Although we went to Orkney first for a couple of days, this story is only about Shetland and its various islands. It’s inexplicable, but both of us felt an instant connection to Shetland, which we hadn’t done on Orkney. It was to be a runaround five days, and this first day was the only time we had to spend in the capital, Lerwick.
We’d been told that if there was nobody around at the hotel when we got there, just to ask for the key in the chip shop opposite. This was so charming and provincial that I hoped it would be the case, but no, the landlady was in. A lovely room high on a corner, overlooking the rest of the street, which is to say half the length of the town. There was a Taste of Shetland festival going on on the harbour front, a wide jetty full of stalls and tents. We came back to this later, but for now had a gentle wander around the little seafront area. I say gentle, but at this point the weather was pretty strong, wet and gusty and we hoped that things wouldn’t stay quite as bitter as this for the next few days. After all, in the itinerary was a lot of high-up walking in remote exposed areas, as well as going out to sea.
We’d booked a Wildlife of Shetland tour, which sounded very exciting. Though not specifically designed for bird watchers, the tour bumf promised the sight (and sound and smell) of a wonderful assortment of birds, both sea birds and on land. But it also advertised the possibility of seeing various quite rare kinds of wildlife, specifically otters, seals and killer whales. Blimey.
So in Lerwick in the cold blustery afternoon, we hoped that things would calm down a bit for our cosseted London brows, to enable us to experience some of these sights. We popped into the tourist centre for a couple of things, and overheard a chap come in asking for a boat to tow him back to Norway, as his own had conked out in the bay. Or something like that. It wasn’t your average “Where’s the tea shop?” query anyway. While we were in Lerwick, the Norway connection was very present, as if Shetland was as much a part of Scandinavia as it is of Britain, which of course it is.
And continuing this theme immediately, one of the first things you see on the harbour front in Lerwick is a reconstructed Viking ship, bobbing and turning gently in the choppy water. It seemed so small, almost flimsy! If this was the size of craft they went to Iceland in, never mind Shetland, that’s incredible. A little further along, imagine a tiny beach around which the houses have been built into the sea. It was high tide, so the water came up to the sea wall in the street, a third of the way up the actual houses on each side. We came back here briefly the next morning, when you could walk down onto the sand and the houses looked at a normal level.
We had lunch upstairs in a rather busy pub then walked up the road north of the hotel. There wasn’t a lot to do here, basically it became wharves and docks, so we turned back along the seafront and came back to the Taste of Shetland pier. “Taste” meant a general picture, and a few of the tents were local arts and crafts, whilst various vans were parked on there, selling, as far as we could see, Tastes of Greece and Bavaria. There was definitely a kebab stall, and equally definitely a Bratwurst van. I wondered what Shetland actually did taste like – what was local food? By far the biggest tent, which re-placed the whole event very firmly back in Scotland, was the beer-and-entertainment tent. BBC Radio Christ It’s Cold Up Here, or some local station were up and broadcasting various musical groups, mostly the jovial fiddle-and-accordian ensembles, chirpy foot-tapping music, really quite cosy firesidey stuff despite the elements outside. A very cheerful atmosphere, it felt family-like, as if everyone knew each other, and now having spent some time on Shetland, I would say that they probably all did.
We settled down in the bar of the Queen’s Hotel for a couple of hours after this slow wander, sipping wine and writing postcards, which was a lovely afternoon. For those that say “Humbug! How could you be so inactive?” all I can say is it was our holiday, and hold onto your hats for the next three days!
It hadn’t actually been that thrilling a lunch, and my tummy was feeling a bit mistreated, so after our time sitting in the bar in the afternoon, we headed back to our hotel, but via the tents again. This time we stopped and had something from the food vans, although there still seemed to be nothing especially local on offer. Helen went for German, a sausage in a bun; I headed next door to Scandinavia, because I’d found a version of something I’d once had in Sweden, there called Pytt I Panna, here advertised as corned beef hash. As in Sweden, it came served with bright purple coins of beetroot, but here they also put fish on the side, herring, to be precise. Now me and rollmops have never got on, but for some reason today, on a dodgy tummy in the rain, I decided they might be OK. And they were great, sweet-cured, which I didn’t know about, really tasty and hit just the spot. My tummy suddenly felt cured too. Then into the big tent in the middle to try a pint of the local brew (the Valhalla brewery on the northernmost island of Unst, excellent beer) near the whipping tent flaps, and to listen to the bouncy Highland island folk music while Helen had a quick look round the craftwork tents.
So my recommendation for an unsettled stomach would therefore be: corned beef hash fast going cold, served on a plastic plate with a chunk of bread, pickled beetroot and vinegary fish, eaten in driving wind and rain, followed by a pint of something local. Marvellous.
Some more brief sauntering along the front then back along The Street before returning to our hotel. It’s hard to stress how small-scale the whole place is really, the harbour area anyway, the town itself stretches much further back from the waterfront. The front is comparable to a country lane, or the length of four tube platforms, but of course this miniaturisation is one of its delights.
When we emerged later to stroll around for a spot of supper we found that most places were closed, this was at 9pm, and the one Italian that was open was both full and closing. We were lucky to find an upstairs bar in a hotel, but we also found we weren’t very hungry anyway, and called it a night, knowing that from tomorrow, things could get a bit hectic.
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DAY 1. The adventure begins
After a tasty breakfast, Rob arrived to pick us up. He was to be our guide for the next three days, driving our group all over the islands in his minibus. Our group was a very ordinary gang of eight, plus Rob. Apart from a leukaemia nurse from Devon, we were the youngest people there. There was a brace of real twitchers, avid bird-spotters, including Stuart the nurse; an old but very active lady; an equally old but much more laid-back chap, and a couple around our age from Essex, Mick and Linda. We felt this to be the perfect-size group for what we were about to do: not too few that it became uncomfortable and forced, or the opposite extreme of the giant coach tour of twenty or thirty people.
Rob is around thirty, a Leicester lad who’s been in Shetland for only a few years, doing the guided trips for three. He’s very clearly-spoken, a rugged type, and obviously a complete expert on the whole deal, the birdlife, flora and you-name-it of the place, always answering our questions with real interest. And being around thirty (I guess), there’s definitely a side to him that suggests that he’d be a slightly different person after hours.
We drove down to the harbour, ten yards away on foot, about a mile and a half back through the town in the bus. The boat trip was at 10, which gave us about half an hour to mosey around the pretty harbour, and for Helen to practice some more with her camera, which was bought specially before this trip. There are few things as exciting as a new hobby, and the camera (and my new binoculars, come to that) was to be an invaluable asset to the holiday.
