Shetland is Very Far Away. A minimum 12 hours by sea from Aberdeen, more if you go via Orkney or are smitten by God in a
to the more personal kind of heaving, which is com- pulsory). You could of course fly, but this may involve mortgaging several houses and a level of fear novel to travellers more used to, say, Nemesis at Alton Towers or freefall parachuting into Helmand Province.
It’s a difficult choice: on the Shetland flight, you think you’re going to die; on the boat, you wish you were dead.
Not always. Sometimes it’s calm. You can occa- sionally persuade FlyBe to transport you for less than half your annual income. But still. Once you land at Sumburgh or wobble down that Lerwick gangplank, you ain’t in Kansas anymore. Or, for that matter, in Scotland. Not really.
I live here, and grow increasingly reluctant to leave. It’s not the Scandinavian
There is, however, the issue of islanditis, that nervy sense of insularity that can descend, even in the endless days of the simmer dim. If it’s not a sudden desire for multiplexes and Eggs Benedict, it’s a yearning for proper hills, decent trees and an absence of sea. And then, as the summer begins to expire, you sense the encroaching blackness and wish you had actually gone on those wee treks you promised yourself. This year, last year, the year before that. In particular, the Big One, the perambulation par excel- lence. The Best Beaches in the World Walk.
As you may be aware, there are other candidates in the Best Beaches in the World category. Upstarts such as Bondi, Sandwood Bay, Copacabana, Nairn. Forget all that. The best beaches of the world are all in Shetland. The South Mainland has the golden fine- ness of Spiggie, Boddam and especially the stun- ning tombolo, or
Do the strand
From Eshaness to creepiness — Tom Morton visits some fine beaches
The two best beaches in Shetland — or, let’s be fair, my favourites — and hence in the world, are the Lang Ayre (long beach) and the small tombolo at Uyea Isle. The Lang Ayre can be reached only by sea or by a long walk over the top of Ronas Hill, or along its Specially Scientifically Interesting flank.
Uyea Isle lies about six miles to the north of the Lang Ayre. Uyea itself is an old crofting township, now inhabited only during the lambing season but con- taining some of the most fertile land in Shetland. There’s a drivable track from North Roe,
The summer was fading, and my ambition was to walk from the old NATO station at Collafirth Hill across Ronas Hill, down to the Lang Ayre, and then, as instructed by Squadron Leader Peter Guy,
author of Walking the Coastline of Shetland, camp at Lang Clodie Wick. Then a morning’s walk to Uyea and out by the track, there to be collected at the North Roe phonebox. It’s 20 very rough and totally isolated miles. No mobile phone signal, once you’re out of sight of the Collafirth masts. There are hidden drops, pits and bogs. And if the weather gets frisky, you don’t want to be there. This is home to the UK’s highest windspeeds: a gust of over 173mph was re- corded at Muckle Flugga lighthouse on 1 January 1992, before the equipment broke. Two tourists were killed in that storm when the hut they were staying in blew away. In 1967, 177mph was recorded at the radar dome on top of Saxa Vord in Unst — and then the apparatus was ripped apart. The official UK re- cord remains 173mph on Cairn Gorm in 1986; their equipment seems to be more solidly anchored.
Anyway. You really don’t want to be walking “da banks” of the Lang Ayre any time between October and February, and you most certainly don’t want to be camping. Even in summer, weather is an obses- sion for Shetlanders. And, in this case, for me — a soothmoother, someone who arrived through the South Mouth of Lerwick Harbour.
As it happened, the forecast was for dullness, dreichocity and saturation, but not excessive blowing.
And so Saturday lunchtime saw me dropped off at Collafirth by my son, who thinks I am mad. I certain- ly looked mad, rucksacked up with a Quechua
The walk from the masts at Collafirth Hill to the top of Ronas Hill took about two hours. This scarred granite boulderfield is often compared to the sub- arctic tundra of northern Norway. The existence of a neolithic chambered cairn (modified since the 1960s, but still very impressive), 40 metres below the sum- mit, never fails to give me the creeps, especially in mist. Trowies (Shetlandic
Onwards, though, to the Best Beach in Britain. And the Lang Ayre, when reached, viewed from the Stonga Banks or after an occasionally intimidating scramble down the smashed granite course of the Burn of Monius, is truly breathtaking. A mile and a half of red shingle, backed with cliffs that give every impression of imminent crumbling. There are caves, infinite amounts of scran (beachcombing assets) and, offshore, the monstrous
Now there was a choice. To trudge along the
Onwards, as another mile of
motel”. But it was too early to stop, really, so I pressed on. I’m not afraid of ghosts. Honest.
