And we’re off to see the puffins, the wonderful puffins of Unst…
Helen Jenkins, June 2011.
So… I’m in the privileged position this year of being allowed to keep the holiday diary. I’m starting early as we aren’t even out of Cambridgeshire yet, but it’s been a long rocky road to even get to this point.
It all started in January, booked the flights, then had to cancel the flights and then the day has got longer and longer and more and more fun.
We left home bright (well, Dan was…) and early this morning. The East Coast website was promising all sorts of fun as someone had managed to jump under a train before trains were running, so rather than sit at home and annoy the cat (fun though that is) we decided to get a ridiculously early train just in case there were problems. Of course, there weren’t.
So we ended up at Kings Cross 90 minutes before the train was due to leave. Rather than hang around in the building site it feels like that station will be forever more, we decided we’d trek the short distance to St Pancras where we might even be able to sit down.
There, to my delight, we found a Paul, home of the world’s best sandwich, so I could introduce Dan to the culinary delights! We sat and mulched in our own peculiar ways for an hour before boarding the train.
It’s a magic train that knows where your computer is based – free wifi for First Class and I don’t have to prove anything – it just does it! Fun.
So here we are. First class all the way to Stonehaven with a break in Edinburgh, with hopefully time for a pint, but that will depend on the trains.
Dan is reading about the 50 things that you must eat before you die and is exceptionally proud because he’s done 2 of them…
So here we are on our way back to Shetland. Both really excited and looking forward to seeing more of the place. I just hope it hasn’t lost it’s magic, but I think it will be even better than last time as this time we know just how wonderful and relaxing it is.
Sunday 29th May
Well, who knew when I was writing the last instalment what a day we would end up having… No sooner had I closed this down, than I thought I would look at the train’s website to make sure that the train following us which we were connecting with in Edinburgh to go onto Stonehaven was running on time. Erm… No trains at all between Grantham and Peterborough which is obviously completely unconnected with Dan’s disparaging remarks about Maggie T as we went through Grantham…
We asked the Guard what was happening as we left York (the wonderfully named September had been replaced by a rather dour Scot by this point!) and he basically didn’t know. Other than he was pretty sure the train we wanted had been cancelled and we were stuck in Edinburgh. A little later, he came back and told us to go IMMEDIATELY to the East Coast office in Edinburgh where they may be able to transfer us onto the ScotRail train that was leaving only an hour later from Edinburgh. He advised us to do this quickly as they didn’t often play fair and may not do anything to help.
So to Edinburgh. I was ditched with the bags and Dan went at double quick speed to the East Coast office and we owe our thanks to the Guard as we were immediately signed onto the ScotRail train at the same time as being told he wouldn’t be able to do that for many people as the train was practically full!
That sorted, we now had 2 hours to spend in a little place Dan knows in Edinburgh. Definitely more for the beer rather than the food… Halfway up a flight of stairs, a small bar with a great range of beers.
Feeling slightly calmer, we went down to the concourse to wait for the train. Wandering in front of us was a familiarly shaped case with “Bones Apart” emblazoned on the back. It was only a colleague of Dan’s on her way to Aberdeen to do a gig. Never again will I doubt him when he says he ALWAYS meets someone he knows!
We dragged her into First Class with us and immediately lowered the tone by buying lots of Bulmer’s and Tenants. Fun, though! My first trip over the Forth rail bridge – truly spectacular bathed in glorious sunshine. It was beautiful.
Only 45 minutes later than originally planned (which was amazing considering we worked out that we were the last people to get through the before the train line ground to a halt) we were in Stonehaven to be met by Adam, Cristy and Michael. All looking pretty much the same as they did the last time we saw them.
Quick trip to Michael’s flat – small but perfectly formed, amazing view and FULL of books and then we headed off to the wilds of Aberdeenshire to have a meal at a little country inn Adam had found. And it was a great find and a great evening. I don’t know if it was relief that we had actually got there, plain tiredness or a bit too much booze, or a combination of all 3, but whatever the reason it was fantastic.
Then we dropped Michael off at the flat and we were taken in style to the hotel. Just time to go “Ooh, what a lovely room” and then we were gone…
Sunday morning, we had a lovely gentle start to the day and then off to the airport. We met Maggy for a quick coffee and bite to eat and then the short , bumpy hop to Sumburgh.
As we walked across the tarmac, we both felt so pleased to be back. The bits we could see were bringing back instant, happy memories of our last trip here.
Picked the car up (Citroen – oh no! Where’s reverse?!) and the short drive to the Spiggie Hotel, where we ditched the cases and found the bar, where I have been ever since. Dan, the wind-swept and interesting voyageur (and also the lucky owner of 3 days more holiday than me at this point) headed off down the hill to the loch, where he saw Bonxies eating rabbits and the first of what I am absolutely positive will be hundreds of oyster catchers. I have sat and read about our destinations, drunk a very slow pint of shandy and generally felt as far away from London as I would ever like to.
And so the evening will continue, I’m sure. Early night in our lovely room with the view of the loch and huge bathroom and then off to the “Sunny-side” tomorrow as West Mainland is locally known. As I look at the driving rain out of the window, I can only hope that this holds true…
I thought I could see the broch on Mousa as the plane dipped down towards Sumburgh. I really think it was, but I couldn’t be sure if I was looking at the right island or if my memory was seeing what it wanted to see. Ahead, beyond the airport, was the distinctive landscape we’d fallen in love with three years ago, so familiar to us now because it had been floating on and off our computer screen at home ever since. And after landing, soon to be driving along the plain road, past the Sumburgh Hotel, across the runway and on up into the open, green island.
There’s such a sense of space here, a panoramic landscape, I’m sure that’s one of the reasons we came back. As last time, I love the distance of the view. Also there’s the appreciation of the 800 miles or so distance we are from teeming London.
