coastline on Shetland's Atlantic seaboard.
We lounged on the beach for a while, scoffing the rest of our picnics (and scotch eggs), marvelling over the beauty of the place. Words like, ‘Jurassic’ and ‘out-of-this-world’ banded around as we all struggled to absorb the sensory overload that fell before our sun-blinded eyes.
Our beachside views out to sea were spectacular at the Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
I was fascinated by the drone that Nick from Southspear Media was flying overhead (and I thank him for taking the time to give me the ‘idiots guide to drone flying’ lesson). We were able to see every inch of this remote and vast coastal landscape, fly between stacks and look back at our beachside seats from way out at sea. The whole experience was mesmerising, a reminder that technology can sometimes allow us to see a world in much more detail and clarity. It feels like a bit of an oxymoron to say that, as we often criticise technology for not allowing us to be ‘present’ in a moment; but to see the Lang Ayre from the vista of the fulmars and gannets that soared around us, felt to me, an incredible privilege. Although we all know someone who has lost a drone, right?
Incredible drone footage captured by Nick of the coastline at the Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
And then, just like that, it was time to leave and make our way back up the hill, back to our waiting cars on top of Collafirth Hill – just a 450-metre hike back. And as weary legs pulled us back up the way we had bounded down an hour or so before, we skirted the summit, avoiding the peak, before heading back down to our endpoint – back to the real world, away from the solitude and drama of Ronas Hill and the Lang Ayre.
Colours on the Lang Ayre.
I think that on this sunny summer day I fell a little bit more in love with Shetland; a place that I feel coursing through my veins so deeply. There really is no better place in the world than home.
Finally, a massive thanks to Sophie and the gang for letting me join the walk and for the great company and laughs. And a special thanks to Nick from Southspear Media for letting me use the drone footage, and of course, Shaun for the homemade scotch eggs!
Morning light in Shetland's west mainland.
I often read Peedie Peebles’ Summer or Winter Book by Mairi Hedderwick to my bairns. They’ve both loved it; and so did I when it was read to me as a child. This illustrated children’s book looks at the antics of mischievous toddler, Peedie Peebles, as he goes through the trials and tribulations of being little, following him through summer and winter. Importantly, it highlights the differences between the seasons – the endless summer light and sunshine masterfully illustrated in watercolour with clear blue skies, and gardens dripping in flowers and light, bursting with life and energy. It then shows the same domestic scene, played out in winter, with its darkness and storms, fraught tempers battling the realities of perpetual light deprivation.
This difference between summer and winter at 60° North is something I’m always asked about, and in fact, was interviewed about and featured on TV discussing with BBC Breakfast just last week. The first question (after "what’s it like living with the light nights") that visitors – and the BBC – ask me is, “how do you cope with it being light at night when you’re trying to get to sleep, and more importantly, trying to get your kids to sleep?” And the truth is; it’s all I know, all they know, all we know.
Early evening light in Fetlar, Shetland.
I was born and brought up in Shetland, which sits closer to the Arctic Circle than it does to London, and enjoys up to 19 hours of daylight at this time of the year, known locally as the Simmer Dim, or midsummer. I grew up with endless days of light, of going to bed with the sun high in the sky and waking with it still there; hung suspended like a continuous portrait of summer. It’s the most normal thing in the world to us who have been born and raised at this most northerly part of the UK.
Summer evenings in Shetland.
Yet, to a researcher in London, or a visitor from closer to the equator, where day and night are more equal, this seems almost surreal, and I guess it is – if you stop and think about it, as I have recently. My childhood memories are split in two; like Peedie Peebles Summer or Winter Book. Split like the two sides of a coin, between the memories of summer holidays that seemed to go on and on forever; of being outside covered in gutter, with bare feet and grubby paws. And then the long dark winters; with peat fires, books and houses filled with laughter and warmth. Hygge isn’t new; we’ve been doing it here in Shetland for generations.
December light at 2pm in Shetland.
That brings me on to the second question from the BBC researcher: “How do you and your children cope with the winter”. Our winter brings six hours of daylight within the 24 hours and is punctuated with winter storms brought in off the Atlantic which can, at times, feel all-consuming. But this is another reality. All my life this has been the reality, and for me, it brings a certain comfort. When I was young, and my dad was at the fishing, I used to lay awake, worrying that he was at sea in a storm and the dangers that can bring. Now, as an adult, I find it soothing to hear the wind rattle down the chimney and the rain lashing at the window; I shut the shutters and cosy down – it’s soothing. Isn’t it ironic that our greatest childhood fears and worries can become a comfort in adulthood.
A day between weathers; a calm, winter morning in Shetland.
Another question I’m always asked is, “What do you do with the long winter nights?” I have no real answer to this as it’s something I never considered until recently. I usually just make a joke out of it – avoiding having to give a sensible response – and answer with, “we have the highest birth rates in the UK, so I’ll let you figure it out.” (Sometimes it gets a laugh; sometimes not!). But, we do what everyone else does in the winter; indulge in hobbies, all washed down with too much cheese, wine and chocolate. For me, I read, write, binge on box sets, redecorate rooms on a whim and discover dusty corners that were neglected in that halcyon haze of summer (who cleans in summer anyway?). Generally just mooching around a bit more, lighting candles, cooking and baking – re-stocking the freezer with quick meals for summer (because who wants to cook in the summer either?).
