Sunday, 31 July 2011

Spirit Dancer

The Out Skerries are 3 small islands to the north west of the Shetland Mainland. Two of the islands, which are joined by a very short bridge, are inhabited by approximately 70 people. The third is slightly further away and currently uninhabited.

I arrived in Skerries (as it's known here) on Saturday afternoon following a one and a half hour ferry journey from the northern end of Mainland. A quick drive around showed just how small these islands really are, as I'd no sooner set off when I came to the end of the road. Turn around, go the other way, same thing.

I wandered into a building that seemed to have a lot of people coming and going from it. As I peered through the glass in a door I could see a kitchen and several women bustling about preparing salads and kebabs. They waved me in and I asked about camping on the island. Basically anywhere would be ok, but by the pier could be good as there are toilets and showers there. Or I could camp by this building, which was the community centre, as they had a group of Canadian canoeists staying there and so the building would be open if I needed to get in for the toilets. The food they were preparing was for a barbecue in honour of the canoeists and I was invited.

I set up camp by the pier and just after 6pm returned to the community centre for the barbecue. Just about all of the inhabitants were there plus various weekend guests. The canoeists had a long 18 seater canoe based on native Canadian designs. Chris Cooper, his wife and a few others had brought the canoe to the UK and were spending a few summers taking it around different communities and trying to get as many people out on the water as possible. They'd had everyone from babies to 90 year olds on board.

The food was wonderful, the bar was open, the company was welcoming. After the barbecue we moved indoors to watch a slideshow, and Chris presented a specially made paddle to the community. Then the fiddles and accordians came out and the music and dancing started.

As it began to go dark the canoeists said they would need to move their canoe from the small harbour near the community centre round to the ferry pier ready for it to be loaded on to the ferry next morning so it could begin its journey to its next destination. Did anyone want to help? Of course they had plenty of offers, one of them being mine. We made our way down to the canoe, put on life jackets and slotted ourselves into position. After a quick lesson on how to paddle we were off. We closely skirted a fish farm and passed under the bridge. All too soon we were at the ferry pier. As it was getting late and I was by my tent I decided to call it a night. It had been a great evening and I loved what was essentially canoeing home from the pub.

I really have to learn to canoe or kayak and get myself one.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Whalsay Walk

Friday 29th July, 2011

Whalsay is approximately 5 miles long and 2 miles wide. The name means Whale Island and it is often a good place to see whales. Whalsay was known for playing an important role in the salt fishing trade. This trade was for years in the hands of merchants from the north of Germany. Ships from Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck would sail to Shetland every summer bringing a cargo of seeds, cloth, iron tools, salt, spirits, luxury goods and cash. They would exchange these for the Shetlanders' fish. The business was tightly controlled by a group known as the Hansa or Hanseatic League. This was an economic alliance of trading cities and their merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and systems of protection and aid. The League was originally created to protect the commercial interests of the merchants in the places they visited. Import duties imposed after the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 finally broke their hold. By the barbour in Symbister, close to where the ferry docks, is one of the two bods (small warehouses) used for the saltfish. It's possible to rent a very large and heavy old key for £1 from the local shop to gain acces to the bod. Inside there are just 2 rooms - one upstairs and one downstairs. Both rooms have an exhibition on the salt fishing and the Hanseatic League.

The Walk

Approx 5 miles / 8km (though I probably walked more with all the backtracking and zigzagging
About 4 hours including stops
OS Explorer 468; Landranger 2
Start – park at Nisthouse just through Isbister
Grid ref – HU581641

After parking the car in a bay overlooking the sea I walked back along the short bit of road to Loch Isbister. The loch is only small. The houses all looked quite big and were each standing on their own patch of ground. A couple of new wooden houses were being built. It all looked quite prosperous. One of Ann Cleaves books (Red Bones) set on Whalsay refers to the wealth of the locals being based on fishing and from the look of the houses I could see that there definitely seemed to be some wealth here.

I walked along the north side of the loch through a series of gates and past a few plantiecrubs (rings of stone walling just over waist height – they were used to plant cabbages in to protect them). It was quite boggy in places. Then I headed north east and gained height to cross the moorland. This was really boggy and swampy and I spent a lot of time zigzagging and backtracking to pick my way through the driest bits. Consequently it took a lot longer than it should have done. Halfway across the moor are the remains of a chambered cairn. There is a small rectangular hollow in the ground lined with flat stones. As I dropped down from the moor in the north east corner of the island I came close to the road, a few houses and the airstrip. To the east and north of the airstrip is a golf course – Britain’s most northerly.