After settling into the Spiggie Hotel, our room overlooking the loch (my screensaver for the last five months) we settled into the bar downstairs. During those five months, I’d always wanted to go down the road next to the loch, either driving or walking. Helen stayed relaxing and generally unwinding in the bar, I put my boots on and strode off down the hill. (I can only stride down hills nowadays, by the way. And actually striding is too strident a word anyway).
In 2008 we’d learnt about many aspects of Shetland wildlife over the course of a 3-day charge up and down the islands, so it was fantastic to see some of them re-presented to me almost immediately. In a field to my right, a bonxie sailed high above his family. I didn’t think we’d see any of those till we got to Hermaness. Oystercatchers, much more common, sat on fence posts, their red bills distinctive. And a whimbrel stalked away from me across a field. As with Mousa broch earlier, I wanted that some birds dippling in the breeze to be Arctic Terns, but thought that was just wishful thinking. But it wasn’t, they were. It was so good to be back.
Past a field of pointillistic daisies, I got as far as a bay where the waves bashed the cliffs round the far side, but I couldn’t get near them. Ahead, out in the western sea was spooky Foula, the weird crony-ful island I’d called The Footless Fat Man on our previous visit, lying tummy-up in the evening sun. So I turned back, and followed a path leading to the left. This soon turned to sand, the turned between two dunes, and opened suddenly onto a wide, empty beach, a huge inlet. Above, on the right, was the pylon that sits at the high point of the mainland; way out to the left, past a boat bobbing in the water, lay the open sea. This open beach was so unexpected, and that’s great. King’s Cross was so far away.
As I walked back to the hotel (increasingly stridently now, actually, as a rainstorm was chasing in from Foula, the hilltops looked like they were smoking), the bonxies were fighting. At least I thought they were. One on the ground spread its huge wings defensively, the other swooped down and landed nearby, and the two famously aggressive birds approached each other. I stopped to watch what could be a ferocious scuffle. They leaned forward, gently touched beaks, like a kiss, then took turns to tear at something on the ground between them. They’d caught a rabbit.
(Apparently, in Shetland, there are trows. These are little people, a bit wild and barmy, hidden from but accepted by the general population. They’re a local legend, imported from Scandinavia, and I suspect the word to be derived from troll. But in Shetland the legend has it that they kidnap musicians. As I left for my walk, Helen urged me to try not to get kidnapped)
Monday 30th May
Well… It certainly held true. After being woken up at half 5 by driving rain and hail and winds that were really quite impressive, we woke up to a cloudy morning, but with some promise. By the time I came down for breakfast, it was glorious sunshine, but with lots of clouds in the sky. After a lovely breakfast we set off for the sunny side.
A lovely trip later, including driving past the Shetland Law Ting, with a Thingvallir sign, which we both shouted at, we turned off at Bixter and started some serious pottering. First stop was Redayre, which was a short track with a house at the end and beach of the most beautiful red sand. We got told off by a family of oyster catchers, but other than that all was peaceful. Photos were taken and views admired and then… Could that be an otter? Could it really? Er, no, it was just a very nosy seal, but nevertheless it was a lovely moment.
And so off to Easter Skeld with its lovely marina. We wandered up the hill and there was a nature hide, built in memory of presumably a local chap. What a fantastic idea. Couple of pairs of binoculars as well, which made us feel great about the place. They would have lasted about 10 seconds in most places in England, but here they were returned to their cases for everyone to use. The otters still eluded us, but we found a seal colony who were basking in the, by now, glorious sunshine.
Onwards. I’d read somewhere that Westerwick – a tiny village at the end of a road was worth going to see, so we tried it. The village wasn’t anything to shout about, but there was a cove at the end, which was just magnificent. The sun wasn’t in a kind place for photographs, but just to stand and admire it was good enough. 20 minutes there and then it was off to Walls and their (apparently) famous tea room for some lunch. The stovies were basic, but the oatcakes were just phenomenal.
It’s hard to describe exactly what the West Mainland is like without gushing, so I’ll leave that to Dan. Suffice it for me to say that the views are some of the most beautiful, the light the clearest and the distances the furthest I have been lucky enough to see.
After lunch we went up to Sandness (pronounced Sanness) and the Holm of Melby where we parked up and admired the view of Papa Stour and the rain clouds disappearing into the distance.
Back down the A road – it has to be the only A road which is single track in the whole of the UK and is just beautiful – and then a quick shoot off to the left to see West Burrafirth. Another metropolis of 2 houses and a harbour. Incredibly clear water filled with jellyfish, a couple of boats and the ubiquitous oyster catchers. They are pretty birds, but about as exciting as sparrows when you’re up here and not as rewarding as otters!
And so home. Dan bravely took the car out (once he’d managed to start it…) and I’m here in the bar with a gin.
Later… We’ve just had tea of lamb from 2 fields that way and potatoes from 1 field this way and it was just beautiful and fresh and so, so tasty.
And so, dear diary, to bed… All this fresh air and incredibly good food is making me catch up on a year’s sleep which is great. And with a view like ours up to the loch, there isn’t a lot of incentive not to go to bed.
Unst tomorrow with everything crossed until we know about the weather on Wednesday when it’s PUFFIN TIME!!
Today we explored the West Mainland, which is the chunk to the left of Lerwick. It seems to me that, all over the islands, the town layout is very Swiss, in that the houses are not next to each other, or connected by streets, they’re laid out just where people want them; apart, perched at various heights up nearby slopes, with their own pathways and entrances. Though when I say towns, I mean a collection of about twenty dwellings at most.
