The view coming into land at Sumburgh airport is one we always look forward to. On a clear day you can see at least as far as the top of the main island, about 40 miles away. I put my arm round Helen, surely pretty uncomfortable for her in a plane seat but a nice gesture, and we peered out of the window. But today was not a clear day, and we didn’t seem to be getting past the clouds, though glimpses through them showed that we weren’t far from the ground at all. Suddenly, the pilot jammed his foot on the gas and we started to rise. (There’s that dramatic opening sentence I should have started this with). Too cloudy to land. So we circled, hoping that the fog over the airport would disperse. Frustratingly, the view as we rose was as described, sunny and clear for miles, so I suppose we had that. But after 5 clear rounds of it came the dreaded announcement. ‘Sorry folks, as you can see we’ve tried several times to put down at Sumburgh, but the clouds are too thick (I thought that’s what radar was for? Ed.) and with an eye on fuel consumption, we’re going to have to divert to Kirkwall. Sorry everyone’. We couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t the plan.
But it was the reality, and 25 minutes later we landed in Orkney, and sat tight, waiting for news. Soon an assertive and I suspect ex-military man climbed aboard in high vis and put our options clearly to us. I guess you have to be assertive and ex-military to do that sort of thing. Firm but polite, efficient. Of course we weren’t angry, it was just a frustrating start. We couldn’t be angry with a pilot who’d refused his option of flying us into a hillside, nor with the high vis man who’d told us our own options. As it turned out, and without all the details, we had an easy choice. We simply wanted to get to Shetland as quickly as possible, and if that meant an uncomfortable night on the overnight ferry, so be it. The airline were, of course, paying for the crossing.
Most people chose this option, and we all got on buses to take us from the airport into Kirkwall to await the midnight ferry; it was now about 7 o’clock. The airline had also given us a £15 allowance for food in the hotel they took us to. But we felt we could do better. So we shunned the hotel vouchers and set off round the back streets of Kirkwall on this silent Sunday evening to see what we could find. On a particularly lonely road of whitewashed houses and a library, we came across Empire, a Chinese restaurant. OK, it looked from the outside like a pebble-dashed working men’s club, but we saw past that and went in. Given the situation, we were both almost in party mood, to make the most of our change of plan, and some fun food with plenty of saké seemed the perfect answer. We had a great time. The waiter was lively, the food very good, and we had our party. OK, it wasn’t the plan, but here’s the deal: this sort of thing happens all the time up here. To fly to Shetland doesn’t always mean you’re going to land there. Also, if Plan A had to be aborted, Helen, as was shown a couple of times on this trip, always has a follow-up, a Plan B or C. Maybe tonight’s Chinese change of Plan was a joint effort but on this holiday, we did have to change the Plans a few times.
So we had a great time in the Chinese, which I see now is the only Chinese restaurant in Kirkwall (and therefore, probably, Orkney) and wandered back to the hotel bar which the rest of the Flybe failures had been stuck in since seven o’clock. We had a few more drinks, everyone had had a few by then, and all piled back on buses to the ship. We’d been told, in a polite but assertive, ex-military sort of way, that there were no cabins or even pods, whatever they were, left available on the ferry. But they did have a few reclining seats reserved for us, and simply because we were at the front of the queue – I guess we stumbled off the bus faster than most – we got two of those. When we got on, we were told to sit and wait in a crowded room, on tiny plastic chairs which I thought were going to be pretty uncomfortable for the next 8 hours. I said so, and Helen informed me, in a less polite but equally assertive way, that this wasn’t the ferry, you idiot, it’s just the holding area. The saké and beers had addled me enough for me not to have noticed that we hadn’t actually got on a boat yet.
When we did shuffle onto the ferry, we found our seats quickly, woke up the soldier who was asleep on them, and clambered in. Helen was very tired, but I wanted a stroll, though not to join the noisy party at the bar at the other end of the boat. But I thought a bit of night air might be nice, and stood at the back for a long time watching the lights of Kirkwall dim in the distance, and mesmerised by the monkfish-bone waves created by the boat. I stayed up as long as I could see dark land, the northern tip of Orkney. Then I was ready to sleep.
Helen woke first, and went off to find some towels and the shower. There was a system in place, where you got your towels, then queued for the shower room, within which an alarm would sound five minutes before your allotted twenty minutes were up. I heard Helen leave for the queue, and woke up shortly afterwards to go and see how she was getting on. To cut a long story short, she was standing, after a night in a seat, by the shower room door for forty minutes. After thirty-five I rattled the door handle, which prompted a brief surprised silence from within, then the taps turned on. I don’t know what the inmate was doing to keep Helen and the rest of the queue waiting for all that time at 6.30 on a lonely Monday morning as we drifted towards Lerwick, but we were all hugely reassured when a large lady came out and told us that she felt ‘much better after that’, and wandered back to her seat. I wandered back to mine, and she was just a few rows in front. In a perfectly normal voice (everyone else whispered, mindful of their fellow passengers who were still asleep) she talked to her husband, who was obviously embarrassed by her doing this, and combed her long white hair like a mermaid, staring through the front windows of the boat. Do I mean mermaid or manatee?
But we’d made it to Shetland. A day late, with Plan A adrift in the North Sea, but still with adventure in our hearts now we were where we wanted to be. Plan A had been to spend the night at the Sumburgh Hotel in the south, by the airport, then enjoy the ancient site of Jarlshof, right next to the hotel, in the morning, then drive – in a lazy way, no hurries on our holidays – the 70 miles north to the very top of Britain, to the isle of Unst, and the Baltasound Hotel, which we’d loved on both previous visits. So all that was left, after picking the car up from the Sumburgh car hire office in Lerwick, which they drove to us at the ferry terminal (the car, not the office) was to start the lazy (now about 45 miles) drive north. Both of us were on the insurance, Helen as main driver as she usually is, me there to take over if she didn’t fancy it at any point, but as it turned out, she never did lose the drive to drive, and as I wasn’t as driven (stay with this) to get behind the wheel as I was last time, Helen did it all this year, and loved it.