I ducked under a broken gate at the end of the airstrip to sit for a while on a lovely bench overlooking the golf course, the amazing coast and distant views of the distinctive cliffs of Noss. Then I ducked back under the gate and walked along the west side of the airstrip to reach the golf clubhouse at the far end. A track to the other side of the clubhouse led out across the course, along the edge of the coast to a cairn with views of the small island called the ‘Inner Holm of Skaw’. This was close to the shore and looked as though it might be possible to wade across at very low tides. I then followed the coast east for a short way to Skaw Taing and then in a generally southerly direction back to my car. This bit of coastline has lots of geos which I peered down. There are also the remains of a couple of Neolithic homesteads. One still has clearly defined rooms. These are below the cairn I visited earlier. People would have lived here three or four thousand years ago and their dead would have been buried above in the chambered cairn.

This was a lovely clear day for this walk so I got good views. The walk wasn’t difficult, just a bit tricky picking my way through the boggy moorland which meant it took 4-5 hours instead of about 3 hours.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Muckle Roe Walk

Muckle Roe - South Ham
10.6km / 6.5 miles
4hrs including stops
Start - car parking on grass verge at end of public road at West Ayre
Grid ref HU322629
OS Explorer 469; Landranger 3

Muckle Roe is an island in the Northmavine area of the northwest Shetland Mainland. It's found at the end of long single-track road and is joined to the mainland by a small bridge.

The Walk

The path is signposted between two houses for the Hams (4km) and for the lighthouse (2km) - I followed the path for the lighthouse which immediately dropped onto a little beach. Then it climbed up the other side and followed the coast along. After a while it moved slightly inland and took me to the very still Gilsa Water, a small loch.

Heading upwards and away from the loch back towards the coast I passed pink and red granite rocks until reaching the small lighthouse. After this, rather than a clear path, there seemed to be just an expanse of boggy peat and heather with a criss-cross of sheep trails. According to my walk book I should have stayed close to the coast, but picking my way through the least boggy bits of the bog took me between several small lochs instead. I got divebombed by a frantic skua for a while and must have got quite close to its nest as it got very threatening and came really close. By the time it stopped I was getting arm ache from holding my stick above my head.

I could see Papa Stour really clearly as I walked along and when I got to South Hams at the far end of my walk I could also see the drongs in St Magnus Bay far off in the distance. The drongs are three huge stacks looming out of the sea which can be seen from Braewick cafe and campsite. I don't know where the name 'Hams' comes from, but like to think it might be because all the big pink rocks look like slabs of ham.

I dropped down onto the small pebbley beach and could hear seals as I descended. A couple I'd met earlier said they had seen seals here. I made a lot of noise as I clamboured over pebbles and settled myself down to have lunch. Sure enough, the seals, which were in rocks to the right of me (the rocks were in the water so I couldn't get to them) got curious and swam out to have a look at me. In all I saw three common seals and they came quite close.

Leaving the beach, after half and hour, I took the clearly defined track back to West Ayre. It climbed up and down a bit, but was very easy walking and passed another couple of small lochs.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Up Helly Aa

I've decided to add attending the Up Helly Aa festivities to my list as it's something that would be amazing to see, but quite difficult because of the time of year. Not school holidays. So whenever I find myself with time off for whatever reason, at the right time of year, I'm heading up to Shetland to see Vikings and burning boats.

The main festival is in Lerwick and is held on the last Tuesday in January, but there are others held throughout the islands until the end of March. The parade and boat burning is open to everyone and of course would be wonderful, but the real fun seems to happen in the evenings when the various Jarl squads (Viking gangs) go round lots of halls and basically party all night. The halls are private invitation only and so to get the most out of the experience I'd have to sneak an invite. This might be easier to do in the islands rather than in Lerwick.

As I'm in Lerwick,  I went to the Up Helly Aa exhibition in the boat shed. There were lots of costumes, shields, and part of a replica boat displayed. As well as Viking costumes, the various squads each choose a theme and people dress according to the theme, so there were also costumes in the shape of cartoon characters, chocolate bars and so on.

I watched a video showing the year long preparations for the festival and what happens on the day itself. The preparations involve the making of the boat, all costumes, shields and torches. During the day the squads visit schools, the old folks' home, the hospital, etc so that everyone gets to be involved. Then they have the main march through misty, hazy, gloomy, drizzly, wintry Lerwick. It looked so atmostpheric on the film. At the end of the march the boat is burnt. It doesn't get put to sea as I'd thought, but is burnt on dry land. All the Vikings toss their burning torches on to it. As they stand all around it I wondered what would happen if one tossed their torch too far and it sailed over the top into the crowd on the other side!