It had been a hell of a night. I’d hoped for rain on our tilted bedroom window cos I love the sound of it while you’re lying cosily next to it, but in the end I had to shut the window at 5a.m. because of hailstones. Boy it was bleak outside.
But the morning dawned bright and guilty, and stayed amazingly warm for the rest of the day. Obviously this was down to Me. There are certain conditions which are My responsibility when we’re on holiday, an foremost is the weather. Which is paradoxical as I actually prefer the rough weather, but I have to get Him to provide Me with soppy climates for Helen. Nice warm sun, clear slies, that sort of thing, that’s one of My vocational vocations.
On this particular trip, otters is another. Continuing a long run of extravagant and utterly implausible predictions, several months ago, I told Helen we’d find an otter on this trip. Last time, we were here with Rob, an experienced local expert who knew exactly when and where to find them; this time it was down to Me. So having promised, I spent a lot of time in the passenger seat and at various stops scanning the waterside of every loch and puddle that we saw.
One of our early stops was at a red beach. Lovely red sand, a fairly small beach, we were just about to leave when I saw something in the water. Definitely not a bird, something had bobbed up then ducked under. Surely not an otter already! As I excitedly passed the binoculars to Helen, proclaiming My triumph, a memory struck Me: maybe it was a seal. And so it was. The head was way too big for an otter, the thing was watching us, and otters are much more exclusive and elusive than that. But we’d found our own seal already (without professional help from Rob, I mean), and that’s no bad thing. No worries. I’ll find us an otter yet.
Helen, meanwhile, had found a roads-end called Westerwick. On the map, those places in Shetland appear like villages, but they’re often just a couple of houses, or sometimes nothing at all. We went down to the Westerwick cove and it was the most stunning view. A fantastic rounded bay, high cliffs around a rocky beach, a bulky stream rushing into the sea, some skerries (offshore crags) for the waves to crash around; it was a fantastic sight and place to experience. Again, a couple of seals watched us from the water. No otters though, and from previous Shetland experience we knew what good otter-spotting conditions were, and this bay was perfect.
One of the things we noticed about Shetland last time was its depth of scenery. You can see for miles, and there are so any pictures in each view; nearby hillocks, then far-off mountains, lochs floating mid-distance, then cottages and crofts dotted on hillsides. Some views are like the simple beautiful picture in The Little Prince, just three layers, hills behind each other, that’s all. It really happens here.
We went further west and shadowy Foula loomed larger and larger. His shape had changed too, as we were approaching from a different angle, and the island looked bulky and mountainous. Even Keith the Spiggie chef confirmed that strange people live there.
The furthest west and north we could go was opposite another island, Papa Stour, which sounds like a rabbi from Birmingham. From the car park by the water’s edge at Sandness, Papa Stour seemed just a stone’s throw. Even nearer than that, a tiny islet called The Holm of Melby sta opposite its nearest point on the mainland, The Neap of Norby!
We turned back, having reached what felt like the high point, the top of this chunk of Shetland. We’d pretty much covered the area, and a brief left on the way back took us up to a fragmented area, punctured by more tarns and lochs than usual, vaguely Swedish scenery. An oystercatcher sat on its nest in the middle of a field, comically smug and camouflaged apart from its bright red bill. We started noticing lapwings, with that heavy-winged, looping flap they do. The mainland of Shetland is very green, in much of the west area the peat and heather turns it brown, this was quite noticeable. And everywhere the dark blue ripples of tarns on either side of the car.
While at Spiggie, we had three meals in the conservatory overlooking the loch. The first evening we both had trout from the lake itself. The following night virtually our whole plate comprised of ingredients gathered from the view in front of us. Straight ahead the loch: the lamb we were eating had probably grazed in the field to our left (said Keith); the potatoes came from that field across the road from the end of the loch; the crab in my cakes were caught in Spiggie Bay behind the loch ahead, and Harold caught lobsters from his little boat, the one I’d seen on the first night, bobbing in the cove to the right. What an amazing picture.
Tuesday 31st May
Well, we set off with such high hopes in yet more glorious sunshine. The trip up to the first ferry was bleak but beautiful. Couple of photo opportunities on the way up – notably Voe.
Got the ferry over to Yell and then handed the car over to Dan who did a brilliant job considering he hadn’t driven since our honeymoon 8 ½ years ago. We had had such a good trip up to the ferry that we’d managed to get one an hour earlier than booked and we therefore went the pretty way round Yell. When we were here before, our guide Rob had told us that Yell was boring and we can now confirm this is true… There was one extremely important highlight which means that the island will always have a fond memory for me – we managed to get a great photo of a lapwing for Dad. His favourite bird and it posed beautifully.
Before that we had been to Burravoe to see the Old Haa museum, which is a testament to how hard life was in the old days. I’m sure it’s not easy now, but nothing compared to then, I’m sure…
So we made our ferry to Unst. It was great to be coming back here, not least because of the puffins… I could see their little colourful beaks…
We got to the hotel via the Munes castle, which is a shell, but still making it very easy to imagine how imposing it was when it was built.
At the hotel, the news was broken to us that the forecast for Wednesday was truly awful. Puffins were slipping away…
We had a cabin, which was really good news! We had popped to the local shop/café which is great as all these places are. We’d picked up some wine and some snacks as we’d managed not to eat lunch and then headed for our cabin. And what a lovely surprise when we got there – Dan had arranged a bottle of champagne as this is my 40th birthday trip and it was a genuinely lovely surprise. Along with a card from the staff to hope I see lots of puffins…
We had a truly fantastic meal that night – I had scallops, black pudding and pea puree followed by duck with dauphinoise potatoes and red cabbage followed by whisky apple crumble, which was superb.
Another early night as we were both a bit drunk (champagne is soooo good!) and tired with the fresh air and food. What would the morning bring?
