Walking to Fethaland

A sunny day provided the perfect opportunity for walking to Fethaland – the remote northern point of Shetland Mainland.

Fethaland is one of those ends of the earth places.

It’s at the northernmost tip of Mainland in Shetland (Mainland is the name of the main island in the archipelago), miles from anywhere. You drive (there’s no public transport) along narrow single-track roads, winding along the coast until you come to Isbister. Then you walk. Continue reading “Walking to Fethaland”

Why I’m Going to Shetland and Not Walking the Camino

I’d planned to spend the summer in the sun walking the Camino de Santiago. Instead I’m sitting on a ferry taking me to Shetland and all the weather the North Atlantic can throw at me.

Note: I wrote this post on my way to Shetland several weeks ago, but due to dodgy internet haven’t been able to post it until now. I haven’t changed the wording – this is what I was thinking as I sat on the ferry sailing out of Aberdeen on the eve of my birthday.

I’m typing this sitting in the cafeteria of the Hjaltland peering out at a grey sea and a grey sea mist. On the drive here hailstones battered my van; small ones, but lumps of ice none the less.

I should be on a plane flying to the Pyrenees and preparing to spend a summer in the sun. Yet once again I’ve packed my fleeces and my waterproofs and headed north. Continue reading “Why I’m Going to Shetland and Not Walking the Camino”

A Reading List for Shetland

The first in a series of posts collating books about a particular place.

I decided a while ago to start a series of posts where I collate all the books I know of that are associated with a particular place. Finally, I’ve got round to putting together the first of these posts. It took a lot longer than I thought! Continue reading “A Reading List for Shetland”

Friday Flickr – Puffins Galore

Puffins have got to be cutest birds ever. I can spend hours sitting and watching them.

For this week’s Friday Flickr I’ve decided to go with a theme rather than a place.

And for my first theme, I’ve chosen puffins.

Puffins have got to be the cutest birds. With their colourful beaks and soulful eyes, to say nothing of their clumsy gaits and comical crash landings, how can anyone not love a puffin?

The best place I’ve found to see puffins is Shetland. There are two huge colonies; one right at the bottom of the islands at Sumburgh and the other right at the top at Hermaness on Unst (my favourite island).

Sumburgh is the easiest to get to as it’s on the Shetland Mainland (main island) and is easily drivable from Lerwick. You can even get a bus if you don’t have a car. I say easiest to get to, but it still involves getting to Aberdeen and then a 12-14 hour ferry journey before you even get to Lerwick.

Unst is a little trickier (but so worth it), as from Lerwick you have to drive to the top of the Mainland, get a 20-30 minute ferry over to the island of Yell, drive for 30-40 minutes to the top of Yell, get another ferry for 10-15 minutes over to Unst, drive as far as you can to Hermaness at the top of Unst (half an hour or so), then walk across the boggy moorland for around an hour (dodging skua attacks) to get to the most northerly bit of coast in Britain.

Looking out from cliffs there are a couple of bits of rock that belong to Britain (Muckle Flugga and Out Stack), but that’s it. No more land. You’d have to keep going until you reached Antarctica before you  hit land again.

Hermaness is well worth the effort of getting there. Not only do you get to see Muckle Flugga lighthouse (of Shipping Forecast fame), have the overwhelming sense of being on top of the world and sit among hundreds of puffins, but you get to experience a ginormous gannetry.

Puffins might be the cutest birds, but gannets are my all time favourites. They’re just so sleek and skillful as well as stunningly beautiful to look at.

The gannetry is a massive assault on the senses – the sheer number of birds, the sound, the smell – about the only sense not being assaulted is taste, though I’m sure that could be fixed just by breathing in through your mouth.

But back to puffins. Sit on the grass on the cliffs at either Sumburgh or Hermaness and you will have puffins pop up out of their burrows and crash land on the grass all around you.

They spend most of the year at sea and only come back to land when they breed. This means there’s quite a limited season to see them. They start arriving around April and have pretty much disappeared by early August.

I can sit for hours just watching them or snapping away trying to get the perfect photo. The photograph I really want to take is of a puffin with a mouth full of sandeels, but so far I’ve never managed this.

So I have a reason to keep going back. Not that I need one.

Click on the image below to access the Flickr album.



