Monthly Archives: July 2022

Tell them what they’ve won Don Pardo

After improvising a parking spot at the side of a one lane gravel road we were confronted with an orange plastic pumpkin face impaled on a wooden stake and two microwave ovens arranged like objects d’art at each side of the sheep farmers fence where in another time or place one might expect to find a white plaster lion or Greek gods.

I hope at least one of you Escapees remembers that Yours Truly has mentioned that it’s the payoff not the hike that I’m partial to. An agonizingly long, wind buffeted, ankle twisting, sheep-dung carpeted hill-and-dale with soft mushy rivulets running across our course every few yards holds little allure for me. But our lovely activity director sweetened the deal with promises of several abandoned major extensive estates to explore on the way to a remote and lonely broch stuck out at the end of a bight of land, or as we yachtsmen call it, a big stickout.

From the fence through the steeply pitched sheep farm we had to negotiate all the way down into a deep valley without a path to guide us.

It looks like we could use a crescent shaped sandy beach for a while that might speed things up, but then it was back up into the ankle-buster lumpy meadow.

You could see the Broch perched out at the end of the peninsula with binoculars. The problem is that with all the lichen covering the stones they take on the same shades as the surrounding environment which, as it turns out, is very effective camouflage.

Did I mention the rabbit holes? There were more rabbit holes than Youtube.

Dear reader, I will spare you the gory details of the hike but suffice it to say this particular farmer’s sheep have quite a productive digestive system. The hike turned into a slog as the biting wind began to rip at our jumpers and down filled bubble jackets. It was a head-down POR moment. All we wanted to do was find someplace out of the wind where it was quiet enough to think. Plotting an efficient direct path was impossible.

When we reached the broch I realized it was solidly filled with stone and earth. Not a bad exterior but it all adds up to another closed antiquity. This is not what I paid for. Tell them what they won, Don Pardo!

Since we lacked a decent payoff at the broch we decided to improvise a win by taking a shortcut through the ruin of a massive stone-walled enclosure with many outbuildings making up a complex estate.

We finally made it back to the beach only to face a nasty headwind that whipped the sand in stinging waves in our faces.

Will this slog never end? Head down. Think of the Caribbean.

We made our final push through the sheep farm where the bunnies had been working overtime perforating the last steep uphill section. Escape Velocity was patiently standing guard in front of the orange head and both microwaves, with the promise of an adult beverage inside. But first we had to sit on our stoop and dig the meadow muck off our besmirched footgear.

So tell them what they’ve won, Don Pardo!


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The sea takes its toll

We drove directly from the ferry to a shop in northern Yell where we’d been told we can swap our propane bottle. “No problem,” they said, and while Jack pulled around back to get the new tank, I perused the well-stocked shelves of yet another surprising store on a remote island. There were items here I had trouble finding even in shopping Meccas like Sydney and Penang, not to mention the usual eclectic array of household and utility wares.

I’ve started asking locals for suggestions on places we can park for the night. Most aren’t tuned in to the wild camping culture and point us toward any nearby campground they know. Sometimes, though, we get some pretty good suggestions. The woman in this shop proposed the community hall down the road and said they had electrical hookups and the usual campground amenities. That was surprising because it isn’t on any list or website or app that I use. I filed that one away for the future and asked if there was a more remote place. She suggested a cemetery a few miles away. We’ve been in Shetland long enough to know that graveyards are usually on a windy hill overlooking the sea, the churches they were built around are generally in ruins, the car parks are mostly level, and we’re almost always the only ones there because most people, for reasons I’ve never understood, find it creepy to spend the night near a graveyard. I plotted our course.

The graveyard fit all the criteria and we settled in for the night to plan our exploration of this new island. In the morning I walked among the gravestones and saw the usual pattern of a community that relies on the sea for subsistence.

I find markers with “lost at sea” or “drowned” in every churchyard I visit, but there are also mass disasters memorialized on these islands. One of the most poignant is the Gloup Disaster in 1881 when 58 men were lost, all from these small communities.

