The small town of Scalloway is the former capital of Shetland and we bypassed it a few times for the reason we wrote about before — lack of convenient or adequate parking. Jack was keen to see the castle so we squeezed ourselves into the compact museum car park and toured the museum, walked around the castle (closed, of course) and did a quick wander through the village.
The museum is mostly about Scalloway’s seafaring history with a particular emphasis on the World War II operation called the Shetland Bus which established a link between Shetland and German-occupied Norway to transport agents back and forth and supply the Norwegian resistance with weapons and supplies, using fishing boats at first, then later more purpose built boats.
Ever since the Viking times there’ve been close connections between Shetland and Norway and many of the tourists we encounter in Shetland are Norwegian.
Jack explored the perimeter of the castle, one of only two in Shetland. Both were designed and built in the late 16th century by Andrew Crawford with similar elements in the corner turrets. You might remember we stayed overnight in the shadow of the other one, Muness Castle, on the isle of Unst.
The rest of Scalloway was quiet and mostly devoid of the shops and cafes that keep us interested.
“GERMAN THEORIES CONTROVERTED. GERMANS Are Not The Favoured of Heaven.”
This, of course, sent me to Google. The plaque is about earth tides which I’d never heard of, and the plaque was created in 1910 by a stone mason and amateur scientist named William Johnson who apparently had a bone to pick.
If you want a quickie explanation try the link above. For a deep dive down the rabbit hole of William Johnson and his theories, this one is the way to go.
We already pushed back our Orkney ferry reservation once, and in retrospect probably should have again. As time grows short and we look at the map, we see how much we’ve missed in Shetland. It’s a small place, you’re thinking, but our mode of travel isn’t really touring in the traditional sense. We just like to be in a place, listen to the sounds, feel the rhythms of the days. If we don’t do anything special in a particular place it’s ok. It’s enough to observe the play of light on the hills, the behavior of the wildlife, the routines of the locals, and the bustling activity of holiday makers. We’ve slowed down quite a bit in our dotage, but our enjoyment of new places hasn’t waned in the least. Traveling in our home gives us the luxury of stopping to appreciate a place for as long as we like.
After the challenging hike in Muckle Roe we needed to recuperate. We drove south again toward Burra and Minn Beach.
Dedicated viewers of the BBC TV series “Shetland” will recognize Minn Beach as a dramatic location at the end of season 7.
This is an unusual tombolo because one side of it is rocky, the other sandy. I walked to the other end on legs still wobbly from Muckle Roe and thought with the color and clarity of the water it could be anywhere across the tropical Pacific Ocean….
….until you see the ubiquitous thistles and feel the 50°F/10°C air temperature.
We found ourselves near the churchyard where a ninth century Pictish stone was found in 1877. The original is in a museum in Edinburgh but this replica fascinated us. The style of the art is unique and we’re convinced the figures at the bottom were the inspiration for the Spy vs. Spy characters in Mad Magazine.
In a change from the many homebake honesty boxes we found a very well stocked free library on the road.
We spent a few days at a small marina where we could empty the tanks that needed emptying and fill the ones that needed filling. The boats were local workboats and one afternoon I watched a little drama in the harbor. A man was working on his boat while his dog sat on the dock. Every few minutes the boatman called to the dog, but the dog remained stubbornly glued to the dock.
I could see in the dog’s eyes he was never going to get on that boat. Eventually the man gave up with a shrug and walked the dog back along the length of the dock to his truck.
It was about this time I thought I’d take a walk and as I passed the truck the fisherman motored up to the pier and tied up.
The dog was sitting in the passenger seat of the truck, shamefaced. “He’s a wimp and he knows it,” says Jack.
I called out to the fisherman, “You’ve lost your crew!”
“Aw, he hates the boat,” he called back. “He never wants to come aboard.” At least I think that’s what he said. The Shetland accent is challenging.
He told me he was just prepping for the next day when he’d collect his catch and haul it off to market. He’d only be out for a short time and he assured me the dog will be fine waiting in the car. Most of the work will be done in the morning and when I asked what time he said, “Seven-thirty, maybe eight.”
