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.
Looking down Whalefirth, Yell.
Shetland is peppered with beautiful old buildings, and none are more evocative and thought-provoking than some of our old church buildings that are found dotted around the islands. Once seats of spiritual worship and ecclesiastical power, many are now privately owned and have undergone refurbishment. Varda self-catering, situated on the island of Yell, is one of these.
Varda self-catering, former church for the Herra community, lovingly restored into self-catering accommodation in Yell.
Varda lies at the end of the Herra road in West Yell. A quiet part of Shetland’s second largest island, the Herra is a place often forgotten, with many people, myself included, having never been in the road to explore this beautiful spot of solitude, steeped in history and lore. Arriving in the Herra, the valley’s steep sides dominate the skyline in all directions, and it certainly feels ‘off-the-beaten-track’.
I am guilty of dismissing Yell and rushing through the vast peat moorland that forms the greater part of the island’s interior, hurrying to catch the ferry across to neighbouring Unst. So I was really excited when we were invited to stay at Varda and explore this peaceful haven, tucked away under the hills in a place which promised hours of fun and adventure.
Some of Yell's rich, peat moorland.
Despite being in the centre of Yell, the Herra is a great place to get-away-from-it-all and enjoy a well-earned break. Follow the main A968 through Yell and turn off just before Mid Yell and Windhouse at the road marked the Herra. Follow the single track almost to the end; you can’t miss the distinctive silhouette of the early 20th-century church looming on the skyline.
The road to the Herra and Varda self-catering, Yell.
There has been a place of worship in the Herra since Medieval times, with chapels at both Windhouse and Gremister, and the kirk, now Varda, was built in 1912. Calls for a church were made in 1911 (see photo above) when the population of the Herra stood at 140, and they had nowhere except the schoolhouse (that could only hold 30) to hold services. The old school is currently on the market, and every day when we passed it, I tried to think of ways to raise the money to buy it, and justify why I should have a summer house in Yell. A girl can dream, right?
In this new kirk, each family had their own pew, and these have been beautifully woven back into the fabric of the building at Varda. I was astonished to discover the population change over 100 years; today, the population of the Herra is only 27.
The old Herra school, currently for sale. A girl can dream, surely?
There were very few marriages that took place in the kirk, most couples choosing to marry in Mid Yell, and one pair were forced to marry on the beach, in the ebb-stanes, by an impatient minister keen to get to Fetlar. Information on those that did marry in the kirk can be found in the Old Haa Museum in Burravoe.
Looking across to Grimister in the Herra. Can you spot Varda self-catering on top of the hill?
Approaching the house, the outside gives away no clue to its current use. The austere church exterior masks its present-day function well. The door, original to the building, opens into the porch, a bright and open space with one of the original pews. Pews have been further incorporated back into the fabric of the building in the hand-crafted kitchen which is just off the porch.
Original pews have been worked back into the building at Varda self-catering. A nod towards its ecclesiastical past.
From the kitchen-diner and continuing into the ‘body of the kirk’, so to speak, there are two bedrooms – a twin and a double – and a generously sized family shower room. The spacious hallway leads upstairs through a wide, airy staircase onto another hallway with Velux windows that stop you in your tracks as you reach the top and admire views over the surrounding hills.
Upstairs is a large king-size bedroom and a fantastic living room, tucked away under the eaves – a perfect retreat after a busy day exploring the area. And with floor level windows and another Velux skylight enjoying spectacular views out across Whalefirth which,at night, commands attention as the sun sets in the western sky.
One of the comments in the visitor’s book from a younger guest sums up Varda perfectly. Grace said, “It reminds me of the Tardis from Dr Who – it looks smaller from the outside, but on the inside, it is BIG!”
This comment really is a testament to the careful thought and consideration that has gone into renovating Varda into a comfortable and spacious home. Churches by their nature, are not easy buildings to repurpose; let alone repurpose and get right. The Hunters have achieved this perfectly, and what Varda offers is a spacious, welcoming, well-thought-out home.
Comments from the Visitor's Book at Varda self-catering.
Varda is well-equipped; the kitchen is fully stocked, and there’s a Thermos in the cupboard for picnics! The house has a washing machine, TVs, CD player, high-chair and Z-beds for any extra visitors. The linen cupboard is bursting with fresh bedding all helpfully labelled according to bed size, and there are plenty of leaflets with information on things to do in Yell, including several fantastic circular walks in the area. The whole house was clean and well-presented, and the pulley in the porch was a welcome place to dry out our water-logged clothes on more than one occasion during our stay!
Fantastic views from the Herra and Gremister, out across Whalefirth beyond.
Getting to and from Yell
The holiday begins on the ferry to Yell.
It’s very easy to get to Yell; it’s just a short hop across Yell Sound on the modern inter-island ferry. The crossing takes about 15 minutes, and passengers can stand on the upper deck and enjoy views across the sound, passing the uninhabited islands of Bigga and Samphrey on the way.
It is advisable to book ferries, although not always necessary. Timetables and bookings are available here.
Beautiful scenery in Yell, note the wildflowers that thrive here.
Yell is the largest of Shetland’s northern isles; and at 17 miles long and seven miles wide, there are plenty of places to discover and enjoy.
Yell is also a relatively quiet place to visit. With most visitors passing through and heading on to the neighbouring island of Unst to the north, the hills and beaches are generally free to enjoy at leisure – alone. Yell is also one of the best places to see skuas, red-throated divers and otters.
Great Skua, there are plenty of these impressive (albeit aggresive) birds to see in Yell.
A weekend in Varda self-catering (some ideas for your stay)
Happiness in the wilds o' Yell.
We chose a weekend in mid-May for our break at Varda; arriving on Friday evening on the 18.55 ferry from Toft we had two days to explore the tantalising Herra and beyond.
Driving through the centre of Yell from the ferry at Ulsta, much of the landscape is blanket peat moor, bleak and moody, yet rich in texture and colour.
The road into the Herra, vast peatland which unfolds into the sea at Gremister.
Turning off the main road the peatland gives way to the green coastal fringes, and stunning views down Whalefirth and out to the Stacks of Stuis which sit on the horizon, guarding the approaches to the voe like sentries on watch.
With only an hour before tea, we took the bikes and headed down to the beach where the Burn of Bouster terminates into the sea. With Arctic terns calling overhead, trout jumping in the burn and dunlins darting around the tide line, it was a special place to while away a little time – that is until Lena decided to wade through the burn without boots on. So with soggy tights, and full hearts, we made our way back up the steep incline to the road to bed down for the night in Varda.
As we cosied in for the evening, the sunset from the upstairs living room took our breath away, no photo could ever do justice to the colours in that May sky with all the accompanying sounds of the night.
A beautiful sunset from Varda self-catering, Yell.
The Herra is a beautiful little community which unfolds from the valley like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon. Consisting of the settlements of Grimister, Efstigarth, Raga and Bouster, these Old Norse names are an echo from the past. And there’s a fascinating history here; the Herra is an ancient community, Laurence Tulloch of Mid Yell describes the people of the Herra, he says:
“The Herra, in Yell, is one of the districts in Shetland most worthy of careful study by anyone truly interested in Shetland matters in their wide range. Among its inhabitants the unusual prevalence of dark eyes and dark hair infer that their fathers dwelt here long before the colonisation of the islands by the Northmen.”
The steep-sided approaches of Whalefirth certainly make it feel like the land that time forgot.
As well as being cloaked in history, the Herra boasts the smallest community hall in Yell – now disused – once famous for its celebrations of Old New Year (January 12th) it sits next door to Varda and was built in 1931. Exciting plans are now in motion to give the hall a new lease of life. A committee of local men are hoping to establish a ‘Men’s Shed’ in this former community hall. On the Sunday that we were staying, a meeting was taking place to move the project forward with the aim of gaining charitable status for the proposal. You can find out more about men’s sheds here.
The former community hall which is set to get a new lease of life as a 'Men's Shed'.
Saturday morning arrived with a fresher, colder wind and grey skies promising rain. Despite being well-equipped Varda had few toys to entertain the three and almost-seven-year old on a rainy Saturday morning, so the first thing on the agenda was a trip to the Aywick shop – an Aladdin’s cave, with everything from electrician’s wire to hair dye and hosiery. As we approached the shop, I was reminded that I was to buy essentials only. Eighty-seven pound later we left with the picnic we had gone in for, a few things to keep the bairns amused, and a few other things that we probably didn’t need, including a trout wand and a book on graveyards in Shetland.
Aywick Shop, Yell, an Aladdin's cave of goods.
Exploring Grommond & Graveland
The planned walk for Saturday morning was to the Stuis of Graveland; which is a coastal walk nearby, skirting the coast of Whalefirth exploring some of the abandoned settlements along the way. I wanted to get to the Ern Stack; believed to be one of the last places that the sea eagle nested at in Shetland in 1910. The Old Norse word for an eagle is ern, hence the name, Ern Stack.
Abandoned houses of Grommond, Yell.
We made our way down the steep track to the beach before walking up to the ruined houses at Grommond. Once a populus place, this area is now characterised by the ruins of those who once made the unforgiving slopes their home. The derelict houses, reminders of the lives once lived here, and evidence of spade and plough can still be seen as scars on the land that you can read like a palm.
Laurence Williamson of Mid Yell said that:
Remains of ruined houses in Grommond, Yell.