The ferry terminal is north of the capital, so we ignored Lerwick completely and just turned right, heading up across the mainland. (It does show how we take the speed of air travel for granted mind you; it had taken us just that 25 minutes to divert to Orkney, the ferry back took seven and a half hours). Lerwick had been extremely good to us on our first visit in 2008, lots of fun, and a great introduction to Shetland, but now, and in 2011, we saw no reason to return. As I say, it was a lazy drive, and we had all day to make our way up to Unst, so pretty soon we turned off the road and parked up. A day late, this was our first chance to stop, just sit, relax and enjoy the beauty and peace of Shetland. We sat on some rocks by a stone bridge, overlooking a large inlet to the sea. These inlets are everywhere in Shetland, and are known as voes. Arctic terns wheeled over the water, waves washed gently up a stony beach, and after our prolonged landing, this was heaven, at last. Extremely similar to our first evening in the Faroes two years ago, at a later hour we’d gone straight to the nearest village by the sea, and just sat and listened to the water and the evening birds. Leaving London, it’s such a beautiful and serene contrast.
This, above all, is what we come to Shetland for. Yes, there are enhancements like otters and puffins and spectacular cliff tops, crashing waves and Iron Age brochs, but it’s the day-to-day peace of the islands that draws us back. On fine days, of which there are many, a typical and frequent moment would be to park the car by a small loch of deep blue, surrounded by heathland, and with no other traffic or travellers for miles around, just turn the engine off, climb out, and spend ten minutes being part of that particular place in the world, perhaps watching a curlew stalk across the dry grass or a pair of lapwings turning in the air above, or just enjoying the long calm space as a skylark chirrups overhead, or perhaps near enough to the water to hear it ripple gently at its shore.
Back in the car, we drifted in various circles, stopping, starting, meandering really, towards the ferry at the top of the main island, which I think is called The Main Island. The ferry from the Toft terminal across to the island of Yell, then straight across that to its northern ferry point called Gutcher. We’d had time to go back onto the Kirkwall ferry and have some breakfast there while we waited for the car hire office to open so weren’t too hungry, but we knew that at Gutcher there was a small café (everything’s small here, another reason for coming) so we stopped for a bite of lunch there. That’s how lazy our morning had been, it was past 1pm by now. Soup and a burger, if I remember rightly. Between us.
By the time the ferry had taken us across to Unst, Helen was feeling the pace, which after a short night on a seat on a boat, and having driven, albeit lazily for a few hours, was not surprising at all, and we (she) drove straight up to our much loved Baltasound Hotel. To be fair, we were both feeling the effects of the long-distant disruption to Plan A, the manager of the Baltasound Hotel saw this and brought a bottle of wine to our chalet (they have lovely chalets outside the main guesthouse, which we always request) which we drank, and fell asleep, finally to recuperate and get our holiday back on track.
The Baltasound Hotel has changed a little since we were last there. There’s a new manager of six months (he’s been there six months, he’s not six months old) and he seems to be struggling. With his policy of trying never to have the hotel full I wish him luck. He’s good at producing wine for parched and tired guests though. And he has a terrific chef. When we woke up, both refreshed and back on course – we were now where we wanted to be and when, having now ‘caught up’ with our own schedule – we went to the main building and had a very impressive meal indeed, featuring local scallops and beautifully cooked local salmon.
Our reason for coming this far north, as it had been last time, was to go even further north, up to the very top of Britain, a clifftop bird colony at Hermaness. Last time we’d failed, being beaten by the weather. This time we had two days to try, and the wind was too strong for us to go on the first, so we swapped our Plans around and decided to visit Fetlar. This is the smallest of the three islands to the north of the mainland. There’s very little there, we’d been on our first holiday here in 2008, but it’s still beautiful scenery, and is known as the Flower of Shetland. Possibly the main attraction for most people is a small bird called a Red-Necked Phalarope. These are extremely rare, and shy, but one of the very few places they nest is on this remote Scottish island. Back at Baltasound, we’d spotted our wildlife tour guide of eight years ago, a rugged but quiet and extremely knowledgeable lad from Leicester called Rob. After we’d said hello and I set him glowing by mentioning Leicester’s recent historic Premier League win, I rather cheekily asked him if he had any tips on where to find the phalarope these days. Eight years ago he’d taken us to Loch Funzie (pron. finny), but now, under his breath so his present group, who were getting into his minibus nearby wouldn’t hear him, he said ‘Funzie’s rubbish now, you hardly ever see them’, and went on to tell us of some small ponds elsewhere on Fetlar where the rare bird had recently been spotted. It was great to see him, though not as surprising as you might think. On previous trips, zooming round the islands, we’d seen several faces in several different places, you do tend to bump into fellow travellers several times up here. So on Fetlar, as we approached Rob’s recommended spot, there were already people setting up a telescope overlooking the ponds, and a couple of tour vans already parked near them. We thought we’d wait until things had calmed down a bit, this is such a small patch of land and it was already congested. Yet another couple of tourists like us would hardly have added to anyone’s chances of spotting the elusive bird. So we carried on, and found a lovely beach, a wide stretch of sand we’d not visited before called the Sand of Tresta. A large crowd of bonxies sat on a hill nearby, and occasionally swooped off to nearby cliffs. Bonxies are the local name for Great Skuas, and these huge brown birds are the kings of Shetland, top of the food chain and very aggressive. It became evident why some of them were hovering near the cliffs when we came across the completely stripped carcass, well, remains of a sizeable gull on the ground in front of us. A bonxie can grab a gull from its nest, or even in mid-flight, and carry it off to eat. What had happened when this particular gull had been caught must have resulted in a feeding frenzy; these are not friendly pets, they’re voracious carnivores, have been known to carry off whole lambs, and wouldn’t think twice about attacking any human who strayed too near their nests.This actually happened to Helen on our first trip. Up at Hermaness, where bonxies also thrive, she’d been unlucky enough to step unknowingly just a few paces towards an unseen nest, and was instantly dive-bombed from above. It got pretty close to trying to grab her hair and was very scary.