“Oh,” I said, assuming all fishermen went out at dawn. “Not so early.”
He laughed. “I’m retired.” It sure looked like work to me.
The next morning as I drank my coffee I watched him sort, weigh, and pack crate after crate of fish. When he drove the boat around to the pier to load the truck I walked over for a chat. He told me about the fishing grounds and the new regulations from Brexit and how he catches the fish. I got maybe half of what he said, the Shetland accent being what it is.
He showed me his catch, and told me it was a good amount. I was happy to hear that, because so many areas of the world have suffered from overfishing.
While I was pestering the fisherman, Jack was watching the other side of the dock where a half dozen carloads of kayakers had shown up the night before and were now preparing to launch.
Kayaking is very popular here, and we’re amazed at all the specialty clothing and gear involved in outfitting and transporting a modern sea kayak. These are very different from our beloved rotomolded sit-upon kayaks on Escape Velocity that we could just untie from the lifelines and drop over the side deck to launch. It took well over an hour for this crowd to get ready, and even after the kayaks were in the water they were in and out of the boats several times making adjustments.
All that scurrying and tweaking was worth it as we watched them glide out the channel toward the sea leaving barely a ripple behind.
With the fishermen gone, and the kayakers gone, it was just the two of us again, enjoying another beautiful Shetland day. How will we be able to tear ourselves away?
I believe we’ve already discussed in a previous work my disdain for long hikes without a decent payoff. Marce assures me that at a certain point the path on Muckle Roe bifurcates making one loop shorter than the other and if we begin to flag we’ll take the low road. After all, it’s a tour of Muckle Roe Island, not a hike to anything specific. I think something about cliffs was mentioned. Now I’m nervous. I think, dear Escapees, we can all agree to call this rule #3. The hiking poles don’t come out until the payoff is identified. It’s a distance to payoff ratio thing.
Marce packed sandwiches, a banana, and water for lunch, something we’ve hardly ever done before. I said, “Surely we’ll be back before lunch.” She just smiled.
Scotland has a “trespass if you like” rule. I wonder what number that rule is? They find posting a sign redundant and they damn well aren’t going to tell you where to start. We wandered around a field, really somebody’s back yard but with sheep dung, until we found a likely looking track. It began with a steeply pitched slog up a hill paved with ballast rocks.
Heart dancing a quick tattoo, we climbed with hiking poles skidding off the rocks. Bleak desolation has a peculiar beauty and Muckle Roe has it in spades. We began to feel like we were the only two people alive in the world, an “On the Beach” moment.
A thought crossed my mind that it’s a very good thing there are no predators in Scotland because we’d be easy pickings out here. The quiet is deafening. Summiting the first major, let’s call it a mountain, we saw something awesome but terribly disappointing. The path continued to stretch out before us as far as the eye could see.
So far we couldn’t even see how far “far” was. Up and down we plodded. At every summit we faced the same awesome but spirit-crushing scene.
The path wound beautifully through the hills around little lakes and streams until bottoming out, and we trudged up again until it crested, offering another stab of disappointment.
Finally we found two large but pointy rocks to rest our shattered bodies on. It was about this time we heard something strange. Voices. A dozen or so people cheerfully gabbing while overtaking us at a relentless pace. I’m not ashamed to say we stared at them coming over the hill like they were the Wild Bunch. Turns out they were on a week-long guided tour, a kind of Holiday Walking Group. The guide stopped long enough to tell us some history of the village in this valley and admonished us that we really should have a map. We do. We also have lunch.
Not long after we did in fact miss a turn but it serendipitously led to a magnificent payoff and a sit down lunch.
With no idea which way to go, after lunch we promptly headed off in the wrong direction, due to our previously mentioned questionable turn, which took a while to correct. All we had to do now was repeat our day long slog in reverse.
You know how things look different going in the opposite direction? We knew we were close to the field where we started, but we realized we didn’t know which fork in the path to take to get back to Escape Velocity. Not being in the mood to wander aimlessly we were glad to see two young girls coming up the hill. They thought it was amusing that we could get lost so close to the car park and they got us turned around.