Up to Unst. We caught an earlier ferry than the one we’d booked, which left us with more time on Yell. To do what? many would ask. Last time, Rob pronounced the island ‘boring’. It’s hard to argue, there’s very little there. We took the other road up through the island this time.
Halfway up was a brown sign which simply said ‘White Wife’. We went down the track, got out and set off to find out what that could be. But we had to turn back, daunted by a field of lambs with potentially aggressive mums. So what is White Wife? A beach? A stone figure? A Wiltshire horse? I’ll ask later.
Well, that was about it for Yell. It’s pretty barren, real little Prince land, a moonscape. Ironic that an island with such a dynamic name should be so, well, dull. Somewhere ther’s an island called Yawn, where it’s party party party.
Exciting to be back on Unst though. Even being on the ferry, just us, without Rob and his group, felt good. The Yell-Unst ferry takes about ten minutes, yet as soon as we docked, three pensioners shot straight into the small loo, like the Monty Python Incontinence Marathon.
Although running out of steam a bit – we’d already been travelling, albeit lazily, for almost five hours – we did a bit of diagonal zigzagging around before heading for the hotel at Baltasound. It was lovely to find a couple of Whooper swans where we weren’t expecting them, in a tarn called Easter Loch in the east. Then we nipped up to Muness Castle, a small ruin with dark, ground-level chambers for which they supply torches. Cold and spooky. Lovely. Then we zagged across to the west coast of Unst, only about ten minutes away, to a wide, stony beach in the sun. Then up to the hotel, to a cabin again, which we were hoping for. It’s great to be back here.
No otters yet though, and I’ve been scanning every shoreline we’ve come across. The amount of times a rock has poked its nose up in the water, looking like it’s moving. But it’s the tide that’s moving. We’ve seen a few seals now, which is cool, but they’re easy. I love their curiosity, their bulbous heads and huge eyes watching us from the near sea. But otters are much more reticent. Four days in, and they now seem to me to be aloof, mocking in their absence. Every stone’s nose that makes my heart leap, I can feel the otters giggling ‘you didn’t really think we’d be that easy did you?’ I now realise that ottaspotting is not easy. So many lochsides, coasts or even rocky seashores have been ideal for them, you could perfectly picture an otter nosing around in the scene, but they haven’t showed. And nature doesn’t make it easy for us either. Otters have a great sense of smell, so you’re unlikely to see one if he smells you first. The wind needs to be with them. In other words, the time when you’re most likely to see one is actually when the wind and rain are both full in your face, so your eyes are watering so much you can hardly see anyway. They’ve got it all their own way.
Wednesday 1st June
Unfortunately the morning brought gales and sideways rain… No good for a cliff top walk, never mind the fact that I wouldn’t actually be able to take any photos. We went to breakfast and watched an arctic tern be snatched away by the wind and realised that it wasn’t going to happen.
We went back the cabin and regrouped. We found a heritage centre, a boat haven and a chocolate factory. So we set off determined to make the best of the day. The heritage centre was fascinating – a really interesting look into the life of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse keepers’ lives and crofting in general. Basic, hard graft with not much fun is the impression I came away with.
And on to the boat haven, which is basically a big shed with lots of boats in it. The sixareen and the fourareen which went quite a long way out looking for fish look to me like rowing boats you’d find on a pond. I think I quite like the crofting life now!
Then onto the chocolate factory, which was a big shed with a couple of explanations. Dan had a traditional Shetland lunch of hot chocolate, scone, cream and strawberry jam. We then trekked down a couple of side roads, down one of which we were captivated by the site of 6 or 7 lambs who had got themselves in pyramid formation behind a mound of straw to keep out of the wind – they were just adorable. Then another side road brought us to a standing stone – 12 feet high in the middle of nowhere and absolutely no information at all, which is in itself good for the imagination.
Then we were defeated by the totally dispiriting rain and wind, which showed no signs of abating, so we headed back for the hotel and the usual holiday crap telly and a couple of glasses of wine.
It is now 7pm and the sun has come out but the wind is still really going for it, so our boat trip has been cancelled. However, it’s supposed to be sunny still so we have an alternative plan of going to Sandwick beach and doing some serious waiting for an otter… Here’s hoping!
Back among the bonxies. Would have been a great title for today, June 1st, our planned trip to Hermaness: Puffin Day. But it wasn’t to be, and that was surprisingly hard to accept. After the frankly astonishing hot weather of the last few days, the forecast wasn’t good, and so it has proved.
We’d made contingency plans, although there’s not a huge amount to do on this island of 15 miles by 5, and at breakfast we reluctantly decided that Plan A, the day at Hermaness, just couldn’t happen. The weather was just too harsh, and that precluded the trip for many reasons. It was pretty bloody windy down at the hotel, with lots of water in the wind. Up on Hermaness cliffs it would actually have been dangerous; get too close to the edge and an extra-strong blast of wind could literally take one of us over the cliff. And that’s even if we’d been able to walk there through the lashing wind and rain and over the soggy bogs. And even if we had made it, Helen wouldn’t have been able to take a single picture. Even the birds themselves might just have been sheltering. Even with all these factors, as I say, we were reluctant to abandon ship, but sometimes there’s noting you can do. Nature always wins if it wants to. As we sat at breakfast, I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad out there. Then an Arctic Tern took off from the field next door and was immediately swept fifty feet backwards, and at that moment I knew we couldn’t go to Hermaness. Time to bail out.
I went for a little walk after breakfast, down to Baltasound harbour, just down the road from the hotel. In various places we’ve looked, we’ve definitely been getting closer to the otters. Tell-tale empty mussel shells have littered more and more potential sites. Little laughing clues, evidence that the otters have been here eating recently; ‘We were here, where were you?’ There were quite a few signs at Baltasound harbpur. More emphatically, a couple of crab legs, definite proof. And, the Giggling Otters really taking the piss now, there was a plastic fork lying in the grass.
