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 force-11 bad mood and heaving to becomes necessary (in addition

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 welfare-state economy, fuelled by the biggest oil terminal in Europe. It’s not the low unemployment, the wealth, the state-of-the- art sports centres, state-of-the-sport arts centres, fabulous education system and ubiquity of that fine vehicle, the Toyota HiLux Double Cab pickup. It’s not the nightless summers or the blink-and-you’ll-miss- it daylight of winter. It’s not the fiddle music or the reestit mutton soup. It’s being Very Far Away.

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 double-sided beach, at St Ninian’s Isle (which possesses flattened pebbles so wond- rous I once considered selling them on eBay in packs of four to aid meditation). The East and West Ayres at Hillswick have their charms, but things get really interesting when you hit the red granite that gives the northern part of the North Mainland its various names: North Roe, Ronas Hill, Roer Water. Red, red, red. Hidden away beneath some of the fractured,

Do the strand

From Eshaness to creepiness — Tom Morton visits some fine beaches

cave-pocked cliffs of Eshaness lie gritty shingle strands, only reachable via dodgy scrambles down ever-shifting watercourses for which you should really bring ropes, helmets and years of experience. But, in my case, never do. Fear of the embarrassment which would be involved in calling out the local coastguard, every man and woman of which is a friend or neighbour, mean that you simply cannot get stuck, get hurt or go missing. It is Not Allowed.

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, grant-aid widened in places to almost motorway dimensions. It corkscrews through the Beorgs of Uyea and past such wondrous Norse nomenclature as Heogel of the Moor and Moosa Breck. No Gaelic here. Uyea, when reached by this route, appears like a green mirage, truly magnificent, a kind of scoured Shangri-La with extra sleet.

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 one-man pop-up tent, light enough at two kilos but in its ineffable, green circularity making me look like a middle-aged Mutant Turtle.

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 troll-Picts) infest the cor- ners of your eyes. Still, it’s worth squirming in to see if the “ritual objects” that occasionally appear here have been nicked. Confront the creepiness!

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 gothic-perpen- dicular stacks of the Cleiver and the Hog.

Now there was a choice. To trudge along the strength-sapping shingle and trust the (surely no longer safe) standing rope at Turls Head to get back to the clifftop. Or scramble back up the burn. Long- left ropes attached to dubious spikes don’t appeal. I only knew about the rope (I couldn’t find it from the top) because a far fitter friend, walking alone, used it a couple of years ago, despite a halfway-up panic attack. Hereabouts, though, as an Eshaness pal is fond of saying about his home, there is nobody to hear you scream.

Onwards, as another mile of beach-scimitar curves below the Valla Kames. There are some treacherous fissures and bottomless holes hereabouts, but the ground is largely firm. Inland, there are dozens of small lochs and some very mire-ridden sections on the short route out to the reservoir at Roer Water. At Lang Clodie Wick, where all the avail- able water empties itself down two of the most spec- tacular waterfalls in Shetland, the short springy heather and rocky outcrops surrounding the death- black loch provide a dry and sheltered spot for camp- ing. Indeed, it’s probably the best camping location in the whole of Shetland. There’s fresh water, shelter, astonishing views. There’s also a truly odd, stone-lined and slab-roofed pit which Squadron Leader Guy ru- minates may be all that remains of a “Neolithic

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, land-battering levels. I was getting sore and hungry, and though I could have pressed on and camped on the flatlands of Uyea, I opted for the amazing little canyon through which the Burn of Brettoo reaches the Red Geo, just along from Tongan Swarta. Feet washed in the fast-flowing, brutally cold water, I established my temporary home. The tent popped up and properly pegged out (who ever knows what the wind will do?), the Trangia was lit and, for a couple of hours before the sun drift- ed slowly into the north Atlantic, I entered that medi- tative state of pleasantly uncomfortable knackered- ness that is solo overnighting. Old Pulteney 12 help- ed: a salty, outdoors whisky if ever there was one.

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: quad-bike tracks, new fences. But there was not a soul around as I reached Uyea and trekked across the runway-like pasture to the isle itself. The morning was closing in: grey, cold, wet. The tombolo joining the is- land to the mainland is tiny compared to the huge strand at St Ninian’s Isle, but it’s a jewel. Second-best beach in Britain? There are stories of Dutch East India- man gold in that sand, just as there are horrid tales of pirate murders just a bit north towards Sandvoe. There is one campsite the superstitious should avoid, where a buccaneer was buried alive, leaving only his head exposed to the predatory bonxies.

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 mobile-phone signal, and the red phonebox is a mile along the main road from the track-end, next to the sadly closed shop. By the time I get there, icy rain is pummelling down, side- ways and around, in the classic Shetland fashion. I called Susan. She would be here in 20 minutes.

