Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Morecambe Sands Walk

I received a letter today from Willow Wood Hospice about the charity walk I'm taking part in across Morecambe Sands later this month. The letter warns me to take a towel and a change of clothes and old shoes or trainers, definitely not wellies, for the river crossing. It says I will definitely get wet. The walk across the bay will take about 3.5 hours and the coach will be waiting at the end ready to take us home.

I'm really looking forward to this and just hope it doesn't get rained off like it did last year. A bit of rain isn't a problem, but last year it rained so hard all weekend the river swelled so much it was too dangerous to cross and the walk had to be called off.

So, fingers crossed for a dry weekend at the end of the month.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

GGW day 7

Wednesday 24th August, 2011

I had a leisurely start to today as I had no need to rush anywhere. I spent the morning walking out to the sea lock at Clachnaharry. This is about a 5 mile round trip and meant that not only had I followed the Great Glen Way in its entirety, but also the Caledonian Canal. The path all the way to the sea lock was busy with dog-walkers, joggers, boats, and residential and business premises. It was a gloriously warm and sunny day and a lovely end to my walk. Except it wasn't the end really, as I still had to get to Inverness Castle.

Back near the campsite I called in at Floral Hall coffee shop for lunch. This is a botanical garden, but as there was an admission charge and I didn't know how much time I'd need to look round it properly, I didn't go in. I'll save it for another time.

I went back to the campsite and spent a bit of time lying around reading before getting packed up for the walk across the Ness Islands to Inverness. The Ness Islands are set in the River Ness and joined by a series of bridges. They are all covered with woodland and make a pleasant park area for the people of Inverness. Finally the path reached Inverness proper and climbed upwards along roads to reach the castle and the GGW start/finish sign.

Once I'd taken the obligatory photos I headed for the train station and sat in the bar with a well-deserved beer before getting the train back to Glasgow.

Distance walked = about 7 miles (2 'official' miles plus the 5 miles to the sea lock and back)

GGW day 6

Tuesday 23rd August, 2011

The final day of the walk proper. I got the same bus as I'd got yesterday morning, but because I was only going as far as Drumnadrochit I was able to start walking a lot earlier.

The path starts by following the A82. At first alongside the road but then on a separate path. A couple of miles in and the path started to climb away from the road. The path joins a forest road and I followed this to the highest point on the whole GGW at 375m. The road then descended for a way to get to Abriachan. This is a kind of woodland outdoor centre with a car park, picnic tables, eco toilets, and lots of bird houses and sculptures. I stopped here for lunch.

A short while further on I bumped into the Canadians again (we'd been passing each other all day) as they were emerging from what seemed to be overgrown brushland. There is a campsite and cafe hidden away in it and they'd just stopped for a cup of tea. Curious, even though I'd already eaten, I picked my way through boggy paths to find it. It's quite a bizarre place run by an eccentric couple. It seems overgrown yet is actually maintained with fruit and veggies growing, chickens roaming about and a pond. I had a freshly squeezed orange juice (yum, vitamins - something I felt I was lacking living on instant noodles and cup-a-soups) and chatted to the couple.

They've owned the land for a few years and live in a caravan on it. They started offering camping as way of getting people to camp officially rather then wild camping and using what is essentially their garden, as a toilet. I got an elaborately hand-written receipt for my orange juice; something to do with placating the tax man.

The path continued on the level and then met the road which I followed across the Abriachan plateau for a couple of mile or so. Then I joined a path which rises again and got my first views of Inverness in the distance. The path began descending and entered a forest through which I walked for several miles. The path then drops steeply into Inverness. I had to stop several times to give me knees a break. Once on the outskirts of Inverness I was back to walking through a housing estate just like at the beginning of the walk.

The path joins the canal again near the campsite. I was about 2 miles (if that) from the end of the walk at Inverness Castle but didn't see the point in walking past the campsite into Inverness, just to walk back out the campsite again, and then walk back in again tomorrow to get the train. So I went straight to my tent instead.

Distance walked = about 16 miles.

GGW day 5

Monday 22nd August, 2011

Up early and trekked to the bus stop. It's quite frustrating having to walk all the way round - walking past my tent 10 mins after I've just left it! I can understand why there's no gate at this end of the campsite because if there was anyone could walk in and there could be quite a security issue. But I'm sure they could have put the vehicleless field nearer the main gate!

The bus back to Invermoriston was a lot more expensive than the one I'd got yesterday. Apparently there are different companies running the routes and they all have different prices. Oh well, it's worth it, not to be carrying my heavy pack. I still have the pack with me as I don't have a daypack with me, but it's almost empty and really light.

Once in Invermoriston I bought a sandwich for breakfast and sat in the shop's garden to eat it. A couple of friendly cats joined me. I wandered round Invermoriston for a few minutes (really, that's all it took) and bumped into the Canadian women again. The men had already set off walking (I saw them several times throughout the day), the women were taking the day off and going to get the bus to Urquhart Castle instead.

The path begins by climbing very steeply along a narrow road behind the shops. In no time at all I was well above them. The path continued to zigzag upwards, though not quite as steeply. It climbs about 215m in the the first mile. It then drops to about 110 metres. The path joins a forest road and continues to descend until it comes alongside the A82. The forest road then climbs again to about 300m before dropping down again to 120m. At least I couldn't complain about it being flat today!

The path climbs again towards Grotaig where it joins a small road. There are some paths at the side of the road, but a lot of the time I was walking on the road itself. This section is about 3 miles long and was very hard on my feet. Then I turned to descend on a gravel path before reaching the A82 and following this into Drumnadrochit.

Drumnadrochit is the main hub for all things Nessie. There are a couple of Nessie exhibitions and lots of cafes and shops. I was too late and too tired to do much more than wait for the bus though.

Distance walked = 14 miles

Monday, 29 August 2011

GGW day 4

Sunday 21st August, 2011

This morning even though it was Sunday the shops were open and the tourists were out in force. I only had 8 miles to go today, but my pack was feeling heavy and my feet were feeling weary. This was the first day where it wasn't flat and I was looking forward to a bit of inconsistency in the terrain.

I was now following Loch Ness and would do until almost the end of my walk. Loch Ness is one of the largest lochs, only Loch Lomond has a larger surface area. By volume however, it is by far the largest, containing more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. It is just under 23 miles long and is 1.7 miles across at its widest point. Loch Ness is of course famous for its monster, but though I kept a good look out I didn't catch so much as a fleeting glimpse of it.

Leaving Fort Augustus, the path immediately began to climb. It follows minor roads for a while, but is soon on forest tracks. The path kept its height with a few undulations. It was hard to see the loch for a lot of the time because of the tree cover. But it was also hard to hear (and see) the traffic down below on the busy A82, something which I'm not complaining about. Every now and again there would be a break in the trees and the chance to stop and drink in the view.

At one such viewpoint I was perched on a conveniently placed large, flat rock enjoying coffee from my flask when two older  Canadian couples came along. They were walking the path too, but staying in B&Bs and using a baggage carrying service. I chatted for a while before moving on. I continued to see them on and off throughout the rest of the day.

As it got towards the end of the day I felt I was beginning to tire of carrying my back. The next two days are long days with a lot of hills and a lot of miles and I wasn't sure how I'd go on. I decided to check out buses when I got to Invermoriston to see if it was possible to easily get to and from the Inverness campsite. If I could do this I could leave the bulk of my gear there and sleep there for the remaining three nights just getting a bus at the beginning and end of each day.

