60 Degrees North

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A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.  Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK.   In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland.  The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough.  It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.

I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing.  It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next.  Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape.  There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.

I was hooked the first time I visited.  A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back.  I felt in-tune with the place instantly.  The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline.  Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic.  The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true.  Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life.  Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies.  Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food.  Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character.  I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!

The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not.  Shetland is also the place to see otters.  The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand.  You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.

Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales.  One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.

There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline.  Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.

Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle.  Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain.  I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was.  It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.

If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food.  Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus.  There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants.  I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally.  On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry.  He refused to take anything for the catch.

The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary.  Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime.  People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community.  People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!

It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure.  The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter.  In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people.  All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.

There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example.  You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website https://visit.shetland.org/]

For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.P9250223P9250223

Life on the Edge

Beyong Luskentye smallLife on the Edge – it’s the strapline for the Outer Hebrides tourism website, and the title of a new BBC Scotland Series which starts this month (May).  The Outer Hebrides is a chain of Islands that sits only 30 or so miles off the coast of Scotland, but is perched in the Atlantic on the very edge of Europe – next stop Canada.

If you search on line for ‘life on the edge’ it returns pictures of people hanging off cliff edges, and leaping buildings, and there is definitely a sense of exhilaration in going to somewhere as wild and exposed, and remarkably still untouched, as the Outer Hebrides.  Interestingly it is the only place in the UK to make the ‘Wanderlust Magazine’ list top 100 travel destinations.

I was fortunate to spend the best part of a week there, exploring some of the islands in a campervan.  I mentioned ‘Out There Campervans’ in my blog post exploring wilderness Scotland last year (A Week Out There), and this time used one of their smaller, but still well equipped, vans.  The Outer Hebrides is definitely no places for a large motorhome!

It’s difficult to find adjectives to describe the Outer Hebrides that aren’t over-used and hackneyed, but ‘amazing’ and ‘wild’ are two that can’t be avoided!  I didn’t feel that a week was sufficient time to ‘island hop’ and concentrated on the main islands of Lewis and Harris, also tagging on Scalpay and Great Bernera, which are attached to the mainland by road bridge.  Even so, a week wasn’t really enough time to do the place justice.

If you visit, and I would urge you to take the opportunity, the beaches are something that will stick in your mind.  The weather was quite cool at the start of the trip, and the wind blustery, but even so, the rugged, almost deserted beaches were heart-stopping.  When the sun decided to shine it was easy to believe you were in some exotic location, or a film set.  In the end we did get a bit ‘beach blasé’ as there were just so many stunning bays, coves and shorelines to explore! Traigh Lar,  Dhail Beag, Bosta,  Mangersta, Horgabost and Luskentyre are a few of the highlights, but there were plenty more we didn’t get to.

The array of wildlife is another key reason to visit the Outer Hebrides.  Although the weather wasn’t good enough for a boat trip (it wasn’t good enough for the container ship to sail, or the fishermen to go out!) there was still plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife, particularly birds.  Although we weren’t lucky enough to spot golden eagles at the hide on North Harris, we did see one one our way back from Bosta beach, a magnificent creature coasting along the ridge.  One of the joys of having the campervan is that it can be taken to some fairly remote locations and parked up overnight.  We had an interesting encounter with a herd of cattle, and whilst they weren’t strictly speaking, wild animals, it was interesting to see them in a natural setting.  When you have a large bull scratching his head on your wing mirror, you had best be engaged!  We didn’t see otters, or even red deer, but you have a better chance of seeing them here than a lot of places, and there is always next time.

The Hebrides offer a rich cultural history, and for those who enjoy exploring, there is plenty to find out.  We visited the Calanais stones, as this felt mandatory, and their brooding ancient presence was worth the trip.  There was plenty we didn’t see, as we felt that trying to pack too much in would dilute what we did get to.

Like Scotland in general, and the Highlands in particular, the islanders were friendly and chatty.  Most people had the time to spend a few minutes blethering, and the islands seem particularly accommodating, welcoming even, to campers who wish to wild camp.  We only stayed on a campsite on the first evening, and thereafter camped where we landed each day.  There were plenty of safe level spaces, many with stunning views.

I’m a bit of a crafter, and enjoyed seeing some of the local craft work and paintings.  As you can imagine there’s no shortage of artists and photographers prepared to share their take on the stunning vistas, and there are a number of very nice independent art galleries which also double up as cafés.   Hebrides Art is a 5-star visitor attraction, and as well as a stunning gallery of local art, has an excellent collection of island crafts.  We didn’t try the café, but the views of Seilebost from there are jaw-dropping, and the smell of homemade soup and bread was enticing.  I sneaked a peek at the cakes too, and they did look yummy!

The real joy of the Outer Hebrides is of course outside – the space, the peace, the rugged landscape, scoured by the Atlantic Ocean.  Even the Highlands seemed a noisy and busy place by comparison.  This is definitely life on the edge, people shaped by living on the edge, and every bit wonderful because of that.

 

 Outer Hebrides Visitor Website https://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/