Not all of the sea disasters involve the fishing fleet. In 1924 the cadet barque Bohus, sailing from Göteborg to Chile with a crew of 38 aboard, was caught in a storm and dashed to pieces on the rocks. Those who could swim ashore did, but those who couldn’t stayed with the ship and awaited their doom. Local men mustered to the rescue and were able to save all but four of the crew.

Five months later the wooden figurehead floated to the surface and washed ashore. It was erected overlooking the sea as a memorial to the shipwreck and is known as the White Wife of Otterswick.

I felt the need to pay my respects to the lives that ended on that windy outpost. As a sailor I know that the sea gives and the sea takes away. Whatever your level of seamanship and experience, you are at the mercy of the sea, and the sea will always win.

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Exploring the north

On an island the size of Unst with a population just over 600, you won’t find a packed itinerary of sights to keep you busy every day. Instead, aside from the obvious historical places marked on our tourist map, our days are spent exploring the few roads, stopping in at the few stores and cafes, as much to have a chat as to shop or eat.

The shops — there are three main ones on the island — are phenomenal, small but surprisingly well stocked in range and variety. Combine a supermarket, a DIY store, a pharmacy, a liquor store, a craft center, gift shop, electronics store, and sporting goods store, and squeeze them all into a space the size of a suburban living room, and that gives you an idea of how good the provisioning is in Unst. It usually takes us close to an hour to inspect the aisles and shelves to see what we might need that we hadn’t thought of, all the while chatting with the proprietor or other customers.

We passed by the small boat museum a few times before deciding to visit. Actually we wanted to have lunch at the adjacent cafe, but when we couldn’t find enough room to park the van, we stashed it in the museum lot while we ate, then felt obligated to visit. We’re glad we did.

The collection, as is usual with most small town museums, is a community effort, a gathering of bits and pieces donated by this family and that, in honor of this person and that. As you make your way around the room reading the placards you get to know the families and the revered elders. There are boats, of course, but also the tools used to build those boats, and the fishing lines and hooks that were used on those boats as the men went to sea to make a living. There are the tools used by the women who gutted the fish and sent the catch to market. It was the story of a way of life and worth the visit.

One drizzly day we took a road we hadn’t followed before that led to a long-ruined church on a promontory overlooking the sea. There are a lot of these church ruins, complete with graveyards, and I’m always ready to walk among the memorials, read the names, and think about the families who lived and died within a few miles of the spot.

The road also led us to one of our favorite standing stones so far. It’s magnificent and has stood sentry for thousands of years.

In a fun twist on the honesty cake fridges, we came across this honesty cafe but it was too rainy and windy for us to sample the wares. Right next to it is an honesty rock shop, but I didn’t buy any rocks or get a photo.

One of our propane tanks ran out and we learned the closest place to swap it is in Yell, the next island to the southwest. The weather really closed in on us, and after a chilly night on the waterfront we decided to catch the ferry. On to Yell.


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An orderly pile of stones

So far our castle touring in the UK has been thwarted by comprehensive fencing and warning signs. Fair enough. I grew up in Pittsburgh where in the last few years entire buses have been swallowed right in downtown and bridges had so many large chunks falling onto traffic below that they built a covered bridge under the bridge to protect the main artery underneath. I never saw a warning sign or a fence so I’m just saying that I took my chances. But it’s good to know that the kind folks in the UK are on the job and being so careful. After all, these structures are quite old and it seems prudent to inspect something that was built in the 1600’s. In all honesty some of these are just a pile of orderly stones but many are absolutely sublimely magnificent. Some look like they were thrown up because somebody was trying to kill them and it’s harder to kill somebody who was clever enough to build a stone wall to hide behind.

Here in Shetland they built exclusively out of stone because back in the early days there were far fewer trees than you can find today. But you really have to work hard to find a tree in Shetland, even now.

When Marce found a castle way up here in Unst structurally sound enough that you can go inside and have a nosey just to feel the space and the wonder of it all, I jumped at the chance. Like anything on Unst it wasn’t far and you can even park overnight.

