May 18, 2017
We were up early this morning because we were moving on to the “North Isles”. Last night we had been shopping, and then a couple of ladies who were heading home gave us some more food. So we weren’t going to starve!
So we packed up, had breakfast, and headed to the ferry. The route was easy enough to follow, first A970 and then turn onto A968 where the big sign pointed to the ferry. But shortly before we reached the ferry terminal the car went “ping!” and a yellow exclamation mark appeared in the dashboard. A tire pressure warning light. The car’s operating manual said to stop driving immediately. So we carried on to the ferry terminal and then looked at the tires, which all looked fine to us.
So after we boarded the ferry which would take us to the island of Yell, we asked the deck hand about a place to repair tires. Yes, he said, R. Robertson and Son in West Sandwick, and he told us exactly how to find the place. It was easy enough to find it, and after a lot of discussion about what the tire pressures should be a younger guy showed up who knew exactly what to do. He topped up the tires and reset the alarm, mumbling something about how Volkswagens did this sort of thing.
Five minutes later we were on our way to the next ferry. Our first ferry trip had lasted 20 minutes and the next one, to the island of Unst, took only 10 minutes. We were first off the ferry and within 10 minutes were at the Gardiesfauld youth hostel in Uyeasound. There was nobody there but the whiteboard in the lobby indicated that we were expected and that we had room 6. It was almost lunch time, so we unloaded the car, deposited the food in the kitchen, and put our bags into the room.
The view from our room was great, looking out over a grassy area and down to the water. It looked like a good place to stay for the next three nights. We had made our lunch earlier so it was just a matter of unpacking it and eating it.
After lunch we decided to go for a walk to Muness Castle. We were unsure how far away the castle was but the day was sunny with very little wind and so it was very enjoyable. It was all road walking, and fortunately for us we had a map so we knew approximately where to go. It was definitely farther than we had thought, eventually turning out to be 5 km one way. But we saw several species of birds including a beautiful Golden Plover.
Muness Castle is the twin of Scalloway Castle, in that both were built at about the same time and were owned by closely-related avaricious lords. Like Scalloway Castle, Muness Castle was a ruin, but it was still provided with interpretive signs. We explored around the castle for a short while and then retraced our route to the hostel. The walk back was faster, but not that much faster because we were still seeing new species of birds, including the rather surprising Arctic (Black-throated) Loon in the sound.
We were the only ones staying at the hostel tonight so we had the whole kitchen to ourselves. We used the potatoes we had been given this morning, and along with carrots, left-over sausages, and pasta sauce we produced a good dinner. Alison, the hostel warden, came by and collected our money so we were set. She also mentioned that we might see otters if we walked along the beach. So we walked a short distance along the beach, but soon came back because it was getting chilly.
May 19, 2017
It was still cloudy this morning when we got up, but the predicted rain hadn’t started yet. That was a good thing. So after breakfast we made our lunches and filled our flasks with tea and headed to the north end of the island, to the Hermaness Nature Reserve. For most of the way the road had two lanes so driving was easy. But after we turned off near Haroldswick the minor road got narrower and narrower until we reached the visitor centre. Luckily for us we met nobody coming the other way!
The visitor centre was housed in part of the old lighthouse shore station, and it had an excellent display about the seabirds in the area. It also had a “Recent Sightings” board which, unfortunately, hadn’t been updated recently. Anyway, back at the car we put on our hiking boots and gathered our packs.
To get to the cliffs we walked along the path uphill, which changed into a boardwalk across the moorland. It was early in the nesting season but already we could see numerous Great Skuas sitting on prospective nesting sites. The area is said to be one of the best places in the world for the Skuas, locally known as “bonxies”, to nest, and that certainly seemed to be the case. But fortunately for us they didn’t have chicks yet so they weren’t inclined to attack passers-by.