I said there wasn’t a huge amount to do on Unst, so we did it. The Haroldswick Heritage Centre a Boat Haven, a chocolate maker’s (I wasn’t expecting that), then the few roads on the island that we hadn’t done, and back to our cabin at about three. (The last road took us to an old creaky-stone partitioned kirk, that had a line of graves outside, of Norwegian soldiers who had sunk down by Berwick. The Scando-Shetland link had been as string as ever during WW2). The above was an interesting four hours though, all accomplished in weather that always made Helen shiver and go ‘Ughh!’ and dash towards the nearest building. Personally, and I know I’m weird, I positively thrive in this sort of weather (up to a point, of course), even though it had prohibited our Plan A.
The Heritage Centre and the Boat Haven were both interesting enough, it’s always healthy to learn new stuff. I never knew what a Kishie was before. Or a Kinst, come to that. Or that a Robert Thompson was lighthouse keeper at Muckle Flugga for fourteen years from 1869-83. Fourteen years on that one rock above Britain. Sadly but unsurprisingly, a lot of the names on the lists of fishermen lost at sea were the same. Family-owned boats, fishing families in general meant that they were all at risk. The names themselves were often undoubtedly Scandinavian: Laurenson, Jamieson, Edwardson, Williamson. And a lot of places here and all over the islands are called Da something, which I’m betting is Norwegian for The. In Shetland this has been retained from the Vikings.
P.S. Actually got a bit fed up with the otters today, and of searching every scrap of shoreline, then reacting if a tuft of reeds moves in the wind. I think I’ll shun them, as they’re shunning me, and content myself with all the many otters I’ve seen in the fields, lolloping about with their bushy tails and hopping into their warrens.
P.P.S. A Kishie is a basket of reeds
Thursday 2nd June
The rain had abated somewhat, but the wind hadn’t – it was really rather impressive. So we decided that we would just head off to the mainland and hope for better things there. We did stop off at Easter Loch and I saw an otter! Just scurrying across the road, but it definitely was one. Much to Dan’s combined delight and jealousy – he had unfortunately been looking in the opposite direction.
We drove back across Yell (yawn!) and decided we would head back to Burravoe to pick up one of the amazing hand-knitted scarves for Mum. So we went back to the Old Haa museum where the lovely lady in the shop went through all the colours for us. “We have blue and green and punk (sic)” the Shetland accent is wonderful and soft, but it has its occasional quirks and apparently pronouncing pink as punk is one of them!
Choice made, we just missed a ferry back to the mainland, so we had an hour to wait in a desolate car park which was just buffeted by the wind to a staggering degree. And finally, we were on the ferry.
Back on the mainland, we headed round past Sullom Voe, the oil terminal where all of Shetland’s money comes from. We were then stopped by the airport by some flashing lights. We had no idea what was going on, but after about 10 minutes, a plane came into land and if we were in any doubt that it was still windy – all I can say is that I’m glad I wasn’t on that plane – just ever so slightly a bumpy landing…
And so onto Busta House, which is an old country house. Yet another beautiful view from our window and yet more seriously good food. Considering we weren’t expecting to eat particularly well on this holiday, we have been consistently really impressed and piggy as a result.
After coffee in the lovely and aptly named Long Room, we headed off to bed and so to sleep, hoping that the forecast would be correct for our trip to Eshaness.
On our drive round Unst yesterday, we went down a lot of roads – in fact we’ve done all the roads on Unst now – just to see where they went; almost all of them didn’t go anywhere. At one point we passed some bales of straw, built up like a brick pyramid. And in front of them, sheltering from the wind, seven black lambs had managed to stack themselves up, also in a pyramid, like a motorbike display team.
We just missed a ferry from Yell back to Toft on the Mianland, so had over an hour as the single car in the queue for the next one. Getting off the ferry at the top of Yell, we went into the café at the port there. Those cheeky Giggling Otters had left a load of crabs legs just outside the café door.
Friday 3rd June
It was cloudy but dry when we got up and so after another hearty breakfast, we set off. Today, Dan had decided we were going to see an otter! We stopped first at a place called Mavis Grind, which is the only tiny strip of land which holds North Mavine to the mainland. 100 yards with the Atlantic on the left and the North Sea on the right. AND it had a sign warning of otters crossing… We parked up and headed out with binoculars in tow. And, nothing. Lots of birds pretending to be otters to confuse Dan, but nothing…
We went up to the Atlantic bit and there was a board there explaining how up until the 50’s, people would drag their boats across the Grind rather than sail them round the top. At this point in the day, that seemed like a lot of effort.
Next we headed off to a tiny village (well, 4 houses which up here is a bustling metropolis) called Nibbon. It was absolutely beautiful – small rocky beach and cliffs as far as you could see with pounding waves (it was still on the breezy side) but no otters. Lots of evidence off otters, but they were off sniggering somewhere at our clumsy attempts to spot them.
Then off to Eshaness. Couple of lapwings and whimbrels on the way, and then to the lighthouse. Which was magnificent, but had no toilets. So we trekked back to the café 2 miles back and then tried again. By now, the clouds had all gone and we were bathed in stupendous sunshine. We set off for a cliff top walk and boy, was it worth the wait to get to the top of some cliffs in Shetland! I know Dan is waxing lyrical about this, so I shall leave that part to him, but all I can say (without having read a word he’s written) is he’s not exaggerating in the slightest. My main contribution to this will be to say that had I been given a choice between seeing puffins on Hermaness or going to Eshaness, Eshaness would have won hands down, even though it doesn’t have a colony. I think anyone who knows me will therefore understand what a truly special place it was.