Friday Flickr – Fair Isle

For this week’s Friday Flickr I’ve taken myself back to Fair Isle.

This tiny island was only known to me from the Shipping Forecast and the jumpers of my childhood. I’d also heard that visitors could stay at a bird observatory and I’d never stayed at a bird observatory before, so of course that appealed.

I drove for around 6hrs to Aberdeen, then took the overnight ferry to Shetland. Fair Isle lies in the North Sea between Orkney and Shetland and we passed it on the 12 hour ferry journey. Once in Lerwick, I had to backtrack by driving to the south of the Shetland mainland and taking the small mailboat, ‘The Good Shepherd’ 4hrs to Fair Isle.

It was worth it.

I stayed in the newly rebuilt bird observatory and spent my days wandering the length and breadth of the island in glorious sunshine.

Click on the image below to access the album.

Fair Isle


A year ago I was at Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa has been and gone again. It’s always on the last Tuesday of January and brightens some of the darkest days in the British winter. Shetland being so far north, it gets even gloomier than Manchester. Something hard to believe with the gloomy, drizzly weather we’ve been having lately.

Last year I was fortunate to be able to spend a week in Shetland and attend the festivities. I got to have one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life (and there have been a few!) and to cross a challenge off my 60 things to do before I’m 60 list.

I’ve been following it closely online this year and wishing I was there. I’ve just been reminiscing with my photos. The low light, rain and fast moving Vikings made it difficult to get good photos, but even the worst photos have good memories behind them and I love looking back at them. I’ve selected a few of the better ones and have put together a Flickr album.

Up Helly Aa

I’ve written a few other posts on Up Helly Aa and they can be found by clicking on the links below.

After my trip last year, I wrote about the day and the night parts of the festival.

I’ve also written an overview of what Up Helly Aa is.

My potted history of the festival can be found here.

The Up Helly Aa website can be found here.


Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves is as good at telling stories as she is at writing them. She’s also full of mind-boggling facts.

Today was World Book Day. Instead of dressing up as a book character, I celebrated by attending a talk by Ann Cleeves at Bolton Library.

The library is fortunate to have lecture theatre and as we all threaded our way into the tiered seats I noticed that I seemed to be the youngest person there. That doesn’t happen very often! I don’t know why the audience was predominantly older people as I’m sure her books and the TV series appeal to a much wider age range than that which was represented.

Ann was relaxed and informal, inserting snippets of humour into her stories. Although she was stood at a lectern her style was more that of a friend having a chat over coffee than a professor delivering a lecture. She read an excerpt from Raven Black, the first book in the Shetland series and followed this with a reading from the latest addition, Thin Air.

She started by telling us a bit about her early life; how she had dropped out of university, believing she didn’t need an English degree to read books, and found a job in London. She didn’t adapt well to the hectic pace of the city and found her escape when she met a man who was about to leave for Fair Isle. He was to take up the position of assistant warden at the bird observatory there and wasn’t particularly enamoured by this opportunity, describing it as a bleak, windswept island in the middle of nowhere. Ann thought it sounded great. Fortunately the observatory was in desperate need of an assistant cook and so Ann travelled north to take up with the role, despite not knowing where Fair Isle was or being able to cook.

Over the next two years she got to know the island and the islanders well. Magnus, the eccentric elderly man in Raven Black, was based on one of the local characters she had shared many a dram with. It was during her time in Fair Isle that she also met her husband, a keen bird-watcher. Over the following years she had a variety of jobs culminating in her training to be a probation officer. Her varied life experiences have supplied her with material for her books.

Ann comes across as much a great storyteller in her speaking as she is in her books. She didn’t have notes, just let the stories unfold, and explained this is much the same way she writes her books. She doesn’t plot in advance, but rather starts with her basic idea and sees where it takes her chapter by chapter. Before she was able to write full-time, she would write for pleasure after a full day’s work. Her motivation was not knowing herself what was going to happen next and being just as surprised as her readers are today as the story unfolds.

The Shetland books came about when her husband wanted to go to Shetland to see a rare bird and she took him on a crazy day-trip as a birthday treat. Crazy because most day-trips don’t involve a long drive and a 14 hour ferry journey at either end of the day. As he went in search of the bird she wandered about noticing the stark contrast of black ravens against the white snow. Being a crime-writer, she mentally added blood to the scene to a create an even more powerful contrast. From this idea the first book was born; first as a short-story, then as a novel, then as a quartet and now as a longer series.