But, that said, when we do get a fine day in winter, there is no better place to be. I like to get out and fill my lungs with crisp, cool air. The winter light is as breathtaking as summer, and can often be more so as the clarity is so good, allowing you to see for miles – islands appear to 'stand out of the water' and are sharper and more pronounced on a winter day.
Shetland's Simmer Dim; the sun merely dips below the horizon beforing rising again a few hours later. Photo: Dale Smith.
But, back to the simmer dim. The Shetland Dictionary defines it as “the twilight of a Shetland summer evening”. It’s a magical time of year here. The sun sets at 10.30pm, merely dipping its head below the horizon before rising again at 3.30am. Everything in nature is alive – it’s the best time to pack up a tent and set off into the hills. Listen to the world outside, it really is transfixing, and it leaves you feeling oh-so-insignificant; a tiny speck in a wide, wide world filled with wonder. The evening light of the simmer dim is an indescribable soft veil that cloaks the land, lingers and clings to it as if it will never give up its warm hold. Everything in nature is accentuated under its heady rays. The moss greener, the lichen more textured and every bird’s call is amplified; the senses are overloaded from the moment you step out the door. The morning light differs; it brings a crisp sharpness, a raw edge as the dew lifts and gives rise to the day. It’s refreshing and rich, bursting forth like a child who has just been given free rein at the park gates. It leaves you feeling rejuvenated and bursting with happiness.
Summer is the perfect time to pack up a tent and head to the hills.
My energy in the summer is always heightened, I can stay out all day and night – overdosing on vitamin D, squirrelling it away some-place deep inside to replay as memories of summer on the deepest darkest of winter days. I don’t mind that the housework gets neglected and meals are generally last-minute, dug from the deepest depths of the freezer, summer is just a fleeting moment. Blink and you might miss something – the light shimmering on a turquoise sea, or the flight of a bumblebee through heather, or the dew on a spider web, tucked under a bank of peat.
Last week we had the Simmer Dim, and with it comes a certain sense of trepidation, a realisation that the days are on the turn again and that the march towards winter and the darkness has begun once more. But for now, for today, there is still a summer to be had. Longer blog posts can wait till winter.
And for anyone who missed our TV appearance, please find a (taken on my iPhone) video of it below. It was aired on BBC Breakfast on Sunday 23rd June.
A summer day at the Hams of Roe (note the hat!).
I’m always reminded of the words of my great-grandmother when thinking about what to wear; her words still echo in my head as clear as though it was yesterday. “Nivir cast a cloot, till da munt o’ May is oot” were the words she – and many before her – said. And it’s true; we still experience cool weather in May.
Wrapped up and layered up against the elements at Eshaness in winter. (Photo: Sea Kayak Shetland)
This is just a short – but hopefully useful – blog post. I’ve been inspired to write it by the weather, the month of June usually brings warmer weather, but not this month, we seem to have been plagued with cold and windy days, reminiscent of October. So, for those who are planning their Shetland wardrobe, here are a few pointers.
Sumburgh Head on a fine spring day.
Shetlanders will often comment that we experience ‘four seasons in one day’, and anyone who has lived in (or visited) Shetland will appreciate this. So my advice is to layer up. You can always remove extra layers if necessary, but you can’t add them if you don’t have them. Our average summer temperature is 15°C and in winter this drops to 5°C (although it usually feels much cooler).
A windproof cardigan on a summer day (and another layered underneath) - the boy still wears shorts!
And don’t let the indicated temperature on weather forecasts fool you, the wind chill is menacing. Even I’m caught out by this on occasion. It reminded me of one bright sunny day last year. I was standing on the pier waiting for my bus and passengers, and I was fooled by the bright, cheerful sky that had greeted me as I pulled open the blinds in the morning – It masked a bitter north wind that gets right to the bone. In my jaw-chattering coldness, I was forced to dash to the LHD shop (across the road) to buy a hat, scarf, and I sent for my husband to fetch my long-janes (thermals). A quick change in the back of the bus and layers added I was good to go.
Wool: nature's warmer. Essential here both summer and winter.
There’s a reason Shetland knitwear has been so popular here for hundreds of years – it’s bloomin’ cosy! Shetland jumpers were worn to conquer Everest in 1953, they have been to the Arctic, the Antarctic and we traded them for gin and tobacco with the Dutch fishermen. Get into one of the local knitwear shops and buy something woolly – it will keep you warm.
I would not be without my Meindl hiking boots for longer walks and Merrell trainers for short walks.
A rough guide of what to wear:
This guy wears shorts, summer or winter!
As for umbrellas – don’t bother, they just blow out. A visitor can always be spotted as they brandish (and battle the wind with) this foreign accessory!
And for heaven’s sake, remember to bring your camera, we have just been voted in the top 10 destinations for Best in Europe by Lonely Planet after all!
But most importantly; enjoy your Shetland adventure.
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