So at Tresta today, we gave them a wide berth and just admired their power and majesty from a very safe distance. A flock of happier Arctic terns sat on the sands, occasionally looping up into the wind, and no danger to us at all. We spent a peaceful hour or so just clambering over rocks, looking at various gulls sitting on their cliffside nests, and generally enjoying this oasis on a mostly weather-beaten day. A lovely find.
Heading back to the main settlement of Fetlar, a collection of buildings I hesitate to even call a village we passed the local shop/post office/café and went inside for a warming sausage sandwich each. This was the place we’d stopped at on our Fetlar day with Rob all those years ago, so it was nice to be there again. Back in the car, the crowds round the phalarope ponds had left, so we pulled over to try our luck. The conditions were perfect for the little wader, and I scanned the marshy water and reeds thoroughly with my binoculars. But nothing. A Day in the Life of a Phalarope: wake up, hide.
We did drive down to Funzie Loch, that’s about as far as the road on Fetlar goes anyway, but nothing doing there, apart from what looked like a grebe circling above the loch. The Arctic terns were there, sitting by the water’s edge as they had been eight years ago. Probably not the same ones, obviously, and I thought “I know your dad.” So we turned and headed back across the island (about 10 minutes including cattle grids) to the ferry terminal to take us back to Unst. We were a bit early for the boat, so just before the harbour, drove down to the waterside at what looked to be an abandoned quarry and dockside. An earthy bank, a sort of mud cliff surrounded the quarry, and in it, one solitary seabird sat, looking out from his nest, defiant in his choice of location, though looking rather sad for it, as there were no other gulls for miles around.
Back to the chalet, and a common pastime for us on holiday, a bottle of wine, lovingly cooled in a sink of cold water, and some trashy holiday TV, the trashier the better. Today we found an episode of Minder, and laughed at the stilted dialogue and hackneyed rhyming slang. But of course Minder was never meant to be a hard-hitting drama like The Sweeney, it was always a frothy follow-up to it, and we enjoyed it hugely.
Back across to the main building at 7 or so, for another feast from the superb chef, this time highlighting battered local cod, which Helen said was honestly the best she’s ever had, it was perfect. And another early night with more trashy TV; these days in the wind and on ferries meant that 10 o’clock was as late as we could manage before exhaustion took over.
Mercifully, as it was our last chance, the weather the following day boded well enough for an attempt at going up to Hermaness. Over breakfast in 2011, we’d sadly watched an Arctic tern get absolutely swept away in a rainy gale, and knew that we wouldn’t stand a chance climbing across the moor to the cliffs. This morning, there was a moment of truth as we watched a sparrow, much smaller than a tern rise up into the air, valiantly fly into the wind without getting anywhere, then surge forward before landing back in the field. This was a Good Sign. What wasn’t so good, this morning or the previous morning in fact, was the breakfast itself. It was perfectly obvious that the brilliant chef only worked in the evening, and what arrived, served by a surly east European girl, was a sad collection of stiff-dry bacon, overcooked poached eggs and crumbly haggis. And those were chosen from the items they actually had. First thing the surly one had said was a list of the items – sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans – that weren’t available from the menu. Quite disappointing, though it didn’t put us off our forthcoming adventure, now we’d decided to do it. And anyway, both the the surly one and the other girl working there seemed to have the most incredible butter fingers. Plates and cups were dropped with astonishing regularity; it was hard even to have a conversation.
“See that sparrow in the field, let’s see how he gets on when he takes off. There he goes-“ CRASH!
“See he’s up, he’s not going backwards and-“ CLATTER! A pile of cutlery hit the floor.
“Is he going to make it? And it’s not raining either-“ SMASH!
“Want some orange juice while I’m-?” CRASH! A teapot dropped on a pile of saucers this time.
So off to the top of Britain, it was very exciting, and was of course Helen’s big moment to start watching puffins! It’s about an hour slow walk across the heathland to the cliffs, during which time you can watch the bonxies swirling around above, sitting on the prows of hills like sentries, or mostly scrapping with each other. As I said, they’re a vicious lot. Day in the Life of a Bonxie: wake up, scrap. There didn’t seem to be quite as many as there were a few years ago, or perhaps it was just that we were expecting them this time. Another skeleton by the pathway, that of a lamb this time, or possibly even a sheep, which had been picked clean and lay by the edge of a peat bog.
But it getting very windy, not treacherous but very uncomfortable, and I didn’t realise how badly this was affecting Helen. We made it to the cliffs alright, but then, such disappointment, hardly a puffin to be seen. A couple zoomed past above the edge of the grass, but as for the teeming bullets of colour we’d seen last time, no trace. Nor were any landing on the cliff edge in front of us. Eight years ago several of them had perched nearby for photos, and one little miracle had actually approached us, tentatively and sweetly at first, then ducking underneath the bank we were standing on into his burrow. It was very sad, and demoralising for poor Helen, who lives for days when she can see puffins. And the wind wasn’t helping, she was freezing. We knew there was another colony just 500 yards up the cliff edge, so I tried to be the jolly one and suggested we try up there, maybe the puffins had moved round the corner. We set off, but Helen fell behind, and there came a moment as we battled across the headland that she’d had enough, the wind was just too sharp and inhibiting, added to the disappointment of the lack of her darling buds in the sky. And her precious lens cap had blown off in the wind. This could have happened at any time and the cap could be anywhere. She stopped and said she’d meet me back at the car. I said I’d nip to the next site anyway, and text her if things improved. So she set off back and I stepped quickly up towards the next ridge. Within thirty yards, thirty paces of us going separate ways, the wind dropped completely, as if it had been switched off. It was amazing, even though I was climbing higher, it was like an air pocket. And this continued right up to the next cliffs. I had a quick scan for bright-billed puffins, but still none, though the rest of the gang were most certainly there, completely covering the cliff face opposite and the rocks below; fulmars, gannets, guillemots and all kinds of gulls cawing, screeching, sitting on nests or filling the air above the crashing sea. I tried to phone Helen but of course, no signal whatsoever. So I hurried back down to our original spot, which I could see she hadn’t quite reached yet.
