I don’t know about you, but when we go on holidays, we usually head to cooler climes. We were recently (technically) in Scotland for a fortnight’s holiday, this time on the Shetland Isles: For those of you who don’t know where that’s at, hop on to Google Earth, and have a vicarious look around. Shetland is a subarctic archipelago in the Atlantic; you’re never more than 3 miles away from the sea because, though the total landmass is about 1,470 square kilometres, there are over 2,700 kilometres of coastline.
We stayed at the Lerwick Hotel, making day-trips out from there. In the 2 weeks we were there we managed to see nearly every nook and cranny by rental car. Many of the “towns” are no more than a collection of a house or two; Lerwick is really the only proper town on Shetland. We covered everything from Sumburgh Head in the south to Hermanness on the northern tip of Unst, the northerly-most inhabited island of the UK.
We usually had perfect weather for being out and about; the wind was mild, and only one day of what’s known as a “flying gale”… that’s when the wind actively tries to either rip the car door out of your hands or slam it shut as you’re trying to get in or out of the car; flying gales drive ships ashore. I point that out because great weather is not to be taken for granted on rocks in the middle of the Atlantic that have no naturally-occurring trees, i.e. windbreaks, and everything that happens is scheduled with the contingency of weather permitting. While we were there, it was “Simmer Dim” = NO night; you could easily read a book outside, no matter the time of day or night.
Some of the Highlights:
Our hotel window: We could see Breiwick Bay, the traffic of large ships coming and going from the harbour (even this large three-masted sail ship), and the wildlife of Shetland: Otters, both grey and common seals, dive-bombing gannets, arctic terns flitting over the water like butterflies, and a variety of gulls that kept us entertained.
Mousa Isle: We took a “dusk” (midnight) boat trip and hiked ½ a mile across the moors to the Mousa Broch, the most intact broch in the world. In the walls of this ancient tower are around 500 pairs of Storm Petrels – swallow-like sea birds who sound like purring kittens with hiccups as they call for their mates, to be found by them in the crowded darkness. Darkness is relative in the summer; they need to wait until it’s darkest before returning from their time at sea, as they are targets for larger bird’s menus.
Norwick Beach: On northern Unst, this beach is a visual smorgasbord for any geologist, because it’s where an ocean floor was thrust upward to collide with the continent millions of years ago. The stone formations jutting out in the middle of the beach are two distinct colours, dark and light, side by side. That beach is just an example of the stunning geological history and beauty of the islands. They’ve even got an app, “Geopark Shetland”.
Wildlife: Shetland has the highest density of otters of anywhere in Europe, with around 1,000; Shetland ponies (everywhere!); puffins – the darlings of the sea, and one of our favourite birds; gannets, terns, guillemots, razorbills, oyster catchers, great black-backed gulls, great skuas, herring gulls, black-hooded gulls, kittiwakes, and dozens of other seabirds; cliff-dwelling rabbits (puffins are even known to share their burrows with them); Shetland sheep – they’ve got very soft wool, and tend to be brownish with black spots; some of them were adorable, with spotted eyes like pandas.
History: With over 6,000 archaeological sites and dozens of great museums, there was never a dull moment! Clickhimin Broch was a short walk away from our hotel; Mousa Broch was an amazing experience – to sit inside it, as people did 2,000 years ago… you could still see the slats in the walls where wooden beams would have supported upper floors. We spent a lot of time at the Shetland Museum in Lerwick; well laid out, it was informative and inviting, with a great restaurant.
I could go on and on – and perhaps I’ll write an article or two more about some aspect of the Isles in the future, but for now, here are a few photos.