Almost at Invermoriston the path dropped steeply through woods to reach the main A82. Unfortunately because of damage to the trees the path had been closed for safety reasons. I had to follow a lane instead which added another couple of miles to my day's walk. I really wasn't in the mood for this. I was tempted to try the path and probably would have done if I didn't have my big pack. When I got to the other end of the path I could look up into the woods and see the damage. It would have been really difficult to get through as trees were all across the path. So I'd made the right decision to follow the detour.

I found a bus stop and checked the timetable. It being a Sunday I was hoping I wasn't too late for the last bus. It was fine and I only had about 20 minutes to wait. The bus dropped me outside the campsite which is actually on the route of the GGW. I could see tents from the bus so thought I didn't have far to walk. Wrong. The campsite is big. And the entrance is at the far end. I had to walk all the way down the side road to get to the entrance. The field for campers without cars was then at the other end of the campsite and so I had to walk all the way back again. I ended up with my tent quite close to the road and the bus stop, yet a good 10-15 minute walk away. I was not a happy bunny. It was good to get my tent up though and know I didn't have to carry it tomorrow.

Distance walked = 10-11 miles (8 'official' miles plus a couple for the diversion and the best part of a mile getting to the field I put my tent up in)

GGW day 3

Saturday 20th August, 2011

A soggy morning. I stayed in my tent for a while and eventually it eased off. I packed up in drizzle rather than a downpour. By the time I started walking it had cleared up well. Today's walk is only 10 miles so I didn't have to be in too much of a hurry.

The path goes along the south side of the canal to the small Loch Oich. There's only about a mile of canal joining these two lochs. When I got to Loch Oich I went into the coffee shop at the Great Glen Water Park for a coffee and an orange juice. It seems like quite a nice place with log cabins scattered throughout the trees.

Leaving the water park the path follows the bed of an old railway line. Part of a station platform can still be seen as can the stone walls that would have been alongside the sunken track. Trains used to run between Spean Bridge and Fort Augustus but the line was never successful due to rivalries between different companies.

The path then follows the remains of one of General Wade's military roads. I sat for a while on a conveniently placed bench and looked across the loch to the ruins of Invergarry Castle. This used to be the seat of the MacDonald clan who supported the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was burnt down after the battle of Culloden.

After the castle the path moved slightly inland. When it returned to the lochside just before Aberchalder I was surprised at how windy it was beside the loch. Aberchader has a rather pretty old bridge (The Bridge of Oich). It's now only used by pedestrians. This is where Loch Oich ends and the canal begins again. I found a lovely tea garden just by the canal and the bridge and sat with coffee and a cake for a while enjoying the warmth. Now I was back near the canal and away from the loch, the wind had dropped and I hadn't seen rain since this morning. The tea garden had a couple of resident dogs who insisted on playing catch with me, though one really hadn't got the concept of the game and kept forgetting to bring the ball back to me.

Just past the tea garden I crossed a bridge and followed the canal along a path on the north side. This was an even, flat path and, fortified by coffee and cake, I was able to get quite a pace going. I had a break at Kytra lock which was pretty and had nice grass for camping on, but no facilities. I considered stopping, but wanted to get another couple of miles under my belt, so carried on to Fort Augustus.

Fort Augustus is a busy little tourist town with the most people I'd seen since Glasgow. Because of the proximity to houses and businesses camping is not allowed at the lock and so I had to go up the road to the commercial campsite. This was a big campsite with several different camping areas. I was in a field for campers without vehicles. There were four young Spanish people with motorbikes and tents on the far side of the field from me, but that was it. It should have been a peaceful night. It wasn't. The Spanish had set up a kind of communal tent as well as there own individual tents and proceeded to have a very loud party. If it wasn't so annoying, I would have been quite impressed by how much noise could emanate from just four people! I ended up getting quite nowty and shouting over to them to shut up. To their credit, they did, and I was able to get a bit of sleep.

Distance walked = 10 miles

Sunday, 28 August 2011

GGW day 2

Friday 19th August, 2011

I woke feeling much better. It was a beautiful day and the sun had driven all the midges away. I sat at a picnic table for a while having breakfast and just enjoyed sitting in such a lovely place. I couldn't stay too long though and had to rouse myself to get packed away. I appreciated why the guys I'd met yesterday had enjoyed taking so long. If I wasn't on a restricted timetable I would have loved to be able to spend a few hours, if not the whole day, here.

I hoisted my backpack up onto the picnic bench and disaster struck. One of the straps that holds the pack closed caught on the bench and the buckle broke. It was unfixable and wouldn't stay fastened with only half the buckle. Luckily I always have a stash of duct tape wrapped round my walking poles so I was able to use some of this to wrap round the buckle and keep the pack closed. It worked really well, but did mean that to open my pack I had to carefully unwrap the duct tape, stick it on the side of my pack and then carefully peel it off to wrap it round the strap again when it was time to refasten my pack. A whole lot of faffing, but at least I'd fixed it.

I hoisted my backpack up onto my shoulders and disaster struck. (Didn't I write this already?) The waist strap caught on the picnic bench and the buckle broke. I couldn't carry my pack all day without the support of the waist strap so I had to fix it. Duct tape wasn't an option here as it would be too difficult to get the pack on and off. I managed to figured out a way of tying one end of the strap to the other and it held quite well. Maybe it's time I got myself a new backpack.

Finally, I was able to set off. The path headed away from the loch on the north side. It climbed up into a thickly wooded area which seems to have been converted in to a fairy glen. A very large area was filled with glittery and shiny baubles. There were trees that seemed to be fruiting teddy bears or wellington boots. Umbrellas were arranged over fairy tea parties and plastic flowers bloomed. The conservative part of me thought it was an eyesore in such a nice place, but the fun part of me loved it. I don't know who has done this here, or why, but it's certainly different.

The path continued on the north side of Loch Lochy all day. I finished the day at South Laggan locks which at the far end of the lock and where the path joins the canal again. The walk took me through woods all day and although I did get to walk alongside the loch for a couple of miles after the fairy wood, most of the time I was higher than the loch and only got glimpses of it through the trees.

Towards the end of the day it began to rain. It started off quite light, but got heavier and so I had to stop and put wet weather gear on for the first time. It was still raining heavily when I reached South Laggan and had to put my tent up. Luckily it doesn't take long to get the bulk of it up and I could chuck my gear inside whilst I finished pegging it out properly.

There were a lot of boats moored up for the night and a few other campers too, but the area wasn't as nice as Gairlochy locks. Nice enough I suppose, but not the sort of place I'd want to linger even if I did have the time.

Distance walked = 13 miles

GGW day 1

Thursday 18th August, 2011

I got a lift to the local train station and then had to walk between stations in Glasgow to get to Queen St to catch my train to Fort William. The 10 minute walk made me realise how heavy my pack is. I've cut everything down to the bare minimum - I only have one change of clothes, I've rationed out my food, I have no reading books, and so on - so the only way I'd get lighter is to buy more expensive gear. At least it should get lighter as the week goes on and I eat my food.