Hansi was desperate to try his new trout wand from the Aywick shop, so we stopped and tried for a bite. One thing I do know is that trouts scare easily and silence is key to successful trouting. So with our little herd of elephants, no trout were caught. There were plenty of birds to be seen though – and the three rain gus (red-throated divers) on the loch seemed entirely unaware of our peace-shattering presence in their quiet corner of West Yell. The tirricks (Arctic terns) provided a shrieking and noisy cacophony overhead, while the bonxies (skuas) swooped silently above, circling us like vultures around prey.
(A fishing permit for the lochs in Shetland can be purchased from the Anglers Association for £30 annually, here.)
As we left trow country and headed back to the coast the rain eased, and by the time we got back to the beach there was a great spoot ebb to explore – spoots are razor clams that can be caught on sandy beaches in low tide. Attracted to vibrations in the sand, I was sure the herd of elephants would bring home the supper this time. Unfortunately not. We can add that to the list of unsuccessful foraging attempts. Nevermind, there was still the patch of nettles at the foot of the road.
While at the beach, I watched a raft of dunters (eider ducks) floating in the bay, the distinctive males stood out in their bold colours against the grey sky and steely sea, their sarcastic call echoing across the bay. These always remind me of my dad; for some reason, he is obsessed with these birds, and the sight of them never fails to excite him. Perhaps his love has brushed off on me, although we won't tell him that.
Eider ducks on the water.
We never made it to the Stuis of Graveland, but Elizabeth Atia did, and she documented her walk, and fell in love with Yell here. And I believe that I too have fallen in love.
Afterwards we went to LJs Diner & Pizzeria in Mid Yell. A friendly family restaurant in the old school. The menu is extensive, offering something for everyone, all served with a smile from the bubbly waitress.
Windhouse, Yell. Shetland's most haunted house.
Saturday night was a full moon, so it seemed inevitable that we would end up at Windhouse – arguably the most haunted house in Shetland, if you believe in that kind of thing. So with the ghost stories ringing in our ears, and clammy paws clinging to tired legs, we made our way up the short track to the ruined house which sits on the crest of the hill on the approach into Mid Yell. Its foreboding silhouette, dominating the skyline.
Windhouse, commanding views in all directions, is the site of an ancient settlement. The house itself has its foundations in an Iron Age broch, and recent excavations have revealed a burial site within the gardens of the house. Steeped in mystery and legend, Windhouse attracts both historian and ghost-hunter, keen to unpick the magic of this iconic house.
The list of ghosts alone is impressive – if not a little spine-tinglingly scary. In no particular order, there is the: Lady in Silk – thought to be the skeleton of a woman with a broken neck discovered under the floorboards at the foot of the staircase. A tall, cloaked man who passes through the wall in the kitchen. A child – a baby’s skeleton was found in the walls during alterations at one stage. A black dog who prowls the bedrooms – although the first floor and roof have now fallen in, so there is no telling where the dog may now roam. There’s the taxman – obviously – and finally, a pedlar who was found under flagstones at the door. I’m sure this list is not exhaustive, but it does make for bone-chilling reading.
Whatever the truth, this once majestic building with the armorial crest of the Neven family above the door, was once a grand home – however oppressive the Nevens’ may have been – and whatever the truth, it makes for an eerie and thought-provoking walk.
Sunday was a bit of a washout, the rain was pretty heavy, the kind that gets right to the skin. But it fell vertically, from a silent sky – no accompanying wind – so that was a novelty to be marvelled at alone.
Easy like Sunday morning.
We managed to have a relaxing morning puttering about Varda until the cries from the three and almost-seven-year-old drove us out the door in waterproofs. Hansi was desperate to try for a trout in the burn down at the beach, so we all trooped back down in the pouring rain. Lena made sandcastles that disintegrated faster than her peerie hands could build, and Hansi persevered, despite catching no fish.
It was such a quiet, reflective air on the beach compared to Friday night when the horizons stretched further and the night air was punctuated with the thrum of a lawnmower, and the tirricks (Arctic terns) called noisily overhead. The quiet Sunday morning felt more encompassing, the birds closer, darting the shoreline in a frenzy, and there was no definition between sea and sky, the hills shrouded in low mist, cloaked the valley and all within it.
Peerie Willie Johnson
At the Peerie Willie Memorial.
In the road to the Herra, and forking left towards Efstigarth, is the memorial to guitar legend Peerie Willie Johnson. Born in Bouster, Peerie Willie is one of Shetland’s best-loved musical exports. Since 2005, an annual guitar festival – The Peerie Willie Guitar Festival dedicated to his work, and now his memory has taken place. The memorial sits alone, with breathtaking views across the moors and north-west down Whalefirth.
(*note: peerie is the Shetland dialect word for small.)
Sands of Breckon
After drying off (again) in the busy cafe at Gutcher, we went to the northernmost point of Yell to explore the Sands of Breckon. The rain was on, and we got soaked (again).
Sands of Breckon, Yell.
Sands of Breckon are fascinating. Not only does it boast an expanse of white sand and almost guaranteed solitude, but it also has an exciting and rich archaeological past that is still visible today.
Despite being soaked through, there was plenty to inspire the mind at Breckon.
Gloup Memorial to fishermen lost in the fishing diasaster of 1881.
We stopped at the Gloup Memorial which is a reminder of harder times when men fished from small open boats called sixerns in offshore waters. The memorial commemorates the lives of 58 fishermen who were lost to a storm in 1881. They left 34 widows and 85 orphans behind; in this small community, an unimaginable loss.
Old Haa Museum, Burravoe
The Old Haa Museum, Burravoe Yell has fantastic displays documenting life in Yell over the years.
Eventually, the lure of the Old Haa Museum in Burravoe was too much, the cakes were calling. For anyone who does not know about Yell’s best kept culinary secret, get along to the Old Haa Museum and sample some, or all, of their cakes. Between the four of us, we got through most of the selection on the menu that afternoon.
And almost as quickly as we had arrived, it was time to wave goodbye and make our way back to the mainland, back to reality, leaving the mysteries of the Herra behind for another day.
Lost in the rabbit-holes of history
I found in reviewing Varda that I would end up distracted; falling down rabbit-holes of history. The school opened in 1896 and educated pupils until 1954 when they were then bussed three miles up the road to Mid Yell. Think of how the community felt when the school closed. Then there was the couple who were married on the beach by a reluctant minister. This event inspired a poem at his expense that I would love to share, but that’s another rabbit hole. And there’s the folklore; tales of dogs that haunt the derelict houses, of ghosts and visions, all of these stories that were once part of the very fabric of the community.
The Herra seems a faraway place, not in terms of getting there, that’s easy enough, but in terms of its very deep-rooted history. It feels like a place on the periphery, almost as though one facet of it is buried in another world altogether. Maybe I’ve read too many stories. I’ll let you decide. But it has certainly got under my skin; I want to go back, to trace the walls of the derelict houses, chase the stories and imagine what life in the Herra was like in days gone by. Some places do that to you, and I felt a real connection here.
Mortimer Manson writing in 1942 said that Yell had been “sadly neglected by writers”, despite being “an island possessed by several beauty spots.” The Herra is undoubtedly one of these neglected beauty-spots. It feels set apart, on the fringes of society, along an empty road, off the fast main artery that passes between Ulsta and Gutcher. A route I always meant to ‘take a run down’, but never had, and one that I’m now immensely glad I have.
And with 83 square-miles to explore, we will certainly be back in Yell soon.
And as for Varda, I can't wait to go back, what a perfect place to escape to.
The world is yours to explore. Go discover!
I would like to add a special thank you to Charlie Inkster from Yell for his help in finding me the information I craved as I fell down all the rabbit holes the Herra could throw at me, thank you.
All photos courtesy of James Irvine.
With summer just around the corner, many of us are dusting off our bikes and hitting the roads (or pavements). I spoke to James Irvine about his experiences cycling in Shetland. Many people ask me about cycling here, and as I’m more of the cycle-around-taking-Instagram-videos kinda cyclist, I thought I’d better consult an expert on this one.
If you are thinking to come to Shetland on two wheels rather than four, then this is for you. Or, if you are a Shetlander who has a bike, or is thinking to get a bike, then this is also for you. And, for all the dedicated four-wheelers out there, this is your chance to sit back and enjoy the ride!
There are plenty of options when it comes to a cycling holiday in Shetland. You can bring a bike with you, or hire locally. Either way, once you arrive there are plenty of places to explore. And with fantastic road surfaces, and over 1,000 miles of road to cover, there is something for everyone, from the experienced hardened-cyclist right down to the novice who is simply along for the ride.
Following James on Instagram (@jamesirvine_), I’m in awe of his adventures. His hobbies include hiking, kayaking, surfing, camping, coasteering, wild-swimming and rock climbing. A real thrill seeker, I immediately feel for his mother and wonder how she copes with his antics? I imagine a certain sense of resignation as he heads out the door with his wetsuit and go-pro camera.
A quick chat with James:
Off-road cycling or road cycling?
James tells me that for him, he enjoys “a bit of everything. When I was younger, I did a lot more mountain biking and BMXing but recently I’ve started doing a lot more road-cycling, more for the fitness side of things, that and you can go out alone without having to gather friends”.
How many bikes do you have?
“Five. Well, five and a half if you include the unicycle."
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done a bike?
“Broken a few bones.