Shetland is one of the safest places I know. Ann knows this too and originally planned the book as a one-off thinking it would be too far-fetched to have so many murders in a placid archipelago of 22,000 people. As positive feedback poured in she realised that when it’s a choice between credibility and a great story, reviewers and readers will usually cast doubts about likelihood to the side and go with the story. And so the book became a series.

Ann shared some of her inspirations for the other books in the series and explained how she had chatted to a former policeman in Lerwick as part of her research. She was surprised to find out that in the case of an actual murder, the serious crimes squad from Inverness would not be flown in on a specially chartered flight, but would have to take the scheduled flight along with everyone else. Even if this meant waiting 3 days for the fog to lift before they could reach the islands. Bodies needing to be shipped to Aberdeen for autopsy travel on the ferry. An anonymous looking transit van is used to protect the sensibilities of passengers who may otherwise be perturbed to know they are accompanied by a corpse.

This is only a tiny part of what Ann shared with us. She spoke for the best part of an hour and then answered questions. One topic she was particularly vocal about is her support for libraries. She has never taken part in any writing courses and, as mentioned above, didn’t complete her degree. Instead, avid reading has taught her all she needs to know about writing. Libraries give people the chance to read no matter what their budget. They give people the chance to read authors and genres they might not be prepared to try if they had to pay for the book. She pointed out that the combined creative industries bring £8.8 million an HOUR to the UK economy. That’s nearly £80 billion a year. I struggled to get my head round this, but it’s true: the figures are there on the government’s own website. The creative industries which include, not only publishing, but also film and television programme making (all of which rely on writers), provide 1.7 million jobs and make up 5% of the total economy. With these facts in mind, government cuts to libraries and the creative industries seem not just misjudged, but downright foolhardy.

Following the talk everyone moved to another room for tea, biscuits and book signings. I filled in the feedback form, still flabbergasted by the statistics and with a head buzzing with all stories Ann had told. This was a far better way to celebrate World Book Day than merely dressing up as Harry Potter or Where’s Wally.

Up Helly Aa 2015 (the night)

Burly men in beards and bras. Definitely a night to remember.

As I watched the flames die down and the burning galley turn to ash, I was buzzing with everything I’d seen, heard, felt and smelt so far this evening. It was after 9pm, but the night was only just beginning. It would be at least 12 hours until I’d get to bed. With exhilaration coursing through my veins and anticipation tingling my nerve endings I made my way to the primary school where the evening’s entertainment was just beginning.

It was already busy when I arrived. I gave my name at the door and, thanks to Linda, the daughter-in-law of the man I’d met earlier at the galley, my name was on the list and in exchange for 25 quid I was given a wristband. Up Helly Aa is expensive. The costs involved in making the detailed costumes and weaponry and building the galley are no mean amount. I don’t know if any of my £25 went into a general Up Helly Aa fund or if it was all to cover the costs of the evening, but either way by 8am I definitely felt I’d got my money’s worth.

A disrespectful tribute to Elvis. He was sat on the toilet which flushed each time the music changed.

I headed first for the toilets to peel off a few layers of clothing. A couple of girls were fluffing their hair and applying extra make-up. They looked very glamorous and in my trousers and plain top I felt very under-dressed. I mentally kicked myself for not having packed an outfit on the off chance I got lucky enough to be invited to a hall. Fortunately I’m not one for letting the wrong outfit get in the way of enjoying myself and I made my down to the far end of the school corridor where I stashed my bag and extra clothing. 

Buxom ladies at a local cafe

This area was doubling as the ‘bar’ area and people were sat around tables enjoying a beer, glass of wine or something a little stronger. No alcohol is sold in the halls so it’s strictly BYO. Most people were very well prepared, with stacks of plastic glasses as well as the booze of their choice. Alcohol is not allowed in the main hall so throughout the evening people were disappearing back here to return a while later with an extra glow to their cheeks. 

Tea-dancing OAPs find themselves in an aerobic class

I found my way to the main hall and pushed through men in fancy dresses to enter. The 48 squads make their way around the 11 participating halls and put on a short performance in each. There are two to three squads in each hall at a time and once they’ve all performed, the band strikes up and everyone is pulled up onto the dance floor to be whirled around in a series of traditional dances with names like Strip the Willow, Eightsome Reel and St Bernard’s Waltz

Green Been / Red to Come – the numbers representing the squads

A board behind the band held the numbers representing each squad. The numbers started out red and were changed to green once the squad had performed. 