The train from route from Glasgow to Mallaig is said to be one of the most scenic in the world. I did the Fort William to Mallaig stretch a few years ago when I needed a day off walking to let my knees recover from the descent of Ben Nevis. I went on the steam train in true Harry Potter style over the Glenfinnan Viaduct and it was truly stunning. Now I was getting to do the first bit of that journey that I'd missed out on before. Once we cleared the suburbs of Glasgow the views got better and better and the last bit into Fort William was wonderful.

To get to the official start of the walk I had walk through Morrison's car park and cross a main road to get to a grassy area by Loch Linnhe. This grassy area covers the remains of a fort built in the 1600s. I sat and had lunch at a picnic table and then wandered over to the sign to take a photo. A group of young guys were sprawled beneath it enjoyed a case of lager. They'd just finished the walk and were celebrating. They said they'd spent 2 weeks doing it and had really enjoyed the leisurely pace and being able to camp wherever they found a nice spot. They also warned me that water isn't that easy to get and one of them gave me his platypus complete with 3 litres of water. It was difficult to stuff it into my backpack and meant I had just added another 3 kilos to my already heavy load, but I was grateful. I'd never bought myself a platypus or camelbak as I wasn't sure if I'd get on with them. But now I had the perfect opportunity to test drive one.

The walk begins by taking a path through a housing estate. As much as possible it was beside the River Nevis and in the trees, but there were times when I was just walking down residential streets. About a mile before Corpach and the sea lock the path doubles back on itself and then begins the journey east. I had to do a detour down to the sea lock though to buy a toilet key from the office there. I only rang about key a couple of days ago - if I'd been more organised and rang earlier they would have posted me one out. However, as I wanted to go to the sea lock anyway, it wasn't an issue. The key cost £6 and is a British Waterways Key rather than just a Caledonian Canal key which is what I was expecting it to be. What this means is that I can use it to access toilets and showers at canal locks all over the UK.

It was when I left Corpach that I felt like I was on the path proper. It was getting quite late in the day but as it's August in Scotland there was still plenty of daylight. I was hoping to make it as far as Gairlochy to camp; at the least I wanted to make it to Moy which is a couple of miles before Gairlochy, but knew I'd feel much better if I could complete what is the usual day one leg despite my late start and detour.

The path follows the south bank of the canal all the way to Gairlochy and Loch Lochy, the first of the three lochs I would follow as part of the path. The path is good and very, very flat. So much so, it felt quite monotonous and I could feel my legs seizing up from doing what was essentially the same step over and over. If it continues like this (which it probably will) I could well finish the walk with a case of RSI.

As I came close to Neptune's Staircase I started to see lots of people. Generally the path is very quiet until it reaches a lock or small town. Neptune's Staircase is quite a tourist attraction and many people were standing around photographing the boats passing through the series of eight locks. The following is what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Neptune's Staircase (grid reference NN113769) is a staircase lock comprising eight locks on the Caledonian Canal. It is the longest staircase lock in the United Kingdom, and lifts boats 64 feet (19.5 metres). The locks were originally hand-powered, but have been converted to hydraulic operation. The base plinths of the original capstans are still present, although the capstans themselves are now gone.

The current lock gates weigh 22 tons each, and require a team of three lock-keepers (at minimum) to run the staircase.

It is usual for them to operate on an "Efficiency Basis", that is the keepers try to either fill each cut with boats on the lift or drop, or to allow for passing, ie a dropping craft to pass a rising craft on the same fill/empty cycle.

It takes approx 1 hour 30 minutes for a boat to pass from one end of the staircase to the other, through the eight locks.

It is one of the biggest staircases in Britain, and is kept by British Waterways.

It is located at Banavie, near Fort William just north of Loch Linnhe.

The structure was designed by Thomas Telford.

By the time I got to Moy I was feeling pretty tired and my feet were starting to throb. I was tempted to stop and camp, but decided I could manage another few miles and so pushed on. I was glad I did as Gairlochy is a lovely place to camp. Light was fading and the midges were coming out in force so I threw my tent up in quite a hurry on the soft manicured grass at the side of one of the locks. It was only afterwards when I went looking for the toilet and shower that I realised the building I thought was the toilet block wasn't and the actual one was much further down. So I had a bit of trek each time I wanted to go to the loo, clean my teeth, wash my dishes, etc. I was beyond caring too much and after a shower and something to eat crawled into my sleeping bag really grateful to be able to give my feet a rest. I don't usually have a problem with throbbing feet so have put it down to the hard surface of the path and the repetitive way of walking on the flat.

Distance walked = about 12 miles (10 'official' miles, plus a couple on the detour to the sea lock)

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Some thoughts on the GGW

Now that I've had a few days to reflect on my walk here are some of my thoughts:

I'm glad I've walked a long distance path in one go and in the recommended amount of time as I feel like I've proved something to myself. I know I can do it, so now I can walk paths any way I like without feeling like I have something to prove.

At the start of my walk I met a group of young guys sitting under the start/finish sign in Fort William celebrating the end of their walk with a crate of beers. They'd walked it the other way round to me. When I asked them about it and how long they'd taken I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd said less than the usual amount of days. Instead they said, "Well most people take five or six days, but we took about two weeks". They went on to say how much they'd enjoyed just walking however far they felt like and camping in nice places. As I did the walk I really appreciated what they meant by this and felt that their way was a great way to do it. I did feel like I was missing out on enjoying the wonderful places I was passing through because I was always aware that I had to keep walking to make that day's target. I also felt like I spent far too much time looking at my feet and the ground and not enough at the wonderful views. So next time I do a one week walk, I'm going to allow 2 weeks. If I finish in one week, then I'll have a week in hand to do something else. But I'll know I have plenty of time to really enjoy my walk.

The path was much harder than I thought it was going to be. And I mean that literally. I don't mean it was a more difficult walk, but that it was very, very hard underfoot. Chunks of it were on roads (mainly very minor roads, with only the odd car) and most of the rest of it was on paths and tracks that were not only hard but often stony as well. By the end of each day the soles of my feet were really sore. It took a lot of lying down before the throbbing started to wear off. By the end of the week I was resorting to painkillers. If I was to do the walk again I would seriously consider getting some air cushioned trainers and walking in those. The stones would still hurt through the soles, but the overall impact would be a lot less that it was with my heavy, rigid-soled walking boots. Even though it's been a wet summer, the path was never particularly muddy, so trainers would have been fine.

All along the path there were items of discarded clothing hanging on fences and trees. Was someone walking ahead of me trying to lighten their load? Or do lots of people lose random items of clothing on the walk and other people come along behind and hang them up?

I need a lighter tent. My tent is quite light for it's size. It's small, but I can sit up in it and have room to spread my stuff out and cook. I bought this one because it is light enough to carry, but also it's good for spending long rainy days in. I didn't want to be stuck in a tent that I can only lie down in and can only cook if I go outside. However, to carry it for this distance I really could have done with something ultra light. I will seriously have to look at bivvy bags too.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Back home

I'm back home after just over a month away in which I completed two of my challenges. I've wild camped in the UK and walked a long distance path in one go.

My wild camping was quite soft really as in Shetland it's so easy and most of the time I camped near piers where there are toilets and showers. But I did do nine straight nights. I also officially wild camped for a couple of nights on the Great Glen Way as I slept at locks where there are designated wild camping sites (can it be wild camping when it's a designated site?) and I was able to buy a key enabling me to use the toilets and showers at the locks. I've done much wilder wild camping in other parts of the world (particularly Africa) so I know I'm capable of it, I just wanted to break my habit of always relying on campsites when I'm in this country.

