Shetland, the final frontier. These are the adventures of hemiexplorers, our continuing mission, to explore it’s northerly isles, to seek out new villages and new peoples. To boldly go where only puffins have gone before!
Having finally dried out from our first foray into the Shetland wilderness we packed our bags and crossed fingers for better weather! But before that was the small matter of the Simmer Dim half marathon, Britain’s most northerly half! Having done my best to size up the opposition I found myself in a no-mans land of fourth place for almost the entire route; just me and the huge views out to sea as I was buffeted up and down long stretches of coastal hillside by the stiff westerlies. However, as I reached the bright red lanes of the Clickimin running track I made it up to third spot as one of the runners was fortuitously doing his best Jonny Brownlee impersonation. Better news was yet to come at the awards presentation where I was given second in the senior men’s category – of course, that only means that the guy who came second was an age gap older than me, but still, that’s what it is reported as in the Shetland Times, kerching!
With so much vast ocean surrounding Shetland it is a Mecca for fish, and so long as you like it deep fried with a bag of greasy chips, heaven awaits! So it was that we began our four day expedition with a pier-side haddock and chip supper at lunchtime in Lerwick, fending off the rather menacing looking gull with a round of claps which were almost misconstrued for a chip. A bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus combo then took us up to the northern most isle in the Britain. Unst. We stepped off our bus at Saxa Vord – the only passengers remaining, and headed north along the single track lane that ends at the doorstep to the northern most house in the Queen’s realm. One solitary car passed us by, then suddenly stopped and out jumped two familiar faces – Mark and Kara who we had last been chatting to at the finish line of the half marathon, little surprise that in such a remote part of the world it is hard to not know who’s who! That evening our tent pitch was overlooking the bay at Skaw beach. We filled our bellies with a hybrid Orzo risotto concoction and with a chill in the brightly lit evening air headed to our sleeping bags. Our next morning was a drizzle fest, a pretty common occurrence on these islands and we didn’t head off till gone nine, which given sunrise is before four am, is a long while to wait! Once we had saddled ourselves with our heavy rucksacks we aimed for the bird haven of Hermaness. The clifftops were spectacular. Birds were flinging themselves from perilous perches into the dark ocean to bring back food for their chicks whilst sheep grazed above dramatic drop-offs. We made our way until the earth stopped and the water began and nothing but some rocks lay between us and the north pole.
We returned (in the drizzle again) to the fabulous visitors centre and made a warming cuppa with the kettle provided for the use of vagabonds like us, and then sort our second night’s pitch on the outskirts of Burrafirth. We were soon chatting with a fellow nomad who opted to strike camp along with us and over a warm brew we discovered that he was best friends with my adventurous uncle who sailed solo around the world. A beautifully tranquil evening set in and a good night’s sleep was had. Our next morning’s hike proved much more of a challenge as we headed in a line across the peat bogs east of Cliff loch. Not only did we have the challenge of moss covered pools and plunging muddy banks, but also the threat of diving bonxies nesting all around us protecting their unhatched young.
Being in the highest part of the U.K. means that pretty much everything has the tag line “Britain’s most northerly…” and we duly obliged by playing along, Britain’s most northerly post box, Britain’s most northerly church, Britain’s most northerly abandoned Vauxhall Astra (there were actually two to choose from!). We stopped off at Britain’s most northerly leisure centre (that services a community of 632 residents – by that ratio Didcot would have 40!) for a shower and chat to the chap who came second in the half marathon. Forget the you’re never more than 3 miles from the sea stat – I reckon you’re never more than 3 miles from someone you’ve already met! Feeling refreshed we then set off towards the south of Unst. Our target was to reach the Bordastubble standing stone – Shetland’s largest monolith. Although the shower at midday had provided a great pick-me-up, another five hours of walking was tough going, especially for Helen who was in my old boots! So by the time we had made it to the four metre rock we were not in favour of heading to the secluded beaches of Wick, and instead headed further south in search of a sheltered spot for the tent as the evening had brought the return of some gusts. As we gained height with the wind into our faces, we came across an abandoned crofters house, the roof all gone and no doors or windows, but still a barrier to the stiff breeze. It gave us just enough space for the tent, but the previous occupants had left their mark, with a number of sheep and rabbit droppings requiring a flick away.
The following morning we returned to the mainland on the 8:30 am ferry and connecting bus service. Our faces told the story of the weather and our photos the views. Unst was a great microadventure! That gave us just enough time to do a tour of the relatives I hadn’t managed to see, get my copy of Into the Southern Ocean signed by Andrew and bid farewell to Greta’s homely meals before we set sail into the swell of the North Sea.