‘I Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore’

As the squads are all male and many performances require female characters, the squads adhere to the traditions of theatre from years’ past and enthusiastically embrace cross-dressing. It is said that lingerie shops in Lerwick do a roaring trade in the month before Up Helly Aa with all the butch builders, plumbers and roadworkers piling in to buy their bras. Shakespeare would have been proud.


The Jarl’s squad arrived at about 12.30am

As the squads are meant to be in disguise most performers wear masks, heavy make-up or dark glasses, only revealing their identities once their performance is finished.  

They must’ve been feeling hot

The performances are outlandish and tend to be risqué with the squads having names like Fat Bottomed Girls (pink frocks and well-endowed bottoms) and Horny Germans (lederhosen and William Tell hats). Some acts had performers removing clothes, thrusting their pelvises and generally behaving in ways you wouldn’t want your granny to see. Except the grannies here had seen it all many times before and didn’t bat an eyelid. Other performances poked fun at local issues, one such being the skit performed by the Clangers. The squad were dressed as the pink woolly Clangers from the 1970’s children’s TV programme and in the style of the programme, which was quite subversive in some of the issues it alluded to, pulled no punches in referring to all the ‘clangers’ they say Shetland Islands Council have been responsible for. 

‘Fat Bottomed Girls’

As well as performances and dancing and trips to the bar there were visits to the buffet. Hot soup was being served along with unlimited mugs of tea. Plates were continually being replenished with sandwiches, cakes and biscuits. The tea was welcome, especially when it got to about 5am and I was starting to flag. A couple of mugs of tea and I was raring to go again. 

A ‘Fat Bottomed Girl’ watching ‘Putindabootin’ Russian dancers

It did strike me that, despite all the merriment, party-spirit and alcohol, no-one seemed really drunk. There was none of the falling around you see on Saturday nights in city centres. No-one burst into tears or started a fight. And I didn’t see one person throw up. I don’t know if it was because of the mixed age group or because everyone knows everyone else or just because of the laid-back character Shetlanders all seem to share, but I do know I liked it. 

He wasn’t really naked

By the time the last squads had performed, the last tunes had been danced to, and the last mugs of tea had been supped it was 8am. There weren’t quite as many people as there had been earlier, but there were still a lot. Everyone was still cheerful as they made their way out, shouting their byes and dispersing to their beds. 

In need of a bikini wax

I walked back to Tesco car park where I’d left my van. I was surprised to see the burger van in the car park was open for business and had a customer. How could anyone still be hungry after all the food in the halls? I wasn’t surprised however, to see the customer was a man wearing a tutu. 

In need of a diet

Note: my photos are RUBBISH. Trying to take photos of fast-moving performers indoors whilst facing a spotlight was a challenge way beyond my photographic abilities. I’ve included a few here anyway as they at least give an idea of what some of the performances were like.

To read about Up Helly Aa day click here.

I’ve written about the history and traditions of Up Helly Aa here and here.

The main Up Helly Aa website is here.

Up Helly Aa 2015 (the day)

Days don’t get much better than this.

The Up Helly Aa flag flying over the town hall

It looked as though it was going to rain, but I wasn’t worried. Up Helly Aa NEVER gets cancelled because of the weather. Only world wars have been able to stop it (and that was probably due only to the lack of men). It was postponed at the last minute for Winston Churchill’s funeral but no-one was very happy about that (and still aren’t if the lack of interest in his 50th anniversary was anything to go by). Far too many sandwiches went to waste and people who’d come up specially ended up missing it. So that’ll never happen again.

I wasn’t in any particular hurry as I knew the Jarl’s squad were getting breakfast and facial tattoos in Islesburgh Community Centre and I wouldn’t be allowed in. I’ve been able to pass myself off as a lot of things, but I don’t think even I’d pull off impersonating a large bearded Viking. After breakfast the squad were taking the galley down to the waterfront for an official photo session and then leaving it there for the rest of the day whilst they went around town visiting care homes, schools and the hospital. I thought the waterfront would be too crowded so instead waited near the town hall. Afterwards, when I saw how good the photos of the whole squad atop the galley looked, I wished I had gone myself. Instead, the first I saw of them was when they came marching up the road to the town hall, roaring and generally making a lot of noise. They did look rather magnificent. 