Some of the snippets of interesting info I picked up in the exhibition include:

  • The lead Viking is known as the Guizer Jarl - 'Guizer' comes from the word 'disguise' - the members of the various squads wear masks all day so no-one knows who they are. However, the members of the Guizer Jarl's squad are all dressed as Vikings and don't wear masks meaning they can be identified. They all seem to have beards though - do they grow them specially for the event?
  • Only men can go on the parade.
  • You have to live in Shetland for five years before you can join a squad.
  • You have to be chosen to be on the organising committee.
  • You work your way up through the ranks on the committee for 15 years - then in the 16th year you are Guizer Jarl.
  • You start as a 'water-carrier' making sure everyone in the squad has enough water in their whisky.
  • It's very expensive - you need to save up to be Jarl and to raise a lot of money.
  • During the day the Guizer Jarl's squadsgo round the schools, old people's homes and the hospital performing, as well as performing and parading in the streets.
  • Each squad has a theme for costumes and performance which is kept secret - only the committee knows to make sure there is no overlap.
  • In the evening, there is a torchlit parade through Lerwick ending with the burning of the boat.
  • Then the squads spend the rest of the night going round the halls, eating, drinking and performing.
  • Each squad goes to each hall in a pre-planned order. The Guizer Jarl's squad goes the opposite way round to the others so they meet each of the others in turn.
  • Torches are made from 4ft long, thick pieces of wood. Three sacks are rolled round the end and nailed into place. A fourth sack is nailed over the top. Cement is put where the sacked and pole meet to prevent the pole from catching light.
  • The sacking end of the pole is soaked in parafin for about 24 hrs. The whole thing ends up weighing 14lbs.
  • After Up Helly Aa the Guizer Jarl joins the ex-Jarls and starts at the beginning again as a water-carrier. The job of the exes is to advise the others.
  • The halls are privately rented by people who invite their family and friends and prepare loads of food. As they are private you can only go to them if you have been invited.
  • The hall parties last all night.
  • The schools now have junior Jarl squads.

What a festival! And in one of my favourite places too.

Friday, 22 July 2011


I've been trying to get hold of my friend in Glasgow for a while now. As I'm going up to Scotland for the summer and I haven't seen her for a while it would be nice to catch up. Also I was hoping to be able to leave my car with her when I walk the Great Glen Way. I could leave it in Fort William or Inverness but as I'll have a lot of gear in it I'd rather it was somewhere more secure. After several wrong numbers I finally got hold of her this evening.

I wanted to walk the GGW first and then nip back to Glasgow to pick my car up before driving to Aberdeen to catch the ferry to Lerwick. However, because of her shifts it's actually better to do it the other way round as I'll get to see a bit more of her if I stay with her later in August rather than this weekend. So tomorrow I have ring Northlink to try to get booked on to the Monday night ferry. It's usually a 14.5 hr journey but because the Monday night ferries don't call into Orkney it's slightly shorter.

It's not so bad doing the trip this way round as I can do lots of walking in Shetland to get myself trained a bit more ready for my long walk. It also gives me more time to organise things like getting a key for the toilets at the locks along the way. I'll try giving them a call tomorrow as well and see how much it is to rent/buy the key and how I actually collect it.  

I had been planning to leave tomorrow but as I still have lots to do before I'll be ready to leave I've decided to put it off until Sunday. Which is my birthday. And I like going on holiday on my birthday.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Country Tracks Exmoor

I've just watched a Country Tracks programme on iplayer. I downloaded it ages ago and thought it was about time I got round to watching it before it expired. It's the first time I've watched Country Tracks and I was only interested in this particular one because it was about Exmoor where I spent half term. It was an interesting programme though, so I may have to look out for others.

I learnt various things from it such as the Lynmouth flood may have been caused by the government and military experimenting with technology to make it rain. Also, that it's thought that Exmoor ponies originally came from Alaska thousands of years ago and would have roamed around with sabre toothed tigers. I was quite happy to see ponies when I was walking - don't think I'd have felt quite the same way if I'd run into a sabre toothed tiger though!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

A Quote

Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof, but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dew and perfumes ... What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains, is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps in a field. All night long he can hear nature breathing deeply and freely.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Last night at Web Design

Last night was the last night of my web design course. I don't think I've done as well on the intermediate course as I did on the beginner's, but I do have the beginnings of a web site. I really need time to concentrate and play around with it, but time is something I have very little of. I won't do any more on it over the summer, but hopefully in the autumn I can start getting back into it and get a bit further on my way to having my own website.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Thinking about reading

It's not long now until I head up to Scotland for my summer holiday. I'll spend the first week walking the Great Glen Way and then catch the ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland and spend the next 3 weeks there. I'm so busy at the moment trying to get everything at school organised for next year, plus completing my web design course and trying to work on the post grad course, and sorting out umpteen things that keep going wrong in my house and with my car, that I've barely had time to think about the summer and plan for my holiday. Luckily, I've been to Shetland before so I don't have to do too much planning for that, but I do still have some things to think about. One of which is deciding what books to take with me.