“There are a few things. I jumped [on a bike] off the bus shelter at the Thule [public bar] impressing the drunks.
“I tore my AC joint in my shoulder [The AC joint is where the collarbone meets the highest point of the shoulder blade] on holiday in Austria. I was riding my mountain bike over some bigger jumps which was not very clever in the gusty winds. This ended my trip prematurely, and I had to come home.
"Then I had to wire up Aaron’s shed for him" he says, nodding towards my husband.
Is Shetland good for those in search of a thrill?
“It definitely lacks good mountain biking trails. There are lots of decent tracks, old peat roads and access tracks but there are no designated trails. To create these, a lot of time and money would need to be invested, and that’s one of the reasons why I started road cycling."
The road between Voe and Aith, known as the Alps, or the B9071.
What are the top cycle routes?
“The best road is the Alps [a term locally used for the stretch of road, B9071, between Voe on the east side and Aith on the west side].
“We’re lucky to have a lot of single-track roads so you can cycle all day and not have to face the traffic on the main roads.”
Considering the question a bit more – “The south end is good too – around the Spiggie loop as it’s relatively flat and all single-track”.
I’ve come to believe that James is in fact mad. As mentioned, he embarked on a gruelling 100-mile cycle, on one of the windiest days we had seen since the previous winter – all in the name of ‘fun’. The route he took included some of Shetland’s stunning scenery and ever-changing landscapes – from the peatland heart of Shetland, and the furthest point from the sea (three miles), to the coastal edges and cliffs at Eshaness in Shetland’s north-west corner. Travelling from our main town, Lerwick, the route incorporates the parishes of Nesting, Northmavine, Aithsting, Whiteness, Weisdale and Tingwall. Who needs the North Coast 500?
Looking down the Kames across Pettawater, on the A970.
James describes this route as one of his ‘bucket list goals’. Choosing a cold, windy day in September to embark on this challenge he explains that he had meant to cycle a 100-mile route all summer and that time was running out (I spoke to him in November), so he says that he just "just went for it."
Describing the route, he says that it’s quite difficult to accumulate a lot of miles [in Shetland] as the island’s size governs you. The mainland is about 60 miles long from north to south, and at some points is only a few hundred yards wide – it’s said you can throw a stone between the North Sea and the North Atlantic at Mavis Grind – or the Narrow Gateway – which sits on the border between Delting and Northmavine.
To get the miles in (and ensure a scenic cycle), James took in the Nesting loop on the way north and the Alps (B9071) on the way south.
“It was quite a challenging cycle”, he explains. “There was a strong headwind on the way there.
“It was stupid really, once you get there [Eshaness], you realise that you have to get back! “Thankfully the café at Breiwick was open, so I got a coffee and cake. Luckily the wind blew me back.
“It was four hours to get to Eshaness and two hours to get home again!” An indication of the wind conditions here.
Since completing this, James has added many more challenges to his tally. Over the Christmas period he completed the Festive 500 which he finished on the 30th December with a 60 km ride “through the wind and rain, accompanied by a mild hangover.”
More recently he has taken part in his first serious competitive road-race, under the watchful eye of local coach and cyclist, Robin Atkinson.
Competing in Peebles earlier this month, James completed the 55-mile circuit, finishing up in a respectable position mid-pack in a group of about 60 other experienced competitors. For a first go at serious cycling, James describes the experience as tougher than he had anticipated, and a great experience for his next big challenge.
The following day he competed in a time-trial competition nearby, the opportunity to take part in two events made the cost of travelling to the mainland worthwhile and an invaluable experinece.
Representing the islands
James is now preparing for his toughest challenge to date – the Island Games in Gibraltar. Held every two years, this event sees some of the toughest competition attending from islands all over the world. James and Robin Atkinson will be flying the flag for Shetland at the event which is set to kick-off in seven weeks.
I know that these serious cyclists do everything, including leg-shaving to streamline their bodies. When I asked James whether he would be shaving his legs for the event, he said we would have to "wait and see". But, whether he shaves them or not, I would like to wish both James and the wider Shetland team every success at the Games.
Training at the moment is quite tough, and James is currently getting between 100 - 180 miles a week around Shetland's roads, so if you see him out training, remember to give him a wave!
James’ Shetland bucket list cycling-goals
Pondering this question he says that he would love to complete “the four corners [of Shetland] – Sumburgh, Sandness, Fethaland and Nesting, basically the four compass points of the island [mainland]. That route is about 180 miles.”
James' advice for cycling in Shetland:
What do I need to bring?
Any other tips?
“Yes, bananas are a great way to refuel, the wrappers are compostable, and you can make your pals slip on the skins!”
Should you have a bell on your bike?
It's easy to bring a bike on the Northlink ferry, to book a passage visit here.
You can hire and repair bikes in Shetland from here and here. Hire is also available in the island of Unst from Unst Cycle Hire (T: +44 (0)1957 711254).
The Taing sits nestled on the edge of the striking red sands of Reawick beach on Shetland's west mainland, offering the ideal rural retreat.
The Taing, Reawick (self-catering)
Half an hour drive from Lerwick and situated on Shetland’s scenic west mainland The Taing offers everything – and more – a guest could possibly wish for. From its eclectic mix of earthenware bowls, plates and mugs, to the carefully selected artworks from locals such as Gilly Bridle and Howard Towll. The attention to detail here is to be marvelled at; from the Farrow & Ball painted door upon arrival, to the luxurious roll-top bath overlooking the beach in the ground floor bathroom. White Company candles, a complimentary bottle of merlot and crisp, white sheets on the beautifully presented beds all made for the most welcome of first impressions to this stunning beach-side property.
A bath with a view. Who wouldn't want to gaze out over the beach from here?
For me, it was love at first sight, as I’m sure it was for owners Shelagh and Peter who say that, “After many years of visiting Shetland, Peter bought The Taing with the intention of living there.
“As is often the case when buying a property, it needed more TLC than anticipated.
“Five years later, after knocking down walls, installing new heating, making it water-tight, replacing the kitchen and decorating etc. it is finally ready to be lived in and enjoyed.”
All they ask of their guests is that, “you enjoy it as much as we do.”
The Taing opened its doors to guests for the first time this year, and you can really feel the heart and soul of Peter and Shelagh in this house, which feels far more like a home than a holiday let.
A quiet spot for contemplation.
The house itself is divided across two floors; with a spacious dining room, kitchen, master bedroom, bathroom and sun-porch on the ground floor, and on the second floor there’s another double bedroom, a spacious lounge with wood burning stove and second toilet with shower. In the lounge, there is a sofa bed and plenty of space to sleep more guests, and each window in the property features a commanding view, and with the exception of the kitchen, these are all out to sea across the sweeping beach.
After lunch – and bearing in mind we were travelling with a two and six-year-old – we went to the beach, where we scoured the tideline for shells and sea glass. Hansi set to work building some sort of dam and water diversion scheme which involved a great deal of engineering prowess (and digging). We found a little brittlestar washed up on the tide-line, which we kept in a bucket for a while before setting it free again. We had a pocket book called The Seashore but could still not identify the little five-legged creature that sprickled in our hands. But that didn’t matter; we’ll call it a brittlestar.
Searching the shoreline to find out who lives there, and why.
It was no hardship to while away an hour at the beach. The sand is incredible, with distinct bands of colour and texture, alternating between sand, gravel and shingle, interspersed with chunks of volcanic rock deposited intermittently across this striking sand. This area of the west mainland is geologically diverse – as is Shetland as a whole – Reawick and the surrounding area sit on a bedrock of red granite which gives rise to this wonderfully rich, burnt orange sand. It’s incredible the wonders that can lie beneath your feet in Shetland, and that’s why we were awarded Geopark status in 2009.
Things to do in the area:
There's plenty to do in the area, particularly for those who have a love of solitude, walking and fantastic landscapes. For the keen hiker, this is the perfect base to explore some of the hidden gems of the west mainland, of which there are plenty. We stayed at The Taing for two days and I have highlighted our walks below.
A note on walking: Here in Shetland you are free to explore and roam. Just remember to leave gates as you find them, and stay safe. For more information, check this.
Coastal circular walk from Reawick beach – Roeness – beach
Walk distance: 4 miles
Time taken: 3 hours (with much stopping and picnicking along the way)
Once we peeled the bairns away from the sand, we headed off up the hill to explore the surrounding coastal routes around The Taing. Despite a few protestations from little legs, and many pit stops to pat ponies, enjoy picnics, examine animal skulls and poops and rabbit hole scree’s, we completed the four-mile walk south from The Taing to Roeness and back. We made this walk into a loop, rejoining the track, and then the road, at the Roeness house. An idyllic walk which took in stunning coastal scenery; sea caves, a natural arch, cliffs teeming with the cackles of fulmars and the alluringly named ‘Johnny Sinclair’s Nose’. What was this feature, which stood out on the OS map like a shark in a fish tank?
Who was Johnny Sinclair and why is his nose on the map? A quick check at Canmore (the national record for the historic environment) reveals that it is: “A 3m wide and 0.5m high earthen bank running perpendicular to the coast. It is eroding over very high cliffs at its S extremity. It lies in rough grazing and is visible for over 50m inland.”
I can’t say that this feature in the landscape stood out as much in reality as it did on the map, but we did discover his nose, and marvel at the land use of past societies farming at Roeness.
