Here comes the weather

Having filled your lives with wonderful images of Shetland with blue skies and piercing rays of sunlight through streaks and spreads of high clouds and intensifying greys of weather, I can now share with you the fact that this picture is not typical even though the temperatures outside are pretty minimal, hovering around zero in a cutting breeze.

I woke up this morning to grey skies. Within minutes there were flurries of snow in a bitter north westerly wind. 10 minutes later it was proper snow settling on the immediate landscape and hiding the village and the hills with a thick curtain of white gauze. A further 15 minutes down the line and the band of weather passes revealing a huge expanse of brilliant blue sky and we are back to the weather of yesterday, waiting for more bands to send folk scurrying indoors.

I want to show a different side to Shetland, now. This is where the oil and gas are pumped ashore, stored and await the arrival of huge vessels to carry it away to some refinery somewhere in the UK or northern Europe. At the same time the workers on the rigs have pumped money into the island economy and generated considerable wealth for the local councils & businesses.

Most drinking is done within the privacy of one’s own home. However there are a few pubs on the main islands. Here is the one at Voe.

Inside, the place is heaving with one guy behind the bar and one guy on his stool, nursing a point of local brew. Half a dozen wooden tables, slightly sticky with years of slops, are waiting for an influx of locals who never come. Maybe the weekend will transform this place. Let’s hope so.


Sun, sea and sand on Yell and Unst

Today is the road trip up the spine of the islands. Shetland consists of 100+ islands. Most are small mounds & humps of rock around the largest island calked Mainland, where most of the 22,000 population live. This is stretched out northwards in a thin line equidistant between Norway and the UK.. It takes about an hour to drive up the island from one end to the other through the brown & grey moors, dropping down to a settlement on the east coast before rising up and over the claggy peat landscape to descend to another on the western side. The North Sea breaks on the east coast and on the west is the Atlantic Ocean, both as wild as the other. Ruined walls of toppling stones and unroofed outlines of past homes and farms are evidence of the travesty that was the clearances when humanity was forcibly moved to make room for sheep.

Around every rolling, peat-covered mound or low hill  water appears. This is either one of the numerous puddles, lochans or larger lochs of fresh water which dot the landscape or one of the straggling fingers of sea, called voes, which poke and point their way into the interior of the main island and almost touch the ocean on the far side before they are halted by a low rock barrier.

Lines of buoys are arranged along the voes. If they are arranged in rows then it is a mussel farm with the molluscs clinging onto dangling chains until they are ready for harvesting. Whereas the salmon swim around and grow in circular or rectangular cages.

The ferry terminal at Toft is my first destination.

This takes me across to the island of Yell. Yell is another boggy, undulating island full of gobsmacking views & vistas of sweeping, browny-grey heathered covered moorland, cloud-skidding skies and wide spreading seas, all highlighted by an artist’s palette of golden glows and rays and piercings.

The first stop is Global Yell where Andy welcomes us to his textile and music education centre. Glorious textiles hang from the walls and peep out off drawers as he knots up his state of the art loom. This place must be visited. There is also a craft gallery within the complex.

The clouds and sun play chasing games over the surrounding landscape to produce different moors and colours to inspire weavers and artist’s alike. I rather like the office chair in the bus shelter to allow the locals to rest their bums as the next bus might be a while.

Then it is a quick dash to Gutcher to take us over to the island of Unst and the glories of Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms.

This bus shelter really takes the prize. The locals give it a theme each month and then decorate it accordingly. Well what else does one do during those long winter nights? From here it is a short drive up to Burrahfirth and the most northern beach in the British Isles.

The sun starts to drop down to meet the horizon and the clouds thicken making for a dramatic return journey to Mainland. Mrs Seal acknowledges my passing as we drop down to the local store which stocks everything from bicycle oil to cornflakes where I make my own self-serviced tea before boarding the 5.15 ferry.

Wow. What a day, full of sky and sun and and coast and sweeping blankets of moorland.



