Thursday 2 November 2023

2023 Shetland

26.10.23 London Heathrow

Sitting in a dinky twin turboprop Loganair to Sumburgh in Shetland, via Dundee.  Just 50 seats.  Last time I was in a turboprop plane was in Mexico – and that was very turbulent.  The six-blade propeller just moved, then stopped… Another delay, sitting on the stand for 15 minutes more… Pushing back, props spinning up rather fast just outside my window (row 4).  Blades invisible, as you’d expect, except for a blur near the engine.  Reminds me that jets are almost magical in their invisible power.  Props make that power visible, just…  As we taxi out to the runway, Concorde is visible.  Beautiful plane, pity about the pollution. 

Pretty impressive acceleration, lifting off quickly.  Brief stop in Dundee, where most got off.  Only around 10 people going on.

Doing a go-around at Sumburgh – almost  landed, but apparently there were “birds on the runway”.  Makes a change from leaves on the line.  Cloudy, but not actually raining at the moment.  Nice sun – above the clouds.

Landed in Sumburgh.  Picked up hire car – quickly, since I was the only one doing so.  Made a nice change from the long-drawn out process at some places – samples of blood, birth certificates etc…

Wind pretty strong, but I imagine it gets much stronger.  The road from Sumburgh to here – Hillswick – hard to mistake, since it is the road running the entire length of the mainland like a spine.  The landscape fairly unchanging – moorland, smooth valleys, low hills.  Reminds me of Harris a lot.  Road good, practically no traffic.  Further north, after the metropolis of Brae – even has a Chinese takeaway – the land begins to buckle and fold, become more beguiling.  The sea makes its presence felt in various directions as the inlets – the voes – poke in.  One is Sullom Voe, which I’d known of for nearly half a century since North Sea oil was a thing.  It’s a pretty exhausted thing now, but apparently brought prosperity to Shetland at the time.

We found our Airbnb easily – it was the end of the road – not just in Hillswick, but almost of the mainland.  The accommodation a well converted barn, mercifully warm, and with good Internet connection.  Right by the sea, which runs west uninterrupted to Canada (?).  In fact we are well north: above Stavanger, where we were last year, close to Norway and the Faroes.

The lady of the nearby house, who owns and runs the barn, came to say hello.  I was surprised – absurdly – when she spoke with a juicy Scottish accent.  Somehow I imagine people here speaking with Norse twang…

27.10.23 Lerwick

In the Peerie Shop café, upstairs.  Raining down to Lerwick, past the mysterious still wind turbines.  Lots of them, and big – so I’m guessing they are a new installation.  Also lots of works signs – lorries carrying material…

Lerwick bigger than expected – we drove and drove, and finally found the centre after a few wrong turnings.  Parked by the harbour, big ships booming.  A quick walk around the old part of the town, then to here for a coffee – and warmth.

Along Commercial Street – where prices are indeed pretty commercial.  The Shetland Times Bookshop excellent – lots of local titles – “Lerwick’s Lanes” or some such – but I am brave, and manage not to buy anything.  Walking north along the street, a rainbow arch before us – rain and sun, but the rain soon passes, leaving us an un-Shetland sunny day.  Lots of cafés and restaurants here – must be busy in summer.

On the way, what is I presume a very Scottish road sign: “It is an offence to drink alcohol in designated places in Lerwick.  This area is a designated place for the purpose of this bylaw.  Maximum penalty £500”.

Past the modern Mareel arts centre to the Shetland Museum.  Quite small – two floors – but well presented, especially the early stuff.  Interesting to read about Norn…  Then back along Commercial Street to The Dowry restaurant.  Busy here, a good sign, one hopes.  The street that runs through Lerwick – Commercial Street – reminds me of Reykjavik and of St. Ives – but rather livelier and more attractive compared to the latter.  To the Broch of Clickimin, conveniently placed near Tesco, with big thick walls, chambers – and two mysterious footprints in a stone slab, possibly for ritual purposes.

Then to Scalloway, the old capital of Shetland.  Small, tranquil, with a ruined castle under repair.  The sun begins to fall down to the west, still warm now that the clouds have all gone.  By the car park, a small public garden, with strange trees.  With the low sun streaming through interlocking twig fingers creating a magic garden.  A tidy house sits behind.

Down to Hamnavoe, crossing two narrow causeways to and from Trondra.  A small but packed harbour.  And a seal bobs up the other side of the harbour wall – huge, 2 metres long.  As we take photos, it turns to regard us with what looks like supercilious contempt.