I explained about the sudden wind drop, but also said that even so, I hadn’t seen any puffins up there. With great resilience, she said she’d try again.
“You won’t believe the wind drop” I said as we set off again. But before we’d reached that point where the gale had been at its bitterest, where she’d turned back before, I suddenly spotted something in the grass ahead, and darted forward. It was her lens cap! This was surely a miraculous discovery, what were the chances of that?! She was delighted, and was again a few minutes later, when we reached the exact spot where the wind died. I’d been desperately hoping it would do so again, that I hadn’t just been fooled by a sudden one-off calm, but no. It was uncanny, it was like walking into a sort of black hole or vacuum of weather, the wind just stopped. One minute blustery enough to take your face off, the next you could be standing by a lagoon. Helen was delighted and we carried on to the colony, and in the end spent a good twenty minutes admiring the spectacular scene ahead. So Hermaness had been partly rescued, though the puffin non-event was obviously a huge let down, and we tramped back down to the car.
We’d checked out of Baltasound earlier, and the rest of the day was an easy meander down to the mainland, via two ferries and across the island of Yell in the middle. At all the ferry terminals I’d been strafing the shoreline for otters with my binoculars, as I knew they often hung out there, but, like our previous visit, not a trace of them. I saw lots and lots of rocks which were pretending to be otters, with their noses above the water, swimming against the tide. But that was the point, they were always swimming against the tide, and therefore not moving at all, and therefore they were rocks. Sometimes seaweed raised my hopes by drifting with the movement of the water, and I’d clutch my binocs eagerly. But they were never otters. You can tell where otters have been by the profusion of dismembered crabs and scraped-out sea urchin shells on the shore, or in fields nearby. By now I was getting the impression that if I was to fall asleep by a stretch of water, I’d wake up surrounded by empty shells.
One thing a tad loutish about our behaviour in Shetland, and on any holiday where we hire a car in fact, is our habit, which I confess I revel in like a naughty kid, to arrive at secluded sites, peaceful bays and ferry terminals in a blast of heavy rock music. Many was the village in Devon two years ago that heard of our arrival several miles away via the blistering arpeggios of Yngwie Malmsteen, and perhaps many villagers in their Shetland croft cottages raised their heads and lowered their eyebrows as we passed by in the company of Jon Bon Jovi yelling ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. Sounds a nuisance? I guess so, and we weren’t quite as insensitive as that, especially and always if approaching a scene where people were bird watching, or otter spotting. The music would go off and the windows wound down. Otherwise I found the incongruousness rather uplifting, and driving through pitiless Scottish rain while Jo Satriani’s ‘Summer Song’ filled the car was always fun.
We got a thing going on this trip, non guitar fans move to the next paragraph: Underrated Guitarists. Prince (and not because he’s just died), Mark Knopfler, Nuno Bettencourt, Daryl Steurmer, etc.Overrated Guitarists, Eric Clapton, Richie Blackmore. Santana, Alex Lifeson, Jimmy Page, Brian May, etc. Add your own.
Our next stop was the St. Magnus Bay Hotel, an imposing wooden clapperboard building in the west of the mainland. We were given a splendid room, the best of this trip, and soon went down to the bar. The place was to me reminiscent of many Scottish B&Bs stayed in during the 80s and 90s, and smelt reassuringly of tea and carpets. Another spacious saloon, complete with dartboard and Jackie, a friendly middle-ager from south of Glasgow. I picked up on her accent straightaway, the Shetland brogue being gentler, but with some snap to it, and specific local vocabulary. We had another terrific meal in the bar, having been warned that the portions were huge. They have to be because a lot of the workers at the nearby Sullom Voe oil refinery, mostly hearty young men from England, stay at the hotel, and they can eat sheep whole. Tonight we had lamb with a redcurrant, blueberry and red wine sauce – sounds overpowering but the local lamb was so good it still managed to be the principal flavour, fantastic – and chicken fillets stuffed with haggis. Both served with mashed potatoes and heaps of seasonal root vegetables. Somehow, we both managed a pudding, neither of us having managed to finish our mains, of course. Then a stumble up the stairs, blinded by food, to enjoy another lovingly-cooled pre-bought bottle of sink wine and to watch (though you were blinded? Ed.) more lovely trashy holiday TV, this time ‘The Best of Who wants to be a Millionaire’.
We’d actually spent the evening with the knowledge that tomorrow was cancelled. That is to say I’d rung the man who was taking us out on our one boat trip of the holiday, a four-hour run round the small island of Muckle Roe, earlier in the day to find out when we were to leave, tides and weather permitting. Unfortunately they weren’t permitting, the wind was starting to be a bit daunting on this holiday, and captain Jim politely but surely told us that the forecast was Gale Force 6, ‘and nobody’s going to enjoy that’. If his boat tour business ever folds because of consistent bad weather I’m sure he could walk into a job telling air passengers diverted to Kirkwall what their options are.
So it was time for one of Helen’s Plan Bs. At breakfast we sat in another vast, old-fashioned dining room reminiscent of Blackpool in its heyday (apart from the Viking axes high on the walls) and met Andrea, owner of the hotel, and chef, both last night and this morning. Chary now of her industrial portions, we ordered lightly, just a few ingredients. Everything came twice. Sausage, egg and bacon meant two sausages, two eggs, and so on. Toast came in double batches of four each. There were even four bars of fresh soap in our bathroom; everything was huge here. Andrea served us, and was a chatty host, and for a change I don’t mean that sarcastically. A born-and-bred Shetlander, in fact I don’t think she’d ever strayed that far from Hillswick the ‘town’ the hotel was in, she certainly spoke of going to the local school. She had an interesting point of view on the puffin population. Eight years ago, we’d been told that because of global warming, the sand eels, the main source of food for the puffins, were moving further north, and therefore the birds had to follow them or die out. No, she said, it’s the bonxies that are killing them. She put a convincing local argument that the bonxies were taking over, and certainly the sad shortage at Hermaness the previous day showed that something was certainly depleting the puffins.