It didn’t take long to get to the cliff edge, where we turned north to follow the coastline. We had to drop down quite steeply and then side-hill around Hermaness Hill to an area overlooking some rocky sea stacks. Hermaness is also famous for its gannets, and they were flying back and forth in their hundreds, with thousands more sitting on the stacks. In fact almost all of the birds there were gannets, along with a smaller number of fulmars and a few puffins. We didn’t see nearly as many puffins as we thought we would, but it was difficult to see them because we were above them.
We were surprised to see a sign which warned you not to wear waterproof trousers on slopes which lead down to cliffs—if you fell then you could slide right over the edge. We’d never thought of that before. But the predicted rain hadn’t arrived so our waterproofs were still in our packs.
Farther along we came to another sign, which politely requested that we return the way we had come, rather than continuing over the moors and harassing the Skuas. From here we could see the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga, which is the famous northernmost point in the UK, so we did indeed turn around. It was after 1 pm so we found a somewhat sheltered spot to sit and have lunch. We had an enjoyable time eating and watching the birds below us.
Back at the car park we headed back to the hostel. We made a brief stop at a Viking longhouse and boat replica, which were still under development, and then at the hostel we made some hot chocolate and sat in the conservatory to drink it and enjoy the view.
On our way out to Hermaness we had noticed a Shetland pony with a baby foal in a nearby field, so after dinner we went out for a short walk to look for it. We did find it and admired it for a while before returning to the warmth of the hostel. Last night we’d had the whole hostel to ourselves and it was so quiet! But tonight we had several other people staying there. Oh well…
May 20, 2017
We woke up this morning to find that the predicted rain had finally arrived. So rather than going out on a walk we researched the museums. After packing our lunch we put on our rain gear and headed out to the car, driving up-island towards Baltasound.
Our first stop was at Bobby’s Bus Shelter. Several years ago the local council removed the original bus shelter, but 6-year-old Bobby wrote to the council to ask for it to be replaced because he and his friends used it as shelter while waiting for the school bus. He was very happy when a new shelter was built so in return he started to decorate it. Bobby is grown up now but nowadays a local group looks after it, redecorating it periodically.
Nearby was the Keen of Hamar nature reserve, which was nearby at the end of a farm road. Luckily the rain had stopped so we didn’t get wet while we explored the lunar-like landscape. The area is made of fractured serpentine rock so the soil is very sparse and not even good for sheep. So it still supports a lot of wildflowers. At first glance you couldn’t see any flowers but upon closer inspection we saw lots of tiny clumps of pink, yellow, and white blossoms. Most of them were moss campion, which we find at high elevations back home. But there were a few others starting to come out and we think we saw Edmonston’s Chickweed, which is found nowhere else in the world!
The rain was still threatening so our next stop was the Unst Heritage Centre. It was a small museum but a good one. Part of it described the heritage of Unst, starting with the Vikings and moving on to the crofting and fishing days. There were also other displays, including a replica of a school classroom from the early 20th century and another about the Muckle Flugga lighthouse.
From there we headed up a long single-track road over the moors to Skaw, the site of the UK’s northernmost house. It was raining hard so we sat in the car there and had lunch, all the time being buffeted by the wind and pelted by the rain. But we decided to go for a walk anyway, heading out to the beach and along the headland to an old radar station. The rain had let up a bit now, so we spent some time looking at the birds. In a large flock of oystercatchers we saw a bird which was almost all white. At first we just assumed it was a gull but upon closer inspection it turned out to be an oystercatcher which was almost pure white! We never saw one like that before!
Next stop: the Unst Boat Haven. Another museum, sure, but this time all about wooden boats. Most of the boats had been carefully restored and came with historical documentation. There was a ton of other boating accessories including a “dog buoy” (made from a dog’s skin… ewww) which is apparently very rare.
The rain was pelting again so we decided to go for tea at Victoria’s Tea Rooms, which is (wait for it…) the UK’s northernmost tea room. After a nice pot of tea and some cake we headed back to the hostel. It wasn’t time for dinner yet so we sat in the lounge and read for a while.
Paul had had a cold for several days and today it turned into laryngitis. This is very annoying. The German woman who was staying in the hostel with us was a speech therapist and she said that the treatment was to stop speaking, which is a hard thing to do.