Not really knowing what to expect but very happy to appreciate whatever came along, we pulled out of Lerwick bay at a brisk pace and headed north. We weren’t even out of the Sound before we were surrounded by noses in the water; the seals had come to investigate. Though seals are fairly common in Shetland, for me this was already unusual wildlife up close and in the wild; for real, not in the zoo. They’re friendly and very inquisitive, and of course, always hungry, they came very close to the boat to see if there were any scraps going. We stalled briefly to watch them watching us, then started to pull away towards the open sea. But suddenly a cry went up: an otter had been spotted in the water between us and the Bressay shore not fifty yards away. This was big news, as you could tell immediately from the reaction of the guys in charge. Suddenly the boat was idled again, and the captain (John) and his mate became excited as they pointed out to the water. And there it was alright, unbelievably close. “It’s a young one” said John, “he hasn’t learnt to be afraid, or he’d never have got this close. And he’s caught something!” We could see him eating something quite clearly. From Helen’s brilliant photo it looks like a sand eel, all the fauna’s basic diet round here, then the guys reckoned he’d caught a flatfish of some kind. I think it was one after the other, as he soon swam off to eat his catch on the Bressay shoreline. We watched until he’d all finished and sidled back off and disappeared, then we revved up again and carried on north. The captain was genuinely thrilled by all this. He announced that an otter sighting only happens “once in every ten trips”, and that was the first one he’d seen this year. How lucky were we! In small talk chats back with other members of the group at the pier, and even between ourselves, we’d agreed that the boat trip, nay the holiday would be well spent if we eventually managed to see one otter. And here it’d happened not ten minutes into the first day! Really there was a great feeling of elation on board. Helen and I both absolutely agreed that yes, the whole shebang was already worth it.
So we set off again, past a wide inlet where gannets were swooping into the water for fish; actually swooping is far too graceful a word for anyone who has seen them do this; they accelerate dangerously, ferociously dive-bombing the waves, giving the prey no chance at all. And so off out into the open sea, to curve round the top of the isle of Bressay then down through the tiny strait separating it from Noss, another island to the east. The salts in charge pulled into a bay to check a lobster line they had, nothing in there. This was getting realistic now. Earlier, after announcing that the otter probability was 1 in 10, the captain had also said that the probability of seeing a killer whale was one trip in fifty, so rare that they couldn’t even advertise it. But of course that we were all to be on Fin Watch at all times just in case, and that if anyone did see anything, they were fully encouraged to shout “Thar she blows!” So while the chaps were reeling the lobster line in, we were all scanning the seas, hoping to see that elusive black fin turn in the water. A few seals watched us doing so, again, and we moved off. But five minutes later, round the next turn, the chaps hauled aboard a pot crammed with crabs. After hoisting the heavy cage aboard, they quickly, and without sentiment, lobbed only three out of about twelve into a bucket, the rest, being female, they threw back into the sea. Of the prisoners I asked “What will you do with those? Eat them tonight?” “Oh yes. Or sell them” Ask a stupid question.
Now we were coming to the bird cliffs of Noss, the highlight of the trip, the reason for coming all this way, in fact. The boat slowed again, and we spent the most amazing forty minutes, an hour, whatever, drifting round and very close to huge scraggy rock faces, gaping caves, gazing at ledges upon ledges of gawking, squealing, living, gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills, fulmars and guillemots, while the air was full of all of them. They were everywhere. They sat on huge shelves, the floor stained white by years of salt water and poo; they sat on rocks by the sea, looking in every direction at once, or comically holding eels in their beaks as if to say “and?”; they floated in shoals near us by the boat, sometimes just sitting on the blue waves, sometimes shooting under to fish, and they teemed above us in great excited busy swirls. We stood and turned and followed whatever we saw, from the crashing waves on the cave fronts up to the high clifftops above.
Again nature for real. On telly, like everything on telly of course, you associate it with it not being real. But these were real gannets doing what David Attenborough said they did, real guillemots preening themselves on rocks and then going for something to eat, because they really have to eat. It’s not for the cameras. And a couple of gannets doing the mating tapping-their-bills-dance thing, blimey, of course, they really do do that, of course they do. Blimey.
There was a nice moment for us as the boat turned one of its gentle corners while slowly panning along the cliffs. As everyone else had turned away to look at what was coming up, Helen noticed a single seal, barely visible in the surf, that had obviously been quietly watching us.
And another comic sight, which we didn’t discover until these photos came out, a Spectacled Guillemot, here lurking behind two of the common variety like a bad spy.
Incidentally, nearby stood two huge promontories, separated by 30 feet of heaving water and an even greater distance at their tops. Unbelievably, the Victorians had built a cable car across the gap. It’s not there now, but people used to come here on days out, mostly for the same reasons we were there, but also to walk along the rocky cliffs and to take this incredible ride above the crashing sea.
After skilfully steering us slowly round all that, we headed off out on a run across a big bay, virtually open sea for us lubbers anyway. At this point I finally decided I’d go on the top deck of the boat, a bitterly cold area, not unlike the top deck of the boat in Jaws; a high open narrow aisle with two swivelly chairs. With John Williams music sounding heroically in my head, I bestrode the boat, and leaned forward out to sea like Ahab leading the way. Then I turned round heroically and was rather dismayed to see that a huge bird seemed to be attracted, and not in a nice way, to my new waterproof jacket. Oh bugger. And he was a big bugger. A Giant Skua, I thought. (They’re actually called Great Skuas, but given my mounting panic, “Giant” felt more the mot juste). He kept on trailing the boat, getting very close to me, then falling away just before he started pecking. And like a horror dream, I could see that every time he approached, he was just strong enough to fly just faster than the boat. Heroically, I started to sidle back towards the ladder back down to the normal deck that everyone else was on, and suddenly spotted that the captain’s mate, the older salt with the blue hat, was holding out little fish for the skua to come and eat out of his hand. So that’s why he kept coming up and fading away – he wasn’t after my jacket after all. The skua never quite caught up with the guy’s hand, on this trip anyway, so of course the fish was thrown up into the wind, and the bird caught it every time.
