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.
Isbister itself is a tiny place – not even big enough to be a hamlet – just a couple of crofts, the ubiquitous cemetery by the sea (Shetland’s cemeteries are usually found by the sea as, in days gone by, it was easier to transport bodies by sea than by land) and a sheep pen next to which it’s possible to park.
There was no-one around.
I sat in the back of the van, doors open, legs swinging, to have my lunch. A couple of guys arrived in a car, parked up and started walking. I soon followed.
Walking to Fethaland
It’s about 3½ km to the end of the land. Except it’s not, because you can walk another 1km afterwards across a tombolo to the Isle of Fethaland and the lighthouse.
The track leads past the croft buildings and through a few gates with warning notices about cows and calves and alternative routes. There were no cows or calves when I was there so I took the direct route straight down a track. Or rather straight up a track. Then down. Then up. Then down.
Let’s just say it was undulating.
The views were spectacular though and I was happy to keep stopping
for a breather to take photographs.
To my left I could see Sandvoe beach with a few ant-like people on it. Other than them I seemed to have the whole place to myself.
To my right I could see the island of Yell and on the high points I could see the sea ahead. It was all achingly beautiful. Blue sea, blue sky, green grass, flashes of white as a boat bobbed past.
I wondered how the herring fishermen and gutter girls felt about the place when they worked here in the 18th and 19th centuries. Life would have been hard. Would they have had time or inclination to appreciate the beauty of the place? I was here on a gorgeous sunny day; they would have had days like this too, but would also have had days when they were pelted with icy rain and blasted with winds that chill to the bone. On days like that there would have been little or no respite. The work needed to be done.
Reaching the end of the world the track ended. Only to be expected I suppose.
Below me I could see a tombolo, rocky on one side, sandy on the other, leading the way to the Isle of Fethaland.
Around me were the ruins of the stone bothies used by the haaf fishing station. In the past this solitary place would have been a hive of activity.
Fethaland was the largest of Shetland’s fishing stations and at its height up to 60 boats operated from this remote station. The boats were sixareens; built in the traditional wooden style with six oars and open to all the sky and sea could throw at them. The men would row up to 50 miles out to sea to reach the ‘Far Haaf’. This is where the continental shelf drops and the deep sea fishing can begin.
The men would use the stone bothies during their time on shore. As would the shore-based workers who supported the fishing industry – the barrel makers, gutter girls (they were known as girls no matter their age) and herring merchants.
The shore would have been laden with barrels and piles of fish. Girls would be chatting as they flicked their knives, often gutting the herring with a single practised stroke; barrel makers would be hammering and teasing planks into shape; fishermen would be shouting greetings, smoking, catching up on a bit of sleep; merchants would be haggling over prices, clinking coins, shouting orders.
I sat on the remains of a wall and drank from my flask of coffee, wondering at how different it would have been if I’d be here a hundred or more years ago. I wondered who had slept, chatted, argued in the house which was now just a handy low wall for me to sit on.
I picked my way across the tombolo and climbed onto the Isle of Fethaland and up to the lighthouse. It’s a squat building and not very lighthousey at all really, but no doubt does its job at saving lives whilst still managing to look picturesque in photos.
A little further and I was as far as I could go. Another small island with a light on it lay ahead of me, but with no convenient tombolo it would only be accessible by boat.
After a last look at the view I turned and made my way back. There were a few more people around now, but still not many considering the beauty of this place and the weather. The two guys I’d seen earlier were on their way back as I was at the lighthouse, an older couple were taking photos of the rock formations from the tombolo and another solo woman was making her way up the hill to the lighthouse. That was it.
Apart from sheep. Lots of sheep.
Have you been to any ‘ends of the earth’ places? Or places that strongly evoke a very different past? Would you consider walking to Fethaland if you visit Shetland? Share your thoughts in the comments below.