But the truth is, nose or not, this walk is worth doing for the coastal scenery alone; for the wild bubble and cackle of the fulmar’s colonies, the dramatic cliffs and the rugged coastline.
Looking out to sea we enjoyed stunning vistas to Hamnavoe to the east, Fitful to the south and Sandsound to the north. This is an area that I hear about every summer as dad makes his annual pilgrimage to the Haddock Sands in search of – yes, you guessed it – haddock.
Arriving back at The Taing at tea time, and with the evening sun shining in on the valley, lighting up the faces of the daffodils that lined the roadsides and verges, I couldn’t resist the pull of the ocean. The low light creating shimmering prisms on the turquoise sea was too tempting. So despite the cool April temperatures, I put on my wetsuit and splatched into the sea (anyone who saw my Instagram stories will have seen this graceless approach, and it is highlighted here).
There is so much to do at The Taing, it makes a great base for exploring both land and sea!
Curry for tea, and a quick cycle, which was cut short when I realised that actually my legs were pretty done in after all the walking. (Not from the snorkelling as I really just floated like a selkie until the cold water seeped into my hood and gave me brain freeze).
As the sun set, we listened to the gentle hush as the waves washed up the beach. A soothing melody as I lay in bed beside two weary bairns on the cusp of sleep; sitting on the edge of a dream. It’s in moments of calm reflection like these that I’m able to really count my blessings, and appreciate the wonders of where we live.
The Taing is carefully and lovingly curated with treasures.
We woke to the call of the shalders (oystercatchers) on the beach, and the waves washing over the sand – the smell of fresh coffee wafting through the house from the kitchen. Or at least that’s what would have happened had we been without children. In reality, we woke with two small humans invading our peaceful slumber, and we argued over who was going to make the coffee. But, with coffee in hand and peace restored, we could lay in bed gazing out the window and plan the day ahead. The wind had freshened overnight, and I could hear it forcing its way down the lum like thunder.
A house with a hundred stories to tell.
We had a slow and easy morning, soaking up the morning light that flooded into the east facing Taing. It was hard to peel ourselves away from the house. It has such a calming effect; it pulls you into its warm embrace forcing you to surrender to its four walls. Steeped in memories and history, I always find myself daydreaming and thinking about the people who lived here, and the lives they led. Old houses do that to me. (Our house does too, and I spoke about that here).
Two cups of coffee later, and after admiring the array of beautiful pottery that seemed to fill every cupboard and corner, we were ready to hit the road again.
After breakfast, we headed out and decided to do the Culswick Broch walk, which you can find full details of here.
The Taing, Reawick.
Culswick Broch walk:
Walk distance: 3 miles (4.6km)
Time taken: 3 hours
The walk is a total of 3 miles (4.6 km) and we did it by bike, but probably only at a walking pace (bearing in mind we had a two and six-year-old in tow). It’s an excellent walk and I would allow an hour each way with an additional hour for exploring the ruined houses of Sotersta, as well as the broch and spectacular coastline along the way – so to enjoy it, allow three hours from start to finish.
Culswick Broch in Shetland's west mainland. A stunning 3 mile walk (or cycle).
A few miles from Skeld, Culswick is a dramatic, lush valley, forking into two with a bog in the centre, separating the east and west side – at the head of the valley, a storm beach now blocks the sea from entering the sheltered confines, or basin, into what would have been a sea loch (or flooded landscape).
Houses are scattered on either side; childhood haunts with familiar and friendly faces. I spent many a happy day in Culswick, and it brings back tremendous memories whenever I have the pleasure of visiting. As bairns, we were always warned away from its boggy soft-centre. Confined to the slopes, we had fun nonetheless and spent many a summer evening camping. Tucked in under the hills, cocooned in a womb of endless summer, the world beyond us was forgotten.
Mother will kill me for this but, – on the night that Nostradamus proclaimed the world would end, I remember vividly, Magnie brought out his gramophone to play, while mam was tearfully mourning the end of the world in our tent, unable to sleep for fear that it was her – and our – last night on earth. Sweeping my two sisters and me tight into her chest, I remember trying to console her, explaining that science had evolved (and so should she!). Thankfully the predictions of Nostradamus (and mother) never materialised, and the sun rose again.
A sweet microclimate, some of Shetland’s best gardens flourish here under the glacially sculpted slopes which shelter it from the worst of the weather – and the world beyond.
Culswick; one of Shetland's hidden gems.
The walk, or cycle (we used mountain bikes, and I wouldn’t recommend anything other as the road is rutted and uneven), is moderately easy and passes through moorland, skirting the Loch of Sotersta before winding its way up the hill where the Broch and the Loch of Brough come into full view. It’s worth taking a little detour down to the abandoned township of Sotersta where the houses now stand roofless and soak up the atmosphere of this once thriving community.
Despite the track taking you across the moor, the landscape doesn't disappoint. Dramatic and rugged; I always try to imagine how the people of this unforgiving and exposed corner of the west mainland eked out a meagre living in this windswept plateau.
Plantiecrubs – small stone structures for growing young cabbage (kale) plants – still stand; a nod towards a crofting past here, a time of industry, hard work and bondage to the land.
Today, look out for the moorland birds, the laverock (skylark); lapwing and shalder (oystercatcher) are all abundant here. And look out for the whaap (curlew); endangered around the UK but thriving here in Shetland. As you get closer to the coast, try to spot the fulmars, shags and other seabirds.
Stuuning coastal views as you walk to the Culswick Broch. Note the lichen on the wall.
At the end of the track, we abandoned bikes and made the final ascent on foot. Passing over a stone causeway that slices through the Loch of Brough, the last leg does not disappoint. The spectacular views that greet you at the top ensure that the final effort is totally worth the throbbing knee-burn to get you there. Take a breath halfway up the climb, and admire the ruins of the house tucked into the lee, nestled in the shadow of the past. The house was built from stone taken from the broch that overlooks it – and now also sits in ruin – representing another strand of the rich history here.
The broch, like many others, has collapsed and been robbed of most of its stone, although the walls can be clearly seen and still stand several metres high in places. The impressive ramparts, internal chambers and a massive triangular lintel stone above the doorway are also still visible, and on a day of chill easterly wind, the remaining interior was a welcome break from the elements to enjoy a quiet picnic.
‘What is a broch?’ I hear you cry! A broch, in simple terms, is a round stone structure which is constructed using two drystone walls – an inner and outer – with a staircase built between the two to reach the top. They date to about 2,000 years ago – the mid-Iron Age, and they are unique to the north and west of Scotland. We have about 120 of them here in Shetland – most lie in ruin (and Mousa is the best example in the world – you can read about that here). Archaeologists still dispute what they were used for – whether they were defensive or offensive; or were they storehouses, or high status ‘manor houses’ of local chieftains? We don’t know. All that we can be sure of is that they are shrouded in mystery, and carry so much intrigue about past societies and how people lived and worked here in Shetland.
These are illustrations of the Mousa Broch, but they give a good understanding of broch construction.
After the cycle, we were all pretty done in so we had a leisurely afternoon taking in the play parks of Skeld and Waas (Walls), with a pit-stop at the Waas shop for a Muckle Puckle loaf from the bakery and some ice creams for the bairns.
Another night of inactivity with cheeks burning and legs aching. What a feeling to be beside the fire warming and listening to the rhythmic sound of the sea crashing on the beach, it’s incredibly soothing, and certainly good for the soul.
I felt very connected to the landscape while we were staying at The Taing. Being so close to the sea, I was aware of the rise and fall of both tide and wind. I watched as the shalders (oystercatchers) assembled on the tide line after the dog-walkers had left, and how the fulmars settled down as the sun dipped. The shag, in low flight, made a steady ascent across the bay to bed down too. It was magical. This is the home of the bird. The fulmars conquer the cliffs in a heady display of flight – of graceful elegance as they soar into the wind. Meanwhile, the shalders command the shoreline, fleeting back and forth with the approach and retreat of every wave. And from above, the laverock (skylark) rules the moors, while the blackbirds congregate in a merry babble of noise from surrounding outbuildings and telegraph poles.
Reawick stole our hearts.
Bedtime, often an ordeal at home, was a pleasure at The Taing. As the bairns were tucked into the sumptuous bed, nestled in a flurry of white cotton, I read to them. We read My Naughty Little Sister because Lena is the very epitome of the character in Dorothy Edwards’ iconic children’s classic. And then we read How to Train Your Dragon, because Hansi is six, and when you are six, dragons are life.
As they fell into a deep, fresh-air induced coma, I watched out the sash windows as the water tickled at the edges of the red granite beach and a lone gull plucked at the tang on the tideline. It’s easy to understand why this house was built on this sleepy beach at the foot of the lush green valley of Reawick.
The Taing, tucked away under the hill overlooking the Reawick beach.
Our time at The Taing was too short; I would happily base myself here for a week, or longer if time would allow. It’s the perfect place to escape to – and yet only half an hour from town. I certainly wouldn’t tire of the coastal walks, the archaeology, the scenery, the sounds and all the hidden corners we discovered along the way. I imagine The Taing would be as good in the depths of winter as it would be in the height of summer, and as every hour brings a change here; in the light as the sun traces around the gable of the house, in the sounds as the cacophony of birds fill the sky from first light till last. And of course, the ever-present sea, with the constant ebb and flow of the tide.