But back to Plan B, which after the disappointment of the cancelled boat trip, was an attempt to wring victory from the jaws of defeat. If we couldn’t get out on the sea, we’d go down to Sumburgh Head, our intended first port of call if the plane had landed successfully, and see how the puffin population was faring there. Second only to Hermaness, the rocks round the Sumburgh lighthouse are the best place in Shetland for puffin colonies, and despite the weather, we thought we’d head down there – only about forty miles away now we were back mid-mainland – and see how things looked.
Firstly a quick nip up to nearby Eshaness, possibly our favourite place on all the islands, if not the world. Again, with the weather and wind doing its stuff today, this was simply a jink up to the beautiful cliffs and booming sea, not to have a coastal stroll as last time, but just to take a few photos on such a stormy day, when the sea would surely be at its angriest. Helen’s photos are probably a close second to the scenery (and puffins, OK, third) as the reason we keep coming back to Shetland. From the Eshaness headland, the views in all directions are mind-boggling. Up the coast you have the giant Rolo that is Moo Stack, a thick tower in the sea with waves crashing before it and around it; to the south you have the lighthouse, and beyond it the huge eroded stone feature in the sea called the Drinking Horse, and if you turn inland there are hills upon foothills upon hills long into the distance, seven or eight layers of slopes overlapping until one becomes the hazy horizon.
I simply love it up at Eshaness, so I did leave the car and wander for a little while, then we wrapped it up and drove off, down south. By the way, leaving the car was becoming more and more of a problem, literally, as the wind got more and more full of itself. Opening the doors, they would either be whisked out of your hand to stretch their hinges in their desire to fly off into the sea, or else the opposite, you’d have to shove like hell even to get a leg out of the car. Shetland had started throwing its weight about.
Off down south was, as usual with us, a lazy venture. We stopped at a local craft shop, which was disappointing as all the local pottery and drapery had ‘Made in Colchester’ or somewhere stamped on it. Back in the car then, and back to ‘Summer Song’. (By the way, I’ve a theory that keeps proving itself, to do with the tunes you get in your head. I’m completely convinced that if you get a song going round which seems random, there’ll be a definite reason why it’s there. Ask yourself next time it happens. The lyrics, maybe some reminder of the band will be there. I’d had two extremely obvious examples already on this trip. As I leant out of the back of the Kirkwall ferry, ‘Sail Away’ by Deep Purple launched itself round my head. And looking out of the Blackpool dining room at breakfast that morning, it was easy later to realise why ‘Over the hills and far away’ by Gary Moore had set itself in motion. Often it’s more subtle than that, but there’s always a reason. Brains are fun like that).
On our travels today we passed several amazing old cars, a couple of (surely replica?) Model T-Fords, for instance. At one point we stopped in a Passing Place and let five vintage motors go by. And the previous day, at a ferry terminal, I’d seen my first Delorean. What was going on? It was great to see them all, but surely Shetlanders weren’t a/ all as rich as this, or b/ all fascinated by old classic cars?
Fortified by Andrea’s breakfast bonanza, we didn’t need to stop for food all the way down to the Sumburgh lighthouse. We parked at the bottom of the Sumburgh Head, and then fought our way up through another potentially decapitational wind up to the lighthouse. We looked over the wall at the crashing sea and saw a few gulls, forlorn in flight or huddled on nests, but no puffins, those technicolour clowns who light up the otherwise black and white gulls and scenery in general. My hopes weren’t high for Helen to triumph today. (Well my hopes were high, they always are! But you know what I mean). After the wuthering march to the promontory, a soothing cup of tea was called for. Then straight out to where we knew the best spots for finding the clowns were. And lest this story seems headed for gloom, we did see some, and quite close up. Certainly there was one of those magical moments puffins can provide, when you’re straining to catch a glimpse of one popping out of his nest, and then realise another is sitting on the grass about five feet away. Helen was delighted; at last! They’re so characterful, as well as colourful. Something independent and catlike about them too I think. Also kingly. On a day like this, when one did emerge from his burrow, he would stare out at the windy world, surveying it as his kingdom with portly pride, like a belching monarch after a banquet, then turn, blast a huge stream of green poo out over his realm and subjects, and march indoors again.
We went up to another good spot, where on our previous visit we’d been entertained for about two hours by one sunny character who preened and posed and pooed as if he owned the place. But today the northerly wind blew right into their burrows, and as Helen said, “If I was a puffin, I wouldn’t come out on a day like this”.
This wind was certainly becoming an undeniable feature of our holiday. I could wash my hair as carefully as I liked in the morning, condition it up and brush it into place (what there is of it, of course), but by the time I even reached the car in the mornings I’d look like Sideshow Bob. Helen was struggling too, as her hair simply ties itself in knots if it encounters even a fresh breeze. This year she coined the phrase ‘Shetland hair’. To give an accurate image of our holidays here, a lot of time is spent in the car, but we hop out (having wrestled with the car doors/wind) at very frequent intervals, sometimes only hundreds of yards apart, to photograph majestic scenery, then back into the car for five minutes of Helen going ‘Ouch!’ as she tries to brush out the tangles and me trying to work out what blistering arpeggio Yngwie is up to this time.
Then back to St. Magnus Bay for another of Andrea’s supersize-me meals – monkfish with pancetta cream sauce, and salmon thermidor (!) this time – and more sink wine in the room, and THTV (Trashy Holiday TV).