Having crossed the wide bay, we came to the southern tip of Bressay. Here, John steered us carefully through a narrow arch of rock and we approached a huge cave, big enough for the boat to enter. Slowly, we drifted inside, and parked. It wasn’t that dark, being a bright sunny day outside, but the atmosphere was suddenly eerie. The water below was still blue and clear, though darker towards the back of the cave, where voices became echoey; overhead some of the nooks in the roof had bird’s nests. As soon as we were inside, a shag came hurtling in, to deliver food for its chicks, above and near the boat. And soon, a seal turned up, again, not timid, just curious, its head bobbing up occasionally in different parts of the cave, in the gloom at the back, then out in the mouth towards the sea. Earlier, at the Noss colony, John introduced his underwater camera, but here it was used to much greater effect. Motorised, and spun out on a long cord, he could direct it into all corners of the cave while we watched the pictures on the screens on the boat. It was an amazing bit of technology, really impressive, and added hugely to the experience. As did John’s commentary, very animated and informative. The camera dove past the blanket of tiny jellyfish on the surface and went in search of the rocks and plants below. He found some starfish, clinging to a rock face under the boat, and I think he explained that the temperature of the sea was slowly changing, and that the balance of life under it was changing too, and not for the better. (One thing that came up a lot during our stay was that the vital source of food for all sorts of creatures, the native sand eel, was moving away from the area because of the climate change, taking everything else with it.)
We sat in the cave for perhaps half an hour, following the camera buzzing away beneath us, watching the pictures of various depths of the cave, listening to John describing what we saw, or just tuning out to watch the shag nest for a while, the female perched over a tiny sleepy chick. It was peaceful in there, we’d all gone quiet, a couple of luminous red lobster pot markers gave the place a glow, the seal bobbed up now and again; I thought it was all magic.
That was the final stop on the boat trip. From there we carried on round the bottom of Bressay and back up to Lerwick harbour. It felt as if we’d been on there all day yet it was now only lunchtime, a three-hour trip, but I think all day would have suited us all fine.
From there Rob drove us down to Spiggie Loch in the centre of the mainland where we had soup and sandwiches in a hotel. The view down to the loch and for miles around was spectacular, probably the first time we saw the kind of panoramas you can get there. Beautiful St. Ninian’s Isle lay to the west, a feature of Shetland called a tombolo, (almost an island, connected to the land by a strip of land or a beach). Some of the famous Shetland ponies frisked in the field opposite, and after a slightly nervous breaking-in of our group – it was the first time we’d all sat down together (outside of the bus of course) – we left for the second part of this three-tier day.
This was simply a walk across a stretch of heath, near the south of the island. It was possibly the first time we became aware of the almost ever-presence of the island’s most common bird, the Great Skua, or Bonxie as they’re known locally. They were always to be seen, circling in the distance, or standing on the headland guarding their chicks. These are aggressive birds, and huge, with a wingspan easily over four feet long, and won’t hesitate to attack anything or anyone that gets too close for comfort. It was a Bonxie that was keeping up with the boat earlier. The boat was really shifting, motoring across the bay, and you had to admire the sheer power and persistence of the bird in catching up with it time after time.
Walking across the heathland, things were a lot calmer. I should say, by the way, that the weather we’d feared wasn’t like that at all; this was now a gorgeous clear summery day, lovely to walk in, and tranquil in such open space. This was, after all, midsummer day, and we might as well have been traipsing the Sussex downs, with the larks peeping and singing in the sky. After the morning’s excitement, it was very peaceful.
The underwater camera had been a wonderful enhancement to that experience, and now Rob produced his own gadget: a telescope on a tripod. Whenever a bird came into range, perhaps a curlew strutting 200 yards away, or the Bonxie staring at us on the brow of the hill, Rob could soon set up and train the telescope on it, and we’d all have a look. It was an incredibly clear and close-up view, and took you straight in next to whatever you were looking at.
Arctic hares sprang up and then disappeared back into the heather a lot. Overhead, one particular kind of bird made a fast thumping noise as it flew; this was a snipe. I don’t know how they make that noise, or why, but it was always referred to by the others as a drumming snipe. Towards the end of our trail people were casting peat (turfing it up and laying it out in slabs to dry). As we approached the rejoining of the mainland road, Rob focussed his tripod camera on a whimbrel, quite a rare bird perched stock still on a fencepost. Easily confused with a curlew, a whimbrel’s beak only dips down towards the tip, whereas the curlew scoops down almost straight away. Today’s little jaunt had re-awakened distant memories of The Book of British Birds for both of us, and whimbrel rang a faint bell.
As it was such a fine day, we drove up to a telegraph pylon high in the centre of the south mainland, only across the road from where we’d been walking, and the view was just amazing. An Oystercatcher couple got more then less noisy and agitated as we passed their nest walking the last few yards to the top. A pair of Golden Plovers also made their presence felt as we passed by under the tower. Then the scene was laid out. North, south, all round, you could see for so many miles, yet it all also seemed close. Like an overview of a miniature landscape, the crofts and houses of a village on a hillside way over there seemed a stone’s throw away, touchable, while in the same view were distant peaks and seas and islands 20, 30, 40 miles away. To the south, the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head, the airport runway before it, and the scattered buildings before that were just down there, at arms length, so clear yet far away. A lovely look west, down onto the strand of sand that links the mainland to St. Ninian’s Isle. It was like a birds eye view, in all directions.
This and many other devastating such views, and the clarity of their scope, is for me a favourite image of Shetland.
Sumburgh Head was our next stop, the very southern tip of the mainland. To get there you have to drive across the runway of Sumburgh airport, and the road specifically says ‘No Stopping’. The lighthouse at Sumburgh Head is another famous spot for clifftop birdwatching, though this time we were on the top looking down. And lo and behold, Helen had her first view of one of the main highlights we’d hoped to see: puffins! Like the otter before, it certainly wasn’t a given that we’d see any puffins at all on our trip, (though admittedly this is the best time of year to do so) so to find so many here was enchanting. And there were so many. What a treat, again, as they emerged from their nests onto the ledges, sometimes to gaze majestically out to sea like a fat king, then turning to raise an eyebrow at the cameras above. Then sometimes to launch off into space, those tiny wings flapping furiously, bombing and shooting around like schoolkids before drawing up to the ledge again to march indoors.
Around the corner were some seals, five in all, three huge adults and two pups, basking on a big rock. How flabby and gormless they look like this! Their big eyes mooning around and up at us, huge torpedo bodies virtually stuck on the patch of stone they happened to be lying on. Yes, we all know they’re unbelievably lithe and skilful swimmers, but if an orca were to raise its head out of the sea right now they wouldn’t stand a chance. However, of course, they knew that too, and the inlet they were basking in was far too shallow for anything bigger than them to enter, and so they basked and mooned away in the warm afternoon.
Our group whiled away an hour or so here, happily going from spot to spot, following the teeming gulls and fulmars, or adoring the more earnest exploits of the puffins, or just drowsing with the seals. Then we were whisked off down to the Sumburgh Hotel near the airport for an evening meal, before the third part of this long but amazing day.