On Hevdadale Head, after an almost total absence of both fences and sheep, both began to make their presence felt. The Woolly Gods were back. Maurice Laurenson, who has the rights of what were once several crofts at Uyea, remains one of the biggest sheep owners in the area despite the change in sub- sidy rules that have seen numbers (thankfully) down to a fraction of their former,
Curious sheep disturbed me during the short night. In the utter darkness, the stars arced, massive and soft, haloed like Christmas decorations. I got up in dampish, billowing weather and packed quickly. Bad rain was fluttering in the air.
Signs of cultivation and modern crofting increased:
The climb out of Uyea on the track (suitable for 4x4s, but get Maurice’s permission first; access is always open for walkers and mountain bikers) seem- ed endless. As the road veered in and out of the Beorgs of Uyea, the cairns showing the site of a Neo- lithic axe factory were visible on the skyline. I was too tired and my ancient knees were too creaky to attempt the climb, but I wondered if there were any axe heads left. My wife claims to have seen dozens when she last visited 20 years ago, and items quar- ried here have been found all over Europe.
North Roe, finally. Still no
Squatting on my rucksack, I read the Squadron Leader’s quotation of his fellow RAF man, Derek Gilpin Barnes, stationed at RAF Sullom Voe during the second world war and a keen explorer of the local landscape: “Did the brooding spirits of the an- cient gods whisper to my companions as they did to me? Was that thin silence shattered in the quiet of their minds, by the clash of remote Scandinavian
swords or the grinding of Norse keels upon those forgotten sands?”
Or is that the rattle of a Toyota Landcruiser’s turbo diesel, coming to whisk me home for the winter? Not very far away at all. By car.
OS Explorer 469: Shetland – Mainland North West, North Roe and Sullom Voe. Pictures and more about Tom’s walk can be found on his blog: http://
Mermaids and Marilyns
Elsewhere, in another part of the Northern Isles, Gordon Smith has an eerie moment…
The Orkney I was born into was a place where there was no great distinction between the ordinary and the fabulous
[…]A man I knew once sailed out in a boat to look for a mermaid, and claimed afterwards that he had talked with her […] Fairies, or “fairicks”, as they were called, were encountered dancing on the sands on moonlight nights […] All these things have vanished from Orkney in the last fifty years under the pressure of compulsory education.
So wrote the poet Edwin Muir of his childhood home. Now, as a teacher, I am pretty much inured to being held responsible for the ills of society: lack of respect for the elderly, teenage pregnancies, misuse of the apostrophe, et- cetera; but to get the blame for fairy depopulation seems a bit much. Nevertheless, I do sort of understand what Muir was getting at, particularly as I have my own little Orkney tale of the imagination to tell. So when the Ed asked if I fancied contributing a piece about the Northern Isles, I was happy to oblige. He has also heard me opine more than once that the coastal walks on Orkney offer some of the best days out to be had in Scotland, and are worth a stack (no pun intended) of mediocre mainland Marilyns.
I should probably lay off the gratuitous abuse of Marilynbaggers for a bit, given that in this article I will also be outing myself as a hardcore obscure Marilyn- bagger avant la lettre, having made my bones on the Ork- ney hills 20 years ago. This is a significant admission: I’ll bet there are baggers who qualify for the Hall of Personal- ity Disorder or whatever who haven’t bagged the likes of Blotchnie Fiold on Rousay.