Since we bought the campervan we’ve spent precious little time in cities or towns for the simple reason that parking a larger vehicle is challenging in this land of narrow lanes and small car parks. Before we enter a town I scour Google maps to find a likely place to park where there are either designated places for motorhomes or where we can reverse at the back of the lot and overhang to a grass strip or walkway. It’s possible to incur a fine for taking up two spaces, and at 20’ we’re just that little bit longer than a normal car space.
We wanted to explore Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, and couldn’t find any nearby overnight parkups but I did find a large municipal lot on the waterfront where we can spend the day for £4, then drive somewhere else for the night.
Lerwick is a compact town, all stone and tides and flowers, with a selection of cozy cafes, shops, and narrow alleys to explore.
We found the perfect throw pillow to remind us of our time at Sumburgh Head.
On our way to the museum we stopped to chat with the owners of an unusual motorsailor we’d noticed earlier. They are Americans and just arrived from the Faroe Islands. We were excited to indulge in some sailor talk after so long and agreed to meet later for more, depending on our parking situation.
At the museum we watched as a young crew readied a replica boat for its maiden voyage.
The name of this traditional fishing boat reminded us we have unfinished business in Shetland. The island of Muckle Roe awaits.
We’re surprised at the number of cruising sailboats crowding the small harbor, with boats two, three, and even four deep in some places. Most are from Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands. There are also near daily cruise ships, tour boats, and classic training ships to watch coming and going. Add in the constant ferries from near and far and you’ve got a busy port. We love it.
Toward the end of the day I spied a parking official on the wharf and asked for clarification on the rules. He looked at Escape Velocity and assured me we could absolutely spend the night, and so we had a fun evening on the harbor front, and the next day we met up with our new cruising friends, Judy and Victor, for brunch. It’s always a joy to immediately bond with people you meet by chance in unusual places. We promised to return to Lerwick and meet again before long.
Now it’s off to Muckle Roe for the escapees. Adventure awaits.
We decided long ago that Rule #1 is “we don’t go back.” There are so many amazing things in this world to see and so little time or energy to experience them that going back to someplace we’ve already been to doesn’t make sense. For example, we skipped the Bahamas when we first started sailing because we thought it’s too easy, too expensive, too many islands, just too too. We’ll catch it on the way back. Turns out we never had the chance to enjoy the Bahamas on the way back in. The system isn’t perfect.
Lighthouses were the first to break Rule #2. I remember we used to seek them out, drive for miles, hike the inevitable hill up to the site and breathlessly climb the spiral stairs to the top. Yep, look at that view from up here! We’d take the shot then discuss on the drive home whether the one before was better.
Rule #2 has always been some version of “don’t become jaded or blasé.” It goes something like “I don’t know which waterfall was better and why hike up to another if it’s not supposed to be as beautiful as the last one?” We try not to do that.
Now, dear Escapees, we’ll move along to the point of this missive. While we were pondering, mouth agape, at the amazing Jarlshof Neolithic site we couldn’t help but notice, high above us, at the end of an endless peninsula, a lighthouse perched at cliff’s edge.
Very picturesque. But there’s a long and winding single lane road up to a parking lot in the sky and without passing areas on the way up, what does one do if one meets someone coming down while you’re trying to go up? Besides, we were tired and we still had to negotiate crossing the airport runway again, if you remember, and after all it’s just a lighthouse. A nice one maybe, but still just a lighthouse. At this point Dear Reader, and I’m not proud of it, you may want to refer back to Rule #2.
Weeks later Marce discovered that you’re allowed to park overnight in that car park in the sky, which changed the equation for us. While technically not an infraction of Rule #1, it’s close. On the other hand, there were rumors of puffins up there. After successfully crossing the airport runway again and winding our way up the one lane access road without once tumbling over the steep cliff (Marce’s greatest fear) we found ourselves trying to get EV level in the not-so-level paved parkup. Not a puffin in sight but there were new rumors of a nice cafe beside the lighthouse. While I wouldn’t even consider hiking up that mountain to climb those inevitable spiral stairs for a lighthouse, I would for a nice toasty cafe.