As for my long distance walk, I walked the Great Glen Way over 6 days. Technically I finished on the 7th day as I stopped at the campsite in Inverness at the end of day 6. This is right on the route and there seemed no point walking into Inverness just to walk back out again, only to walk back in again the next day to get the train. The walk should have been 73 miles but I did just over 80 as one day there was a 2 mile diversion and I also walked out to both sea locks which aren't included in the official trail. I carried all my gear for the first 4 days, but set up camp in Inverness and bussed back to the walk for the last couple of days when it was long and hilly. I could have done it with all my gear but would have needed more time. As with the wild camping, I have done longer walks than this and carried more gear in other countries, but wanted to do it here just to prove to myself that I'm still up to it.

So right now, I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Sunday, 14 August 2011


Sunday 14/8/11

Unst is one of my favourite places in the world. You can't get any further north in the UK. There are a couple of rocks further north (Muckle Flugga and Out Stack), but this is the last place that can actually be called a place. Last time I was here, I found it difficult to tear myself away and spent about half of my time on Shetland time here. This time I've left it till last so I had something to look forward to and so I did get to see other places too.
I've been here a couple of days already. The first day was spent doing admin-y type things - finding internet access to book my train tickets for the GGW, sending emails, getting petrol, doing a stock-take of my food and working out what I needed to buy for the GGW, and so on. Yesterday was really stormy. Force 7 winds and rain lashing down until the evening. No-one could really go anywhere, including all the canoeists who are up here for the weekend. We all sat around the hostel watching the waves crash against the shoreline and the tents flap madly in the wind. Once again my little Vango survived brilliantly. There was a similar storm when I was here last year and other people's much more expensive tents were tearing and had poles snapping. Mine flaps away, but survives without the tiniest shred of a tear or hairline crack of a pole.
This morning was beautiful. As predicted the storm had blown itself out. After breakfast I drove out to Hermaness. This is a nature reserve at the end of the end of the UK. There is a car parking area and a small visitor centre with toilets. This area is known for its birds as well its dramatic views. Because of the birds visitors are requested to stay on the paths and not wander freely across the moorland tops. As it is very, very  boggy it's much easier to stay on the paths anyway. I walked about 30 minutes uphill and then across moorland to the cliffs. Once at the cliffs most people head east to see the puffin colony and Muckle Flugga. As I like to be a bit contrary I walked west. Just a few minutes to the west, where hardly anyone goes, is the most amazing gannet colony. I discovered this last year and wanted to go back this year. The dark cliffs look white, they are that stuffed with gannets. The air is full of gannets; the sea is full of bobbing gannets. The noise, the smell, is just pure gannet. Most of my senses felt completetly overwhelmed by it. 
Only after having my fill of gannets did I walk east. I didn't see any puffins this year, though I'd probably only just missed them. Last year, I was here a few days earlier and there were puffins everywhere. I'd sat for ages with puffins popping up out of the ground or zooming in to land all around me. I walked further east along the cliffs until I was level with Muckle Flugga. I have to learn to kayak properly so I can actually get there. There were a dozen canoeists on the water today and I watched for a while to see if they would go to Muckle Flugga, but they just seemed to be sticking to the coast.
Leaving the cliffs I headed up and across the moors again on another path that joined with the original path to drop down to the car park. I finished my day out by going to the chocolate factory for a deluxe experience. A hot chocolate with whipped cream, marshmallows and a chocolate lattice; three Abernathy biscuits partly dipped in dark, milk and white chocolate; two filled chocolates, one dark and one white; and three squares of solid milk, dark and white chocolate. How ideal is this island? It's isolated, friendly, relaxing, has great wildlife and views AND has its own brewery and chocolate factory. Can you see why it's one of my favourite places?

Thursday, 11 August 2011


Wednesday 10th August, 2011 and Thursday 11th August, 2011

I arrived in Fetlar on Tuesday evening and pitched my tent in the boggy field that is the official campsite. Apart from a Dutch family on the far side of the field, I was the only person there. The wind was getting up, but the light was beautiful so I had a stroll along the road taking photos of the amazing coastline, before settling in for the night.

Wednesday was a beautiful day. I started by going to the museum. As I drove up a boy was doing cartwheels in the car park, obviously really enjoying the sun. He turned out to be the curator and tourist info guy. When I turned into the car park he went back inside and stood behind the counter and was very professional.
The museum had lots of local history, geology, etc. There was a big display on William Watson Cheyne who had a house in Fetlar. There were lots of connections with places I’ve been so I was quite interested. He was born on his father’s ship just off Tasmania and christened in the Scottish church in Hobart. He’d worked in King’s College Hospital. His family were from Tangwick Haa.
I spoke to C (the young curator) and an older woman who came in. She was a trustee of the museum. The curator had left suddenly and they had a new one starting in another week or so. The new one was a lady from the Isle of Sheppey. As the museum was currently curatorless the trustees had been opening it up and working in it voluntarily. They’d also got the island’s teenagers to get involved and do shifts. C was one of those. He was 14 years old and originally from Warrington. He’d moved to Fetlar with his younger sister 18 months ago when his mum got the district nurse job. C was a student at the Anderson, the main high school for Shetland's children of secondary school age. He’d started at the high school in Unst but didn’t like the travelling  and having to get up at 6am and not getting home till 5pm. He was really happy at the Anderson, living in the hostel. He said everyone, kids and teachers, had made him feel part of things from the start. He felt they got a lot a more freedom then he had in Warrington too. There are no school uniforms in Shetland schools, but he said it gets a bit boring wearing your own clothes as then you have nothing different to wear in your own time.
He told me there were nine children currently on Fetlar, but a family with two more, including a girl his age, were due to arrive on Friday. It seemed that life on Fetlar is ‘moving up’ – families are moving in and the primary school which has been closed for a couple of years as there were no children that age, is about to re-open as there are now two children to go to it. The previous teacher is coming back.
It seems a good thing to do to get the teenagers involved in the museum as not only do they get to know about their island, it’s great work experience. Where else would a 14 year old be doing shifts in a museum by himself, dealing with tourist info queries, both in person as the museum doubles as the tourist info office, and fielding overflow calls from the main Lerwick tourist office?
The woman trustee showed me some old photos including one of her and her friends standing outside the Anderson hostel back in their school days there. There was a woman visitor in the museum who said she had also been a pupil at the Anderson. She is now a teacher, though not there. I don’t think she lives in Shetland. Three generations of Anderson students together – this must be quite normal here, where everyone will have these connections and links.
The woman also showed me a photo of the old church. This has now been rebuilt as the modern community centre and the only original part seems to be the internal roof. All dark wood. She was the last person to get married in this church back in 1969. As there weren’t the ferry links then it was a massive task to get all the food and guest together. Fetlar weddings she said, at least back then, can go on for days.
Fetlar is hoping to get good enough internet connections that people on the island can start working from home doing council jobs and so on. Teleworking. This would be good in further encouraging people to move to Fetlar. There are about 70 people at the moment.
I left the museum still giggling at the thought of the museum curator doing cartwheels in the car park. It kept me amused all day.
Before going to the museum I’d called in at the well-stocked shop to pay for camping. I spoke to the woman who had moved up from the Midlands a year or two ago to take over the shop. She told me about riots that have been happening in cities in England, including Manchester. Apparently police had shot someone in London and a demonstration about this had turned into a riot that had spread around the country. It seemed to be more an opportunity for thugs and looters to have a field day than anything political though. I love that I can be in a place in the UK and yet not know about something as major as this happening. It really is like a different world. She also told me that because of the film that’s currently being shot in Shetland, The One Show had been up and done some of their own filming. The shop woman had been interviewed, but she wasn’t sure when it was going to be on.
I next went to the community centre where there is the Fetlar Café. I had a Panini and coffee – a cafetiere of very good strong coffee and then followed it with a homemade golden bay flavour icecream. The cook in the café used to be the school cook until the school closed down. The café job is part-time so she’s thinking about selling her ice-cream commercially. A small tub with a simple ‘Fetlar ice cream’ label was £1.80. Most of the ingredients she sources locally, but obviously some she can’t. Golden Bay has the cream flavoured with bay leaves and then it’s sweetened with golden syrup instead of sugar. The homemade cakes looked good too.