My favourite Orkney hill, however, is not the Blotch, but Cuilags on Hoy. I first visited the High Island one cold Easter in the late eighties, and the sight that greeted me as I clambered out of the passenger ferry was not a mermaid, but a
Anyway, the next summer Julie and I were on holiday on Orkney, and went back to Hoy in search of its less commercial attractions. Leaving the quay at Moaness we walked the road to Rackwick, the great
pomorphise unduly, the skua is a vicious bastard: it mugs other seabirds, menacing its hapless victims until they re- gurgitate their
I was inspecting a fledgling bonxie in its moorland nest when there was a sudden whoosh and wingbeat in my ear: in fear and alarm, I threw myself face down in the heather. After enduring a few more unnerving passes at
Having extracted ourselves from this avian morass, we at last had a full view of the Old Man. The southern aspect is the classic view, in which the stack rises to a shoulder then narrows to a neck, topped by a head that slopes as if duck- ing to avoid a bonxie. In many ways this is entirely the wrong walk for those uncomfortable with heights — or who, like me, have a
The outlook from St John’s Head itself is, however, wondrous. It may be a bit of a cliché to remark that from almost 350m, great rolling waves in the sea below are as white silken threads on a great blue tapestry, or circling seabirds mere motes of dust in a vast cathedral; but it is nonetheless a remarkable sight, and one that may be ex- perienced in relative safety quite near to the highest point of the cliff. The “summit” itself is Bre Brough, a huge block which stares impassively out to the Atlantic. Like its biblical namesake (as depicted by Caravaggio), St John’s Head is now partially decollated: a grassy neck leads out from the mainland, dipping into a crack before rising again, an inaccessible spot for us
Turning with some relief away from the sea, we contin- ued up the rough hags of Cuilags to the shapely cairn from which, according to legend and the Orkney tourist guide, almost every island of the archipelago can be seen on a clear day. I left Julie to enjoy the green patchwork in Scapa Flow while I nipped down the hill to where I knew there to be the wreckage of a
I could not see any plane, but still the noise continued to build and I had an awful sense of foreboding that what- ever it was, it was coming directly towards me. I felt an in- explicable but acute fear, and seized by a kind of panic, I
Never mind the looming football World Cup, now is the start of the new domestic cricket season and crateloads of Wisdens have been weighing down delivery vans across the country. TAC has a new favourite cricket team: Mountain- eers, who play in the various Zimbabwean competitions. They have generally had a good season, apart from a disas- trous 59 all out against Mashonaland Eagles in February. Sadly the
Speaking of Mr McNeish and mountaineering, the Wiki- pedia category “Scottish mountain climbers” makes for in- teresting reading. Being Wikipedia, it could change in a cou- ple of
Would anyone like to try and place these 26 in order of mountaineering prowess? David Douglas was mainly a bot- anist, Forbes mainly a physicist. Kinloch “has embarked on the Seven Summits challenge and has gained a reputation amongst climbers for always wearing a hat and scarf of his beloved Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club”.
Four of these — Hamish Brown, Lord Francis Douglas, McNeish and Smith — also feature in the
On the subject of notable mountaineers, the Daily Mail for 20 November included an interview with John and Ed- ward Grimes, aka Jedward, which included the information that “Last summer they scaled the four highest mountains in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales for charity.” Given the subsequent state of their hair, it appears to have been breezy on at least one of the days. Have these hills been climbed, before or since, by anyone publicly described as “vile little creatures”? (Simon Cowell.)
Two men will be attempting “single take” rounds of the Munros over the coming months — but at markedly different speeds. Stephen Pyke, aka Spyke, will have a go at Charlie
could only stand petrified as the noise became a roar, hurt- ling ever closer like an unseen tube train. There was a rush of wind and then it was all over: the glen was as clear and still and quiet as before. I recovered my wits and ran back up the slopes to find Julie resting undisturbed at the cairn: no, she had heard nothing, seen nothing at all.
Later, in the comfort of the pub in Stromness, I was able to rationalise the experience. What I had heard and felt was not some ghostly bomber, more likely a highly localis- ed gust of wind from the sea, funnelled between Cuilags and Ward Hill. I had noticed striations on the thin soil of the hillside, erosion probably caused by such a wind. Imag- ination had looked upon the sad, strewn metal on the hill- side, reassembled the pieces, and made them fly again.
But then again, perhaps striations are not the only im- pressions of the past that persist on the hillsides of this is- land. As George Mackay Brown put it: Further than Hoy / the mermaids whisper […] Further than history / the legends thicken…
It’s that kind of place, where distinctions between the ordinary and the fabulous, the real and imagined, can sometimes get a bit blurred.
Even if Spyke does dip under Campbell’s time of 48 days 12 hours (see TAC47
Then there is Gerry McPartlin, a retired GP also aiming to do a summer round but spending four months over it and doing it Martin Moran style — using a van between hill groups. He started with Ben Lomond on 10 April, and hopes to finish with Ben Chonzie on 7 August. McPartlin is aged 66, and would be the first pensioner to manage such a thing. It will be his second round. The first was a normal mix of daytrips and holidays, but unique in being part of the only
McPartlin’s walk is in memory of his friend, and to raise £50,000 for the charity L’Arche. Details at www.justgiving. com/gerrymcpartlin Earlier