Marhofn 106.06 - May 2004

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Up to my neck in it on Shetland

Jennifer Thomson

After arriving in Lerwick from Aberdeen at 7am, I had time to take the much smaller ferry to Bressay and the track up to the Ward of Bressay before my rendezvous at noon with the guide and her tourists. Our two-day visit to Foula had to be by air - on the eight-seater plane between its air ambulance emergencies - as the sea was too stormy for the ferry. We stayed on Foula at the very good B&B. The next day we were followed up The Sneug by three of the multi-coloured native Foula sheep that make walking easy by keeping the grass close cropped, which is just as well as sticks are required above the head to confuse the dive-bombing great skuas. Shortly beyond the cairn on The Sneug, the seabird colonies and 1200ft cliffs of The Kame are spectacular, rivalling St Kilda as the highest sea-cliffs in Britain. The warden accompanied us over the Daal, explaining the remains of an early form of agricultural subsistence, to look down the dank and treacherous rock fault known as the Sneck o' da Smallie to the teeming seabird colonies under the cliffs.

We then we made our way up The Noup and experienced the only mist and rain in my fifteen days on Shetland. Back at the B&B we watched the famous film by Michael Powell which immortalises the evacuation in 1930 of St Kilda but was actually filmed on Foula in 1936, with many islanders taking part. Viewing it on Foula and recognising areas we had explored made it even more special.

Back on Mainland, the next three mornings Angela dropped me off at a suitable location for a Marilyn or two, and I hitch-hiked back to Lerwick. The range of interesting people I met during these lifts added to my enjoyment of the Shetland Isles. Bird watching was also competing for my time, with a midnight visit to the broch on the island of Mousa to watch the return of tiny storm petrels to their nests in the 'simmer dim', when the long twilight becomes dawn on the Shetlands. Another visit was to the Hermaness nature reserve on Unst, where the cliffs are home to over 100,000 breeding seabirds, with fulmars and gannets nesting on every ledge, and a multitude of puffins with sand eels in their comical beaks.

Saturday began in mist, and I ventured into the fenced area of forbidden radar installation buildings surrounding the summit of Saxa Vord. The trig point is easily accessible by walking across the forecourt of the main building and ignoring the threatening notices. I beat a hasty retreat - unchallenged - as the mist began to lift. Another hitch took me to the farmer's market at Balta Sound, where there was endless coffee, a large sandwich, and as many home-made cakes as you could eat, all for £2. After sending postcards stamped at Britain's most northerly post office, I headed up onto the spine of Unst for Valla Field, with more radar paraphernalia beside the trig point but fantastic views east and west. Leaving Unst on Sunday morning, we drove over Yell for the ferry back to Mainland. I was dropped off at the bridge onto Muckle Roe and took the track up Mid Ward to the trig point. Once the mist cleared the large and higher cairn to the north became obvious. Three lifts took me back to Lerwick and twelve hours on the Northlink ferry to Aberdeen.

Eleven Marilyns and much bird watching, in mostly wonderful weather, put a return to Shetland for the remaining nine Marilyns high on my priority list. This took place in late August, when again I sailed from Aberdeen and again stayed in the five-star Lerwick youth hostel. This time I intended to use public transport, which requires careful planning and must be undertaken in school term time to make maximum use of buses. Arriving in Lerwick at 7am on Friday morning I took the bus to Walls and got a lift to the track for Sandness Hill. Having made a round of its various cairns, with splendid views of Papa Stour (population 23), I caught the minibus to Walls (the driver was already somehow aware that I was to be a passenger) and then the bus back to Lerwick.