The following day had an even lazier schedule. Another good thing about Helen’s Plans is that she leaves gaps in them, for us to fill in as we want to at the time, it is a holiday, after all. Today’s aim was simply a mosey up to the island above the mainland, Yell. But having explored and driven round most areas of Shetland in the last two visits, she decided that we’d never been up to the northern tip of the mainland, which reaches way past Toft, the ferry terminal that takes you up to Yell. Where we were aiming for was North Roe, and if the map was to be believed, a small road after that leading up to a dwelling called Isbister. In our usual fashion we started and stopped many times on the small A-road lane that leads up through North Mavine, this section of the mainland. Lots of pictures of lapwings – there seemed to be more of them than the last time we were here – and curlews, particularly prevalent in this part of Shetland. We also stopped for an anachronism we’d also seen elsewhere in a remote position, a red telephone box. Standing at a T-junction, with no houses visible nearby, unsurprisingly it was rusty with no dial tone, and with phonecards advertised inside the box.
We stopped at North Roe for more pictures, it was a row of houses along a long beach, then moved on, as the road did seem to continue. Pressing further north reminded us of an isolated road in the Faroes, which eventually came out at an ancient abandoned fishing village called Saksun, the surrounding wilderness was similar. A couple of miles further on, we came to the end of the road, a couple of buildings and a barn. Other driveable tracks led up into the hills, but they were clearly private, so we turned around. I wasn’t sure if we’d got to where the map said, but a few yards back down the road we passed a sign.
“Ah” I said, “it is Isbister.” At least that’s what I tried to say, but I got tied up in ‘is’s. I couldn’t get past it. Helen tried and got equally stuck. You try it.
We drove back down this branch of the mainland, passing the telephone box and taking a coast road this time, then round to the ferry terminal. In front of us in the queue was a wide 1970s Mercedes and a slim Triumph Spitfire. We’d learnt by this time that it was Classic Cars Week in Shetland, and that explained why we kept seeing them. It was fun to do so, always a surprise.
Again powered along by Andrea’s double breakfasts, I don’t recall us stopping for lunch anywhere, and we nibbled on an increasing pile of snatched hotel biscuits and other debris we’d picked up along the way. We got to our tiny B&B on Yell in time for our usual slump, before assembling, with the guests of the other two rooms, for dinner at 6.30. This was not a hotel, there was no menu or anything, we’d certainly downsized here.We shared the single dining table with three ‘birders’ from the Isle of Man. Brian and Craig were nice enough, though Craig never spoke a word. But it was the Jim Bowen lookalike in the middle that absolutely hogged the conversation. It was all about a million birds they’d seen on their travels together, or about motorbikes, specifically the Isle of Man TT race. You couldn’t get a word in. It took me twenty minutes to get him to pass the salt. It emerged that Craig was his son, so now we could understand why he was completely silent. We ate our soup and chicken (with those semi-circular orbs of mashed potato I hadn’t seen since school) and left as soon as there was a gap in Jim’s monologue.
He was waiting for us in the morning though, they all were. Having described themselves as ‘birders’, and agreed completely with the one story I’d managed to get out about some twitchers we’d met a few years ago (the kind who take no interest in the birds beauty, habitat, lifestyle etc, but just see them in one glance and tick the box), they were all dressed in full camouflage kit, and carried on where they’d left off with stories of hiding in bushes or lying for hours in ditches with binoculars. But most extraordinary this morning were the biking stories, both told by Jim. I’ve never been one to be in the slightest bit affected by gore whilst eating, and have never gone along with the ‘not now please, we’re eating’ school of disgust, but Jim did make me flinch a couple of times. Yesterday, he’d hilariously said that the TT race was a lot safer than it used to be ‘now they’ve made it one-way’! But today he went down a darker road, and told of a biker, practicing on the public highway, who’d smashed right through the back of a butcher’s van so fast that the butcher in the driving seat was crushed ‘up against the windscreen like mincemeat’. I carried on with my sausages. Then came the story of another rider, again on public roads but early in the morning when he figured nobody would be around. This guy actually hit a kerb and somersaulted himself into the back of one of those garbage-crunching bin collection vans. You couldn’t make that up, and, fair play Jim, I did pause and take a gentle sip of tea.
But they were soon off, crammed into their car with all their gear and looking more like a battalion on manoeuvres than three innocent ‘birders’. And today was a big day for us, one of the highlights of the holiday, as we were to spend it otter spotting, guided round the island by Ian. Yell is the best place in the whole of Shetland for otters, and my hopes were again high.
Ian arrived at 9 and we drove down to the ferry terminal at Ulsta, in the south of the island. Here we set off walking round the shore, in the fields about thirty yards from the water so as to be fairly stealthy. Wind direction is always a factor when stalking otters, as their sense of smell is acute, and if they smell you before you see them, you never will. We’d passed one or two holes in the ground, which were connected by underground tunnels, these were disused otter holts, Ian told us. Shortly we came to a massive one, a huge series of channels and clefts in the earth, near the shoreline. We perched over it, and were about to move on when there was a drumming sound, and suddenly a huge otter charged out from beneath us and ran into the sea. Wow! Success within ten minutes, and what a beauty he was! You could literally hear his feet thumping and crescendoing in the holt as he ran, then emerged, solid and heavy, and loped across the shingle into the water. We were stunned, and Ian looked rather pleased with this spectacular start. He said that, given the otter’s size, he was probably the dominant male in this area, and that he’d probably now stay in the water until the coast was clear, literally. So we moved on round the corner.
Passing more abandoned holts, about ten minutes later we were walking across heathland, still not far from the beach, when both Helen and I stopped in our tracks. Another one! This time slinking much more slowly across the grass like a monitor lizard, only a few yards away. Soon it sort of sank into the field, into a narrow channel towards its holt, and the sea. But this meeting was much longer, somehow he hadn’t seen us or smelt us, and was ambling with little intent, for the first few seconds anyway. This was stupendous. We’d both actually been quicker at spotting this one than Ian, who was further inland, but of course we wouldn’t have been there at all if it wasn’t for him.