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Pete and Heather combine to cover Shetland

Well peat and heather, together, cover every contour of the rolling landscape of these windswept islands. Human settlements huddle together dotted across the moorland or along estuaries or clinging to the sides of headlands, trying to shelter from the constant winds.

This is the village of Hoswick. It boasts a visitors’ centre with a cafe, two small knitwear outlets that cater, in particular, for coaches of tourists from the cruise ships that visit Lerwick, a general store and its own Carnegie Hall – their community hall.

Here is Lerwick.

Lerwick is the capital of Shetland. 9,000 people live here around the moorland cliffs that line either side of the peninsula on which it is built. The historic centre faces the island of Bressay across the bay connected to the capital by a regular, plodding ferry. Around the old harbour the rather austere, grey, granite buildings stand tall against the weather with their strong facades immovably protective to the shops & businesses & cafes & fish and chip fryers that are housed within the safety of their walls. Narrow stepped streets fan out and away from the main shopping drag to the buildings that stand in lines in their uniform of grey pebble-dash.

Down from the centre the old fishing houses line the bay. It is here that the Dutch herring fleets would unload their catch straight into the buildings. The locals would give woven goods in payment.

In the other direction the wharves have been modernised to provide warehouses, ferry terminals, anchorages for huge fishing vessels and tie up spots for cruise ships who unload their cargo of multilingual tourists on the local shops and neighbouring countryside.

Here the excellent Lerwick Museum is open most days between 10 & 4. The Mareel building, faced with sheets of metal, provides a venue for a cinema, music, drama & exhibitions as well as a very pleasant cafe. After a cream tea it is back home.

On the way back I drop down into Scalloway. This is the ancient capital of Shetland and was first settled by the Picts. Hiding behind an old herring drift trawler, built in 1900 in Grimsby, the remains of the old castle is all that remains of the original settlement. Now lines of brightly painted fisherman’s cottages & holiday lets, fishing boats & marina yachts surround the deserted building. The blades of wind turbines peer over the tops of turfed hills to provide a modern backdrop to this ancient scene.


Shetland dazzles through the skudding clouds

A short flight in a short plane takes me from the mainland to Sumburgh on Shetland. I mean a short plane with room for just 12 rows of seats. It is the layout inside that must be a challenge for any pilot. On one side of the aircraft pairs of seats face the hunched figure of the sole stewardess who gives her safety briefing hunched in the narrow space between the single row of overhead lockers. The other side has rows of single seats. So one side has double the weight of the other side. Surely, this makes it hard to fly in a straight line.

Well, in a straight line it goes. The first sight of Shetland is through holes in the cloud cover. Smooth, felt-covered hills slope away from the coast where nautical mice have nibbled away at the land to leave teeth-marked cliffs standing tall, facing the rolling sea. The sun shines through to give this land a bright, openess as it catches the highlight of isolated farms and huddled villages painted in contrasts of white & maroon & grey.

To the west lies Canada and to the north lies Iceland and to the east, Norway. This place is equidistant between the UK mainland and Norway, 200 miles in each direction. 22,000 people live on the 16 inhabited islands out 100 that make up this Scottish district.

Driving along the single track roads from the airport, small sandy bays & crescents of smooth sands can be seen peeping around headland and every corner. Not a tree in sight; just a flat, green landscape with grazing sheep the only disturbance around low settlements that scream to hug the  tugged coastline. The two-storey house is the exception amongst the scattered villages of traditional, low bungalows and barns of these wind-swept islands. No place on the island is further than 3 miles from the sea and this is so obvious as one travels about. The sea is always there. Why are the dwellings in these remote locations, clamped to a bay or holding on to a wedge of sand? Weaving or whaling or fishing maybe.

On one beach surfers surf; on another beach walkers walk; on a third beach seals laze in the sun. The one constant is the aquamarine ocean that crashes in rows and lines of waves and ripples on the waiting shore.