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Europe » United Kingdom » Scotland » Shetland Islands
September 8th 2005
Published: September 15th 2009
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LerwickLerwickLerwick

scene in the mist of early morning
Motorhome News from Europe 35.

Shetland September 2005
The Vicar and Sweeney Todd


Shetland enjoys weather. Not good or bad weather particularly, but mostly wet or windy, and, more often than not, both very wet and very windy. In our brief affair with these Islands we have experienced only the ‘very’ bits so far, curtailing much of our planned walking excursions somewhat. ‘It’s been a bad summer this year,’ they all cry! Where have we heard that before?

The best way to find out about the weather is to listen the BBC forecasts. They don’t usually include these islands of course; the presumption being that the UK ends somewhere just north of Glasgow. It’s no good asking a local either - unless you’re a local of course. Damp or rainy weather is called, ‘weety’. Dag, grop, raag, shug, skub and smush are different kinds of drizzle. Slashy and speet are heavy showers and vaanloop is a downpour. We still had hopes for better to come. It would be sad to leave this heavenly place with a vision of Shetland as seen through a pane of frosted glass.

Fine weety eventually gave way to a stiff but
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....Atlantic waves thundered down the wind, crashing and churning against the spectacular high, black cliffs.
warm westerly breeze in time for our arrival at Eshaness lighthouse to the northwest of the mainland. The Atlantic waves thundered down the wind, crashing and churning against the spectacular high, black cliffs. The picture of these majestic cliffs will remain with me forever, topped by mile after mile of beautiful fine Cumberland turf swept by the salt air, nibbled by rabbits and chewed by sheep over centuries and white heads of thrift a reminder of summer days past.

The puffins had departed these shores long before we arrived. Nesting over, they were way out at sea bobbing on the waves somewhere, but a merlin crossed our path on pointed wings and a pair of red-throated divers sheltered on a remote loch, enough to make our day. The sight of these magnificent birds has always been so special to us, perhaps a poignant reminder of loons on the lake in Huntsville, Ontario - and my most treasured book, 'Haunts of British Divers', by Niall Rankin, a present from my parents when I was about nine years old, well worn, but still bearing the inscription, 'This book belongs to David Fossey' in my own youthful handwriting inside the front cover.
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Eshaness...topped by mile after mile of beautiful fine Cumberland turf swept by the salt air, nibbled by rabbits and chewed by sheep
The red-throat is known locally as the rain goose, as I mentioned last week, for the folklore interpretation of its call; ‘We’re wet, we’re wet, worse weather!’ Very appropriate.


Shetland is well known for its tiny ponies. Kids love ‘em and Thelwell characterised them so beautifully for us all to recall. They are seen at their best in the wild on the moor wandering beside the narrow roads, piebald ones, black ones and chestnut brown ones, their long scruffy manes blowing over their eyes in the wind. Any road, north or south, will eventually lead you to a remote moor, where curlew call, cotton grass dances in the wind on black bog creased like a crusty dumpling and purple heather embraces the scars of a thousand years of peat digging. The leaves of yellow iris and lichen-covered sycamore were tinged with brown by the ravages of the wind. Across every hillside lie derelict stone buildings, white painted crofts with a chimney at each end, dry-stone walls from as far back as the Picts, … and a thousand inquisitive sheep. Indeed, on Shetland there are 400,000 sheep, that’s 20 per head of population and 6,000 cattle, enough to make
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..their long scruffy manes blowing over their eyes in the wind.
the island self-sufficient in milk. There are no hedges on Shetland, the wind has seen to that and any dedicated gardener will have left the island for warmer climes, long, long ago.


Much of the joy of Shetland is in its open space, its narrow, endless horizons and big skies. Muckle Roe, (what a lovely image this conjures up) is one such remote place. It was shrouded in thick sea mist when we arrived for a six mile ‘easy circular walk’ (according to the brochure), over high heather moor to the secluded beach of North Ham. With fine rain wet on our faces, we made our way to the sea. The horizon was lost to a sea mist, but slowly the air cleared, exposing folds of green meadow sweeping gently into the sea like the curved edges of a jigsaw and to the south, high cliffs of red sandstone set on a wide bay. At the top of the cliffs the path disappeared, the hills steepened, the rain re-started, mountain streams became increasingly boggy and deep rocky gorges criss-crossed our path at every turn. We were thoroughly wet and exhausted by the time Smiley eventually came into view
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Janice on lookout!
over the brow of another hill, another near vertical drop, another fence to climb, another headland to circumnavigate. There would be a few words with Tourist Info about signing footpaths when next we ventured to Lerwick!



At the southern tip of the mainland lies Sumburgh Head, where another lighthouse stands atop a high rise beyond the shallow peninsula that accommodates the island’s airport. Below the headland stands Sumburgh Hotel. This magnificent Victorian stone building overlooks the Atlantic and Jarlshof. It was undoubtedly particularly nice, until somebody built a very nasty square extension to it in the ‘60’s. Hopefully the local planning officer was fired shortly afterwards, but what is done, is done, and not likely to be undone. Jarlshof is just a minutes’ walk away. It is an archaeological site with an amazing history. Excavations followed a violent storm in the late 19th century which exposed several layers of dwellings on the same site through the ages: Stone, Bronze and Viking, through to the 17th Century, all on the one site. Isn’t it wonderful how scintillating history can be when you can tread the boards?