I'll be in my car, so for most of time I can carry a good selection. When I'm walking the Great Glen Way though, I want to keep my weight down as much as possible and get rid of things as I go, so I'll probably just take a selection of magazines and as I read them I can rip out the pages and throw them away.

But what books to take ...

Usually I like to read books either by authors from the place where I am or else set in or about the place. Last year I read a lot of books with a Shetland theme, so I don't have that many left to read. So I have to decide whether to read books -

  • about Scotland in general
  • about wildlife
  • that I've started in the past and never got round to finishing
  • from the BBC Big Read list
  • to do with my studies
  • that I think I should have read but haven't yet.

Maybe I'll just take a few from each category and then I can decide what I feel like when I'm there.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


Last night I watched an episode of the BBC programme Coast on iplayer. I'd downloaded this one particularly because part of the programme followed the Caledonian Canal and Great Glen Way. The aerial shots were great as I was able to see the paths that I'll be walking along in a few weeks time. Although I didn't really learn anything new, it did remind me of a few facts:

  • The Canal was built by hand and was as much a job creation scheme for dispossesed Highlanders as it was to be of benefit to shipping.
  • It went way over budget.
  • By the time it was built ships had got bigger and couldn't fit along it. So it turned out to be a bit of a white elephant.
  • Loch Ness is deep enough to hold 3 times the world's population. (Though I don't know if this was worked out based on the current population or if this is an out of date fact).

I'm sure there was more, but I don't remember.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The one I've aleady done

When I started this blog I had one task on my list that I've already ticked off. I did wonder whether to keep it on or if I should free up the space for a different task. But as I'd actually put together my list about a year before I started to blog I didn't really want to change it. So it stayed.

I've been a vegetarian since I was eighteen. It was actually at my 18th birthday meal that I last ate meat  (it was turkey, one of the few meats I actually liked). I tried to be a vegetarian before that, but it was always difficult when my mum was in charge of cooking and she wanted me to eat meat. I never really liked it and used to feed it to the dog under the table when she wasn't looking. When I was 14 the dog died. I tried to feed my meat to the cat instead, but she ate too slow and couldn't eat that much. So I became a part-time veggie, forcing meat down at home so that I would be allowed to leave the table, but rarely eating it outside of home.

About a week after my birthday meal I realised that I'd not eaten meat at all since that meal. If I could do it for a week, I could do it forever. I wasn't eating so much at home any more and not long afterwards I moved out. I didn't tell my mum, I just let her figure it out over time.

I always enjoyed cooking and my new life as an official veggie gave me lots of reasons to research and try out new recipes. Veggies weren't much catered for in restaurants then, and there certainly wasn't the choice of veggie products in the supermarkets that there are now, so it was much more challenging. Through my reading and research I came across the Vegetarian Society and found out that it's based in Altrincham (not very far away) and has a cookery school. Although the courses aren't particularly expensive, they were always well out of my affordability range. So it became one of those things that I kept saying I'd do one day but never getting round to. Last summer I'd been a vegetarian for 25 years and as I'm living back in Manchester and just down the road from the Vegetarian Society I thought that this would be a good year to finally do a course with them.

I chose the 'Food for Free' course because it also involved walking and learning about plants. The course took place on a Sunday and started off in the Vegetarian Society lounge where the dozen participants were served coffee before being introduced to Patrick Harding, wild food expert and our tutor for the day. After a talk and a slide show we were on to the practical side of the course where we headed out into the countryside looking for food. We didn't walk very far, though it took a couple of hours because we kept stopping to pick wild flowers and leaves and listen to Patrick talk about them. Once back at base we were served a big, late afternoon, buffet lunch using all the ingredients we'd picked. So that we wouldn't have to wait around too long for lunch we were actually served with food made from ingredients that had been collected earlier than our walk, but they were the same things.

Although we didn't get to cook the food ourselves, which is something that I would have liked to have done, we did get to eat plenty of it and were given the recipes to take home. If we'd cooked ourselves it would have been an evening meal by the time it was ready, so I can understand why we didn't get to participate in the actual cooking.

I really enjoyed the course and it was definitely worth waiting 25 years for. Now I'm tempted to do another one.