We were all to reassemble at 10-ish, to be taken to the ferry – how incredible it felt that we were about to be taken on another boat trip at this time of night! The same feeling as having a midnight feast with friends when you’re a kid – but owing to wildlife being wildlife and real, an opportunity had presented itself which meant that we’d leave an hour earlier.
The night before, a pair of corncrakes had been spotted in a field not far from the hotel, just a detour off the road between us and the ferry. Between the wildlife enthusiasts on Shetland there’s a network of information, and anything out of the ordinary or worth chasing up is shared around. Rob had many people who would text him while we were shooting around the islands, and this was to stand us in good stead in the next few days. Tonight, the report of the singing corncrakes (this must be the noise they make in the tall grass?) was tempered by another rumour that this very day, the farmer had cut that particular field, and that the couple had left. The corncrakes, possibly even nesting, needed long grass, and if the farmer doing his job had trimmed the field down, the birds may well have taken off elsewhere. And arriving there in the beautiful summer twilight, known as the Simmer Dim here, this proved to be the case; they were nowhere to be seen, or heard. It was exciting to be trailing something in its habitat, hoping to find it in its own environment, but wildlife’s environment is where it feels most comfortable, and only there. It’s like cats I suppose, it won’t hang around for a second if it’s not happy! Though disappointed not to see or hear the singing corncrakes, there was a sense of fairness.
Actually, talking of cats, the situation was hugely re-animated for Helen when, as we waited by the bus, a large and amorous one emerged from one of the nearby cottages. There was a lot of cuddling and coddling, mutual chirruping and purring on all sides. After the ornithologists had finally given up hope, and the felinologist had finally put the cat down, we got back on the bus in time to drive over to catch the 11pm ferry to Mousa.
Normally of course, at this time of night, it’d be pitch dark. Down at the jetty by the white cottages, the water would be lapping at a silent shore, no boats going anywhere. But because this was midsummer day, the nearby land felt late-at-night, the village was surely asleep, yet the sky above was an eerie blue, light but not light. Of course, the whole thing was enhanced by this surreality, the childhood feeling of being out far too late to be doing anything as exciting as this.
A large group had assembled for this special trip. Not just our gang, but tourists from all over the islands. There was some commotion as another otter had been sighted near the breakwater, but it was never quite clear if it was there or not. Our captain, the hardy old salt in the brochure, complete with his rugged authentic beard and blue seaman’s cap gave an incredibly nervous speech about Health and Safety and we pulled out of the tiny harbour.
So out to sea we went again, coursing across a wide bay then through an inlet, before pulling up at another tiny stone jetty with a single dilapidated cottage on Mousa. (This is pronounced Moosa, by the way, not as it looks). In single file, we all traipsed around the headland in the fast-fading light, hopping over banks and knots, very much in sheep fields, and with several of them nearby. After rounding the coast, we came back down near the water, and a pile of white rock slabs. I happened to be near one of the group leaders at this point, and he stopped by a pile of rocks and listened. From inside the pile we could hear a sort of low creaking sound. This was a Storm Petrel cooing, he told us, calling to its mate. And these birds were the reason we were here.
Just up ahead, across a boardwalk across a bog, stood a broch by the sea. For those that don’t know (which was both of us until this moment), a broch is an Iron Age tower, about thirty feet tall, built as a very secure defence against the elements or even attack. It has two walls, one inside the other, with a staircase between, and in the middle a very cosy enclosure and hearth. It was now about 11.45, and having sat inside the ancient building (which was pretty spooky, with little light, late at night, you could hear the wind round the walls; again, feeling like kids, our group was quiet yet excited in the eerie atmosphere) we returned outside to watch, and wait.
For a while it was just cold, the sea behind us, the huge tower almost in the dark now. A seal turned up in the water nearby, watching us from just beyond the rocks. Hey ho hum… Then you became aware of some activity in the air. A fluttering, barely perceptible. Something was happening to the broch. Gradually, so gradually, you could see dark shapes darting around, like bats, shooting in and out of vision, only that. Then perhaps you’d catch sight of one, a Storm Petrel, a very small black bird, landing on the broch wall, then disappearing inside. Then another would come swooping up to the tower, then dive round and round, before alighting and quickly ducking into some invisible hole in the wall. These birds are only about five inches long, could have sat snugly in your hand, and all have nests in tiny crannies in the broch structure. And as we watched, the broch wall became a whirlwind, as hundreds and hundreds of birds arrived to shoot frantically around, trying to locate their particular nest. When a Petrel found its correct place, you could hardly see it land, you had to be very quick with your torch, as the wall seemed to suck the bird in, almost to absorb it. The tower became the centre of a whirring, shooting mass of activity, the sight and sound and speed of the scene was breathtaking, and at this time of night, unreal.
However, there were a lot of accidents. With 3000 pairs of birds swerving around the tower at such fantastic speeds, collisions inevitably occurred, and a few birds knocked themselves out and collapsed stunned on the ground. Just as often, a Petrel would swoop directly into where it thought its particular hole was, only to fly into the wall, and fall equally stunned to the floor. When this happened, and if the bird stayed down, Rob and other locals tried to get to them, just to revive them and get them up on their feet at least, as apparently if they don’t recover within minutes, they never will. When a couple of Petrels did crash, and were rescued, before they regained their senses they were given to a couple of small boys, one of whose birthday it was, to hold them and stroke them while they came to, then to release them to fly off again.
We watched this giant natural circus for about half an hour. The seal bobbed in the water. Standing as we were on a bank above the sea, we noticed that the Petrels were shooting in low off the water, then swooping up over this bank and onto the broch, only feet away. If you faced out to sea to watch the seal, you stood a good chance of getting a zooming sea bird smack in the face. So many times you felt their wings brush by.
It had been bitterly cold, very late in a long long day, but the light and the spectacle and the atmosphere was so magical that you knew it was special. There was a vast moon hanging in the sky as we left to file back in its light. Some distance away, I turned to look back at the broch on the headland across the bog, the dark sea on the right and the huge round moon behind. It was around half past 1 by this time, and we were all pretty subdued, by tiredness and awe. The boat scooped back to the mainland, we drifted back to the bus and Rob drove us back to our hotel to turn in before an early start, and more action and adventure tomorrow…
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Day 2. Travelling north.