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 weary-looking woman standing on the quayside with a woolly hat and a bad case of alopecia. This vision was vividly brought to mind some time later when I happened to read a review of Beyond Westmin- ster: Finding Hope in Britain, by Paddy Ashdown about his political travels. In a chapter about his progress through the northern LibDem strongholds, he indis- creetly reports a comment that Hoy’s attractions could be summarised as “two shops; an occasional prostitute who is balding.” Could it have been the same person, I won- dered? Mind you, the accuracy of the comment should be treated with some caution, as I only saw the one shop.

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 wave-battered bay which breaches the wall of western cliffs. From the stony beach a path rises across the moor to the Old Man of Hoy, a walk made interesting in June in that it crosses the mater- nity wing for a colony of great skuas, or bonxies, as they are known in the islands. Without wishing to anthro-

pomorphise unduly, the skua is a vicious bastard: it mugs other seabirds, menacing its hapless victims until they re- gurgitate their hard-won catch, whereupon it scoffs the boked-up fish; it catches puffins, and will hold them under- water until they drown; and it can be a bit of a nuisance to walkers. During the breeding season, they become vio- lently protective of their young (bonklings?), swooping at the heads of passers-by with squawking truculence. Truly they are the Apocalypse Now helicopter parents.

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 hair-parting height, I decided to fight back. Using superior human reasoning, I concluded that if I were to raise my right arm above head-height, the bonxies would alter the altitude of attack accordingly, and buzz my hand rather than head. Unfortunately the devious birds changed the angle of at- tack to the left flank: I cleverly responded by raising both arms, and proceeded to make my way out of the feather- ed minefield in a for-you-Tommy-ze-war-is-over posture.

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 scrotum-shrivelling fear of the precipice.

A sometimes-muddy path clings like sea pink to the cliff- top as it climbs, winding in and out of inlets and geos, from the bad-enough Old Man height of about 130 metres to the full, dizzying 300-plus-metre St John’s Head. I had a bit of trouble trying not to remember that all these interesting geological features are the result of continuous erosion from the sea, which will eventually bring down both the path and the Old Man himself. Indeed from higher on the moor the old fellow takes on a different look: a bit like a Lewis chessman, perhaps a badly exposed castle awaiting its fate. (A castle?! What the hell is a castle doing in a supposedly chess-literate hill mag? — Ed.)

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 whey-faced acrophobes.


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 B-24 Liberator, an RAF Coastal Command plane which had crashed on the first day of 1945 on an anti-submarine patrol. After a bit of searching further down the slopes of the bare and silent hillside, I found some scattered fragments of alloy, then some larger pieces and one of the four radial engines. As I was bent over this shattered machinery, engrossed in the rusted remains, I became aware of a very distant sound that seemed to be seeping up the glen from the direction of Rackwick. The low thrum became steadily louder and closer, so much so that I stood up, expecting to see an air- craft flying up the glaciated valley.

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 line-up doesn’t include Whillans, Messner or McNeish, but who’s to say there aren’t notable African climb- ers named Matsikenyeri, Ncube and Nyamuzinga? (Ncube sounds like some new piece of gaming technology.)

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 mouse-clicks, but as of mid-April 2010 the 26-strong all-male list comprised: Jamie Andrew, J H B Bell, Alastair Borthwick, Hamish Brown, Thomas Graham Brown, Norman Collie, David Douglas, Lord Francis Douglas, James David Forbes, Dougal Haston, Ben Humble, Alexander Mitchell Kellas, Peter Kinloch, Hamish MacInnes, Dave MacLeod, Cameron McNeish, Norrie Muir, Sir Hugh Munro, W H Murray, William Naismith, Tom Patey, Harold Raeburn, Mal- colm Slesser, Robin Smith, Adam Watson and Tom Weir.

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 33-strong “Brit- ish mountain climbers”, a category that lacks Bonington, Scott, Boardman, Tasker and Joe Brown. It’s a curiously unencyclopedic business, the old Wikipedia.

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.

Campbell’s fastest-round record, set ten years ago (yikes, is it really that long?) and not subjected to any serious chal- lenge over the intervening decade. It’s interesting that Spyke is attempting the big one, rather than revisiting the most- Munros-in-a-day record that he came close to nabbing in June 2008, when he got round 20 of his intended 31 Shiel/ Affric hills before being weathered off.

Even if Spyke does dip under Campbell’s time of 48 days 12 hours (see TAC47 pp4–5), the latter will retain at least one aspect of the record, in that he swam across the three watery bits (Sound of Mull, Loch Lomond, Kyle Rhea), where- as Spyke is favouring the canoe. He’s doing it to raise funds for the John Muir Trust, starting on Mull, 25 April. More details can be found at round and

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 five-strong multiple Munro completion yet seen. He finished on the Kingie/Quoich Sgurr Mor, 18/10/96, and one of his co- completers was Father David Gemmell, who died in 2008.

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 single-take rounds: TAC68 p4.