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

A week ‘Out There’

Most of us, at some time or another like to get ‘away from it all’, and a holiday is the ideal opportunity to do just that.  In this age of connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G, very few of us actually manage a real break from our inter-connected, online, 24/7 lives.  There are probably few places in the UK outside the reach of technology, but in the far North West of Scotland there are still places where you can’t get a mobile phone signal, never mind the internet, so those who get the jitters when they can’t check their Twitter or Facebook accounts regularly, beware!

I have just returned from a delightful week wild camping in one of the few places in the UK where wilderness really does still exist.  Now I am the first to admit that the idea of being under canvas and digging holes in the woods for shitting in, in wild and wet September, is not my idea of fun.  So, yes I was in a motorhome, sheltered from the vagaries of the UK weather, with chemical loo and cooking facilities, but make no mistake, if you chose to eschew the facilities of caravan and camping sites, you are very much out there on your own.

Scotland has an enlightened view of land use, and actively encourages people to get out there and explore.  The Land reform Act (2003) which came into effect in February 2005 establishes a statutory right to camp in the wild, repealing a section in the Trespass Act of 1865 which contained the offence of ‘camping on land without the owner’s consent’.  We can argue about the impact of tourism on wild places, erosion, and the louts who ‘take more than photographs and leave more than footprints’, but that is for another day.  Most people who wild camp do so responsibly and follow the best practice guidance which is issued with the act, and most of which is common sense.  Michael Surman, owner operator at ‘Outthere Campers’, where we hired the van from, actively encourages people to get out and explore the Scottish Highlands, which he believes is every bit as dramatic as his native South Africa.  Certainly taking a van out and camping off-line is the ideal way to experience some of the Highland’s wild places and wildlife.  On this trip I saw my first sea otter, and spotted a golden eagle, which looked like a jet on the horizon; I took a ferry to the most north westerly point on the British mainland and walked over a 25m swing bridge suspended high above a box-canyon cut by ancient melt-water .  I’m not fit enough to climb mountains or fearless enough to raft white water, but if that’s your thing, the highlands are the place to do it.  In this fast-paced techno world we so often have our backs to nature, tuned out of natural sounds, sights and smells.  Getting back to nature may not be achievable, or even desirable for most people, but a few weeks a year with an absence of electrical interference and 24/7 communications is surprisingly refreshing.

John Muir the pioneering, influential Scots-born American conservationist who was passionate about the wild, said that ‘one day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books’ and whilst as an avid bibliophile and bookworm, I may not 100% agree with the statement, I certainly agree with the sentiment.  There is something about exposure to raw nature that is exhilarating and life-affirming.  Nature isn’t necessarily all that peaceful and tranquil: a river in spate, or a waterfall after a storm is a noisy affair, and trying to sleep when the wind is howling and the rain is pelting in sheets across the landscape you’re inhabiting is not necessarily relaxing, but it can be.  There is a soothing hypnotic quality to rushing water, like white noise, that you can chill out to or engage with.  Sunshine is great, and always welcome, but there is something magnificent about the power of a storm or an angry sea.

Living in a campervan or motor home for a week may cosset you against the worse of the elements, but if you take the opportunity to live ‘off-grid’ and camp wild, you do become aware of the resources you use on a daily basis, as well as how little ‘stuff’ you actually need.  Water may come out of the tap, but the supply is limited by the capacity of the on-board tank; the electricity is not on mains, and won’t power a plethora or electrical gadgetry indefinitely; heating and cooking are via gas, which again is limited by the size of canister.  You can see how much packaging is on the things you buy, and how much waste you generate; grey water has to be disposed of, and there’s no putting sanitary or food items down the plug hole – they will not magically disappear! Tesco, thank goodness, is not on every corner, and if you run out of something you are unlikely to be able to pop out and get it! It’s a good life-lesson if you take it away with you -the earth’s resources are limited, however we chose to live.

Getting out there and wild camping for a week or two is not primarily for didactic purposes, but enjoyment and refreshment, anything else is a by-product of the experience.  You may not have to hunt down supper and cook it over a camp fire, but you will have to find somewhere suitable to camp that doesn’t see your wheels sink in mud, or down a drainage ditch; you will soon learn to work out which way is the prevailing wind direction, and how tall your vehicle is.  You may not need the survival skills of Ray Mears, but if things go wrong you may need your wits about you, as a mobile phone signal cannot be relied upon, and practical decision making may save the day.  There are areas in northern Scotland that are uninhabited, where few man- made structures exist and only the deer, wildcats, pine martins and eagles roam.  Scottish wilderness may be readily accessible by motor vehicle, boat or foot, but it is still wilderness, to be treasured, preserved and enjoyed.  So what are you waiting for?  Get out there!

 

 

Turn It On

We do it every day, and often.  We turn on the tap and expect that water will flow: clear, fast flowing, germ free.   Arguments about chlorine, organophosphates and oestrogen residues aside, we are clearly fortunate to have fresh running water readily available.  For over 800 million people in the world this would be a luxury, imagined only in their wildest dreams.

I’m as likely to take water for granted as the next person, albeit I do my environmental duty by rain water harvesting and re-using grey  water.  Recently, however, I was forced to confront reality when my water supply became erratic, and then ceased altogether.  Living at over 100 metres above sea-level has it issues for utility supply, especially water.  The water is pumped up the hill and then distributed to the main risers, and into the property under normal pressure.  Sometimes the pump, which seems to function erratically at best, stops working – result: no water.  On one particular week recently the supply was on and off, and then just off.  We were lucky to be supplied with 2 litre bottles of drinking water, lots of them, courtesy of Scottish Water, but turning the tap on and expecting to see water running was futile, as was thinking that you were going to be able to shower or bathe anytime soon!

We take things for granted. We are human; we have an enduring capacity to get used to just about anything – what was novel and delightful yesterday is common and mundane today.  We are born of generations who accept technology as a given.  I am old enough to remember the mid-seventies drought, and collecting water from stand-pipes, and I hope I am wise enough to recall how fortunate I am to be able to turn on my tap and get water on demand.

Accordingto Tearfund,  the Millennium Development Goal – aiming to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015 –  is decades off schedule in many parts of the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, we are set to miss the water target by 20 years and the sanitation target by nearly 200 years.  According to the charity WaterAid over 2 million people die from water related diseases every year.   In a world where one in eight people in the world doesn’t have access to this essential resource, at the very least shouldn’t we be grateful that we have water on demand at the turn of a tap?  Well, most of the time, anyway!