Then we stopped (via another couple of lapwings and curlews) at Braewick café for a scrumptious scone and chocolate cake. Then we went as far north as we could – up to a really pretty little beach at a place called Sandvoe. Then yet another picturesque drive back to Busta, where the service yet again excelled itself – all of the hotels really have been absolutely wonderful and we couldn’t have asked for anything more in any of them.
This evening was a really good one and was heightened by the fact that I was anticipating the whole point of our trip – PUFFINS! We hadn’t managed Hermaness, but the forecast was good, we had all afternoon to see the little darlings and I was in anticipatory heaven!
Splendid day Friday. We were now at the Bashasound Hotel, or whatever it’s called, in Northmavine, or nearly. About a mile away, the entrance to Northmavine is a narrow causeway. Here you can throw a stone from the North Sea into the Atlantic Ocean! Unsurprisingly, the old fishermen used not to bother sailing round forty miles of coast to get from one point to the other, they would just haul the boats the seventy yards or so across the causeway. The giggling Otters had erected a sign, ‘Otters Crossing’ at this point in the road, cheeky buggers. We saw no sign of them, just for them.
Before I embark on today’s rant about otters, remember that Helen has actually seen one. Back at Easter Loch, at the foot of Unst, as we were roaming around in amazing winds by the sea, I glanced to the left, Helen to the right, and she saw an otter dash across the road. Defiitely not a rabbit, and to big for a cat, it had o be an otter. So I promised her an otter and she got one. It’s just me that’s lacking one.
My eyes are now tired of speed-scanning rocky beaches and seaweedy shorelines. Both of those are mostly brown, so it’s lucky that otters are bright yellow so we can see them more easily. No, wait, they’re bloody brown as well. I’m scrutinizing brown scenery for traces of something brown moving. I’ve become expert though. I reckon, as we drive past a loch at 40mph, I could spot a brown fly taking off from a brown rock. In a way, I’ve also become an expert at ottaspotting, because I can now distinguish between dots in the water, various birds, waves even, and otters. It’s easy really, cos they’re never ever fucking otters. I can zoom past, going ‘bird, stone, ripple, bunch of reeds, duck, stone, just a wave, another stone, seaweed…’
They have trained me to look properly though. Earlier, I was always just looking at the water’s edge. But come on, what do we know about otters? That they catch fish, crabs, sand eels etc in the sea, then often bring their pry on land to eat it. Hence the mussel shells and crab legs lying sometimes quite a way from the shore. My visual sweeps have become bigger and necessarily faster. To no avail. Pas d’otter.
However, Helen has seen one, of course and so the following is true: I’m not an ottaspotta but an ottaspotta’s mate, I try to spot the otters but my spotting’s not that great. I don’t understand it. I’ve seen Ring of Bright Water. I remember that scene at the end where two otters are playing on a rocky beach, I just haven’t been able to recreate it. It could have happened at Nibbon though. This is another of those narrow roads that lead off the main road, winds round heathery hills and stops at the sea. It was beautiful here, utterly ottery, a fantastic Scottish view of near and far islands and a lovely bay.
Next we carried on through to Eshaness, and spent about 2 ½ hours there. Starting from the lighthouse, you walk north along the cliff tops. Various spectacular sea views appear and disappear, according to how close you dare approach the grassy cliff top, for about a mile. Approaching the edge, and looking down, it’s just breathtaking. HUGE chunks have been torn out of the coastline by millenia of savage battering by a very savage sea. I think in several places, the cliff faces got bashed and smashed at hollowed into, then the roof fell in, on a massive scale. One gauge stretches two hundred metres inland. That’s enormous. In some places, boulders as big as rooms have been tossed about by the sea like dice, and lie perched on slabs or piled up as by a giant. The power of the sea here is awesome. Overall, and I general, you have the huge cliff bays, with the dark blue ocean beyond. It rolls and heaves and crashes into the bays and outcrops, dazzling white foam sometimes spraying up through blowholes. Moo Stack rises like a Rolo just offshore. Somehow the water in the bays themselves is a much lighter, tropical blue. We were here on a very clear, sunny day. The waves in a storm must be just everywhere.
All of this is when you face the sea. Looking inland you can see for miles. The grass along the headland is golf-course smooth, curving gently up those spectacular cliff tops. Here and there are tarns, another amazing deep blue, pools of sapphire in the green carpet. Further off, things are bleaker, barer and browner. Occasional crofts or farms, so far away that you can actually get a sense of the land mass you’re on; Shetland, Scotland, the world curving gently over the horizon. For a mile we walked slowly, the incessant tumultuous sea to our left, the world rolling away on the right, the stacks of Ossa out in the ocean in the misty distance ahead.
Just inland was a broch, or the remains of one. I nipped across the field to look at it, then we both did on our way back. Shielded from the Atlantic wind by a gentle hill, the broch sits on an island in a quiet tarn, one causeway leading to the shore. There’s another single island in the water too. I love that this was someone’s home. It’s all small scale (though the broch itself is quite big), the water surrounding it is not deep or very wide, and calm wavelets dipple at the shallow shoreline. I clambered all over the broch ruins, and found tiny rooms or storage enclosures. I don’t know what they were but I wish I did. (But in a way it’s great that there’s no tourist centre here, there are no explanations). There were also a couple of broken-down sheep pen-sized buildings, maybe crofts; I don’t think these were as old as the Iron Age. All this was on the one small island. An enthralling historical spot, for me full of defensive possibilities, votive sacrifices, gentle farmland; an ancient home.
And nearby was a secret beach. A stream running from the broch loch towards the sea suddenly fell down a ravine, which became a cove. But an inland one; the water then disappeared through a tunnel in the rocks out to the real sea beyond, which you could hear echoing up in the field. Three tiny ancient abandoned water mills sat by the stream, only square piles of heavy rocks now.