The hike up the mountain was quite relentless and I thought to distract Marce while grabbing a little breather by pointing out thousands of guillemots nesting on the cliffs below.
We were too far away to see the little tumblers though, and of course no puffins. When we finally got to the cafe it looked like a wildlife photographer convention with lots of camo and massive telephoto lenses. Those guys know a good feed when they see it. The wind was tossing gulls about as they tried to see what we were eating, many just hanging on the updrafts.
When we left the cafe I saw a raised wooden platform and imagined there must be a great view. We scrambled up the stairs and found puffins. Lots of puffins, just a few feet from us.
They seemed completely at ease with us in their midst, which may explain their dwindling numbers.
What a lucky find!
The trip down the hill strained the knees but as we approached EV we noticed our neighbor and fellow Adria owner Colin crouched up at the edge of the cliff with some serious gear. It turns out he’s a wildlife photographer and he was waiting for a baby puffin to come out of its burrow. Apparently he’d been waiting for quite some time. There are lots of ways to do this and we sat with him for an hour or so, just watching and talking, the puffins undisturbed by our presence. His wife Maureen joined us and we sat for awhile longer, enjoying the place and the company and the puffins until it was time for dinner.
Many of the other campervan and motorhome people we speak to have been to Shetland before, some many times. The place has a magnetic pull, and while we think we should be moving on, we just can’t seem to tear ourselves away. We love driving the one lane roads, rounding a bend or cresting a hill and finding a breathtaking vista laid out before us. We love poking along two-track dirt roads to find a parkup overlooking a beach where we can spend a day or two watching the tide come and go. We love discovering out-of-the-way honesty boxes and we’re reminded every time that there are still places in the world where the first instinct isn’t to steal or cheat. It’s been months since we’ve seen any graffiti, unless you count the rare 11th century runes carved by Vikings here and there.
Don’t get me wrong. Neither of us is thinking of relocating to Shetland. The weather is challenging for those of us used to living in T-shirts and shorts. The near-constant wind can be wearing even for us sailors. Nevertheless we often find ourselves silenced by the raw beauty of the landscape, delighted by unexpected sightings of seals or otters, humbled by ruins and standing stones erected thousands of years ago by people we think of as primitive, and warmed by the kindness and easy humor of today’s Shetlanders.
There’s a lot of hype about the Mousa Broch. We started hearing about it while we were still on the mainland. Biggest, tallest, most complete kind of talk. We headed south to stage ourselves for a ferry ride over to Mousa Island where there are no cars or roads, only to run into the most sustained bad weather we had in Shetlands. Current weather reports indicate that by Saturday, when the ferry doesn’t run, we might expect a break. This calls for a new plan.
Weeks later, heading back to the mainland after touring Unst and Yell, we saw an opportunity to catch that ferry to Mousa on a nice day, assuming that it ought to be running. By mid morning we were backing Escape Velocity into a tight parking spot in the tiny village of Sandsayre where the Mousa boat is docked.
The pier is located in the shadow of a Laird’s stronghold palace who, if you can believe local lore, once owned most of Shetland.
The happy crew showed up and led a brief conga-line through a shallow tub of disinfectant due to a worrying outbreak of bird flu elsewhere in Shetland. Much more than just a ferry to the island, Skipper Rodney gave us a closeup history of shipwreck sites and roosting birds, including these gothic shags.
Pulling up to the pier at Mousa you are faced with a choice, clockwise or counterclockwise around the island. We went right for a counterclockwise tour and a somewhat quicker view of the famous broch, hopefully before exhaustion sets in. On the trail we took advantage of a wooden bench marking 60° north latitude.
Turns out only half of the bench is at 60 degrees while the front is 59.599 whatever degrees. I was reminded to get a move on as we had a date with the return boat. At last the Mousa Broch rose up before us but we still had a way to hike.
This thing is one big mother. Over forty feet high. (Technical details and historic significance here.)
Ducking to enter you’re immediately struck by the mystery of it all. This is not a restoration or reconstruction. The only additions to the original structure are an entry door and safety features at the very top.
It even has a small pool in the center of the floor.
Chambers line the walls and there are stairs inside the the double walls that very carefully spiral up to the top.