…which arrived pretty quickly. We assembled at 8.15 and got back onto the minibus and off to Toft (offtatoft?), a ferry point in the north of the mainland. Once we’d gone past Lerwick in the centre of Shetland, this was new ground, and we were to cover a hell of a lot of it in the next two days. By the way, having been the last people to board the bus the day before, Helen and I had to share the seat up front next to Rob. The others all had comfy spaces behind us, but we wedged in, Helen by the door, me trying not to inadvertently change gear for Rob. Yet despite the squash, this position had two big advantages, which became clear on this second morning. Firstly, we had closest access to our guide, and during the many drives around in the next day or so, we could easily both ask him any particular questions we had, which also served to get to know him a little better. It broke the ice for us really, and we (surprisingly actually) were the most chatty people on the bus, because we had the chance to do so. OK, this particular morning it meant that Rob and I spent several miles talking about Gary Lineker, and Leicester City’s forthcoming season prospects. The second big advantage to sitting in the front like this was the view. As I said earlier, there’s a feeling of miniaturisation on Shetland, that each sweeping vista was near yet miles away, and in the bus, this was of course best seen through the wide windscreen at the front. One of the main reasons for these views, Rob pointed out, is the fact that there are no trees at all in Shetland. Of course! Now he mentioned it, it seemed obvious. Just gentle rolling hills and fields as far as the eye could see. So many times, we would turn a corner, or round a high point, or the van would just swing round to face another direction, and the whole world opened up before us again. Dales and vales ahead, blue sea in the distance.
Toft is the point to catch the ferry to Yell, the island immediately north of the mainland. Unexpectedly, the boat was a large cross-channel-type vessel, with an empty big lounge and a deck. We were the only passengers. As we got back on his bus, Rob told us the exciting news: he’d been talking to the crew, and on the two previous crossings that morning a pod of killer whales had been sighted! They looked like they were moving slowly north. Initially, Rob was disappointed, as were we, to have missed them. But hang on, we were going north too! If we drove straight up the road through Yell, we might catch up with them. Suddenly a chase was on. And suddenly, only five minutes up the coast, there they were! Linda saw them from the back seats, and yelped. Only about a mile up the road from the ferry, there’s a tiny tombolo called the Ness of Sound connected to the west coast of Yell, and out in the water by it were the whales. Even from this distance you could see that these were quite some way bigger than any seals we had seen. Huge black fins turned in the water. It was a pod of six in all, and in no hurry. Rob had whipped his telescope from the back of the bus and trained it on them, and we all had an excited glimpse. We could see them quite clearly in our binoculars too. They weren’t feeding, or searching for food, they were playing, if anything, occasionally rising and dipping from the waves near the end of the tombolo. But before I sound too dainty about them, this was no gang of porpoises. These were huge, dark, dangerous animals, you could feel that from where we were, and I’m sure up close they would have been terrifying.
As the whales weren’t heading in any direction they started to drift with the tide back round the other side of the tombolo, out of view. We only had perhaps 25 minutes to get to the top of Yell, a 20-minute journey, to catch the next ferry across to Fetlar. But this sighting was certainly special enough for Rob to decide that it was worth pursuing a little more. We dashed back down the road, and he turned down a tiny lane towards the shore. Again, everybody out and binoculars scanned the sea. But the whales were happily frolicking just over the horizon, and we hadn’t time to get over there. Even so, Rob was still loathe to leave, but eventually he called time and we leapt back on the bus.
We were all completely exhilarated, including Rob. It’s hard to emphasize just how extraordinary this moment had been. In three years as a guide, Rob had never seen killer whales while working. He’d seen them occasionally in his own time, but never with a group. We were the first. Remember that Captain John yesterday, after telling us that otter sightings happened on one-in-ten boat trips, had said that to see an orca was one-in-fifty. Helen met someone during our stay who’d lived on the island for 28 years and had never seen one. We’d been there three days and had been treated to a pod of six. Just incredible.
Now, as the chase had been, a race was now very much on. We had zero minutes spare as Rob now jammed his foot down and we hurtled up across Yell. Whilst doing so, he was frantically texting his contacts in the wildlife network, to tell them what we’d seen and where. We felt like part of a gang of boy racers. A lamb dallied too long in the road and so nearly went under the front wheel. Woah! That slowed Rob up, a bit anyway.
But we made it, with time to catch our breath and the next boat to Fetlar. This was much more down-to-earth than the last one; a smelly, industrial passenger ferry with no frills whatsoever. Helen and I walked onto the boat while the others sat in the bus (all these crossings were only about twenty minutes). There was a dank room below decks with wooden benches likea customs shed, and a metallic, grimy smell that reminded me of the Underground in Moscow.
We drove off and straight to the Loch of Funzie (pronounced finny). Fetlar is east of Yell and south of Unst, the northernmost island. On our very first stop as a group, back at the hotel at Spiggie Loch the day before, to help break the ice a bit, Rob had asked each of us what we hoped for on our trip. The first two people he asked had replied “A red-necked phalarope” and here on Fetlar was the place to see them. The fact that a couple of the group had travelled all this way for one particular bird shows how rare they are. Actually, now I think about it, Rob didn’t quite ask everyone what they wanted on their trip. He asked Helen alright (“Puffins!”) but then stopped before me. I assume he took a look and decided I would just say “Lots of chocolate”.
We all got out and Rob told those of us who didn’t know, how to spot these rare but beautiful birds. “Often quite close to the edge of the water”, he said, “or in a pond in the reeds”. We set off round the little loch. A flock of Arctic terns sat on the shore, facing into the wind, there were skylarks chanting above, and on the far side of the loch a Bonxie was having a bath.
Perhaps saving herself for the puffins, Helen decided to return to the van at this point. It was bitingly cold up here, and having no burning ornithological desire to keep her warm, she went to sit indoors, with Linda. I trooped on with the rest of the chaps. We rounded the loch and headed off into the fields beyond, the Mires of Funzie. The red-necked phalarope is one of those birds, like the Emperor penguin, in which the roles are reversed. In other words, after the eggs have been laid and need looking after, it’s the male who sticks around to do so. And the female phalarope is much more brightly-coloured than the male, so we were more likely to be able to spot one of those. However, that’s not saying much, as they are so rare, and our binoculars scrutinised the marshes ahead. But yet again we got lucky. One of the gang spotted one, and Rob set up his telescope for the uninitiated like me to catch up and find out what it was I’d been looking for. And there she sat calmly, on a small pond surrounded by rushes, much brighter than I’d expected, a real burst of colour, yet still well-hidden by the terrain. Obviously, this was a major highlight for some of our group, and it was exciting to witness such an obvious prize.