The Vikings are here!
Raven wings and a mighty beard

So much care had been put into the costumes and weaponry: textiles, chainmail, carved, highly polished wood, intricately patterned metalwork, and of the course the Jarl’s helmet resplendent with its raven wings. Once they’d all gone into the town hall I went down to the harbour to look at the galley. This was equally magnificent. The level of detail equally intricate. 


There were still quite a few people around and as I waited for a chance to take a people-free photo, I got chatting to the man who was looking after the galley. He told me his son will be Guizer Jarl next year and so this time next year he will be touring the care homes in full Viking dress rather than standing in a raincoat guarding the galley. 


Named after a penguin named after a Viking

He was dismayed to hear I wouldn’t be going to any of the halls. The halls are a really important part of Up Helly Aa, but all are privately run. The festival is a really special time for Shetlanders. If islanders who have moved away are going to come home only once in the year, it will often be for Up Helly Aa. People I spoke to told me it’s more important and a bigger event than Christmas, Easter or birthdays. It’s easy to understand then why, although they’re happy for outsiders to watch the parade, the halls are private and for friends and family only. To have a load of tourists in your hall would be the equivalent of having a load of tourists come round to your house on Christmas Day morning to watch you open your presents. You probably don’t mind the tourists coming along to the carol concert or midnight mass, but there is a line you don’t want them to step over. I understood this and accepted that, as much as I would like to, I wouldn’t be going to any halls.

Spot the penguin

I should have known better. This is Shetland after all. People are friendly and rules are just there to, yeah, well, whatever. John told me his daughter-in-law (wife of next year’s Jarl) was running one of the halls and that when he got home he would ask her if there was a spare ticket for me. He took my mobile number so he could let me know. Just in case he called over some other people and got me the phone number of someone running a different hall, so I had a backup plan if his daughter-in-law didn’t have any tickets. 


Even the boats have beards

I spent part of the afternoon wandering round town. The window displays in the shops all had an Up Helly Aa theme. Even Specsavers had joined in with a poster depicting a Viking squad hauling a fishing boat along to the burning place instead of their galley, unaware of the irate fisherman chasing them; the caption was, of course, ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’. As well as Vikings, there was quite a penguin theme. This was because the Guizer Jarl is known by the nickname ‘Penguin’. There was a penguin design painted onto the galley which was named Nils Olav after a penguin in Edinburgh zoo with the same name.

The Bill had been attached to the market cross earlier that morning. It’s a carefully hand-inscribed proclamation satirising local events and notable people from the past year. In red and black painted text it lampoons the discussion around school closures, the unreliability of the Northlink ferries and the controvesial Mareel arts centre. It took me several readings to understand most of it, but even though I try to keep up with Shetland news, there were still parts that were over my head. 

Crowding into the museum

The Jarl’s squad was due at the museum in the late afternoon, so I made my way over in plenty of time. The entrance hall was already quite crowded with people waiting to see Vikings. A couple of guys were keeping everyone entertained with live music. The Jarl’s band arrived first and they squeezed in with their bulky instruments and got set up. Then the rest of the Vikings arrived. Before they came in I would have said it was impossible to fit seventy Vikings all in bulky costumes into the already crowded space. But fit they did. More and more of them pushed through the doors and spectators were crushed back to the walls. They could have shown rush hour commuters on London Underground a trick or two.  

For their theme song, they had chosen Daydream Believer, albeit with a few word changes. As their voices reverberated around the hall, big grins on their faces, light glinting of their chain mail, swords and double-headed axes, I knew I’ll never be able to hear that song again without thinking of Vikings.

Just 2 Vikings having a chat

Following the sing-song everyone piled outside where the Vikings lit their torches for a TV interview. Dousing the fire in the harbour, they then did what all good Vikings do and drove off on their bus.

TV interview

The Junior Jarl’s galley

Wandering back up to the town hall I was in time to see the Junior Jarl’s squad setting off on their parade. The schoolboys also have real torches and proudly set off marching, pulling their galley to the playing fields where they would burn it. It was just starting to rain, but didn’t manage more than a few drops before stopping again in plenty of time for the main parade.