Well done to Shelagh and Peter for creating such an inspiring space, and thank you for letting us stay.
There is so much to do in and around Reawick and I would highly recommend Peter Guy’s book: Walking the Coastline of Shetland: Westside (No 5), which you can buy here.
Another great walk, a few miles from Reawick, is to the Stanydale Temple, a Neolithic site which you can read about that here and here.
Westerwick is also a great walk, especially between Silwick and Westerwick. The views are unforgettable. Westerwick is only a few miles from Reawick.
Sand Gairdins is a great place to visit if you have young children.
Hopefully this review and itinerary are helpful in allowing you to begin your Shetland adventure here.
To contact Shelagh and Peter about booking you can visit their website here, or follow them on Instagram here.
If you are interested in a tour while visiting just drop me an email for information here.
East-Gate, Vidlin, the perfect retreat for a family holiday.
Interested in staying somewhere but not sure what to do in the local area? Let Shetland with Laurie help you. In this post, I have teamed up with Karen & Neil Hay who gave us the keys to their newly established self-catering chalet in the village of Vidlin on Shetland's east mainland and told us to explore...
East-Gate self-catering chalet, Vidlin.
East-Gate is a modern, new build which is fresh to Shetland's self-catering market. Just a few miles outside the village of Vidlin and only a stone's throw from the Whalsay ferry terminal at Laxo, East-Gate is ideally placed for exploring this corner of Shetland's beautiful east mainland.
East-Gate is the perfect place to watch the Whalsay ferry coming and going.
East-Gate is run by Karen & Neil Hay both from Vidlin. Karen says, “I literally married the boy next door!” The couple has two young bairns, and Karen plans to manage the chalet while Neil works shifts at Sullom Voe Oil Terminal.
Recently completed, 2019 is the first year that East-Gate will open its doors and welcome visitors. The initial thing which you notice as you enter the chalet is that the standard of finish is very high, and the smell of fresh paint still fills the space, making for a warm and welcoming first impression.
From the outside the building is understated and modest, giving away no clue to its bright and modern interior. The chalet really packs a punch as you enter into the deceptively large open-plan kitchen-living space which boasts vaulted ceilings and additional skylights – flooding light into the already bright and spacious room. Karen and Neil have carefully considered the finish – which is flawless throughout; with a modern, high-gloss kitchen exuding elegance, to the generous bathroom with walk-in shower, and an additional en-suite shower-room, servicing the master bedroom.
Their attention to detail is obvious; not just in the architecture and design, but in the boxes of toys in the cupboard – for both boys and girls, of all ages – the highchair, and all the children’s plates, bowls and cups. All this combined, made for a stress-free visit.
The bedrooms are clean, fresh and welcoming, with crisp white sheets and roman blinds. Karen has also provided a hairdryer (which is far better than mine at home) – so save space in your case and leave that behind!
Despite being finished to a high standard, the chalet is very practically laid out, and the kitchen is well-equipped for any cooking that you may do on your stay. Often in self-catering, it's the case that you begin to cook and realise that the familiar sieve, grater and parer are absent – this is not an issue here, the kitchen contains everything (even the things you didn't know you needed!), including a filter coffee machine.
If you are looking for a family-friendly stay, then this is the place to book. East-Gate is perfect for the young family who wants space to play and explore. The bedrooms are at one end of the house, with a door into the hall to block any noise from the living-room, and outside there is safe space to play with a fenced garden and a path around the house – perfect for running off energy or cycling before bed!
East-Gate is the perfect place for a family escape.
Things to do at East-Gate:
The first thing that struck me as we pulled up and got out the car was the sound of the laverock (skylark), this is a species of bird that is endangered throughout the UK, but here in Shetland, we have about 30,000 breeding pairs – representing a significant proportion of the UK population. Farming techniques have hampered this little songbird throughout the country, but here in Shetland they are common in rural areas like Vidlin, and the little laverock at East-Gate never let up her merry song the whole time we were there. It truly is an uplifting sound and a real sign that spring is in the air (we were staying in mid-April).
Not sure what to listen for? Hear the laverock sing, here.
So that’s the first thing to do, get out the binoculars and look at the birds – they’re in abundance here. Watch the lapwing fleeting and diving through the air in a frenzied flight. This impressive wader has distinctive broad, dark wings with rounded white tips – the dark wings and collar contrasting sharply by a white underside. The shalders (oystercatchers) can be seen – generally in pairs – working the shoreline. Watch as they use their strong orange bills to pick limpets from the stones – and listen for the ‘pop’ as the conical-shaped mollusc is torn from its rock.
At night, step outside and hear the haunting call of the horsegok (snipe) as it tumbles through the air (to listen to the horsegok, click here). Another haunting call is that of the whaap (curlew), and you can listen to that (and more) here. Both the horsegok and whaap can be heard from East-Gate, and with no surrounding noise pollution, the birds are yours to enjoy.
I sat and watched these pair of oystercatchers feeding for a while. Funny, busy little birds!
East-Gate is the perfect place to do a bit of otter spotting. Karen snapped this photo of an otter just a few days before our visit. The banks (shoreline) in front of the chalet is home to at least two otter families. So how could I resist a little otter spotting? And with a spring in my step and brimming with excitement and hope, I took my small herd of elephants down to the shore to look for the otters.
Fantastic photo of an otter near East-Gate. Photo: Karen Hay.
Anyone familiar with otters will know that a two and six-year-old are not a great combination to take when trying to seek out this elusive mammal. So, with this in mind, I left them on the beach gathering shells and sea-glass (with dad), and set off silently – stealthily – in search. I knew they were around – their poo was everywhere, but I had no luck and never spotted any. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to track them down, and if you follow me on Instagram, you can see my ‘otterly shite otter-spotting commentary’ here.
Otters are tough to seek out, and if you want to do some homework before you arrive, I would recommend Otters in Shetland, The Tale of the Draatsi by Richard Shucksmith & Brydon Thomason – both local experts (unlike me) who know a lot more about these elusive animals and their habits than I do. You can buy that book here, or borrow it from Shetland Library.
I would say that you are best to look for otters either at first, or last light, or a few hours either side of low tide and you will need: patience, a flask of tea (or stronger) and thermals.
Perfect otter-spotting territory at East-Gate, Vidlin.
Otter-spotting is not for everyone. It’s certainly not for the herd of elephants that I call my children. But, the little beach is a treasure trove of pretty shells, stones and shoreline creatures to find and explore. We spent hours just playing on the beach and scouring the shoreline.
This area was a favourite of local poet Rhoda Bulter (1929-1994) who often stayed at Da Horn, a croft which now stands in ruin at the water’s edge. It is said that Da Horn inspired much of her poetry.
There is more information about Rhoda and her poems in The Cabin museum and again, Shetland Library have many of her poetry books to borrow.
Da Horn where poet Rhoda Bulter spent many holidays.
Open May to September on Tuesday, Thursday & Sunday from 1-5pm.
The Cabin museum, Vidlin.
If military history and the First and Second World Wars are one of your interests then this is the place for you. The Cabin museum sits just at the back of East-Gate, a short walk across the road.
The late Andy Robertson founded what began as a small collection of medals in 1978. The collection has since grown, and now fills the museum to the rafters — an eclectic collection which has branched off into everything and anything related to Shetland’s social history.
The Cabin houses a vast assortment of histoic items; from war uniforms, weapons and tin hats to wedding dresses, photographs and an extensive archive belonging the Lunnasting History Group. The list is endless, and all the items are as exciting as the story associated with them.
The Cabin is well worth a visit and is now run by the family of founder, Andy Robertson, and the Lunnasting History Group who help out one day a week.
Visits to The Cabin can also be arranged by appointment, and we are very grateful to Stanley for opening up for us and putting on the heating.
It's worth stopping at Lunna and parking up just to have a walk around and explore the area.
Lunna Kirk sits by the sea in the shadow of the impressive Lunna House. It is well worth a visit. The kirk is said to be the oldest church which has been in continuous use in Shetland for Christian worship. It's thought that there has been a kirk here since the 1100s and an early monastery on Chapel Knowe, just to the north.
The kirk itself is an unusual design, with thick buttresses and a leper's squint, designed to allow lepers to hear the service and see the altar without physically coming into contact with the congregation.
Lunna kirk is open, and visitors are welcome to go in and have a look around. There is a donations box for anyone who would like to leave a gift to help with church funds.
Lunna House, a 17th-century laird’s house, is also an important location for anyone interested in the Shetland Bus Operation. A secret operation which took place during the Second World War between Shetland and Nazi-occupied Norway. The Operation which ran from 1941 aimed to remove refugees from Nazi-occupied Norway and bring weapons and supplies in.
Lunna House was a base in the early days of the operation before it was moved to Scalloway. Lunna provided an excellent sheltered harbour, secrecy and a base in the form of Lunna House which sits proudly on the hill. For anyone interested in the Shetland Bus story, a visit to the Scalloway Museum is a must.
Lunna House, early base for the Shetland Bus Operation.
Lunna House and the surrounding area has a fantastic ‘designed landscape’ – the formal structures built around the house were laid out in the 18th century and furthered in the 19th century. These include; Gothic ornaments, such as the beach cobble finials of the gates to the south-west of the house, and a small folly on the hill, known as Hunter's Monument – that was formerly used as a lookout by the lairds (landlords). The harbour was constructed in the 19th century, along with a walled garden and an impressive lime kiln which sits near the pier.