After a while we changed position to a nearby hide to see if any more could be spotted. But no, this proved to be the only phalarope we saw, but that was still a substantial tick in a box. In fact, inside the hide was a poster advertising Shetland in general, with three pictures on it, of some otters, some seals and some orcas. Someone said “Yup, done that, tick tick tick”. All quite satisfied, we filed back to the bus, round the loch on which some red-breasted divers were now sitting in the wind.
We drove to the centre of Fetlar for a late lunch, to a B&B where soup and sandwiches were again laid on. Now I openly confess I can be a right snob when it comes to food, and just the phrase ‘soup and sandwiches’ has had me running in the opposite direction before. But what could be better, more warming and boosting for a gang of birdwatchers, fresh in from the wilds on a day like this? If my perfect surroundings are, for example, Rules game restaurant in London, here we were, cramped in a tiny room in a tiny building in the middle of remote Scotland, and I loved it. The soup was so nice, lentil with just a hint of spice, that I had two bowls full, unheard of. Feeling more or less like a Teletubby, I wandered with the rest of the group back to the bus, where the front seat squash seemed to have got even tighter. But then Fetlar means ‘fat land’, so I was only fitting in with the locals really, if not very successfully back into the van.
After a brief return to Funzie, where Rob only managed to get the bus stuck in the mud, we drove back across the island to a possible otter site. This was just a stretch of wild coastline which we reached by following a stony road and stopping just before the sea, nothing else was there at all; road, road, road, sea.
Walking along the shore and facing out to sea, this was really rough, cold weather, and the wind lashed the waterproofs off our faces. We didn’t see any otters, but there was plenty of evidence telling us that we were looking in the right place. All along the grass shore were empty crab and sea urchin shells, their flesh scooped out by the otters who bring them up onto the bank to eat them. Some of the sea urchins were as big as grapefruit, and scraped bare, and the ground was crunchy with discarded crabs legs. Christ it was cold though.
After a bit of an unsuccessful hunt for otters, we caught our third ferry of the day, to our fourth island: Unst. This is the northernmost part of Britain, and felt as remote as we could possibly get. By this time, we were about seventy miles from the south of the mainland, where we’d started from that morning. It was time to stop haring around and stop overnight at the Baltasound Hotel, the northernmost hotel in Britain. This is in the middle of Unst, on the east coast by the harbour, a big old building with some newer chalets, in which we were staying. We, especially Helen, loved these; little poky wooden cabins, cosy and comfortable. And warm too, though our view was of bleak fells and an icy loch.
As we’d driven up to the hotel, there’d been a long corrugated barn on the outskirts of the village. This was the local brewery, Valhalla, whose beer was featured in the big tent in Lerwick about six weeks ago, OK, two days ago. Everywhere else, including here at the Baltasound Hotel, you could only get it bottled, but it was good stuff all the same. I’d love to see it in London. Despite being such a small operation, they have six separate ales (just to remind myself: Auld Rock; White Wife; Old Scatness; Simmer Dim; Island Bere and Sjolmet Stout), all quite different tastes and strengths.
After settling in to our chalet rooms, Mick from Essex and I went straight to the bar round the back of the hotel, where we’d been told there was a pool table. Helen soon joined us and we stayed there for an hour or so before all meeting in the main hotel for our evening meal. My soup (again! Lovely), Helen’s prawns starter and baked salmon were really good, but I had to leave my main course, unfortunately. When I’d asked for a rare steak, I didn’t realise they were going to find something rare, a snow leopard, perhaps, and then torch it to a crisp. But Helen covered well for me when the waitress with the usual “what’s wrong with that then?” came along.
After tea came the Entertainment. This took me totally by surprise. The bar and restaurant had been filling up with locals, and by around 8ish, a stage area had been set up, next to the table we’d been sitting at; it wasn’t a big room. I noticed that a few people had brought instrument cases so I took it that they were the band and that they’d strum quietly away as a background gig while the rest of us chatted as normal. Not a bit of it. A stocky bald chap with a limp got things moving by introducing himself, Bobo he was called. Amazingly, and almost immediately after a brief welcome, he started to tell us why he was limping and that he’d just come out of hospital and that things weren’t looking so good for his leg or himself in general but they could be worse so I’ll just do a few numbers tonight. This was so not what I was expecting. It was obvious that everyone knew each other pretty well, and that he was merely talking as he would to his friends.
He did do a couple of numbers, plain, country-style ballads, and everyone actually listened. They weren’t there to have an evening down the pub at all, they were there to listen to and support each other. It may sound strange but I was stunned. Then Bobo introduced the next group, some young local girls singing and playing violin and bass. I happened to be at the bar as Bobo left the microphone and he came and leant on it next to me. He said something briefly about the leg, then about the girls, and as I was responding enthusiastically, he said “Shh!”. To my shame, I’d been talking over the group, who’d started playing, and he wanted to listen to them. I was only just getting this: it was a concert, an evening of music, not rowdy chat with a band in the corner. After so many years in the high-level but, compared to this, sterile world of professional music, I felt humbled. This was how people entertained themselves up here on a remote island. They probably gathered every week, travelling from their various corners of Unst, to listen earnestly to each other’s new and old offerings.
There was a big favourite though. He wasn’t a local, but the star guest, a creaky old cowboy with glasses called Brian from Sussex. The Sussex Texan, he pronounced himself, surprisingly accurately over the course of the evening. With his big steel guitar and extraordinary false Country and Western accent, he sang several bawdy numbers. His spoken intros hinted at triumphs past, gigs he’d done, people he’d met, then he’d launch into another song, perfectly on that border between deadly serious C&W music and Richard Digence.
It had been another long day, and after a while Helen did the sensible thing, and Mick and I shot off round the back again to round the evening off with a spot more pool. Later, walking past the bar, ol’ Brian was outside, smoking a reeking cigar in the cold Scottish air. Mick seized his chance and told him how good he thought he was, and also asked him something about his impressive outfit, the whole deal from 10-gallon hat to black cowboy boots. “Why, ah trah to look mah best” said Brian, “but you can’t get these, I mean, er, yuh cayn’t git these ties just anywhere, y’know”. I cowered nearby, but the guy was an old pro, and quite used to dealing with anything the public could throw at him. Which in the world of C&W, is no mere expression. Time for bed in the warm chalet, and off we go again tomorrow.
* * *
Day 3. Hermaness
So we’d flown up from London, then driven up through the mainland of Shetland ever north, then taken three ferries and wound up high above Britain, perched on the island of Unst. And now we were to go further north.
Helen woke up at 6 this morning; through the curtains shone bright early sun, she opened the drapes and looked out on vertical rain. Amazing how the two conditions could exist at once. It was illuminating yet bitter.