Driving back, the setting sun starts producing its customary conflagration over the Atlantic, the nearby hills tinged with orange and pink.   Up to Brae to take advantage of a rare petrol pump.  Tank now full for tomorrow’s great odyssey to the ends of the earth.

28.10.23 Toft

Waiting at Toft harbour.  Rain as we came down, now miraculously clearing.  The ferry opened its whale-like maw on arrival, disgorging a dozen or so (maybe two dozen) cars and coaches. Long valley down to Toft – felt very Viking, very Iceland. A strange effect: the wind-blown water surface alongside us make it feel like our car is moving…  Boarding soon for 9.45am sailing to Yell… on Dagalien.

Waiting at Gutcher for 11.20am to Unst.  Rained quite hard as we came off the Toft ferry, then gradually cleared.  The view back to the mainland fine – the land extending to the north more than I expected.  One main road to here, few villages en route. Flat moorland, heather fine in purple.  Blue sky now winning over the clouds, sun almost visible. 
Our ferry Bigga arrives – smaller, this one.  It comes in with its jaw wide open.

Sitting by Skaw beach – finally.  Took wrong turn to Hermaness along narrow single-track road, then back to here, along another, poorly made-up road, with plenty of Tajiki-style potholes…  Not raining, but windy.  Skaw beach red and pretty.  The main pool fed by a stream a disconcerting dark brown.  Parked alongside the most northerly house in the UK.  And this point is pretty much the end of the country.  Odd feeling, and quite a trek to get here – which is half the fun.

We then reverse our journey.  Back through Haroldswick, still unable to find the famous Unst bus stop, kitted out with comfy chairs and other mod cons.  A fast drive gets us to the ferry earlier enough to take the 13.45 instead of 14.15 – we just squeeze on the last space.  Taking this ferry means we could make the 14.30 back to the mainland. This requires a fast-ish zip across Yell.  Interestingly, there is a convoy of cars from the ferry doing the same – all conscious of how tight it is.  Now waiting to see if there is space for us, since we’re unbooked for this (I booked for 15.30).  And we’re on – sandwiched between a lorry and big van…

Back in our barn in Hillswick, via a detour that took us close to Sullom Voe terminal.  As we passed, we saw a huge tower flaring gas in a bright, twisting flame – an apt, malevolent image for evil fossil fuels, a modern-day eye of Sauron.

As with Tajikistan – fewer than five months ago – I’m all-too conscious of how thin my comments are in the above.  The problem is that I’m driving most of the time, and can only write when we stop.  And today has been under an additional time pressure, since we had four ferries to catch, and ran the risk of ending up stuck on an island if we missed one.

That sense of onward movement felt right in one way, because today was as if hurtling to the edge of the world, or at least this Westerly bit of it.  And the organisation to do that – in terms of getting to Shetland, then getting transport out across the waters to islands and then on – also felt right, as if this was some complex project to land on another planet.  In miniature it was, but microscopic in scale, and without the life-threatening danger.

Getting lost right at the end was part of this.  The narrow road to Hermaness felt right in its constant narrowing.   And the real road to Skaw, with its pot-holed, neglected surface was also right in its own way.  Skaw beach looked almost too calm, as if there should be huge cliffs and violent waves à la Cornwall.  But of course Skaw beach was on the east coast, looking across to Bergen, not at the vast Atlantic.

One curious feature was that just before the beach and the end of the road, there were building works at a site.  The site of UK’s SaxaVord Spaceport, no less, where 30 metre rockets will be launched from, allegedly.  There was a small sign on the road to that effect, and also one at Sumburgh airport.  By an interesting coincidence, a few days ago I received the official press release announcing this plan.  Not quite sure how they will get 30 metre rockets along the twisty dirt track that leads here – in pieces/by helicopter?

On the way back, as mentioned above, we missed the famous bus stop.  Looking at the map afterwards, and on Google Street View, it is evident that it was easy to miss.  And maybe nicer as a concept than in reality.

We managed to get on the earlier ferries not least because the main road on the islands – each only has one – are in very good condition, so zipping along at a fair notch is both practical and safe.  Well, apart from suicidal sheep that decided to amble across the road without regard for traffic.  I had to brake quite hard a couple of times.  Part of the problem is the sheep’s unpredictability- you’re never sure whether they will keep going or suddenly dart back.  Makes charting a safe route through them tricky.