Roof or no roof? Typically no answers, no one knows.
One wants to spend hours contemplating what the hell all this means, especially when you look across the strait to see that there is an identical broch now in ruin just a few hundred meters away. Entering these waters with a huge broch on either side would be mighty impressive, you could even say intimidating.
Once again I was reminded to keep a move on so we stopped for one last look and headed out.
The scenery changed very quickly and ruins of Mousa’s past began to show up along with massive chunks of several boat wrecks, evidence of a notorious coast.
Just when I was ready to call for the sag wagon the welcoming hut and boat hove into view. A small group of colleagues were milling about so you could say we weren’t first in, but certainly not last.
Captain Rodney was excited to show us guillemot “tumblers” and motored across the strait to a cliff with hundreds of nesting guillemots. The little buggers tumble out of the nest before they’re fully fledged to where their dads are anxiously waiting and calling to them, ready to explain the facts of life to their offspring.
“And together they swim to Norway,” the skipper told us.
They say it takes about five days. I personally would’ve chosen the south of France.
Just like on Unst, we had no trouble getting into the rhythm of the island of Yell, if you can even sense a rhythm. The weather continued its cruel and capricious ways but we moseyed here and there, enjoying the untamed landscape.
I saw that some strong winds were predicted and looked for a bit of shelter while we wait for better conditions.
When the parkup apps fail us I turn to Google maps and follow the roads looking for a layby or car park that’s away from houses and likely to be quiet overnight. In Shetland the small marinas where locals keep their fishing boats often have a level place to pull in, with the bonus of a harbor or sea view. In high winds, being down at sea level can also mean shelter from surrounding hills.
I found us a likely spot in a quiet marina car park with a boat ramp that looked like it didn’t get much use. We parked Escape Velocity to leave as much room as possible just in case someone wanted to launch a skiff in the morning.
Sure enough, after a stormy night we were awakened by a van and utility trailer backing up past us to the ramp.
It was rainy and muddy but I jumped out of the van to talk to the driver.
“Do you want us to move?” I asked.
“Nah, you’re fine. I can get past you,” he said, or the Shetlandic equivalent. “This isn’t my first rodeo.”
He told me he and a friend keep sheep on a small island out in the strait and it’s time to clip them. Rather than bring the sheep back ashore, they set up a mobile sheering station and on this day they’re transporting everything they need out to the island.
“We’ll be back and forth all day,” he said, and we watched as they made trip after trip, transporting ATVs, lengths of fencing, and whatever else they’d need to corral and sheer the sheep. It was bitter cold and wet and their hands grew red and chapped but they carried on cheerfully, working together as a practiced team.
“Now we just have to wait for better weather,” they told us as they left at the end of the day. “Nobody else will be down here. You’ll be fine.”
We stayed a second night to wait out the worst of the weather, then feeling the need for hot showers and laundry, we checked into a campground. It’s payment by honesty box, like so much here, and the amenities block has an old lifeboat for a roof, not an uncommon sight hereabouts.
During the day we saw the Google Street View car drive down to the water and back again. It’s the second time we saw the Google car on Yell and I was happy to see it. I often travel the roads virtually with Street View to make sure a route is suitable for our van or to scope out a potential parkup, and Yell’s coverage needs a bit of an update.
Our Ordnance Survey map and the AllTrails app both recommended a hike up to the nearby cliffs and despite the spitting, gusty weather we determined to do our best imitation of the locals and tramp the soggy sheep meadows.
The payoff was a fun half hour of watching puffins, who seemed as interested in us as we were in them.
Eventually the damp chased us back down the hill to a warm Escape Velocity and clean clothes.
We ended our time on Yell with a visit to the Old Haa Museum, housed in a historic house furnished as it was in the day, and displaying portraits of notable Yell-ers.
I hope they find a photo of Nancy Johnson. We never did see her “poems on da po” though we did see others’ in various public toilets around Shetland.
Weeks ago I made our reservation for the ferry to Orkney but we realized there’s so much more we want to do in Shetland so we rescheduled it. We took the small ferry from Yell back to the Shetland mainland, determined to make the most of the time we have left.