We assembled at the bus, Helen and I doing our now-perfected routine of jumping in in turn, swivelling, seat-belting and quick-wriggling, and drove off to explore once more.
There’s only so far north you can go in the British Isles before you have to get out and walk. We’d almost got that far when Rob had to swerve and stop; there was a Bonxie flapping on the road. Perhaps it’d been hit by a vehicle, or even had a fight with another bird in mid-air, either way, it was struggling angrily with a broken wing, and unable to get out of the way. Rob, unsurprisingly, is a nature-lover, and he tried to help the huge bird off the road. The poor thing was in no mood for this, and Bonxies have wicked beaks and are naturally aggressive. Even Rob, an experienced and confident bird man, couldn’t move him, but before we left he skittered off the road and down the bank. The bird’s chances, unable to fly and therefore hunt and therefore eat, sadly, weren’t good. We had to leave him, Rob with a bleeding hand. We set off walking up and across heathland. It was a general trek upwards across a huge moor. Often there were boards laid down to allow us to cross peat bogs. This was real Great Skua territory, and they were everywhere. Watching us carefully, as before, in case we got too close to their nests; or sitting quite near the path amongst the cotton grass, their grey white-flecked bodies so well camouflaged you often didn’t see them until you were yards away. We knew about their aggression, and their beaks (they have an evil little hook on the end of their bills) and so were quite aware that approaching one might not be a good idea, certainly not if they were sitting on a nest. But one little chap belied all this. He was spotted sitting only yards away, and several of us slowed to have a look. Cameras were slowly raised, and some of us inched closer; surely he wouldn’t allow this? No way, if he’d been nesting, but he was just sitting, passing the time really, and at the moment when someone got just that inch too close he shifted a little uncomfortably, as if to say “What aggression? What beak? I’m just sitting here, do you mind?”
But mostly they were overhead, wheeling around in the wind, soaring above and off into the distance. It wasn’t too harsh a day, and it was an hour or so happily spent walking up through the open landscape, Rob as helpful as ever, pointing out various flora (like a carnivorous plant! Called Sundew, I think, a little twisted red shrubby thing) and rarer birds (a Golden Plover quite early on).
We finally reached Hermaness, the top of the island and the top of Britain. The heath finally reached the cliffs, and we could look out at the vast sea ahead, waves now teeming angrily around the rocks way below. And to Helen’s absolute delight, there were puffins everywhere! They seemed to make themselves known to us in stages. First, we watched one emerge and disappear from a hole on a ledge on the cliff face. Then a couple landed on the edge of the cliff, on the grass about ten yards away. They seemed unsure, and walked up and down a bit, their feathers and sometimes whole bodies swept about by the force of the wind. Then they would take off out into the air above the sea, joining the hundreds of others, swooping and circling at amazing speeds. Puffins are so funny when they fly, their little wings give them no majesty at all, they flap vainly and too fast, making the whole picture look speeded-up. Little winged bullets they were, zooming around in front of us. A couple landed on the verge again. And again they strutted up and down uncertainly, and looked thoughtful; were they the same pair as before? Then one of them took definite steps towards us. What was going on? Surely puffins are too shy for this? Was he actually coming to say hello? He paused, then carried on. It was incredible, and we were all taken aback. Just feet away now, he even speeded up slightly, and taking us all by surprise, dipped his head and disappeared into a little hole in the bank we were standing on. It was an amazing moment of delight, and one that made us all burst out laughing. None of us had even noticed the hole, his home, so close by. His nervousness but quiet resolution was charming, and his timing was brilliant. A slow then sweet trot into the hole by our feet, for me the moment of the entire trip.
We very happily stayed here for about half an hour, and if we ever go back, we’ll spend a whole day there. Our little star didn’t re-emerge from his hole, neither did his mate summon up the courage to join him / her. Perhaps they had chicks in there; I tried to listen but it was quiet, maybe not surprisingly given our close proximity. We settled there watching the other birds going about their day. There was a huge gull after the puffins, they’d be sitting in a crowd then the gull would swoop down and they all shot off. Birds do eat birds, I didn’t know that but there’s a lot of it here. Big black-backed gulls and herring gulls and of course the bonxies, all would make a meal of a smaller bird’s chick if they got hold of one, or an adult come to that.
Up on this cliff top above the sea it was now bitterly cold, and the rain had started to lash down. Over to our right was the actual northernmost point of Britain, a stack with the fantastic name of Muckle Flugga, with a white lighthouse perched on top. Keep going north from here and you get to the Arctic continent.
Turning left, we made our way along the cliff top, about five minutes to another sensational view.This time we weren’t facing out to sea but looking across several cliffs which were absolutely packed with birds. This time it was mostly sea birds of the kind we’d seen on the boat: gannets, gulls, fulmars. But the puffins were still very much here, sitting in crevices in the rock face overlooking the scene. Every flat surface on the cliffs opposite was covered with white dots, birds all sitting within a few inches of each other. When they weren’t perched there, the gannets skimmed low above the sea, or shot up from the cliff edge, flying close to us, close enough to hear the wings beating.
But the most striking thing, the thing that was different here from the colonies we’d visited, was the smell. Thousands of birds equals lots of poo, and up above the shrieking hordes there was an acrid aroma. Not nasty really, quite muggy, tangy but cloying. I thought it smelt like fish sauce.
All of this was in the morning, though it felt like much later. So much stuff to do, so much ground to be covered, yet it was only now time for our packed lunches down at the lochside near the harbour at Baltasound. The wind was picking up again, and rain with it, and we unloaded our crate of sandwiches and crisps (again, the school thing!) in the lee of an old inland pier, a slight shelter.
For some reason, instead of lolling with the rest of the group, I took my lunch and ate it while walking along the loch bank; there was some bit of me still on the lookout for another exclusive otter and here was a perfect opportunity going begging. The weather wasn’t that bad, and after years of eating on the hoof as a musician, I couldn’t just sit there and eat, when there was a chance of seeing more real life in the wild. The place had definitely got to me, and it just seemed normal to kind of join in. After going as far as I could go along the waterside (without spotting anything, unfortunately) and looking back, I could see that Helen had also left the lunch group and was investigating down by the shore. Later she told me that, with me going off like that, the group joked that we’d had a row. When we met up in the middle, it was tempting to pretend that we had.