Schoolboys with a burning mission

I went back to my van which I’d moved to Tesco car park so I wouldn’t have too far to walk at the end of the night. As I got my layers on ready to stand around for a few hours watching the main parade and galley burning my phone rang. Yes! I had a ticket. It’s the custom to dress up for the halls but as I hadn’t expected to go to one I didn’t have any posh clothes with me. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stop me though. I put a slightly nicer top on over my thermals and considered myself ready. 


By 7pm the streets were heaving. I think Shetland’s entire 22,000 strong population, along with several thousand visitors had all congregated on the same few streets. I’m not used to crowds in Shetland. All 48 squads take part in the main parade. As they are nearly all holding burning torches, not all of them are wearing their costumes (or disguises). If the outfit is likely to be flammable (or affected by the weather) they wear ordinary clothes on the march and change before starting their rounds of the halls. The torches are lit, the streetlights go out.

At 7.30pm a rocket is fired from the town hall and they’re off. As 1000 men wind their way round the route a ring of fire encircles the spectators. It’s dark, in the distance only the line of fire can be seen. Even when they are marching behind buildings, the sky is strangely lit up in shades of flickering oranges and reds like an all-encompassing sunset.

I had a great spot right at the kerbside. The smell of paraffin, the heat from the blazing torches, the singing and Viking yells, a thousand men marching past, flames flickering, everything seeming to move so quickly my eyes struggled to focus, let alone my camera. I felt like every one of my senses was being overloaded and maxed out. Still they marched. Still they yelled. Still the flames flared devouring the oxygen from the street.

Earlier John (the man guarding the galley) had pointed out that nowhere else could you give a thousand men a bottle of whisky each and not expect trouble. Here, they not only give them a bottle of whisky but a flaming torch and then plonk them down in the middle of this heady atmosphere. Trouble? Of course not. I don’t know if it’s due to the laidback Shetland attitude or if it’s because this is such an important tradition. Although there’s plenty of alcohol involved, it’s taken far too seriously and with too much respect to be turned into a free-for-all piss-up.

Finally the squads made their way through the gates into the playing fields and stood around the galley waiting for the Jarl to disembark and give the signal for the torches to be hurled onto the galley. It caught light quickly and a year’s work was turned into a bonfire. I’d moved to the road above the playing fields but was struggling to see over people’s heads. Standing on tip-toe I peered over shoulders. The boat took a long time to burn and people started to move away whilst the blaze was still roaring. I got a better view then and watched as the dragon head slowly drooped and fell, succumbing to the flames.


I stayed till the fire was almost out. Most people had left by then, but I wasn’t in any hurry as I didn’t have to be at the hall till 9.30pm. I wandered round to the other side of the playing fields. Most of the squads had left as they needed to get into their costumes. A few men were left watching the last of the flames die down. For some reason one of them decided to do the Haka – the Maori war dance made famous outside of New Zealand by the All Blacks who perform it at the start of their rugby games. A Viking doing the Haka; now that’s a cultural mish-mash I wasn’t expecting to see. 

I chatted to an older guy who told me he’d spent some of his younger years around Manchester and Lancashire and then slowly made my way to the hall, buzzing from what I’d experienced so far and excited about what was to come.


To be continued …

To find the continuation in which I write about the Up Helly Aa night in the halls click here.

I wrote about the Up Helly Aa traditions here and about the history here.

You can find the main Up Helly Aa website here.

A Winter’s Day in Unst

It was a grey and gloomy day in Unst. But I still liked it.

Unst is my favourite island. I couldn’t go to Shetland without a trip up to the very top of the British Isles. I woke up at lunchtime on the day after Up Helly Aa (or should that be four hours after Up Helly Aa?) to find everything covered in white including a thick layer over the windscreen. I took a few photos – Lerwick looked so pretty in the snow – and then headed slowly up the winding road out of Lerwick on my way to Unst. 

The further north I got the less snow there was and the clearer the roads were. When I drove off the ferry in Yell I headed to the right on the small road that leads round to Burravoe Pier where there’s a lovely little set-up for campers and boaters. A small building, with an old lifeboat for a roof, houses very sleek kitchen, laundry and shower facilities. I had a lovely hot shower, heated my evening meal up in the microwave and filled my flask with hot water. There’s an honesty box for payment but no recommended price list for showers and kitchen use. As it’s £1.60 to shower at the leisure centres, I chucked a couple of quid in figuring the extra 40p would cover my boiling of the kettle and three minute use of the microwave. 

