11.07.2016 - 13.07.2016 13 °C
On Monday we trundled into Lerwick on the bus, and it was everything you could want from a bus ride – clean, comfortable, quiet, scenic. Excellent work Shetland. We wandered the shops of Lerwick, and it seemed that Britain’s most northerly town was well and truly punching above its weight. For a population of approximately 7500, there seemed to be more than the expected range of stuff at surprisingly reasonable prices, especially when you consider that we were on an island. Harry’s department store was the first stop – kind of like Clark’s in Swan Hill, but on steroids. Basically, if they didn’t have it, you didn’t need it. It was lucky that we had to consider a 20kg luggage limit or I might have spent all my money there on Stuff and Things. The music shop in town was also exceptionally well stocked, and the only-been-open-one-week chocolate shop was well stocked until we came in and bought all their wares. The Mirrie Dancers Chocolatier lured me in with the name, captivated me with the pretty chocolates and won me over with a free taste. After that, it wasn’t a question of whether we would buy chocolates, just how many we would buy. We saw a man in a denim kilt using an ATM (because Scotland), and then popped in to the optometrist to get my sunglasses fixed. I had gone one better than Simon – not just a screw loose, a screw missing. We celebrated the return to function of my glasses with a coffee at Mareel, looking out over the harbour, and then collected Ringo the red Nissan Note. Why Ringo? www.starrentacar.co.uk may give you a clue!
We popped into Tesco for some supplies and were served by a friendly lady wearing four times the daily recommended dose of blue eyeshadow, and then went to grab some dinner at the Thai restaurant. Where we were served by a Russian waitress, with just enough English. Because Scotland. The food was quite satisfactory but the highlight of the experience was watching the music videos playing at the back of the restaurant. It was essentially an hour of Asian break up songs, that seemed to feature being in hospital as an underlying theme. Amazing.
After dinner we went to the Isleburgh Community Centre to see some local fiddlers – the first half of the show featured individual performances from four young girls who had claimed various prizes in the recent ‘Fiddler of the Year’ competition. Lovely. The second half of the show featured three of the same four girls performing as a ‘group’. But it was a bit samey for me. Because although there were three fiddles on stage together, they were all playing the same thing, so may as well have been just one of them. Give us some harmonies or a countermelody, come on! You certainly wouldn’t pay to see three of any other instrument playing the same thing together and call it a ‘group’. But the highlight was Eunice the local music teacher and piano accompanist – she was the compere for the evening and her voice made you feel as if you were swimming through an ocean of Irn-Bru to get to an island of haggis wearing nothing but a kilt. Ah Scotland…
Tuesday morning was fine in Sumburgh for our morning walk with the dogs, but on our way into Lerwick things deteriorated rapidly. Rain, clouds, fog, wind… bleurgh. We arrived at the ferry terminal to Bressay, thinking there was a ferry every half hour, only to discover we had missed the last ferry by ten minutes and the next one wasn’t for another hour. Bleurgh bleurgh. So we changed our initial plan of heading to Noss and turned it into a plan to go west, to see the ‘sunny side’ of the island. From what we saw, ‘sunny side’ is one of those ironic names. But still – beautiful. We went to Sandwick via Twatt (!) and enjoyed our PB sandwiches looking out over the water, and then stopped in at the bakery in Walls to pick up some Shetland Oaties, before returning to Scalloway to check out the museum and the castle. The museum was appropriately priced for what you got – which was information about the fishing heritage of Shetland, and the Shetland Bus that operated during the second world war. The Bus was based in Scalloway (after starting in Lerwick) and was a joint Shetland-Norway operation that helped people escape the German occupation in Norway, transported supplies to Norway and generally assisted in war efforts in sneaky and secretive ways. The Nordic heritage is a strong feature of Shetland life, and this part of the museum was presented bilingually. The Shetland flag (and the Orkney flag, too, for that matter) bear a much stronger resemblance to the flags of Norway, Denmark and Iceland than they do to the St Andrews Cross. The castle was a little less interesting – formerly the home of a widely hated Earl (Patrick Stewart), who was eventually hanged for being a bit of a knob. The wind and the rain did not do much to enhance the viewing experience!