Walking in the area:
There are some fantastic walks in this area. Karen has provided a copy of Walking the Coastline of Shetland: Eastside by Peter Guy in the chalet. This has some fantastic walking options. Below I have outlined a few walks that I recommend in the area.
There are some fantastic walks in this area of Shetland.
Stones of Stofast
Walk: 2 hours
2 miles (3.5km)
This is a beautiful walk which will take you from the road, over the hill and onto Fugla Water and the Loch of Stofast. Between these two lochs – straddling the hill – are the great glacial erratics that make up the Stones of Stofast – dumped there, as if by the hands of giants. An imposing sight on top of the hill, commanding incredible panoramic views.
The Stones of Stofast.
The walk begins from a non-descript lay-by beside the cattle-grid on the road from Vidlin to Outrabister. The trail is helpfully signposted with an arrow pointing to the hill and a small route-finder map pinned to the fence post. This is enough to get you on your way, and I’d recommend snapping a photo of the map on your smartphone (providing you have one) to orient yourself along the way.
(please note that this walk, and none of my walks, are on a bus route, the nearest bus would take you into Vidlin (3 miles away), so I would recommend using a car to get to the walk start point).
From the starting point, head straight over the hill, sticking to high ground to avoid the bog (particularly in winter, early spring, or after heavy rain). We returned to the car across lower land, skirting Fugla Water and very quickly began to play hop-scotch in the bog as we tried to pick a route through it – although this may be fun, it does require a certain amount of agility (and patience), and it is worth remembering that bogs can be dangerous.
As you make your way to the crest of the first hill, stop and take in the breathtaking views. To the north-west, views across to Mossbank, Firth and Burravoe (Yell), as well as the islands of Linga, Fish Holm, Orfasay and Samphrey. And to the east, views to Skerries and Whalsay. Further south-east, the Noup of Noss can be seen clearly on a fine day (like we had). It feels like a unique vantage point, as you’re able to view Yell and Skerries almost in one breath – areas we assume to be remote, closely-tied together by the sea.
The landscape is a glacial one, like much of Shetland, it has been carved by the last Ice Age to pass through about 10,000 years ago. The massive stones have been laid down – not far from where they originated from – by a glacier. The Stones were originally one large boulder, weighing an estimated 2,000 tonne, now broken in two by the action of repeated freeze-thaw, the Stones were once part of a nunatak (an exposed, rocky ridge rising above the ice), which collapsed following the retreat of the ice.
It is only once you get up-close-and-personal that you can appreciate the tremendous power in that ice that carried, and moved these enormous stones – no photo will ever do justice to their sheer enormity. Being the romantic that I am, I still like to think they were put there by giants, and are now home to the trows (trolls). The whole landscape has that eerie ‘trowie’ feel that is so familiar in the wilds of Shetland.
The Stones are a great spot for a picnic, to sit and soak up the history and geology of this special hidden corner of Shetland's mainland.
This walk is a short one, but a much longer version of it can be done, taking in the entire Lunna Ness peninsula. Route details for that can be found here.
A little word on the wildlife – Lunna Ness is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) because of its thriving (yet elusive) otter population. And although we didn’t spot otters at East-Gate, I did catch a glimpse of one at Lunna, but it evaded my camera lens before I could capture it as proof – so you’re going to have to take my word on that one!
Hansi assures me that these are in fact the footprints of a T-rex. I believe him. These are dinosaur footprints that you'll see on the walk. If you spot them remember to tag @shetlandwithlaurie so I can show Hansi.
Sandwick, Sweening Voe
Walk: 4 hours
3 miles (4.8km)
This is a walk which I didn’t do with my two and six-year-old, but I have enjoyed it immensely in the past. This would be a great hike to do if you are staying at East-Gate, but it is challenging.
For this walk, park at the end of the Sweening road and follow the ‘sheep-gaet’ (sheep path) along the sheer steep-sided slopes of Sweening Voe until the track opens out and reveals a sandy beach and wide bay.
Sandwick, Sweening. A beautiful walk.
At the far end of the beach is the ruin of the croft of Sandwick which was home to the Morrison family until about 1980 when they moved to Vidlin. The house quickly fell into disrepair and now stands in ruin.
Please note that this is quite a challenging walk and anyone with a fear of heights should avoid it as it is a steep drop from the path to the sea in places (certainly not a trail for the two and six-year-old). I allowed an evening to do this walk and explore the area (c. 4 hours). So arm yourself with an OS map and explore – I promise, it’s worth it!
There are some beautiful photos of the house when it was inhabited on the Shetland Museum & Archives photo archive which can be seen here
Another great walk is out to the house at Bonidale, looking across to West Linga and Whalsay.
For this walk, park at the end if the road at Lunning and head south (again using an OS map for reference).
Bonidale when the roof was on in 2009.
Laxo burn is another great walk and a fantastic spot to explore – even for an hour or so after tea. Just a mile from East-Gate you can go and throw sticks, race siggy-boats (boats made from the leaves of the water iris), or simply follow the course of the burn.
If you read my blog post about making trench cake in my great-granny’s mixing bowl, then you can see her old house (the big white one) at the head of Dury Voe (Laxo House). If you missed it, you can read that blog post here.
It was a real joy to wake up to the morning sun at East-Gate and eat breakfast at the sunny dining table while watching the sheep outside. It really was such a relaxing experience. I would thoroughly recommend this fantastic chalet, particularly if you are looking for a good base to explore this part of Shetland, or a family-friendly retreat to escape for a few days.
There are plenty of amenities in the local area: Vidlin shop is only a couple of miles away, as is the village of Vidlin with its marina and well-equipped play park.
There is so much to do in this area, and these suggestions are by no means exhaustive. Why not take a trip to the island of Whalsay, the ferry is in walking distance of East-Gate. Or, head to Busta House Hotel for a bar supper to save cooking? Or explore Nesting? Take the ‘Nesting Loop’ and visit the First World War naval air station at Catfirth, or count the swans on the Loch of Benston. Do you have a two and six-year-old-too? How about a trip to the Mud Kitchen at the Nesting Primary School which welcomes visitors – whatever you decide, let this be a guide, and most of all – enjoy everything that this area and East-Gate has to offer.
If you have found this useful and have tried any of the routes while staying at East-Gate then I would love to hear from you, remember to get in touch and tell me how you got on. Alternatively, if you would like a tour, just let me know.
I can't wait for our next holiday at East-Gate, thank you again to Karen & Neil for a fabulous stay.
To book a stay at East-Gate and unlock your Shetland adventure you can contact Karen here.
El Gran Grifon wrecked on Fair Isle, Shetland.
Welcome back to my blog. This is a real break from my norm. What I'm giving you today – with a certain amount of trepidation – is a children's book I wrote when I was on maternity leave a few years ago and it's based on the wreck of the El Gran Grifon. There are very few illustrations (because I can't draw!) so you'll have to use your imaginations until I can persuade someone to do the pictures. I'm posting here because I would really love your feedback on it. Please feel free to comment or click on the following link and send me a email.
Note to Adults:
The following is a little historical background to this tale...
This story, like most of its time, begins with a king. And like most kings of this time, he was obsessed with power and religion. This king, Philip II of Spain, was intent on overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Queen, who had once refused to marry King Philip was a Protestant. This was seen as a threat to the Catholic Philip who decided the only way to solve the problem was to invade England.
Now, in order to defeat Queen Elizabeth, King Philip needed more ships. He had a great army which he was proud of, and his ‘Blackbeards’ were good soldiers, but his naval prowess was lacking. So, he and his well-groomed military men commandeered the nation’s merchant ships, including the El Gran Grifón. This 650-ton merchantman was fitted with 38 guns and brought into military service.
Philip II of Spain & Elizabeth I of England.
The Galleon Girls of the El Gran Grifón
This is the story of how two hens, after four months at sea, found solace in the most unlikely of places – somewhere in the middle of the North Sea, lying between Shetland and Orkney, in a small byre on the remote island of Fair Isle. The tale unfolded onboard the wide-bellied, clumsy hulk, El Gran Grifón in the year of 1588. El Gran Grifón was a merchantman in the ill-fated Spanish Armada fleet.
Fair Isle from the air. Photo: Ronda Hill.
These hens, sisters by birth, could not have been more different. One was mischievous and full-of-fun, and the other, well, she was prim, proper and toffee-nosed – to the point of almost cantankerous! Not your average sea-goers, these girls were often teased and called landlubbers. Nevertheless, small and plump, their beady hen-eyes missed nothing.
A traditional Shetland hen. Photo: Mary Isbister.
These two feathered beauties had been taken onboard as Captain Juan Gómez de Medina’s prized layers for he just loved a soft-boiled egg with his morning helping of wine and grog. Now, you might think it unusual to be drinking wine for breakfast? Well, on board this great 16th century ship, it was far safer to drink the wine than dare drink the water which would almost certainly have sent you running for the chamber-pots!
Wine, gin or grog?
When they were taken aboard, Captain Gómez had stowed his ‘ladies’ away in the hold. Tucked up in nest boxes, between crates of musket balls and teetering towers of cannonballs, he spoke to the two perplexed chickens, Carlota and Anna, and waving a bony finger, said, “You two must continue to lay eggs for me as this may be the only fresh food I get on this godforsaken voyage.”