Thus cleaned and fed I continued on the narrow road up the east coast of Yell. It was dark and the snow had now reached the north. I drove very slowly through a blizzard (at least it seemed like that in my headlights) until I reached the top of the island and the ferry to Unst. There is a wider road further west, but I didn’t want to backtrack to get to it. I saw nothing on the drive up apart from a few hardy sheep. I had to be careful of them as they blended into the blizzard, their wool providing the perfect camouflage.

I was the only person on the ferry to Unst. As it was dark and there are toilet facilities at the pier, I parked up and spent the night there.

Next morning it was a bit rainy, a bit gloomy, but not snowy. I drove off to do a quick visit to some of my favourite places. I had thought about doing a short walk, but the peat bog which can be soggy-going to walk on at the best times, looked completely sodden. Instead I drove around taking pics and sat staring at the grey skies and grey seas from the comfort of my driver’s seat. I’d wanted to come up here to see if I liked it as much in winter as in summer as part of me would really like to live here at some point. Although it’s bleak and I realised it would be difficult to get any good walking done in winter, I still liked it. I sat in the self-service cafe in the Skibhoul bakery for lunch and found two other tourists in there who also had a campervan. Theirs was a proper motorhome type, so I felt I retained my self-imposed title of the craziest person in Shetland for sleeping in the back of a van in the middle of the North Atlantic winter. 


Self service really means self service

In the evening I headed back to the pier to catch the ferry back to Yell and did my journey (including the shower stop) in reverse arriving back in Lerwick later that evening.

Here are some pics showing Unst in winter … 

 The hostel in Uyeasound is a wonderful place in summer. Full of interesting people. And it has a large well-equipped kitchen and a lovely conservatory in which many a late evening has been spent drinking Valhalla beer, chatting and watching the sun finally go down and darkness spread across the water. It’s closed in winter and looks really forlorn. And it’s strange not see my little green tent perched on the lawn. 

Views of the rocky beach in front of the hostel

Muness Castle was built around 1598 for Laurence Bruce who was half-brother to Robert Stewart, first Earl of Orkney. It burnt down in 1627, supposedly after being attacked by French raiders. Renovations were made, but by the late 1600s it was uninhabited. The Dutch East India Company rented it in 1713 and used it as a storage facility for salvaged cargo from a nearby wreck. It has been completely uninhabited and left to ruin since 1750. It’s now owned and maintained by Historic Scotland. Entry is free and the castle is always open and unmanned. Torches are provided at the entrance. 
The old cottage with stone walls is next to the castle. 

Bobby’s bus shelter is named after the little boy Bobby Macauley, who at the age of six got fed up waiting for the school bus in a dishevelled and draughty bus shelter and wrote to the council to ask for a new one. The council duly obliged and Bobby got his new bus shelter. Soon, various items of furniture and ornamentation appeared. No-one knows who started it, but the bus shelter soon gained curtains, a sofa (actually an old bus seat) and a TV. Over time, the decorating of Bobby’s bus shelter became more formalised and there is now an ‘executive committee’ (as far as I can find out it’s currently his mum) who decides on a theme each year and furnishes it accordingly. The themes are often topical such as an African theme the year Bobby (no longer a little boy) moved to Swaziland, or a World Cup or Queen’s Jubilee theme. I’m assuming the theme I’ve just seen is still last year’s and is in honour of Nelson Mandela as he died at the end of the previous year. I’m quite a fan of Nelson Mandela and so was pleased to see him commemorated in this way at what is just about the opposite end of the planet from South Africa.

Probably the world’s most photographed bus shelter

These photos were taken at Norwick beach – one of my favourite beaches in Unst. Even on a grey, miserable day I could have stared at it for hours. Imagine living in the white house at the end of the bay and having this view all the time? 
The little ‘island’ is the Isle o May (I’ve never managed to find out why it’s called that).

Over on the west side of the island is Westing beach and I finished my day here. It was starting to rain huge icy drops and the wind was spattering them over my camera lens. After a last longing look I headed for the ferry pleased to feel I could happily survive a winter here.