The castle was built in 1598 for the ruthless Lawrence Bruce, who Shetlanders say used blood and eggs as mortar. Their blood and their eggs apparently. Unloved in Muness, Larry borrowed Earl Patrick Stewart’s master builder Andrew Crawford who was supposed to be working on Stewart’s castle in Scalloway. This annoyed Stewart who was even more ruthless and corrupt than Larry. Turns out Andrew Crawford had mad skills as a builder in stone and it shows in both structures.

Muness is the UK’s most northern castle. A lot of things in Unst are UK’s “most northern.”

This is one of the earliest uses of straight (scale and platt) stairs instead of the previously almost universal spiral staircase.

You can see a weapon port on bench, many were fake throughout the castle.

The great hall shows the replacement lintel above the huge fireplace. The original carved one is in the national museum in Edinburgh in an effort to preserve the fine oak carving. The well thought-out spaces that interconnect to stairways with magnificent craftsmanship and balance attest to the skill and taste of the builders.

It was a privilege spending the night next to this beautiful icon. You might think it’s spooky or possibly risky but I don’t know. I’ve driven the streets of Pittsburgh without a care in the world.

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Unst upon a time

The tourist map of Unst doesn’t have much marked on it but when your first experience is an epic hike to see a rambunctious gannet colony, you know the island is special. As usual, we have no itinerary and just drive and follow the brown tourist signs for where to go and what to do. After passing the Viking longhouse and boat a few times we finally stopped to have a nosey.

The boat is a fullscale replica of a 9th century boat discovered in a mound in Norway. It would have been powered by 32 oarsmen and could carry 70 men. It’s huge and beautiful.

The longhouse is similar to the one I saw in L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland from approximately the same era. A young man we spoke with later told us you come across the ruins of Viking longhouses everywhere you go in Shetland. This one, like the boat, is a replica. The local craftsmen had to rediscover the Viking building methods and skills during the construction. Once again I’m struck by how quickly and completely cultural knowledge is lost.

I also wonder at what point in history people decided they wanted a little personal space. So many ancient dwellings were communal with no privacy. I guess you had to walk out into the bog for a little Me Time.

We took a chance on a parkup we read about that had mixed reviews and it became my favorite so far. The approach was a little challenging (I forgot to take photos) but oh my! Check out this view!

We spent a glorious afternoon and evening there during which I also watched a little tennis.

We were perched on a grassy strip on the edge of the sand above the beach. Overnight high winds and rain rolled in and we backed off the verge and onto the gravel drive which I thought was more stable. We stayed two nights until a group of fishing buddies from Yorkshire moved in and the wind kicked up even stronger. The Yorkshiremen were friendly but the wind chased us away.

On the way to our next parkup we stopped at this unlikely tourist attraction, Bobbie’s Bus Shelter. Yes, it’s really a bus shelter and it’s become an evolving community art installation.

When we visited it was tricked out for the Queen’s Jubilee and I took the opportunity to sit on the throne, complete with crown and purse.

Of course there’s a cake box nearby. This one gets points for creativity and so far it’s tops for variety. We got the ginger cake.

On the road again Jack hit the brakes for an unexpected standing stone. I love that these things are everywhere but historians can only speculate as to the purpose of each one.


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Nobody’s here for a suntan

This next trick has amphibious elements that, with the great precision of any military campaign and any luck at all, dovetail into the master movement of Escape Velocity all the way north to Hermaness. It all starts with a romp across Mainland Shetland to Toft and meeting a smallish ferry where, if our tipsters are correct, one can purchase a ticket to Yell and if you keep driving north on the road up to Gutcher you can hop the even smaller ferry to Belmont in Unst, continue the length of Unst to the northernmost settlement in UK, all for the low low price of one ferry ticket.

It’s very popular. Admittedly it’s better without rain but then again, it takes the better part of a day so you’re going to have to deal with rain at some point. Nobody comes to Shetland for a suntan.

At this point, dear Escapees, I imagine you’re wondering why we came all that way.

And that’s just the view from the parkup. Tomorrow we plan a four hour hike up into the clouds. Yours Truly takes no solace in that cloud business.

You can tell the serious nature of a hike when the poles come out of the garage. We also packed water, gingernuts, binoculars, the GPS tracker and rain jackets. We’re learning.