Then back to the smooth green slopes by the cliff tops, to drift back to the lighthouse past the various spectacular openings to the magnificent sea. This was possibly the best thing we’ve done this week, just a fantastic walk in so many ways.
As we did on West Mainland, to cover as much Shetland ground as possible we drove up to North Roe and through to Sandvoe. This last was another lovely spot, a wide, peaceful beach looking out at the open sea through the hills and crags on each side. The top of Northmavine, or as far as we could safely take the car, anyway.
Back to the hotel, Biffa Lodge or whatever it’s called. Then straight past the hotel to the tiny island of Muckle Roe, joined to the mainland by another slim one-track bridge. Finally to the hotel, bar and dinner. Dinner had its moment. Helen ordered beef, which she often does, but with a sauce, which she never does. Brandy and peppercorn sounded nice, and it usually arrives in a little pot, for you to add as you like. But this beef was braised in the sauce. It was a fabulous peppercorn sauce, very different, by which I mean it was way, way too hot, as in peppery. It reminded you of Alice in Wonderland. I loved it, but that’s me being weird again; for most people, including Helen, it was a vindaloo. Such a shame because the meat was cooked beautifully, but there was no way she could eat it. It was gorgeous in many ways but it had to go. The service at Thumpasound House or whatever it was called had so far been exceptional and it was now. They offered to replace it, change it, made all the right noises, but Helen decided just to leave it and have a big pud. To be fair, I’d had a few mouthfuls of it by this time, so it was hardly a full plate of food we were sending back. The whole truth is that while the civilised discussion was going on between the waiters and Helen, discussing her options, I was virtually wolfing down this sumptuous meat and beautiful peppery sauce, so that when the decision was reached as to what to replace it with, it was moot whether there was anything to be replaced. But they still insisted in deducting a round of drinks we’d had in the Long Room as aperitifs before the meal. Next morning, the same young chap was serving as we checked out. He told me that he and the chef had re-taste-tested the peppercorn sauce last night and had now changed it, adding the word ‘spicy’ next to it on the menu. I thought that was amazing, and took service to a such a committed level; we were so impressed.
Saturday 4th June
Another excellent breakfast to set us on our way and we started the trek south. As we had spent most of the week going North, this really did feel like the end of the holiday. We stopped off a couple of times for views – the last we’d see of the amazing distance and clarity you get here. We stopped off briefly in Scalloway to admire the castle and the harbour and then it was full speed ahead for Sumburgh and the puffins.
We dropped our cases off in reception as the room wasn’t quite ready and headed up the lane to the lighthouse. We parked halfway up the hill and set off at full steam. There were a couple of signs to say “Look for puffins here” but they were just teasing us. Halfway up on particular hill, Dan was slightly ahead of me and there came the shout – “There’s one there and he’s waiting for you!” And he was – just sunning himself and looking, well, puffin-esque. I suddenly felt very content.
We went up the hill and there wasn’t anything to see, so we had a wander round the lighthouse. Dan went off to look at “PuffinCam” which is an RSPB feed from inside a nest. I went back to where I remembered from the last time we were here we’d seen most of them.
There were a couple of ones off in the distance and then suddenly, there in front of me, so close I could almost touch him, was the puffin who has become known (to Dan’s ever-so-slight despair) Eric. As we shall see in the following paragraphs, he took on a bit of a starring role. He came out of his burrow, he stretched, he scratched (who knew puffins got itchy!), he posed and then he disappeared. Dan came back and couldn’t believe what he’d missed. I went off to another spot and a different one did the same for him. There hadn’t been much going on at the other spot, so we decided to stick where we were and see what happened. And nothing really did for about half an hour.
The next thing that happened was two exceptionally annoying old women came up to where we were and talked VERY loudly in VERY posh voices for about half an hour. Oddly enough, we saw nothing in that time… I wandered off before I pushed one (or both) over the cliff and did have a little encounter all of my own. After about 10 minutes, the 2 old dears had wandered off, so I went back. About 5 minutes after they’d taken the loud noises with them, Eric made his second appearance of the day (I’m not convinced Dan hasn’t paid him!) More posing, more lovely shots and he went again.
The next 20 minutes were enlivened by the appearance of 2 teeny baby rabbits – very fluffy and very cute.
ERIC’S BACK! This time he was giving us everything. Turning, posing, looking so gorgeous in his black and white and beautiful beak. He stayed for about 5 minutes and then he went. And so did we. A perfect encounter to end the perfect afternoon. I had been ecstatic after his first appearance, by now I was in 7th heaven. There hadn’t been too many about, but the ones we’d seen had been worth the long wait to see them.
And so, here we are. In our final bar in our final hotel – with the most incredible room, views over Jarlshof and the sea. Just stunning.
It’s been an amazing week – we’ve seen just about every form of weather apart from snow, we’ve met lovely people, had stunning food and stayed in some amazing places. It has, to put it mildly, been a fantastic week and I will be very sad to leave.
And there I thought this diary was going to end, but Shetland had one last surprise for us. As we were sitting in the bar, writing this, postcards and generally lowering the tone, we noticed one of the bar men in the Public looked remarkably similar to our group leader, Rob, from our first trip here, but we couldn’t be sure…
So we asked one of the other waiters and it was him! And even more remarkably, he remembered us! (I didn’t think we’d been that bad…) We had a quick catch up and bought him a drink as he was one of the main reasons we had come back to this place. An even better end to our trip.