Hermaness had been the high point, the topmost point, and as if on a giant roller coaster, we now tilted and tipped back down the rails, falling back through the islands, sliding all the way down to Sumburgh, at the very bottom of Shetland. The adventure was over, we’d gone as far as we could (literally), and the ride was coming to an end. This is not to say that it felt that way; this is a hindsight view. At the time, it felt like we were all still on the merry old bus and driving around blithely like Cliff Richard on his Summer Holiday.
We packed up after lunch, and Rob drove us to the ferry at the bottom of Unst. On the way, he made some crack about me playing “Musical Boats” when we got there, which I didn’t really understand. I settled on the presumption that he meant some form of Musical Chairs, and that he’d have forgotten about it by the time we got there anyway. Not quite. At the ferry dock at Belmont there was a boat in the car park. Well, the shell of a boat anyway, just the hull. A good twelve feet long, the shell was filled with steel pipes, laid on a frame across the length of the boat to make a giant xylophone! As you can see from the photo, these had been laid out by some nautical practical mind to fit the boat, the big ones in the middle, the little ones aft and stern. But this also worked well in musical terms, and though these were discarded industrial pipes, far from orchestral tubular bells, Rob and I soon had duets going. Notwithstanding the occasional off-key clung, we rattled off Three Blind Mice and Old MacDonald no problem. 3 Blind Mice, 3 Blind Mice, see how they clung, see how they clung, etc. …And on that farm he had a dong, E-I-E-I-O; with a quack dong here, and a moo clang there; here a BONG, oops, there a clang, bang, oops, sorry, everywhere a dung, bonk, shit, sorry, oops; Old MacDonald had a CLAANG, bollocks…
And that really was that this time. At about 5ish, Rob dropped us all off back down south at the Sumburgh Hotel. To think that we’d woken up 70 miles further north on Unst, then climbed to the top of the islands to see the seabird colonies and the puffins, and now we’d descended to the relative civilisation of a warm hotel at the very bottom of the mainland. Rob really had been a great guide, and we wished him well; I think he was back off to Unst the following morning with another group…
That was the end of the roving wildlife tour, but we had a final day of our holiday left, a bit of space after the dashing around, to unwind and savour the space and a calmer side of things.
* * *
Day Four, Hoswick Bay.
We had a cab booked, the same guy who’d taken us from the airport up to Lerwick nine months, I mean four days ago. But before he arrived, Helen and I took a turn round the ancient settlement of Jarlshof, a stone’s throw from the front of the hotel, its front garden really. This is a site first settled in 4500 years ago, and that sort of scale always makes me shake my head and go “What?”. Like Scara Brae on Orkney, the place was uncovered by monumental storms in the 19th century, when the nearby sea walls were eroded overnight and sand dunes blown away. With our headphone guides, we were steered round most of the site, but unfortunately we hadn’t enough time to complete the tour before our cab arrived. But we’d learnt enough to discover that the place was a multi-layered historical settlement, in that many different societies and cultures had lived here, building their own structures on top of, or next to the existing ancient ones. So there were Iron Age shelters, Bronze Age wheelhouses, right up to medieval kilns, all within the same small area. What I loved was the little corridors, the low, narrow runways between the tiny cells that people used to live in, where you could easily imagine an Iron Age family crouching round the central circular fire on a cold night, the women sewing furs, the children sleeping in the boxed cribs.
We returned to the hotel via a puffin mug and a couple of Shetland tea-towels in time for the cab to take us just up the coast to Hoswick, about half-way between Sumburgh and Lerwick. It’s a cosy inlet, or that’s how it seemed to us, and that’s why we were there for our final day. There was no hurry today, no more scurrying around; this was a time to relax, like the first day in Lerwick, and relish the far-away-from-London-ness of our surroundings.
So we checked in, met the owners, old-time islanders from, well, Derbyshire actually. And then wandered down the road to the local tea room for lunch, not having had anything earlier. After the last few days, the pace had really slowed down now, and we dawdled in there for about an hour, me doing my soup thing, Helen falling in love with the local cat etc.
Then we drifted off down the road; there was a wool shop where Helen bought something made of wool. Then down to Hoswick bay, a lovely horseshoe of a bay, with clear water looking out to sea. It was quite a hot day, and we wandered a short distance up the beach to a tiny cove; then trudged a little further and found a jetty, a stone runway gradually sloping into the water. In both these places, we became like Galapagos lizards, and just stopped and sat and did nothing. For three hours. No talking, conversation, just slowing-down and enjoying, listening to the water gently coming in, and to occasional birds nearby, just sitting and relaxing and lizardly looking blindly up at the sun.
After a long time, we moved on, back towards civilisation. Towards our hotel, which was a white building up a short hill, in an obscure village on the east coast of this island way off the north coast of the north tip of Scotland, about 800 miles from the huge, crowded, bustling, intense capital of London. That’s how it felt. So far away, but, and therefore, how wonderful to have been there.
It was teatime by the time we got back to our room, and we slouched there until it was time to go down for the evening meal, which we’d been looking forward to. Let’s be honest, the menu is always a consideration whenever we book somewhere to stay, of course, and here was no exception. Helen had what was billed purely as Scampi, but arrived as lightly-battered monkfish tails.
The two final pictures taken on this holiday are of the same thing: the view out over Hoswick bay, taken from our hotel room, but five hours apart. At half past six and nearly midnight, the summer light is almost identical, and one photo could pass for the other quite easily.
We knew it’d be sad to leave, and after only five days I knew I’d actually miss the place, so great had been its impression, both scenic and atmospheric. And writing this months later, that has proved to be the case. An example of this would be seeing a landscape with no trees in it. And when we were on the moors up at Hermaness, I’d thought that the spectacular great skuas were as common here as crows are in London, so whenever I see a crow as I leave the house…
We’d been a little apprehensive about the weather before we set off. Yes it was harsh at times. At Hermaness itself, and on the shore on Fetlar the day before, where we found empty sea-urchin shells, it was utterly bleak, intimidatingly cold, with sharp rain nipping your face. But most other times it was actually warm and sunny, bright and clear. The binoculars, in all weathers, were a real asset, bringing soaring gannets, perching whimbrels or diving bonxies up close. The detail this affords, when you can see the bird’s feathers ruffling in the wind, even the look in its eye, makes nature seem much nearer, personal really.
Such an incredible amount to have packed into a short time. It may have been busy busy busy, but it still somehow felt very much like a rest. Obviously time spent experiencing new things, using your head in a totally refreshing new way, is just as good as a break from life as simply doing nothing at all, in other words the cliché is true: a change IS as good. A magic holiday really, maybe not one that we’d have imagined us doing, it being so active and physical! And maybe not one that would appeal to the beach types.
But maybe our best one ever.