Presently we returned to the beach and area near the ferries, and we could see our original otter swimming and fishing in the sea. Our hope was that he’d catch a fish and bring it ashore to eat, and that we could watch him doing so. He was certainly trying to, his head emerging only every few seconds as he dipped and searched underneath. But his brief appearances were getting nearer and nearer to the shore, and before long we could see that he’d landed, on a set of rocks. We couldn’t see if he was eating or not, but no matter, soon he climbed higher on land and settled himself on a grassy ledge. We steadily took up positions about forty yards away to watch. Shetland otters are unique in that they’re both freshwater and swim in the sea. This means that their thick coats get heavy with salt, and this needs to be cleaned off. And that is what he was doing, lazily, like a cat, licking and preening on his ledge, for about half an hour, as we breathlessly watched him. In the morning sun, his movements became slower and we wondered if he was going to doze off for a while. I think he did, very briefly, but then hunger woke him, and he set off again. This had been quite a show, especially for Helen, who got so many fantastic photos of him.
All this had taken about three hours, I was amazed it was gone midday already. We stopped at the café in the nearby museum at Old Haa. We’d visited the museum before so a slice of lemon cake or homemade tiffin and a pot of tea was enough this time. Then off for a walk round an area called Burravoe, on the east coast of Yell. From one spot on this walk you could see the mainland, the islands of Bressay and Noss to the south, right down by Lerwick, the skerries way out to sea towards Norway, and all the way up north to Fetlar and even Unst. Before we got to this point, however, we came across another huge holt, a vast network of tunnels and cracks in the earth, the burrowing being so deep at points that it left towers of turf here and there, much like an ancient human settlement. We’re talking an area of easily forty feet, from the small potholes inland to the deep ditches near the shore, all this comprises one holt, for one otter at a time. They move around and swap holts a lot, or leave them abandoned, and the holts themselves are often taken over from rabbit warrens. Once again, we hung around the mouth of the tunnels and were about to move on when there was the approaching thunder sound, and another huge otter shot out and down to the sea. We reckoned he must have leapt from the middle of one ‘tower’ to the next, virtually under Helen’s feet, before jumping down to the beach. We watched him swim around, away from us though not very far, for quite a while. He had his own big bay area but he gradually moved away from us. We continued on round the coast, and with the lack of holts, though there were always lots of discarded shellfish shells, mostly crabs, this became more of a walk, absorbing the wonderful Shetland sea and scenery, than an active otter hunt.
It was very hot today, and also very windy standing near the sea. The sun being gusted into our faces meant that we actually became very red, and by the end of the day were quite burnt. The constancy and force of the wind on this holiday should be emphasised. On cold days, blustery and aggressive, like Hermaness, you used your binoculars as much for watching birds as just to protect your eyes from watering; on hot days the wind deceptively cooked you like a fan oven. Given our northerly location and frequent ascents to the tops of cliffs, a title for this piece could quite easily be Wuthering Heights. I realised that at times on this trip, walking straight into heavy winds I’d been going nowhere, and that my progress much more resembled that of Hank Marvin and the Shadows, and that sideways stepover dance they did.
Further round the coast, back towards the car, the sea and panorama was as beautiful as anywhere we’d been. A wide bay, deep and tumbling, with heavy waves pounding in the foreground and cliffs and caves across the voe, this was somewhere we agreed we’d return to next time. Walking inland, there were large boulders hurled there by the sea in storms, yet the knolls you were walking on were peaceful and warm. There were some holes in the cliff face opposite, and Ian told us that a friend of his had taken a kayak into one of them, just a gap we could clearly see, and had rowed backwards into it until he couldn’t see daylight anymore. Blimey. It just looked like a short cave.
Ian asked us we’d like to go on, or if we wanted to call it a day. We’d covered a lot of ground, albeit slowly, and been on our feet in the wind for about seven hours by now. He could see we were fading a bit (paradoxically, as we were also starting to glow quite a bit too), and said there were more options we could do, and one of them was quite short; we decided that was the best idea. The short tour yielded no further otters, and was just a ramble round another bit of nearby coastline, but the scenery, wherever you look here, never wears off, so that was fun too. Then back to our B&B, the large shack in the middle of the island. Ian had been great, a man of Helen’s age, stubbly, with huge green binoculars that were heavier to lift than my trombone, and very informative and easy to talk to. He was the quiet type, much more approachable than the over-keen guide who dominates your attention and tramples on your own appreciation of the experience.
At dinner that evening, the ‘birders’ had moved on, migrated to other nests to grate upon guests elsewhere. The only other people joining us at the table tonight were an extraordinarily hardy Belgian couple. Weather-beaten, and looking like fitness instructors, and both in their late 50s (and I’m being kind to him), they were perhaps a quarter of the way through their month-long cycle tour of Shetland and the highlands and western isles of Scotland, about a thousand miles in all. Their English was, of course, very good, though his got noticeably louder after his first sip of red wine. Quite humorous really, as he was extremely earnest, and humorous was not his thing at all.
Another brief collapse in our room with more THTV, Emmerdale this time. I’ve never ever seen it, so I assume from the accents in the show that it’s set in rural Surrey somewhere.
And to our final day, but yet another Plan A highlight, as we were to go all the way back down south to Sumburgh for Helen’s beloved puffins, and this time the weather looked right up for it. Before we got there, having checked out of the B&B at Quam at 9ish, we decided to pop in for a quick lunch at the Sumburgh Hotel. Just a sandwich and a coke (a last bottle of local beer for me), and as we walked into the bar, who should be there with his arms splayed on the counter waiting for us? Rob, our old tour guide, who we’d seen up at Baltasound, and actually on at least two ferries since then. When he’s not tour-guiding, he works at this hotel.
“I saw you coming in” he said.
“We’re not stalking you, honest” said Helen. I’ve said that it’s easy to bump into the same people all over the place during the course of a single week in Shetland, but to meet him at least four times might have set him wondering exactly why we were here.
“Are you sure?” But he was laughing, and it was slightly odd to see him dressed in a clean white shirt, shaven and chatty, as opposed to his usual tour guide manner and get up of whatever he’d got up in. It was great to see him, again.