Leaving the café I drove the short distance to Funzie Loch  (Funzie is pronounced Finney) I watched two red-throated divers on the loch for a while and then walked to the hide where I sat for over an hour looking for exciting wildlife. I saw a rabbit. The Dutch family were also at the hide but didn’t stay very long. When I left the hide I walked up across a boggy, burn criss-crossed moor to the old derelict coast guard station. There were quite a few bonxies about , but they were enjoying flying about and not at all interested in me. I then walked round the headland taking photos and stopping to admire the views. It was late when I got back to my car and I didn't get back to my tent till about 8pm. It's wonderful having such long days, even at this time it was still broad daylight.

The following morning I had a bit of a lazy start. I had a shower and got packed up and then went back to the café for lunch and a gooseberry and elderflower ice cream. More gooseberry taste than elderflower, but delicious all the same.

I left the car back at the campsite and waked down to Tresta beach. I intended walking along the beach and then following a path to the high point of the cliffs above. I had a quick look at the church – lots of memorials to various locals of bygone times - and then made my way to the beach. I got interested in the rocks and shells and spent my time walking up and down and collecting some of them instead of going up onto the hill. I only left when it was time to collect my car for the drive to the pier to catch the 4.45pm ferry.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Papa Stour - the walk

Saturday 6th August, 2011

I woke to a really nice day. The first ferry came in, but the only tourist was a young guy over for the day. Once ready, I started walking. I wanted to walk round part of the coast and then cut inland to the church to pick up the book I’d given Jane the money for yesterday. I spent a while wandering along a couple of beaches and then couldn’t get any further without cutting inland a bit sooner than I’d wanted to. I got as far as a house and croft that looked wonderful - it's got its own beach and a great view of the stacks.
After collecting my book I walked to the end of the road to the airstrip and then headed out across the moors. I spent most of the rest of the day wandering on the moors, getting close to the coast every now and again, going round lochs and up on to the tops. I headed back to the waiting room with enough time to cook a few days’ worth of pasta and tomato sauce and to eat dinner. Then I got the last ferry back to mainland.
On the ferry I spoke to the young guy who’d got off the boat this morning. He was from Hamilton but had lived in Lerwick for the past year. He’d finished university and then got a graduate training position with SIC (Shetland Islands Council). He only had three weeks left before he moved to Plymouth to take up a permanent position. He’d been out walking every weekend and so had seen plenty of Shetland. This was his only day in Papa Stour though. At least he got to see it before leaving. He’d managed to walk the whole way round the coast and it had been a good clear day. Talking to him made me think more about living in Skerries. If I had a campervan I could spend every weekend going to different parts of Shetland and getting lots of walking done. After a few years of doing this I'd know these islands inside out. Note to self: look up the job advert and see if I fit the criteria.

Papa Stour

Friday 5th August, 2011

The night before getting the ferry to Papa Stour I drove down to the small harbour intending to camp there. I didn't want to be too far away as there's just one narrow, winding road to get to the harbour and if I got stuck behind a tractor or something I could easily miss the ferry. For the first time I struggled to find somewhere to pitch my tent. There was virtually no flat ground apart from a tiny patch near the toilet block which was so hard I'd never have got my tent pegs in. I thought about sleeping in the little waiting room, but it had a light on a timer or sensor that seemed as though it would be on all night, and there were fishermen coming and going all night. So I ended up piling everything from the back of my car on to the front seats and sleeping on the back seat. It wasn't as uncomfortable as I'd imagined it to be and I did get quite a bit of sleep. But it's reinforced my idea of buying some kind of van that I can easily sleep in the back of when the need arises. I can't afford a proper campervan, but I'm sure I can find something that I can adapt.

Below is the extract from my diary of arrival and first day on Papa Stour.

I woke up and had time for a shower (£1) before getting the ferry over to Papa Stour. There is a shower in with the disabled toilet. It got very hot and I had to keep adjusting it, but it lasted ages. It was drizzling a bit as I waited for the ferry. I spoke to an older woman who was also waiting with her car. Her name was Jane and she was going over for the day as she has land on the island. She told me about camping by the waiting room near the pier. It has a heater which she said I was free to use, just remember to turn it off afterwards. She also asked me not to have a campfire. She said that a few weeks ago a group of people had dug up a patch of grass by the waiting room so they could have a fire. They hadn’t replaced it. The islanders have since replaced it, but it’s quite obvious where it was. As this area of grass is more like a lawn and is well maintained this didn’t go down well. She said another group had removed stones from an old wall to put round their fire. The wall was broken anyway, but is still part of the ‘look’ of the island. I assured her that I’d only be using my camp stove and wouldn’t light any fires.

The ferry journey took about forty minutes and it was raining more heavily when we arrived. Jane pointed out the waiting room to me which is slightly up the road from the pier. It has a great view of the bay and some sea stacks. There was a lot of information on the walls – both community and tourist information. Lots about the history and nature of the island. There were plenty of chairs and a proper kitchen sink. Also a table with a kettle, proper cups and takeaway ones, teabags, coffee, coffee creamer powder,  sugar, hot chocolate sachets and little individual cartons of milk for the tea. This was free with a sign saying to help yourself, but donations to the local history society would be appreciated. Jane came in to top up the supplies. The following morning a couple came in to do the same and said that someone always comes down when the ferry comes in to make sure everything is topped up.

Next to the waiting room was a toilet block, but no shower. The only thing it was lacking. There was enough room for a shower though so who knows in the future. Outside there was the nice lawn perfect for pitching a tent on and a picnic bench.

As it was raining quite heavily by this time I sat in the waiting room and had a coffee. I used my own supplies as I thought I wouldn’t deplete theirs. I did leave a donation though before I left for the use of the facilities. I finished reading ‘Shetland Black’, a slim novel I’d started the night before. The speech parts are written in dialect but it was understandable if  read it ‘out loud’ in my mind. It was quite a dark novel about a small community in the north of mainland imploding. But did cheer up a bit at the end.