Like the puffins, the storm petrels had gone too.
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must talk to tourist info
They were already way out at sea. The petrels nest each year in the crevices of the great Pictish broch on the island of Mousa where it’s possible to watch them during the summer as they return to roost around midnight. We took the ferry out to the island anyway; a hairy boat-ride to say the least on a heavy swell, and walked the shore to see the hundreds of very fat harbour seals that bask there, looking more like inflated balloons about to burst! The sandstone broch stands more than forty feet high and has a circumference of some 158ft. It dates from the iron-age (around 100BC - that’s before I was born) and is in remarkably good condition, with a climbable dark staircase between its inner and outer walls.

Smiley went in for his service early in the week, a little overdue, but in good hands. I’m told that Angus, the garage proprietor, later asked our local celebrity and friend, Ernie, if I was a Minister. Now, that’s either my angelic face or the fact that I was wearing a white polo-necked sweater. I think it’s the former. The Queen has been here many times and her
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Janice - inside Mousa broch
picture appears in many of the local museums, opening memorial halls and the like. The next time I see her I’ll ask her if she knows Ernie. Everyone else on the island seems to.

Shetland’s remoteness is not only noticeable in its natural elements. The Islands are 700miles from London and were it not for radio, television and the press, you might be in a different country. Here they are remote from suicide bombers, wars and politics, traffic fumes and daily murders. The media revelling in all that’s bad in our society could be reporting on happenings on the other side of the world as far as the islanders are concerned. It is indeed a different world. Being an island, there is little crime of any sort. There was little graffiti or vandalism in evidence there. There were no burnt out cars or litter-strewn pavements. Wherever we travelled on Shetland the locals greeted us with a smile and they would happily chat all day like old friends. Time is of such little importance.

Oil came to the islands some years ago and an act of parliament secured revenue from the land and oil that has seen vast investment
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Harbour seals - looking more like inflated balloons about to burst!
in roads, community projects, schools and social amenities beyond belief for such a small population. Shetlanders enjoy exceptional social facilities and a great cultural heritage. It’s no wonder that most would have no wish to live anywhere else. The people of Shetland have shown themselves to be friendly and humorous, and generous to a fault. We have been fortunate to meet many and to have time to enjoy their fine hospitality and warm company. There is a special pride in Shetland. Their own flag, a white cross on blue background, gained official recognition this year and it is now a common sight across the islands. I discussed pride and the flag with a local dignitary, having admired the Shetland flag pin in his lapel. In true Shetland fashion, he removed the pin and presented it to me. It wasn’t quite like being knighted, but it was much appreciated. I think that makes me an honorary Shetlander, doesn’t it?

Most maps of the UK show Shetland and Orkney misplaced, tucked in a little box in the top right-hand corner, as if in after-thought. For Shetland, the links with Norse ancestors are more in evidence than those with Scotland. There are
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a dramatic land of wide skies
no tartans here and no kilts. Presumably the Clans bear little importance. Fairisle knitwear, however, features high on the list of visitor attractions. Fairisle sweaters were apparently helped to fame when the then Prince of Wales wore one at St Andrews. Perhaps it was his smart jumper that first attracted Mrs Simpson’s attention. Other quaint Norse traditions are apparent here, one of which did not go unnoticed - it’s a motorhomer’s delight. Every village here has its public loo, clearly signposted and brick built - as the expression goes. A special map has even been produced showing all the public toilets on the islands. They are all well maintained, with stainless steel fittings, soap and paper towels a la Norway. We do have all our own facilities, of course, but there are some things better left in other people’s back yards.

Like Smiley’s service, a visit to a gent’s barber was also long overdue and Sweeney Todd’s seemed the ideal place for a quick haircut before leaving for Orkney. I had to wait a while for the shop to open; the proprietor had returned from Scotland and rushed direct from the ferry.

‘What will it be, Sir?’ He
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...and vast landscapes
said, still puffing.
‘Short back and sides, please.’

What I actually got, was a Van Gogh. By the time I departed, my hair was neatly trimmed - and my left ear was bleeding profusely from a misplaced snip! Janice has sown it back on and hopefully it will be OK. (I daren’t look in our corner mirrors. I might have two right ears!)

We have been ‘on the road’ now for 12 months, travelling 27,000 miles through 14 different countries. Shetland will be remembered for its warm and welcoming people, its strong sense of independence and community, its variable climate (to be kind), its magnificent birds and walks, the wild wide landscapes, the enigmatic fiddle music, the dialect - some of which we understood and, most of all, for light and water an artist would die for. Thank you Shetland. We can’t promise to come back in this lifetime, but at least now, we can dream.

Our ferry departed Lerwick for the six-hour journey to Orkney on Monday evening in calm seas. Dinner, ‘a la carte’ helped to pass the time until our arrival in darkness in Kirkwall. We had been told by Shetlanders that Orkney is wonderful in daylight and our expectations were high. But more on that next week.


David and Janice
The Grey Haired Nomads

A few of the birds: Twite, snipe, skylark, Shetland wren, merlin, hundreds of bonxies (great skuas) and shags.
Flowers: Touch-me-not Balsam, ragged robin, tormentil amongst the heather, devilsbit scabious.





Additional photos below
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Broch Broch
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The amazing Pictish broch on Mousa
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Smiley - on the beach


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