Author Archives: Marce

A temporary home

After visiting the Ring of Brodgar we realized our No-Plan Plan would not serve us well in a place we knew very little about. We drove the 20 minutes back to Kirkwall — this is a small island — to visit the tourist office and get some guidance. I listened intently to the data dump from the guy at the desk but I could see Jack glaze over around the start of the paragraph two. I gathered up the pile of brochures, maps, ferry schedules and facilities lists and we went back to the van to assess and regroup.

We found a free parkup right in the center of town. Oddly enough it’s equivalent to a Walmart parking lot, but if you play your cards right and get there early you get the spot on the end adjacent to a lake. Even with a couple of motorhomes parked on the other side, it’s absolutely quiet overnight and easy to forget you’re within a 3-minute walk of a Tesco, a Lidl and a Co-op.

Free parkup at Tesco.

We also learned of a campground around the corner where we can either stay overnight or just pay a small fee to use the facilities. Now we have three legal places to stay in town, two of them free, and we embraced this opportunity to get to know a town. We’ve missed that.

First we needed to check out all the various food and specialty shops, then find a cafe to call home. The cafe was easy. How can you pass up The Archive, housed in the former town library? You can’t. And lucky for us, the food is great. I can’t count the number of times we ate there. Jack ordered the same thing every time (Eggs Benedict) but I tried every vegetarian item on the menu.

Next we followed a self guided walking tour that took us to to St. Magnus Cathedral and along some interesting streets and alleyways until we got distracted by local shops offering Fair Isle knitwear (we admired but didn’t buy) and anything you can imagine with a puffin on it.

We found a laundry to wash and dry our bundle in a couple of hours for a reasonable fee. Jack bought a long-searched-for coffee scoop that judging from the price is apparently museum quality. I found a shop with locally grown organic produce whose owner swapped us a better shower head out of his own motorhome.

One Saturday we stepped into a doorway to make way for traffic. A delivery van stopped next to us and our shopkeeper friend rolled down the window.

“The sourdough’s in the back,” he told us. We followed the van to the store and bought enough still-warm baked goods for a family of eight.

We found the zero meridian that 18th century cartographer Murdoch MacKenzie established before there was any national reference point for navigational charts. One hundred and one years later the UK decided the prime meridian should be at the Royal Onservatory in Greenwich and of course the rest of the world accepted that standard. MacKenzie’s original point now lies at about 3°W longitude.

We explored the harbor, the distillery, and just about every street in town during our many visits back to the place. Kirkwall became our Orkney home.

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Passage planning

We went back to Lerwick to spend a little more time in the charming Shetland capital and to cement our relationship with new friends Judy and Victor. Now that we found a safe and convenient place to park the camper, we were much more relaxed about staying overnight this time.

We did little more than eat, walk, swap life and boating stories, eat more. We were booked on the ferry to Orkney so these few days of getting to know like-minded people were precious to us. Jack and I both acknowledged how much we miss our cruising community. We have all lived a life that’s sometimes difficult for others to relate to or appreciate so spending time with other cruisers is almost like being able to speak your native tongue again after a period of struggling with the nuances of a foreign language.

Of course we sought out the location of BBC’s Shetland main character Jimmy Perez’s house along the waterfront and just generally enjoyed this charming, quirky town. We wished we’d discovered the parkup option earlier in our Shetland visit. We’d have enjoyed more time in Lerwick inbetween our journeys to more remote places.

And then it was time to go. We boarded the Northlink ferry for the five-and-a-half hour journey to Orkney. Per Escape Velocity protocol, we had no plan, no foreknowledge of our destination, no idea where we’d park up when we arrived — and we would arrive at 11:30pm — and believe it or not we hadn’t driven the campervan in the dark yet.

As soon as we got back online when the ferry docked we managed to navigate just a few miles to a harbor-front car park where we figured we could at least get some sleep and make better decisions in the morning. We parked, got the fridge turned back on, then took a long look out the front window. What a beautiful welcome to Orkney!

The morning coffee view was just as good, and even better when the Mrs. Chips food truck showed up offering egg and bacon sandwiches about 50 feet away. This is destined to be one of our favorite parkups in Orkney, one we’ll return to again and again.

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Scalloway

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.

We did find an intriguing plaque that reads, in part:

“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.

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Time runs short

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?

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Towning

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.

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Gravity

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.

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Yell days

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.

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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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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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