As it was still raining I had a second cup of coffee and read through some of the National Geographic magazines that were in the waiting room along with the island’s library book box. After that I decided I had to brave it and put my tent up. Then I had lunch. By this time it was about 2pm and the rain had eased off a lot. I walked up the road to the church, past a few houses, one of which had a beautifully laid out garden. I stopped at the Stofa. Jane had mentioned this and told me that I could find out what it was when I got there. It turned out to be a rebuilding of a traditional Norwegian house. The community had got together with a group from Norway to rebuild it. There had been three houses on the site and two are marked out on the ground. The main house, the Stofa, is the one they’ve partially rebuilt. Dry stone walls surround two sides of it to protect it from the harshest Atlantic weather. The building itself is made from logs; huge logs that have been planed and carved in Norway using traditional techniques. Norway funded part of the project and the Papa Stour community raised the funding for the rest. Part of the agreement was that some young Shetlanders would go to Norway to work with the Norwegians and learn the techniques. Three young men were chosen. One was unable to take up the opportunity as it clashed with his exams. One was a local boy (I think he was from Papa Stour) of sixteen who got permission to take a few weeks out of school to go. The third was from Mainland, in his early 20s and already working as a cabinet maker (or carpenter?). The project was a success and on the information boards are photographs of the logs being worked on out in the open in a town square in Norway and then the challenge of getting them loaded on to ferries and delivered to Papa Stour. Once on the island the house was reconstructed. There’s no roof and the whole thing is not a finished house, but this is intentional and shows the technique quite clearly.

Stofa Reconstruction (from the information boards)

This partial reconstruction was a partnership project between Papa Stour History Group, Norwegian Crafts Development and other Norwegian groups. Craftsmen and students took part in an exchange, passing on traditional skills.

The large logs were worked in Borgen, Norway, using tools and methods typical of the medieval period. They were then shipped to Shetland, before being reconstructed on site.

The original drystone walls were designed to protect the Stofa’s timbers from the prevailing winds and weather. These have been rebuilt on the original foundations with stones from the site.

The Walls

Drystone dykers from Shetland and Norway rebuilt the walls (‘vernemurer’) during the summer of 2007. A protective membrane was used to separate the old masonry from the new.

The long wall is thicker than the gable, to enable it to withstand Atlantic winds. Both walls are wider at the base, and taper slightly towards the top.

The gable is slightly stepped due to the uneven ground surface.

The Timbers

The lowest logs (‘sills’ or ‘svill’) were cut from pine trees growing in Romsdal, and the remaining logs from trees in Granvin.

Trees more than 150 years old were felled from Norwegian forests for the rebuilding of the stofa.

The logs were worked on in Norway, then transported to Shetland by the sailing ship, STATSRAAD LEHMKUHL. The joints for each log were carefully protected for the journey.

The construction was assembled on site in June 2008 by carpenters from Norway and Shetland students. The building measure 7.75 metres by 5.75 metres, with some of the sills (lowest logs) weighing over 500kg.

Da Biggins

Excavations at Da Biggins revealed the remains of a 13th century house. The building found is a stofa (a timber building made from notched logs), and dates to the time when Shetland was part of Norway.

The stofa belonged to Duke Hakon Hakonsson of Norway, and was part of his farm at Da Biggins.

Stofas were smaller, more comfortable buildings than the older Viking longhouses, but bigger than the homes of most Shetlanders.

Dispute at Da Biggins

Some dramatic events took place here at Da Biggins in 1299, when Shetland was part of Norway. At Easter that year a woman called Ragnhild Simunsdatter confronted Thorvald Thoresson, Duke Hakon Hakonsson’s representative in Shetland, the lord of Papa Stour.

She accused him of betraying Duke Hakon by taking higher rents from the farm of Brekasaetr (Bragaster) than was due. Ragnhild accused Thorvald of cheating Hakon. The case came to the Lawthing, Shetland’s parliament, at Tingwall. The lawmen rejected Ragnhild’s allegations, and the court drew up a document giving details of the quarrel. It is Shetland’s earliest surviving written record.

The document tells us that one of the incidents took place in the stofa, which you now see partially reconstructed today.

The Stofa

The building had just one room, with a hearth in the centre, and a door in the middle of the west gable. To the right of it a small extension was built, which archaeologists think may have been an outside toilet. The roof may have come down over the top of the wall, as shown in the reconstruction drawing above.

The wooden floor of the stofa was discovered by a team of archaeologists, led by Dr Barbara Crawford of St Andrew’s University, during excavations from 1977 to 1990.

The log timbers of the stofa must have rotted away and had been removed, but the wooden floor was left in situ and partially survived. It was carbon-dated to between 1200 and 1400.

The team also found the foundations of outer protective walls. Their purpose was to protect the wooden timbers from bad weather.

I then walked up to the church and saw Jane outside tending her sheep so I chatted to her for a while. She’d been the primary school teacher on the island before she retired and had also spent two winters working at the school in Foula. She had handed over five years ago to the teacher who has just left. She had sheep when she was teaching and this got me thinking that I could also have sheep if I was a teacher in Skerries (there is a job going there which I'm seriously tempted by). I could add ‘shepherdess’ to my list of the many jobs I’ve done!

She has about seventy sheep including lambs and has names for at least some of them. I might want to give mine names too, but that might make them seem like pets and be difficult when it comes time to send them to slaughter. Jane has one small, mostly dark brown lamb called Jacobina – she was the runt of a litter of three and was born late, hence the name. She seemed more like a pet and was fussing around Jane and me wanting her head stroked and presumably after food as well.

Jane seemed a really involved member of the community – important in an island of only twenty. Not only did she have her croft and had been the teacher, but she was involved in the local history group and had done most of the fundraising and liaising for the Stofa project.

The island community apparently was in crisis a few years ago when there was a lot of infighting. At the time Ron McMillan wrote ‘Between Weathers’ it almost seemed as if the community wouldn’t survive. But a few families have left (have others moved in?) and things presumably have settled down. I didn’t bring up the topic as I think in the past it had been a sore point and got bad press in the national papers. From the efforts the islanders are going to, to show they are a community and to make visitors feel welcome, I wondered if this was a deliberate thing to move them away from the fragmented recent past and show the outside world that their reputation doesn’t deserve the tarnish.

The church is a small, calm building surrounded by its graveyard. There is more information on the community and for visitors in a small room to the right of the entrance. There were slim books on sale for £5 each by a local author, George P. S. Peterson. They had some history and a lot of poems in dialect in them. I would have bought one as a souvenir and as a contribution (profits go to the history group) but only had a £20 note.

As it was starting to rain again I walked back to the waiting room. I spent the rest of the evening in there reading. Jane popped in on her way back to the last ferry and changed my £20 note so I could buy one of the books tomorrow. The evening cleared and as it got dark I sat in the waiting room until late with the lights off, just gazing at the wonderful view. The stacks (geological features - big stacks of rock standing just off the coast) look stunning in the diminishing light.

Thursday, 4 August 2011


Thursday 4th August, 2011

Arriving back in Walls in time for lunch I dumped my gear in the car and walked over to the cafe for a bowl of soup. After lunch I drove through Sandness (pronounced Saaness) to the end of the road and did a short coastal walk. The day had really cleared up and was warm, still and clear. I saw three old, derelict watermills on a small downhill stream between the parking bay and the coast. Throughout my walk I could see Papa Stour across the water. It's not very far and was really clear. Many years ago it was connected to the mainland. 
The walking was easy and on the level. I spent longer than I'd intended on what was really only a walk of a few miles, because I kept stopping to admire the view and to take photos. As is usual in Shetland paths were occasionally blocked by fences or locked gates and I had to figure out a way round or over them. Most of Shetland is effectively access land, but as Scottish laws are different to English ones, the footpath system isn't the same and farmers and landowners don't seem to have the same requirements to keep paths open. It's nice being able to walk pretty much everywhere, but sometimes I'd like to be able to follow a path knowing I'm not going to have to make detours.  
I headed inland at Sandness and walked back along the road to return to my car.