On the way home, we came across a small yellow car lying flat on its side, but we were relieved to find that it had no occupants and hoped that whoever had gotten it into that position was now somewhere much warmer and safer. By the time we reached Sumburgh again, the sun had finally re-appeared, which made our evening walk all the more pleasant. And Simon’s sweet potato soup meant that we finished the day feeling warm, safe, and very content.
On Wednesday, we decided to try again for Noss. The weather forecast was bleak, but we were armed with waterproof items of clothing and warming devices (otherwise known as jackets and beanies) so we figured we would chance it. We arrived in Lerwick perfectly in time for the ferry to Bressay, which took all of five minutes, and then made our way to the largely uninhabited eastern side of Bressay to catch the boat to Noss. As we stood on the steps, waiting for the warden to come across with the boat, we spotted some seals and congratulated ourselves on some excellent wildlife spotting. Our inflatable boat arrived (complete with slightly disconcerting hissing sound), and we were on Noss about 30 seconds later. The warden (who can best be described as being the Scottish version of Macca from Portland) had given us the spiel about crofting, island bird life and was just answering Simon’s question about whether or not the sound was deep enough for porpoises to swim through when SHIT SHIT SHIT OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING! (Apologies for the language – his words, not mine.) At this point he grabbed his camera, rushed out of the camera and stood on the shore watching a pod of about five killer whales swimming through the sound, all the while accompanied by exclamations of joy, disbelief and excitement punctuated with various low level expletives. The whales swam, they circled, they flicked tails. We watched, we pointed, we took photos. As they moved away, Craig The Excited Warden told us to get back in the boat with our lifejackets because we were going to try and follow them for a closer look. It all happened rather quickly, and it was almost a surprise to find myself suddenly in a slowly leaking inflatable boat on the water somewhere between Shetland and Norway in pursuit of a pod of killer whales. I was strongly considering the possibility of going overboard, and was emotionally bracing myself for the loss of my camera and its photos, and possibly my life, but gosh what a good story that would be!
The whales moved much faster than us, so we watched them from a distance and eventually headed back to Bressay to collect two excited Swiss passengers and return, once more, to Noss. Craig TEW was still buzzing at this point – he could barely hold it together enough to give the official Welcome To Noss spiel and collect our money for the boat trip. He had been working on Noss for the past three seasons, and this was the first time he’d seen killer whales so close to the island. He set us off on our walk with instructions about things to look out for and places we’d be most at risk of being dive-bombed by nesting birds, and then set to generally getting the word out about the whales. What an exciting start to our day! And what luck that we had not come to Noss the day earlier!
At this point, I would also like to acknowledge the weather, which was infinitely better than predicted. For our entire walk around the island (all four hours of it), we had one brief shower that would have been called drizzle at worst. The sky was obligingly clear when we reached the look out points, and the wind was enough to make you feel that you were somewhere coastal and remote, but not enough to make things too uncomfortable.
Noss was beautiful. Only way to put it. We saw puffins, gannets, seals, guillemots, rabbits, sheep, fulmars and an otter. And the bonxies (‘great skuas’) saw us. And they saw us coming a little too close to their nests. And so they dive bombed us. You really haven’t lived until you’ve had a great big bonxie heading straight for you. Thankfully they aren’t known for making ‘direct hits’ on visitors, just flying close enough to scare off potential predators. It worked! The Noup of Noss has been described as a skyscraper of seabirds, and I can’t think of a better turn of phrase, so we’ll go with that. Visually stunning – and combined with the noise and the smell of thousands of gannets, it was quite a remarkable location for PB sandwiches!
We had Shetland oaties and cheese for afternoon smoko while we watched a bonxie that was watching a baby rabbit (and therefore, wasn’t watching us). Simon much preferred watching the seabirds dive into the water (probably because we weren’t a target for them) and we became quite adept at picking which bird was about to make the sudden and rapid descent.
We returned to the dock for our journey back to Bressay – Craig TEW used the foot pump to ensure the boat was at maximum inflation before we boarded, and we headed back with a Glaswegian couple who had also been exploring the island. We shared travel stories – and he branded us ‘dirty dogs’ in the thickest Scottish accent possible, which was, I believe, a traditional Scottish expression used for conveying jealousy and admiration of the highest form. And after our whale sighting this morning, I really think we had earned it.