On Saturday I took the bus for Sumburgh, and by the time it was near my starting point for Fitful Head I was the only passenger, so the driver helped to identify the correct track. Within half a mile I heard a loud jingling sound - a large bedraggled sea eagle (I think), with chains and bells around its legs, was perched close by on an old fank. When I reported this to a farmer at Quendale, the look he gave me said 'pull the other one, it's got bells on too'. More radar installations on Fitful Head, but the panoramic views, seabird colonies and cliff-top walk to Scousburgh were fantastic. The unexpected pub at Scousburgh was very welcome, as it was extremely warm and a longer walk than I had anticipated. Sitting outside in the sunshine, looking towards Fair Isle and enjoying a much-needed pint of lager, I decided that as it was my birthday a second pint might be a good idea. This was duly delivered with the reminder that Shetland doesn't have any bushes. The trig point on Ward of Scousburgh is within another high MOD fence, but the open gate allowed sheep to graze freely. A tarmac road led to the A970 and a lift back to Lerwick.

I had chosen Monday for Fair Isle as the flight schedule from Tingwall airstrip (£1 on minibus from Lerwick) gave most time on the island. I was escorted across the runway to go up Ward Hill, where the trig point is among twisted, rusted iron and broken chunks of cement from bunkers etc. While this did not detract from the views it left me disappointed. When commenting later to a local about the mess of war debris on Ward Hill I was informed that these war relics were 'listed' and couldn't be removed. Identifying the Marilyns already ticked from the air on the flight to and from Fair Isle gave a real feeling of achievement.

The following day a bus-ferry-bus took me to Otterswick on the island of Yell for a planned meander over Hill of Arnisdale followed by a bus north to B&B in Gutcher and the morning ferry to Fetlar. This meander was to become one of my most scary hillwalking experiences ever. Coming down a path into a dip between two peat lochans, I was lifted sideways by a sudden strong gust of wind and dumped feet first up to my neck - rucksack and all - in a lochan. My boots didn't reach the bottom as I doggy-paddled in a panic to the side. Soaked to the skin - even my camera contained brown peaty water - I dried out during the remainder of the walk, but while water evaporates peat does not, and my B&B landlady was not impressed, especially as the change of clothes in my rucksack had suffered the same fate as those I was wearing. I escaped on the 7:30am ferry to Fetlar and was given a lift by the schoolteacher. As she had just had an excellent inspectors' report on her work with all five pupils, she took me to view the school, which was conveniently situated at the foot of Vord Hill. The walk to the 159-metre trig point on tussock grass and crowberries was thankfully uneventful. After my experiences of the day before common sense prevailed, so rather than explore more sea cliffs looking out for otters I headed back to the only road and a lift to the ferry, in the back of a van whose most recent occupants had been sheep. This left me three hours to wait for the school bus, but I was offered a lift on one of the five vehicles on the ferry all the way back to Lerwick - great!

With only two Marilyns left, both fairly near Lerwick, and two whole days prior to the end of my trip, I booked a boat trip around the islands of Bressay and Noss for Friday morning - big mistake. Laziness was setting in, so when I completed Royl Field I decided the quickest and easiest way to reach Scrae Field was via the main road, but a bus came along and somehow I was back in Lerwick eating pub grub with the idea that Scrae Field could wait. Friday dawned stormy, and after a rough but enjoyable boat trip viewing the cliffs and birds of Noss from below, I somehow summoned up the energy to get to Scrae Field before collapsing onto the Northlink ferry to Aberdeen and then a bus home.

Noss Head, Shetland

Noss Head, Shetland

The Shetland Islands, the cliffs, the seabirds and the people all left a lasting impression on me. Twenty Marilyns in 15 days on eight different islands - all on my own. The hills themselves weren't difficult, although on some the peat hags became extremely frustrating. Organising a practical schedule of buses and ferries, while hoping for an appropriate lift, was more of a challenge.

Three days later I left for Ludlow with Alison Wilson for the Marilyn meeting, when 13 hills were ticked in three days amid like-minded company, in scenery which seemed a world apart from that of my previous week. Then it all came to an abrupt end in November when I broke three main bones in my right foot - at home! I suppose I should be grateful it wasn't on a lonely hillside on Shetland.

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