Foula 3

My final day. I was up quite early and had a strip wash and washed my hair in the toilet block. It's very basic and there was only a cold tap, but at least there was no-one around so I was able to take advantage. Then I made a flask of coffee and packed up. I walked back to the pier in thick mist and arrived just after 9am. I had plenty of time before the ferry left at 9.30am, but had just missed seeing the ferry being lowered to the water. I could hear the whirring of the lift through the mist as I walked along the road, but of course could see nothing.

Once on the boat I went into the cabin and stayed there for the whole journey, reading and drinking coffee. It was much colder and windier than on the way out and I was the only passenger. Once we cleared the harbour it was really choppy. The boat was getting tossed all over the place. Brian came into the cabin and offered me a sick bag, but I said I didn't think I'd need it. He was a bit sceptical, but seemed impressed when we arrived and I hadn't needed it. I'm so glad I don't get seasick as I can imagine how horrible that must be on a journey like this one.

Reflecting on my few days in Foula, I feel quite satisfied even though I didn't see or do any of the things I wanted to. For starters, I now have a good reason to go back. But also, I feel like I saw the real Foula. It spends so much time shrouded in mist it wouldn't have been the 'real' experience if I'd had great weather. Also it was so eerie and mystical with the mist, and also so peaceful and calming, that I felt really relaxed and content. People pay a fortune for spas and health breaks to get that kind of feeling, when all they need do is spend a few days living in a tiny tent with a load of sheep in a bog on a remote foggy island.  

Here are a few Foula facts:

  • Population - 30
  • Location - 20 miles west of Shetland Mainland
  • Length - 3.5 miles
  • Width - 2.5 miles (at its widest)
  • Area - 4.8 sqare miles
  • Highest point - The Sneug 418m
  • Shops - 0
  • Pubs - 0
  • Campsites - 0
  • Public transport - 0
  • Ferries - 1 every couple of days
  • Flights - depends on fog
  • Nurses - 1
  • Teachers - 1
  • Lighthouse keepers - 1
  • Sheep - lots

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Foula 2

I woke up, after my first night on Foula, a short while before before the first plane was due. I was wondering if I'd have to move my tent, but was surprised by how quiet it was. I know it's a tiny airport, but surely there should be some noise? A quick look outside my tent soon confirmed that the mist was back down as heavy and thick as it had been yesterday. No flights then.

Gaada Stack
I stayed in my tent, reading, writing my diary and enjoying some thinking time until the afternoon. Then as the mist started to lift a bit I went for a walk to the north end of the island. I stuck to the road, but as I got towards the north the mist cleared enough that I could see the outline of the tops of the hills (hills I should've been walking in) and I did get to see Gaada Stack which is a spectacular looking arch standing on its own in the sea. It looked particularly good with the mist behind it.

The primary school
Peat drying
On the way down I'd passed the primary school so I had a peer in through the windows. It was a modern building and looked like it had great facilities. There was a big kitchen too, which I couldn't see the point of. Later I was told that the school also contains the community hall and the kitchen is for community events. There are seven children in the school.

Keeping the ferry safe from storms
I walked back down to the pier and saw more seals and took pictures of the boat hanging up. It has to be winched up when not in use to protect it from storms. I passed a couple of the crew members tending their crofts and had a chat with them. As I walked back towards the airport a 3rd crew member pulled up beside me in his car. We had a chat and he checked that I was going out on the ferry next morning. He offered me a lift, which I accepted as I thought it would be nice to chat. He was going to the lighthouse at the south end of the island as one of his jobs is that of lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse is automated and so he just goes once or twice a week to check it. He's about 70 and should be retired, but said that people on the island just tend to keep on working. The oldest islander is a lady of 92. He told me that when people get too old to really manage on their own the other islanders all muck in and help.

We did some off-roading to get to the lighthouse and briefly got stuck. He was only going to pick up a toolbox that the maintenance men had left there. They come once a year and are going to Fair Isle next. They're probably the same ones I saw on Fair Isle last year. I was able to go into the lighthouse with him, though there was nothing exciting to see. Going in sets off an alarm in Edinburgh so he had to phone to say it was him. Otherwise they'd be phoning his house to tell him to go and check it out.

Things Brian told me before dropping me back at my tent are:

  • He's lived in Foula for 35 years, which is half his life.
  • He was captain of the ferry but has now given that up and is an ordinary crew member. He still gets captain's pay but with none of the responsibility.
  • The current captain (Kevin?) worked with him for 24 years before getting the captaincy.
  • Kevin (?) and some other islanders are the great grandchildren of the former laird Ian B. Stoughton Holbourn, whose book I'm reading at the moment. How horrified he would have been to find his descendands being ordinary crofters and ferrymen.
  • The current primary teacher is leaving after 5 years in the job.
  • The new teacher is a woman in her 50s and has a grown up family. She was previously working in Dubai.
  • Brian is a school governor.
  • The nurse is also giving up her job. Although it comes with a salary of £45k and she rarely has to do anything, she's finding it boring as she was used to working in a busy A&E ward before. She and her husband are staying on Foula and have a croft.
  • People on Foula are pretty healthy and don't tend to get ill. Instead they have rather dramatic accidents like rolling their vehicles over up on the tops.
  • Brian has rolled his 4WD twice. The passenger door had a big gap at the top where it had been bent. It had been his wife's car, but she's made him swap and give her his, after he damaged hers.
  • Rent for the croft (and I think for the house) is £8 a year. The landlords tried to put it up recently, but didn't succeed.
  • You can buy your croft and house for ten times the annual rent, but if you buy you're not eligible for grants. So people tend to get all the grants, do their place up and then buy it.
  • Brian hasn't bought his yet, but is now thinking about it as his son has decided to stay on Foula.

He probably told me more, but that's all I remember.

Once back at my tent I cooked and then spent the rest of the evening reading. Later in the evening a man drew up in his van outside my tent and asked if I wanted any fresh fish. I politely declined. The mist had really drawn in again by this time.

During my walk I took photos of some of the many abandoned cars. As there's no way of scrapping them, when they finally die they are just left to rot. Some of them are used for storage and are filled with bags of animal feed and tins of paint. Most people don't bother with things like MOTs, road tax or insurance.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011


I seem to be getting to more and more remote British islands, but my ultimate goal is St Kilda. This is a small collection of islands (how many does it need to be to count as an archipelago?) way off the west coast of Scotland. It was abandoned by its remaining inhabitants back in the 1930s as they could no longer sustain their way of life there. It's now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is extremely tricky and expensive to get to.

The nearest I've managed to get so far is Foula, another remote island off the west coast of Scotland. This has come close to being abandoned in the past, but currently has a population of about 30 and seems to be surviving quite well. Foula is the island used to represent St Kilda in old film about the last days on the island.

The journey to Foula is either by a small mailboat or a tiny plane. The island is known for its fog and so the plane is often cancelled. The boat can also be cancelled due to bad weather and so although I was only intending going to Foula for 2 nights, it could have turned out to be longer. The man in the shop in Walls, where I departed from, warned me about this and so I packed a few extra days' food supplies.