Then we were off to the lighthouse, built upon the rock around which the bird colonies throve. Having parked up by an Aston Martin, an E-type Jag and a Mini Cooper, we set off up the hill. The conditions were perfect, including the wind, milder today. Surely our multi-coloured friends would be happier to come out of their burrows and inspect their kingdoms today? Perhaps in slight desperation that Helen shouldn’t be disappointed again, I was a few yards ahead, and reached the first spot they could be seen, opposite a cliff face where we knew several nests to be, though they’d shown little life in the sea-wind here the other day. And straightaway I could turn with delight to Helen, a few feet behind, and signal that I there were already seven or eight out on parade. She smiled and speeded up.
This was what we’d come for, and the little beauties appeared and disappeared in profusion, popping out of their grassy holes, either to survey the scene, look inquisitively up at us, or take off out to sea, their tiny wings flapping like humming birds’ as they zoomed out into the wide and welcoming skyand down to the water. At last, after the disappointment of Hermaness, and the tentative visit here a few days before, the little kings were out in all their glory. After a very satisfying half an hour or so we moved up to the gangplank that overlooked the south facing cliffs of Sumburgh, where we’d had such success on both our previous visits. We both reached the point on the walkway overlooking the wall at the same time, stopped and clutched each other’s arms. About ten puffins sat in rows or on ledges, only about ten feet away, and the gangway led closer. It was perfect, on the sunlit crags, our feathery friends, our kingly clowns were all out today, the best display we’ve ever had here. Helen moved quietly up and down the walkway with her cameras, I simply stayed in the middle and watched the scene. There were very few other visitors today to disturb the display, as there had been on previous occasions, and it was easy to gaze out at the sea, or study the puffins for hours. They strutted, bustled, hopped between ledges, snuck in and out of burrows, posed on tufts of grass, nuzzled, inquired after us, ignored us, stretched and flapped their tiny wings as if yawning, and took off out into the wide north sea. I have an idea, that seems to be borne out by Helen’s myriad photos over the years, that puffins have a sort of extra-sensory group defence technique, in that at any given time, each one of a group is looking in a different direction, giving an all-round defence watch. Which, charmingly, also means that if you take a picture of a collection of puffins, one of them, usually looking inquisitive at the back, will be staring straight at the camera. (Incidentally, I’ve described puffins in this piece as ‘clowns’, and am delighted to since discover that one of the collective terms for them is a circus). But their inquisitiveness is almost comic, in a sort of Clouseau way that you can’t take seriously. Beauties they are, and as I say, a joyful afternoon was spent watching their own afternoon and snapping much of it. Day in the Life of a Puffin: wake up, leave burrow and look cool whenever you feel like it.
We then finally sloped down the hill, happy in the sun (and wind), and stopped off at Jarlshof by the Sumburgh Hotel. Jarlshof is the ruins and remains of no less than six entirely different historical settlements, built on top of or right next to each other. There are the remains of a Neolithic hut, 5000 years old, a simple oval room with a fire and rubbish dens, then bigger Bronze Age buildings, Iron Age wheelhouses and a broch, a Viking longhouse, a medieval farm from around 1250, and a Scottish earl’s castle built in 1592. That’s just amazing, and the only thing visible for 350 years was the ruined castle of the dastardly laird Patrick Stewart (yes) who was executed in Edinburgh in 1615 for being a dastard. Then in the 1890s, the south Shetland coast was battered by such storms that the sand was blown of the entire site and the ancient ruins were exposed. Just incredible, and of course with careful excavation and archaeological expertise undertaken as soon as the wind had died down, we now have the six-tier site that is Jarlshof. Given the various depths of the different settlements, and after yesterday, from above some of dwellings looked like otter holts.
Finally, we took off to our final site, the Spiggie Loch Hotel, where we’ve stayed before, and is one of our favourites. It has a lovely stone floor bar, which sells the only draught beer I’ve found in Shetland (excellent it was too), quaint rooms, by which I mean quaint, not small, and great food. And the food is best eaten, if you can get it, in the conservatory overlooking Spiggie Loch. Somehow, and I don’t know how because we didn’t request it, we were seated there for our dinner that evening, and nothing could be more perfect. You look out over a damson blue loch, lamb-specked fields, a voe across the road, and the Atlantic Ocean in front. This is my favourite view in the world. And when sunset comes, the world turning rapidly east while the orange glow chases vividly off to New York, it’s breathtaking. And phototaking, and Helen caught several of the rapidly receding and sinking sun.
I can never miss a meal when telling, so in these glorious surroundings we both had scallops from the loch, followed by three lamb chops and a grilled plaice. Back to the stony bar (also my favourite in Shetland) for the traditional last pint for me and Helen’s sorting of the days photographs, of which today there were many.
Breakfast next morning, also in the romantic conservatory, and that was that, off down to the airport for the flights home. Before I leave the hotels, we did decide, for this trip and future reference, Best Breakfast, Spiggie; Best Evening Meal, Baltasound; Best Hotel, St, Magnus Bay.
Another magnificent holiday in Shetland. We have a rule never to go back to anywhere. New is always better. But the rule isn’t set in stone; this was our third visit to Shetland, yet we haven’t ever broken the rule for anywhere else, tempted though we have been. I would say that this trip hadn’t been as spectacularly successful as the first, when we dashed around cliffs and bird colonies and even saw killer whales, which is an experience even few Shetlanders have ever had. I wouldn’t say it was as exploratively successful as our second visit, when we covered almost all of the islands that we hadn’t done in Rob’s minibus the first time, and discovered Eshaness, a majestic and favourite place of mine. This time we re-covered some ground, like Hermaness because we’d failed to last time because of the weather, discovered some wonderful new spots, like Tresta bay in Fetlar and the Burravoe coastline on Yell. And like both previous visits, after we got home our heads would flick enthusiastically towards any Enfield bird, as if it were a tern or a bonxie overhead. We did get the impression that the wildlife was receding though, that there were less otters to spot and fewer puffins to relish, and the phalarope is shyer than ever. Having said that, the bonxies are thriving, and the puffins, guillemots et al at Sumburgh in the south are also as they always were. Who knows? Certainly, as last time, and despite our rule, we agreed this probably won’t be our last time.