Final day. We stopped at Lesser Voe, which we’d seen on the road up to the Toft ferry five days ago. A tiny fishing harbour, an offshore shed for some reason, no otters. Then down to Tingwall, which I didn’t realise was the ancient parliament, like Pingvellir, it’s the same word. In Iceland they met by the huge cliffs, here it was on an island in the middle of Tingwall Loch. The chiefs would sit at a table on the island, the citizens on the slope by the church nearby. The natural features are still there, and amazing to see and imagine.
In 1600 they moved parliament down the road to Scalloway and its magnificent castle. We stopped briefly here and strolled along the peaceful harbour front. Scalloway is like a Cornish fishing village in feel and layout, and we had a gentle beer in the sun outside the Scalloway Hotel on the front.
And finally on down, down south to Sumburgh. The descending was emotional as well as physical. As last time, once you’ve been to the top of the islands, everywhere is lower, the rest of the world seems like somewhere to be dragged to, while you hang on to the precipice with your fingertips. But of course there was a big treat in store at Sumburgh: the almost certainty of seeing puffins, one of the main reasons for us returning to Shetland.
We checked in at the Sumburgh Hotel, a big, comfy, Scottish place smelling of breakfast and smoke and carpets and hops. The room wasn’t ready yet so we dumped the bags and headed straight to Sumburgh Head in mounting excitement. Never quite as teeming as Hermaness, the bird colonies are still there alright. And a few bonxies sailed dangerously overhead. They’re the lions of Shetland. It wasn’t long before puffins started appearing, one little chap on a grassy ledge seemed to be waiting for us to see him.
Helen found a spot by the lighthouse, leaning on a wall looking south out to sea, and here we stayed for an hour and a half. Before I joined her, a friendly puffin had emerged from a hole just yards away, paraded around a bit, then gone back inside. Helen was delighted. She moved on for a short time, I stayed on, and another one appeared, I couldn’t believe how close. Then Helen returned and we both stayed watching the scene below for ages. Mostly it was a picture of swirling gulls and guillemots and razorbills floating round out in the air, or sitting on the sea. Now and again, on the slopes below us, puffins would emerge from their burrows, survey the scene like the little kings they are, then pop back indoors. For a while, some tourists talked loudly near us, and nothing appeared from the nearby puffin holes. But once they’d moved on we stood quietly in the afternoon sun and watched, and waited.
Helen’s spectacular original puffin appeared twice more for us. Firstly he came out onto his ledge and looked around proudly. What a domain I have, he thought, gazing out to sea. Then he appeared to notice he was being admired from nearby. This hardly threw him at all, and he looked inquisitively up at us. Helen was taking pictures so I tried to remain as still as possible. Having said that, when Eric (for such is his name, a favourite pet’s name of Helen’s) turned straight towards me, he did a funny little raise of his head, very curious and questioning. ‘I don’t remember that red thing (my waterproof) being there?’ he thought. So I raised my head slightly and looked surprised too. That seemed to answer his question and he turned his bill towards the camera and preened a little. A few minutes later he caught sight of me again, and did the same astonished look of surprise, which I copied. So comical, his curious eyes and that imposing bt not-quite-convincing beak. After a few minutes of this sequence, he turned to face us squarely. His little body convulsed and shot a hefty stream of green poo out over the edge. That was the end of the show for now.
As a side attraction, there were at least four tiny rabbits outside a hole on a ledge just below us. One light brown one was especially cute, and caught the eyes of the soaring gulls many times. They never got very close to him, and would just sail up, bank, and glide away. He darted inside every time of course, but soon came out sniffing again.
While all this nearby action was going on, the overall scene stayed the same, of big wheeling gulls and others cackling in crannies. Out to sea, three fishing boats trawled home, each with a shrieking entourage of flapping white wings.
Then Eric reappeared. With the noise the gulls were making, his entrance was absolutely silent. He was just suddenly there, his appearance instantly inspiring an excited hush from anyone watching. But this time there was a problem. Evidently there wasn’t enough room indoors for him to deal with an itch at the top of his left wing. So on his little platform, he quickly balanced with one leg and swiped with the other. He did this with some dignity, however, and never fell over, and interspersed the manoeuvre with regal looks out to sea. Some more proud posturing for the camera, a bit more scrabbling behind his left ear, a few surprised glances at his onlookers, another proud thrust of the chest, another blast of puffin poo over his subjects and he called it a day, and shuffled offstage indoors.
What a star he’d been! So close too, all this, just yards away. It was fantastic not to need the binoculars at all, just to admire him at his real size. Quite a portly puffin, I thought, with a healthy, bulbous white breast, but then they all do. He was fantastic.
We finally called it a day too, and back at the hotel, Helen had asked for a sea view. What we got was a HUGE room, lots of space, and a panoramic view from the triple window of the sea, with the lighthouse to the left and Jarlshof to the right. It was a ballroom with a view. I especially like that a 4000-year-old settlement was part of it. And there was another window in another wall with a different sea view. They’d done us proud. It was as if they’d built this Versailles of a room, with the best possible views all round, then added the rest of the hotel afterwards.
Well, what a great end to a great holiday. But there was one more surprise to come. A young chap working behind the bar looked familiar. Whilst eating our haddock and chips we asked the waiter about him, and unbelievably it was who we thought it was: Rob, our wildlife guide on our previous visit! We went through to the bar and said hello, and I believe him when he said he remembered us, Helen for the fag breaks, me for Old McDonald on the musical boat at the Unst ferry terminal. Amazing to see him. He still does wildlife tours – it’d be such a shame if he didn’t, with his knowledge of the islands – but for a different Company, and obviously fills in at the Sumburgh Hotel as well, as he lives nearby.
We were both very sad to leave. Again. And both stretched back to watch any last glimpses of that scenery as the plane took off. Helen said she just didn’t want it to be the last time she saw Shetland. It probably won’t be.