Much of the main trail was prepared with a boardwalk over the boggy bits but there were also steep hills and long flights of stairs. This hiker never enjoys giving altitude back after slogging up a long slope but whoever laid out this trail was from the Up and Down school.

It was a long tramp across the width of the peninsula and when we crested the hill to the cliffs there was the Atlantic Ocean stretching out before us. Next stop Greenland.

I love a hike with a good payoff and this had it in spades. We were chuffed. Birds, I’m guessing gannets because we heard there were a lot of them, were circulating back and forth on the updraft hardly needing to flap and we could even see the occasional puffin nesting in the ledges.

While we were oohing and aahing over this magnificent scene a German hiker turned to us and over her shoulder spat, “Forget the cute little puffins. This is nothing. Go south along the ridge.”

I hadn’t noticed that a preponderance of the hikers had turned to the south and were marching up the steep and lumpy, sheepdung-infested, ankle-twisting slope. We followed.

As we approached the top we smelled the gannet colony before we saw them, but nothing prepares you for the tens of thousands of gannets, squawking, flapping, soaring, circling, diving.

Then you notice tens of thousands of bright white dots covering the massive craggy cliffs, each dot a gannet nesting just out of pecking range of her cranky neighbor. We both gasped at the sight, the sound, and the smell.

All we wanted was to sit in comfy lawn chairs with a cup of coffee and perhaps a pastry and soak in this drama for the rest of the day. It was mesmerizing. But we knew we faced the long trudge back across the peninsula before the inevitable rain. We watched for a long while, then turned for home.


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More and more

I’m afraid our Shetland blog posts are becoming just galleries of beautiful scenery but frankly, that’s what Shetland has been for us so far. We’ve spent years and years in some of the most breathtaking seascapes in the world, primarily in the tropics, and now we’ve come to such a different kind of environment, also defined by the sea, and equally breathtaking. We can’t get enough of it.

I’m always mindful of Jack’s knees, the replacement one and the deteriorating OEM, and I’m never sure if a long hike is something he wants to attempt, but he’s as entranced by rugged and untamed Shetland as I am. After a couple of Advil he’s game.

We parked at the lighthouse at Eshaness, which the young woman at the tourist office had circled on our map and wrote simply “scenic.” What an understatement.

Within minutes of leaving the car park we faced a view that reminded us of both New Zealand and Australia, with steep cliffs and sea stacks

Along this stretch of coast there are deep clefts, called geos, in the cliffs, formed by collapsed caves and the relentless surf. That means while you’re not making much headway along the sea, the distance hiked is tripled or quadrupled as you walk inland and around the geos.

The top is mercifully flat for the most part, and the distance from the cliffs acts like a volume control, farther away and it’s mostly the wind you hear, closer and the sea menacing the rocks below takes over.

The first half of the hike showed us nesting seabirds and seals on the rocks far below.

Rather than return the way we came we chose a loop inland around the Hols o Scraada, a deep gloup that originally had a natural bridge connecting two caves. The bridge collapsed in 1873 and now it’s a long hike around it, so far inland that you can’t see the sea anymore from the end of it.

The trail took us to the site of a couple of old mills and the remains of a 2000-year-old broch before returning us via the sheep meadows to the car park.

We’re so out of practice for these long hikes that we had taken no snacks, no water, no binoculars, no trekking poles, no thermos of hot chocolate, no GPS tracker. We were grateful to get back to the warm van and put our feet up. We’ll get the hang of it.

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Us and them

There’s so little traffic in Shetland that the powers that be must have decided it’s a waste to build a road wide enough to accommodate a vehicle going in each direction. Behold the one-lane road with passing places.

The rules are logical and easy and within a few days we had it down pat. The main rule, as in most driving schemes anywhere, is to stay on your own side and don’t cross over if the passing place is on the other side but rather stop on your side and allow the oncoming vehicle to drive around you on the passing place.

The other day we were on a single-lane road when we saw a hire car coming the other way. We had a passing place just ahead but the oncoming car panicked and kept coming, then crossed to their right and pulled into our passing place. It wasn’t kosher but we kept driving and waved as we went by.

“They’re not from around here,” Jack said. I thought he was commenting on the break in protocol.