I left my car and walked round to the ferry terminal in plenty of time for the 1.30pm departure. However, we didn't leave until about an hour later as the captain had got stuck in fog on his way from Brae. The journey was expected to take about 2.5 hrs which was fairly accurate. There were a few other passengers on the boat as well as a crew of four. The other passengers consisted of a family of four who were on their way to visit the man's sister who'd moved to Foula a year or two before. They'd been booked to fly, but the plane had been cancelled because of the fog.

Foula appearing in the mist
The journey was good, the sea was so calm, no waves at all, though there was quite a big swell. I stood out on deck the whole time hoping to see whales but wasn't lucky. As we got nearer to Foula it started to rain a bit and the weather really closed in. When we first came in sight of Foula it was as a vague shadow in the mist and it was only when we were almost there that I was sure that it was land I was seeing and not just a trick of the light.

We docked and had to climb up a ladder on the side of the pier. Luggage, post and shopping deliveries were piled into a crate and lifted out with a crane. Whilst waiting I watched a couple of seals playing about in the harbour. Then I walked about a mile along the road to the airport where I'd decided to camp. The fog was so dense that although it wasn't far and the airport is in plain sight of the road I still had to get my map and compass out and navigate my way to it. I couldn't see it until I was actually there.

My tent is to the left. Abandoned cars to the right.
There was one fire station building and a tiny waiting room with a toilet and wash basin with cold water. A few abandoned cars were parked in the car park alongside the runway. I wandered around for a while over the boggy ground trying to find a slightly less boggy bit on which to pitch my tent. There only seemed to be one bit and that was quite close to the runway. I was no closer than the cars though, and it wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world if I had to move my tent next morning before the first plane arrived.

Lots of curious sheep watched me pitching my tent. They were all over the runway - I don't know what happens when a plane is due? - does someone have to chase them away? Once my tent was pitched I sat on stone seat and finished my flask of coffee. It was a mild evening and was lovely to be sitting there so alone in the mist, staring at the sheep who were staring right back at me. Apart from the odd 'baa' it was completely silent.  

After a while the mist seemed to be lifting a little so I walked to the far end of the road and back. It was really eerie walking along and seeing shapes looming in the mist. Not knowing if they were houses, sheep or abandoned cars until I was quite close. I could hear a few sounds of life, but saw no-one. On the way back to my tent the mist lifted even more and it started to rain. I gave up my walk as it was getting a bit late anyway, and hibernated in my tent for the rest of the evening.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Lunna Ness

Monday 1st August, 2011

I was up before 8am for a shower and to get packed up. I left my tent till last and was able to pack it completely dry. Even the underneath was dry. The ferry was at 9.30am. I was really quite sad to be leaving Skerries. I’d had such a lovely weekend and the community seems so friendly and vibrant.
The weather wasn’t quite as nice today and although the water in the harbour was calm, as soon as we cleared it the ferry was rocked all over the place. I wasn’t worried about myself, but I was really nervous about my car. As I’m expecting bits to drop off it anyway, this probably wasn’t particularly good for it. I sat in Jill’s campervan watching it through the back window. Even Mutley was very subdued. He only started to liven up when we got into calmer waters close to Mainland.
We drove round to the other small harbour in Vidlin and spoke to the canoeists for a little while. The weather had really changed and was quite cold and raining a bit. The canoeists thought that maybe no-one would turn up and they wouldn’t go out. Jill and I parted company at this point. She was going to Lerwick to find out about ferries back to Orkney and I was going for a walk round Lunna Ness and then heading west ready to go to Foula tomorrow.
I drove down to the end of the road at Outrabister where there is a small parking bay. Jill had told me about an interesting second hand shop in the last house on the peninsula. It’s in an old byre and still has the drainage hollows running along the floor. It was packed with stuff, but seemed a bit junky so I didn’t buy anything. The guy was really friendly and chatty. He had a huge house, but can’t make any money from the shop. There was a big modern barn outside and lots of sheep so he must do farming as well and the shop is a kind of hobby. I didn’t get chance to ask him though as he was waiting for a phone call and when it came he had to go and meet someone on the road with some ‘messages’. The phone call came as I was talking to him and curtailed the conversation. Before he went he pointed out a hill with a bit of a track that I could get good views from.
I sat in my car and had lunch and then got my boots and wet weather gear on and headed back down the road walking, to where I spotted a sign post to the the Stanes of Stofast. It was a boggy, soggy moorland walk to get to them and took over an hour. It shouldn’t have taken that long, but for the zigzagging and backtracking I had to do. The rocks were quite impressive; huge boulders displaced by glacial movement. Originally they were a single 2,000 tonne boulder that drifted from Norway on the ice and was later split into two by frost. There were great views from up there as well.
I then walked closer to the coast and then back inland to get to the trig point at the highest point on the peninsula. I walked a bit further towards the end of the peninsula before circling back and making for the hill that the man in the shop had pointed out. Then it was back down the track to his yard and back to my car. Apart from a few odd bits of blowy drizzle, the rain stayed off and I had a nice ‘fresh’ walk.

Out Skerries

Out Skerries (or just 'Skerries' as it's known locally) is to the northwest of the northeast of Shetland Mainland. It's an archiplego of three tiny islands, two of which are inhabited and connected by a very short bridge. The islands are reached by a ferry which docks in Bruray. There is a population of about 70 and a mile or so of roads. There are 2 shops, one of which operates as the post office, a primary and secondary school, a church and a community centre.

I camped near the pier on a grassy patch next to the shop. There is a toilet and a free hot shower by the pier so it was handy to be close by. On Sunday morning, after waving goodbye to the crew of The Spirit Dancer as it departed by early morning ferry, I went for my first walk of the day. I stuck to Bruray for this walk and headed out past the airstrip and the small loch and up on to the hill to get a good view of the lighthouse and the uninhabited island of Grunay.  There is a water viaduct going right round the island and I followed it for a while. It's not big and can't be seen from below; it looks more like a piece of guttering set into the ground. But it must have taken some work to install it. It was a beautiful sunny day with good views. I met Jill and Mutley sitting by a cairn at the top. On the way down I stopped to watch a seal and to take photos of jumping salmon in one of the several salmon farms. . It took me ages to get a half decent shot.

I went back to my tent to make lunch and  then sat on a stone by the harbour to eat it. I could have sat there all day, but I wanted to explore the bigger island of Housay. After chatting to a few people, including a couple with a 7 month old son and a small dog, and after an ice-cream from the shop, I set off on my afternoon walk.
I started out with Jill and Mutley and we crossed the bridge and walked to the island’s second shop and post office, but it was closed on a Sunday. We then headed up hill to find and old stone circle. This is known as The Battle Pund and is more of a rectangle than a circle. It's 13 metres across and is marked out by boulders dating from the Bronze Age. No-one knows what it was for. After this we parted company and I walked over most of the island only getting back at about 6.30pm. I walked to the far end of the island and came back via another fish farm and the small fish factory. I collected a lot of shells that had been dumped in what to future archaeologists will look like a midden. I drppped down to the church and small cemetery before heading back along the road.
On my way back to my tent I stopped to have a nosey around the school. It’s small but with decent sized classrooms. There seems to be a library and teacher’s area in a portacabin outside. The school looked really nice and had a playground at the front with swings and things and a vegetable garden at the back. It’s an eco-school as well.