Carlota and Anna looked at each other, eyes blinking in the darkness, gunpowder rising in clouds of dust around them.
“Well, this is an adventure,” Carlota said excitedly, puffing her feathers. Anna, who was prim and sensible scowled at her courageous sister.
“Settle down in your nest box, let’s see what tomorrow brings.” And under a setting Spanish sun, the two hens bedded down for the night, lulled to sleep by the hustle and bustle of sailors loading the ship for departure.
Next morning, Carlota and Anna were awoken with the warm fat hand of the cook, reaching in under their feathers to remove the perfectly formed porcelain-like green eggs which they had dutifully laid for their Captain. Out on deck there was a hush of excitement as the final checks were made and the great ship released the mooring ropes, groaning as she left the quay to join the assembled Armada who lay-in-waiting for the signal to depart.
The route the Spanish Armada took in 1588.
“Where do you think we’re going?” Carlota asked, her voice filled with anticipation. “I don’t know, but look at all those ships! We’re bound to have a collision if they don’t watch where they’re going,” tutted Anna in response. Carlota rose from her warm bed of straw, and fluttered onto a large bronze cannon gazed out the gun-port, and what a spectacle she saw!
Stretching across the horizon, as far as the eye could see, were the 130 ships which made up the great Armada. With sails billowing in the wind, they appeared majestic and graceful. The ornate carvings and figureheads of architectural wonder took Carlota’s breath away. The gold gilding shimmered in the sun, sending reflections across the bay. It truly was a sight to behold. Carlota stood, spellbound, watching as they left the safety of Lisbon harbour and ventured north towards the English Channel.
The Spanish Armada depart, 1588.
“Carlota will you get down!” came the shrill voice of her over-cautious sister. “You’re going to have me egg-bound at this rate! Come away before you fall, you can’t swim. Do you think you’re a duck?”
“Oh stop your fussing and flapping. I’m coming” she said petulantly, as she stumbled in a flurry of feathers down from her cannon-perch. “Let’s explore!” she said, rushing past Anna, gracelessly attempting to make her way up the ladder and on to the deck. Anna hurried after, scorning her sister’s careless attitude and thirst for adventure.
As they made their way along the decks, weaving in and out between sailors’ feet, they spotted their Captain, standing proud on the quarterdeck, gazing over his crew who were busy setting the sails. Carlota, unfazed by the hush of activity around her continued, fluttered onto the deck beside Captain Gómez, where she called for Anna to join her. Unamused, Anna followed her sister, who was now perched on a stanchion watching the fleet as they gathered speed under a favourable wind.
A 16th century ship.
Hearing a door creaking, the sisters turned, to see the chef carrying a silver platter and disappearing into the Captain’s cabin. From the open door, came a great sound of laughter and a plume of acrid tobacco-smoke almost knocked them off their perches. Before Anna had time to stop her, Carlota had disappeared, tail feathers and all, after the chef and into the Captain’s dimly-lit cabin.
Carlota entered, her eyes adjusting as a slither of light cut through the smoke, illuminating the great table. Draped in finery, the officers who ate here enjoyed the best linen, pewter and enough food to satisfy even the greediest among them. A little man, with piggy features, sat, hunched over a great platter, gnawing on a succulent chicken leg. Carlota took one look at this grotesque little man and froze. She turned on her spurs and left as quickly as she had arrived. Anna chastised her, “You know what they say - curiosity killed the chicken!” Carlota, flicking her comb to one side made her way back onto the quarterdeck and into the bright sunshine, ignoring her sister’s warnings.
A few days passed and they familiarised themselves with the ship, the crew, the smells and the constant rolling and pitching of the Grifón as they made their way North. Living conditions for the sailors were grim, the men cramped together below decks, packed like sardines and given only meagre rations to eat. Despite this, morale was good and the two hens enjoyed listening to the men singing and playing dice games on top of barrels of gunpowder and casks of wine.
16th century sailors.
A few days into the journey the fleet ran into bad weather. This hampered progress and the hens and crew alike, grew miserable. The smell of the sick and dying wafted through the decks, reminding everyone of their own mortality. Fresh supplies were dwindling and they still hadn’t reached England. Those who made up the great Armada simply had to ride out the storm, and wait.
Finally, two months after leaving Lisbon, and after an unscheduled month-long stopover to carry out repairs, the fleet were once again underway. They departed from Corunna and sailed out into the open waters of the Bay of Biscay. But, as they approached the English Channel, the mood on board changed again. The crew became graver, more serious and the singing and games stopped. Carlota appeared oblivious to this as she continued on her single-handed, one-hen crusade to explore every nook, crevice and cranny of the great ship. But Anna didn’t like it. The constant mutterings from the crew, that the English were laying-in-waiting, did nothing to calm her nerves or settle her feathers.
Carlota and Anna awoke one morning to an unfamiliar smell which was coming in through the gun-ports! With beaks sniffing the air, they hurried up on deck to investigate. Peering over the port-side they saw, all along the coast and on every headland, smoke pouring from beacons which had been lit to warn people of the Armada’s imminent arrival. They had reached England. And as the Channel narrowed, the Armada got into formation, a tight crescent-shape, with strong-hulls bearing down on the outnumbered English ships.
And then, the deafening cannon-fire assault began. The English, with their superior guns started the bombardment on the seven-mile-long line of Armada vessels. Carlota and Anna hunkered down below, heads tucked under their wings, deafened by the crashing and banging, wondering what on earth was going on. For days, no hand came to rummage under their feathers to collect their daily eggs, no sailors’ songs were heard, no laughter from the galley. Just the constant boom and the deafening cry of those wounded and dying.
The English were not going to give in easily and the Spaniards retreated to Calais. The English pursued, and this is where the El Gran Grifón took a hit, at Gravelines, that almost certainly sealed her fate. Just when all on board thought they had heard the last cannon fire – BANG –a gun-fire which shook the boat till even her stern-post shuddered. The explosion was felt throughout the ship and the hens heard the cry of “man the bilge-pumps!” echoing down from the deck.
Suddenly, a rush of sailor’s feet went flying past the hens, still hunkering in their nest boxes. The sound of water pouring in could be heard from the deck below. The sailors worked the pumps tirelessly, packing holes with hessian sacks and wooden plugs. Carlota felt her bed of straw turning cold and wet, and to her horror discovered a small hole, from a musket ball in the hull below her. “Anna,” she gasped, “we’re going to sink!” and suddenly, the fearless, brave Carlota, began to panic. Anna, stoic as ever, was quick to act. She flew from her nest, rolling a green egg before her, and plugged the hole, before settling back down.
The English had won the battle at Gravelines. Anna and Carlota only needed to look at the drawn expressions on the sailors’ faces to know this. The El Gran Grifón, with the remaining Armada, scattered, heading north into the open water of the North Sea – away from the confines of the English Channel where the enemy waited. The two hens listened as the crew discussed plans. It was said that they were going to head north around Scotland, passing the west coast of Ireland, back to Spain. The two hens were relieved at this news, they had endured quite enough of the seven-seas for one lifetime!
Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The El Gran Grifón faced storm, after storm, and was forced to sail back and forth between Shetland and the coast of Norway. And now, many hands came to rummage for eggs and with supplies dwindling, these two hens became the most important creatures onboard. Captain Gómez even made them nest boxes in his own cabin, just to ensure the hungry sailors in the decks below didn’t steal the eggs, or worse still, eat his prize hens! Things were becoming desperate. One evening the two hens were awoken by a group of men bursting into the cabin, waking them from sleep they said, “Captain, you must come immediately. The Barca de Amburgo has gone down. The Trinidad Valencera have taken half the crew but they need assistance!”
“Very well,” replied a groggy Gómez, “Turn her around and go fetch the men. I can’t think how we’re going to feed them though, we haven’t enough to eat as it is.” Carlota and Anna looked at each other nervously, they had heard the crew calling them “chicken broth” already and they hoped to avoid the cook’s cauldron!
With almost 300 men now, the Grifón lumbered along laboriously, still trapped in the North Sea. And three weeks after they rescued the men from the other ship they ran into trouble again off Fair Isle. Whilst trying to make repairs, anchored in Swartz Geo, the cumbersome vessel was driven ashore and wrecked on the rocks at Stroms Hellier. Carlota and Anna watched, dumbstruck, as the desperate men clambered the rigging in order to reach land. The wind whistled through the damaged rigging and the once great ship, lay broken and beat.
Shipwrecked. By Jean Baptiste Pillement.
“What on earth do we do now?” Carlota asked nervously.
“Well, we can’t go down with the ship! And the Captain has just left us here, after all we’ve done for that man,” tutted Anna.
“We’re going to have to fly!” Carlota said, her eyes sparkling into life again.
“What have I told you about flying,” Anna scorned “With that clipped wing, you’ll just go in circles!”
“Do you have a better idea?” asked Carlota, as she made her way to the porthole in the stern aftercastle.
The two hens could see the men gathered on the edge of the cliff, gazing down at the broken crang of their wrecked ship, the land beyond, desolate and empty. Anna and Carlota, glancing at each other, plucked up the courage and flew onto the cliff to join the others.
And as they took to the sky – flight for the very first time – they gazed at the world beneath their wings. A world of chaos and anger, of suffering and plight. The crashing waves below, tearing at the cliffs, removing great chunks of earth – earth which had been there for millenia. The churning seas, foaming and angry, ripping great chunks from the once strong and proud ship they had called home. The island, a storm-blasted, barren landscape, a few small houses tucked into the hillsides, braced against the prevailing wind.