There are sheep everywhere, far more than cows.  A few Shetland ponies were visible, huddling together against the wind and occasional rain.  Lots of raptors in the air, and geese – who left hundreds of deposits on Skaw beach, along with thousands of footprints.  No seals or whales that we saw, alas, although apparently the latter are visible from time to time, which is a good sign.  Also no otters, but they are shy it seems, so no surprise there.

Night.  The wind rising.  Broken clouds in the sky.  A patch clears, and the full moon shines with surprising brightness.  The sea below shimmers like shook silver foil…

29.10.23 Melby 

Stunning landscape here, but I can barely hold my pen – my fingers so cold from the whipping wind.  White horses on the waves, pushed into the bay here at Melby.  Long drive here through undulating moors, broken by pools and not much else.  Fab views to the north, and out to Papa Stour.  Stunning weather – we’re so lucky.  Almost clear blue sky, a few clouds, strong bracing wind.

Now sitting in Frankie’s, allegedly the best fish and chip shop in the UK/world or something.  Facing a big haddock in batter, comme il faut…  And rather fine it was, too – sweet and succulent.  Whether it is the best in the UK/world I don’t feel qualified to say...but good enough for me.

The journey out east today was enhanced by the weather; I’m sure under rain/sleet/snow it is far less enchanting.  Roads single track after the turn off to Walls, rightly “Waas” = Vagr (Old Norse for "sheltered bay").  The view out to Papa Stour and the Atlantic very fine – I could put up with a house here (provided it was well insulated).

Driving back, we did not go via Aith as we did coming, passing through several tiny hamlets, but continued on the “main” road to Sound, then cutting up through Setter to the actual main road.  This took us past the works on the wind farm.  I discovered this is called “Viking”, will open next year with 103 4.5 megawatt turbines, giving nearly half a gigawatt of peak power.  They are all still now, but the work seems well in hand.  Because they will produce far more power than Shetland needs (enough for 200,000 people, but Shetland has only 20,000) a fat new interconnect to mainland Scotland is being built too.

Travelling around several islands here, it is striking that BBC Radio 3 is always available; 4G is more localised, but when available is fast.  Impressive.

30.10.23 Sumburgh airport

Waiting for the plane, just not the plane we booked.  The inbound flight from London has an electrical fault, and thus won’t be inbound.  So we have been put on a Loganair flight to Glasgow, and then we will have to take a BA flight to London Heathrow.  All part of the fun…

After leaving our barn in Hillswick, we drove straight the Cooperative supermarket in Brae.  Amazingly, this is open from 6am to 11pm.  What it lacks in depth of offering, it makes up in opening hours.  Then, straight down to St Ninian’s Isle – of which more anon – passing through some quintessential Shetland places.  To wit:

Quarff (Easter and Wester)

The otherness of Shetland is evident.  

So, St Ninian’s Isle.  A dramatic geography – an island joined to the mainland by a double-headed axe-shaped spit of sand.  To the south, a herd of small islands bunched together like granite elephants.  Some rain, some sun, lots of wind.  Then along the one-track road to Skelberry, rejoining the main road.  

Next task: find the only petrol station below Lerwick – necessary because our hire car was “full to full”.  We saw a sign for the petrol station, and drove on, looking for it.  On and on, until we ended up at Sumburgh airport.  Somehow we missed it – which is hard when there are almost no buildings here.  We turned around, managed to find a spot with 4G, used Google Maps to locate the phantom petrol station, finally found it hiding amongst a clump of nondescript buildings.

Down to Sumburgh, driving straight across the runway (just as you do in Gibraltar), heading to Jarlshof, a prehistoric and Viking settlement.  We park in the Sumburgh Hotel car park, march off towards the ruins – and find that they are closed on Mondays.

And so to here, to be told our plane to London isn’t coming, and that we will be routed via Glasgow.  Now I found out that won’t change our taxi pick-up time.  Looks like I will be using them less in the future…

An update: I managed to contact the allotted driver, and we scheduled the pick up.  Then phones, rather more helpful than before, so perhaps I was too harsh.  Glasgow airport rather nice – big, bustling, modern.  Lots of people travelling who knows where on a Monday evening.

Sitting on the plane to London Heathrow, but take-off delayed again.  It seems the plane we should be on had a fault, and that this is a replacement <sigh/>….

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