“How can you tell?” I asked facetiously.


I turned to him, confused.

“I’m wearing earrings.”

“You’re not from around here.”


For a quickie intro to the eccentricities of Shetland, check this out including this caveat:

We’re not the Shetlands; we are just Shetland. Period. Call us the Shetland Isles, or an island archipelago, or da auld rock, or da rock – whatever, just don’t call us ‘the Shetlands’. This is a sure-fire way of getting off on the wrong foot, or most usually, corrected.

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We insist on decorum

It was a rare sunny but blustery day when we crested a steep blind summit on the one-lane road leading to our next parkup. Dear Reader, I think you should just assume that the first or second sentence of all of our blog posts from Shetland will have the word ‘blustery’ within, just so we don’t have to keep writing it and you don’t have to read it.

So where were we? As we started down the steep road a vast green valley was arrayed before us. Somewhere down there, tucked into a corner of the bay, was our next parkup. How can such a small island constantly convey the profound sensation of vast space? You’d think they’d be jamming stuff in every square meter instead of letting miles and miles go by with hardy anything in it. But it works. It really works. This place is beautiful. Details near a corner of the bay started to come into view.

A collection of a few buildings came into focus and maybe a vehicle or two. Things changed as we pulled in. It was a tiny, rough parking lot with campers parked at all angles, spoiling the view and limiting space for others. Day trippers in cars parked inbetween and around the campers. Words were exchanged. The situation perturbed a certain member of the crew.

Eventually most of the inconsiderate people got the picture and left. We moved our camper to the outer edge, setting an example for how best to use the small space. Order was restored.

This is a popular spot. Free is always popular. Campers and day users continued to come and go. We set up spotting shop with binoculars and soon we could watch otters and seals and, wherever there are fish, the ubiquitous cormorants.

The following day we opted for a spot of hiking around the tiny community on the peninsula.

At several points there wasn’t much path left.

We were reluctant to move on, but new arrivals followed our established parking scheme, so our work here was done.

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Settling in

Before coming to Shetland we quizzed every Scotsman we spoke with on the mainland (none had been here) and Googled for potential itineraries (and came up empty.) Now that we’re here, we’re exploring with no plan, no destinations in mind, no route. Each day we wake up, make coffee, check the weather (a pointless pursuit; it changes) and decide what to do on the day. So far we’ve been lucky and often have blue skies. Some days we wake up to rain and wind. It may clear up, it may not.

On those cold and rainy days we’re just as happy to sit tight, read, catch up on writing, and wait for a break in the weather.

Sometimes we wake up to fog and mist, but within minutes a patch of blue appears and we’re off.

Just driving over the rolling meadows gives us pleasure. Then we learned about cake fridges. Some are actually marked on Google Maps, our go-to for what to do and where to go. Cake fridges, or honesty boxes, hold home baked treats and often fresh eggs. You choose what you want, put the money in a cashbox and away you go. This one, the Sand Cake Fridge, is down a long one-lane road with barely a house in sight. We learned that most honesty boxes are adjacent to bus stops so you can pick up a pudding (dessert) on your way home.

Shetland is sadly devoid of French bakeries and we’re missing our usual café life so we stocked up on brownies, blondies, and a berry crumble, all for £10. We’ll make our own coffee.

We get our eggs from the honesty boxes too. Fresh and delicious.

Not far from the cake box is Da Gairdins, a 60-acre tract of woodland and gardens created and maintained by Alan and Ruby Inkster for public enjoyment. It’s a registered charity and they accept donations to help with the upkeep. It was beautiful to walk through the quiet wooded paths. The ruby red rhododendron is a new one on me.

We’d been in Shetland a few days before we noticed the blocks of peat drying along the roadside. Once we realized what we were looking at, we were as excited as we were when we first saw copra drying sheds in the Pacific. It’s something you read about that’s unique to a place and, you assume, a time long past, yet both peat and copra are still very much part of life in their respective places.

Yes, there are Shetland ponies.

We find stunning parkups nearly every night, both through crowd-sourced apps and on our own. This one gave us the long-distance view that feeds my soul.


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