The men, anxious and disoriented took no notice of the two hens who had landed and were picking at their feet, happy to be on terra firma once more.
A traditional Shetland "galleon hen". Photo: Mary Isbister.
And this, according to folk legends, is said to be how the ‘Galleon Hen’, with her distinctive ‘tappit’ head and porcelain-like green eggs, came to be in Shetland.
I really hope you enjoyed my tale...
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Welcoming the Spring Equinox at the Stanydale Temple.
Today I stepped back in time 4,000 years to the heart of Neolithic Shetland, to that moment as dawn arrives and the world stops, where just for a moment everything falls silent. The birds stop singing, the sheep grow quiet, the wind lulls and life is suspended while that first ray of sunlight makes contact with the earth.
The moment where the dawn met the day and came through the door at Stanydale temple.
March brings with it an urgency, an expectation of spring. I feel it coursing through my body like a raw energy which needs to be expended – somewhere, anywhere. The mornings are easier, I feel lighter and bursting with an all-consuming desire to get out and explore. The light is returning – a welcome sight after a long winter at 60 degrees north, and like me, the earth is awakening from its winter slumber.
As well as the bulbs and the lambs we have the spring equinox, and today, the equinox, there’s a full moon; the third and final supermoon of 2019.
The equinox is quite simply that time when the day and night are of equal length; there’s a balance in these days, but also a sense of polarisation. It feels as if we are hanging on a pendulum, in free-fall, suspended as the world is about to be set into motion. Like a rollercoaster, suspended just before the drop. The days and nights are equal; but the tides give their most extreme versions of themselves with the high ones licking the tops of piers and the low ones revealing all kinds of mysteries from the murky depths.
This year I chose to welcome the spring. I wanted to experience it and give thanks for its return.
I chose the Neolithic temple at Stanydale to view the equinox (or vernal) sunrise (If you are a regular reader of my blog then you may remember that I spent the winter solstice here too. You can read about that here). Stanydale is believed to have symbolic meaning, and as the sun lifts its head above the eastern horizon, it rises in almost perfect alignment with the temple’s narrow doorway and two carefully placed standing stones set a short distance from the door.
I wanted to see this for myself. I wanted to soak in the first rays of spring sunshine, I wanted to feel them kiss my cheeks, I wanted to smell the earthy dew rise from the cold moor and witness this incredible prehistoric alignment of man, stone and sun.
Morning coffee awaiting the sun at Stanydale on the Spring Equinox.
Our ancestors were carefully tuned into the cycles of the earth and land, carefully labouring, tilling and ploughing. Sowing the seeds and watching them grow. One eye skyward watching the weather, the other embedded in the soil willing growth. Hands ingrained with dirt. Sweat exchanged for growth. Just as our bodies, particularly us women, are governed by cycles, so too is the earth and the way we interact with it. Farmers are still tuned into this cyclical way of life but for the vast majority of us it bears little relevance to our day-to-day lives which are governed by the demands of 9-5 jobs.
Setting the alarm for 4.45am on a cold March morning might be a bit mad – and a few questioned my sanity – but I decided to step-off the merry-go-round and walk into the past with my eyes and senses open to the world around me. I wanted to stand – just for a moment – in the land of our ancestors 4,000 years ago. I wanted to hear the bird call in that suspended moment of quiet as the dawn meets the day.
Morning light at Stanydale.
Approaching the parking place for Stanydale at 5.30am the sky was still dark, except for a dim glow in the eastern sky. The drive west wasn’t looking promising for the mind-dazzling sunrise that I craved, with a squally shower reducing visibility to next to nothing. But, making the ascent up to the mysterious temple of our Neolithic fathers, and with boots sucking into the mossy bog, the clouds lifted and the sky cleared.
And as the magical moment approached and my senses deepened, I wondered what they were thinking – those hands that laid the stones – what filled their thoughts as they laid each stone in place? What did their lives look like? Did they wonder about the past too? Or even the future?
As I stood there awaiting the light, in the centre of that neolithic temple, and as the first rays flexed their golden arms above the hill, throwing light onto the cold earth that surrounded me I was mesmerised. For now – where fifteen minutes earlier it had been dark and unforgiving, allowing shadows to play in the corner of my eyes, amplifying my senses – it was dappled in that first soft light of fairy tales, tracing through my veins like a drug. And in a moment of purity, just as the earth gives way to the sea – the sun broke through the door, darkness gave way to light – penetrating the temple like a sword.
The sun passing through the door of the temple on the morning of the spring equinox.
As I went through the door, sun dazzled my eyes which were still tuned to the dark – my senses felt sharper. I made my way, feeling, around the temple. Using my hands to trace its shape, its curves, its alignments; touching every stone as I made my way around this megalithic marvel. Every feature accentuated. The grasses and floss danced golden and bright in the early morning, each blade standing tall and proud against the burning orange sky above me. The lichen that punctuated every stone shone in colours and patterns I had never seen before. Maybe it was the low morning light, or maybe I had simply opened my eyes to the world. Yet there was something in that morning. Something in even the call of the birds that was different; the whaaps expectant call more piercing, the shalder’s tone more urgent.
And as I drove back to Lerwick in the rush hour traffic, it was as if I had been violently thrust forward 4,000 years into a surreal parallel universe. The cars and the bustle of this spring morning were so far removed from where I had come from. As I rejoined the world and followed the road back to Lerwick – back to my time – where I had to put bairns to school, empty the dishwasher and get to work. A cruise liner was expected; how very 21st-century.
And as quickly as I had stepped out, I was brought back thousands of year with a jolt – the 8 o’clock news reporting on more Brexit and more bombings.
To write about the experience and how it felt to be stood there as the dawn met the day has been harder than I imagined – I think because the experience moved me in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. Something in that moment of calm reflection, as the sun rose, resonated deep inside me like a burning fire. I felt like the only person alive in that moment.
How do you put that into words? How do you describe the indescribable? How do you give thought and feeling to something that is so much greater than you are? How can I give words to the noise of the wind passing overhead, as the chamber of the temple remained still and suspended, or how the earth smelled as the sun warmed it, how its earthy tones rose like nectar around me. All I know is that I felt motionless – caught in the tides of time – somewhere between the here-and-now and the neolithic.
Welcoming the sun at Stanydale.
Who am I to say why those stones were placed in alignment to meet the sun of the spring equinox. Who am I to paint that picture? That picture of sunrises, and low morning sunlight kissing the walls of the temple’s passage. Of lichen, floss, birds and growth. I feel humbled to have borne witness, as those walls accepted the light and welcomed the spring. I am just one of many who have stood in that spot and soaked in the dawn of four-millennia, while the passage of time marches on regardless. One day my life will be history and I too will be a 4,000-year-old mystery.
To read more about Stanydale from an archaeological perspective check out this helpful and informative essay by Dr Esther Renwick from Archaeology Shetland here.
Dialect words meaning:
Whaap - curlew
Shalder - oystercatcher
Passage down to the shore can often be dangerous. Photo Terri Leask.
Today I took my second dip of the year in the sea; this time it was the North Atlantic (rather than the North Sea) – and this time it was unscheduled.
Shetland’s eastern seaboard is flanked by the North Sea – a marginal sea of the North Atlantic stretching across to the mainland of northwestern Europe – on the west side, our 'wild' frontier plays host to the full force of the powerful North Atlantic, bringing storms, ravaging waves and an abundance of seabirds and mammals. With nothing between us and North America the waves which assault the western coastal fringes have had thousands of miles at sea to grow before expelling their mighty energy on our shores.
Both the Atlantic and the North Sea meet with a rip-roaring clash of personalities at the southernmost and northernmost tips of Shetland – Sumburgh Head and Muckle Flugga.
The sea has provided so much for the isles over the years with fishing, aquaculture, oil and of course – pleasure. It’s said that Shetlanders have saat in da blood. And this was no exception today as I felt the full force of the cold salt water as it seeped into my knickers.
If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen the videos in my stories (which I will highlight in ‘Stormy Shetland’).
While out taking photos and videos I was swept off my feet by an incoming 'rogue' wave, and I captured the whole sorry episode on my iPhone. I shouldn't have been so close to the edge and I shouldn't have been glued to my phone.
The moment I plunged into the icy Atlantic captured on camera...
Bannamin beach in Burra where I fell in the sea.
So, I am writing this post to act as a reminder – and a warning – to both visitors, and locals alike to take care when out and about in Shetland. As someone who grew up here I should firstly know better, and secondly, I have probably become complacent to the power of nature.
So here are a few pointers (plucked from my boring risk assessment on coastal walking) to bear in mind when you visit:
The stunning cliffs at Eshaness. As tempting as it may seem, please stay back from the edge.
And an additional one (added today!):
Bannamin beach, Burra in stormy weather.
At the start, I said that this was my second dip in the sea this year. The first swim was a planned snorkel in the North Sea, and I had on a wetsuit. I wrote about this for the magazine I edit which will be published in April. The magazine – Shetland Life – can be subscribed to here. Or if you’re interested in only one copy, let me know and we can arrange that.
So please – go and explore – we have no restrictions on where people can go, all that we ask is that you do it safely.
So stay safe and enjoy your trip – your Shetland adventure awaits.
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