Tag Archives: Shetland

A Wet Friday in Lerwick

A quick bounce down the coast saw us moored up in Lerwick, capital of the Shetland Islands, on Friday morning.  We grabbed a quick breakfast, donned boots and waterproofs and set off to explore.

The weather wasn’t particularly kind – pouring with rain and blowing what I believe is known as a ‘hoolie’ north of the border.  Amusingly, when we popped into a café to dry out and wrap ourselves round a coffee, a friendly local told us that “at least it wasn’t windy”.  Well, if that’s flat calm, I’d hate to see the place in a gale!  Damp feet and inside-out brollies notwithstanding, we had a really good mooch round the town, discovering some old fishing cottages and warehouses, the Napoleonic fort (later used during both World Wars), and the dry and fascinating haven of the town’s museum.

This was an absolute revelation – quite possibly the best small museum we’ve ever been in.  It told the story of Shetland from its geological beginnings, through early man, and into the modern age of fishing and, eventually, the discovery of oil.  Laid out in a series of rooms with things to look at, listen to, and prod, it was a fascinating journey both literally and figuratively, with some memorable exhibits: the reconstructed face of a Stone Age woman which looked startlingly modern; another reconstruction of an 18th or 19th century crofter’s house which didn’t seem to have changed much from the days of Skara Brae on Orkney.  And after a nice lunch (in the next-door arts centre, since the museum restaurant was bursting at the seams) we returned to explore the boat sheds, where experts are currently conserving one of the lifeboats from HMS Oceanic, one of the White Star line ships (think Titanic).

All in all Lerwick seems like a lovely little town and we really enjoyed poking about, and would love to come back some day for a slightly longer call.  Of course, the minute our ship set sail the rain stopped, the clouds rolled away, and the sun came out – but at least that gave us a taste of what the place could look like on a decent day.

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Thursday: Discovering Fetlar

Things gradually calmed down overnight after our exciting trip to St Kilda, as we chugged steadily north-westwards for our first ever visit to the Shetland islands.  The heavy swell still had the last word, though, as we were three hours late getting to our destination: the small, northern Shetland island of Fetlar.

This was a real shame as we’d been looking forward to exploring the place, which is known for wildlife and beautiful scenery.  What should have been a pleasant afternoon tramping around the coast turned into a two-hour zoom with a good deal of clock-watching to make sure we got back to the ship in time for dinner.

Even so, we managed a walk along the Urie coastal path: three miles of fields, stiles, beach, and bog with amazing views, ancient stone burial sites, and a whole ruined village thrown in for good measure.  It was lovely just marching along in such an unspoilt place, watching for signs of otters and seals (several of the latter lazing around on a small islet just off Urie loch; no sign of the former apart from lots of dismembered shellfish littering the shore) and listening to a host of unfamiliar bird calls.  One of these, a low hooting cry that seemed to spring up out of the ground itself, turned out to be a short-eared owl – something I’d never come across before.

The footpath was described in local leaflets as ‘challenging’, but was actually quite a gentle affair with a few complicated stiles and one brief, stiff climb that brought us out at the top of a small hill next to a heap of dead sheep.  Moving swiftly on, we found our way back to the harbour road all too soon, with a feeling that we’d barely scratched the surface of this very special place.

The seals were too far out to get good photos but here’s a taster of the landscape, and evidence of some surprisingly artistic otters:

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Cruising Orkney, Shetland & St Kilda

We set off last Sunday on a week’s cruise courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) around the islands of northern Scotland: Orkney, Shetland and St Kilda.  This was a bit of a dream for both of us since we’d never been to Orkney or Shetland before and were really looking forward to it.  Sadly, although all the places we visited were amazing, the ship was a major letdown in all sorts of ways.

Obviously, the NTS don’t run a fleet of cruise liners themselves, so when they want to organise their once- or twice-yearly cruises they charter a ship from somebody else.  Four years ago we did another trip with them, to the Western Isles, and they borrowed a boat from Saga for the week.  This worked really well.  The ship was small enough to be intimate (and to get into some otherwise unreachable ports), and the Scottish captain and crew knew the waters like their own high streets and were able to improvise when necessary.

This time, we were on a ship called the MV Berlin, owned by a German outfit called FTI Cruises and staffed by a motley crew from a dizzying array of countries.  We’d never heard of them before, but bolstered by previous NTS experience, were perfectly happy to give it a go.  Bad move!  The first inkling that everything might not be perfect came when we saw our cabin – small, drab, and so lacking in storage that I lived out of a holdall all week.  Then the food at dinner was unappetising.  Of course, those are only niggles (although, at the price we’d paid for the holiday, expensive niggles), but worse was to come when the ship had to be lugged out of Leith harbour backwards by not one but two tugs – one yanking, the other shoving.  This didn’t bode well for the state of the ship’s thrusters, and other equally important bits of equipment proved not to be working later on, as you will see!

It got worse.  The crew seemed to be either inexperienced or poorly trained and didn’t function well as a team, whilst the captain made some decisions that could only be described as bizarre, like taking the ship through the Pentland Firth (a notorious strip of water between Orkney and the northern tip of Scotland) in a force eight gale without working stabilisers, and allowing passengers ashore on St Kilda without checking the local tide timetables first.  Both of those had Serious Consequences; more details in the next few days…

In the end we’ve seen some wonderful places that we wouldn’t otherwise have managed to get to, so from that point of view the trip was a success.  Hoy and Skara Brae in Orkney; Fetlar and Lerwick in Shetland; and the fishing port of Peterhead on the Scottish mainland were all fascinating in very different ways, with archaeology, museums, shops, scenery, and coastal walks that we absolutely loved.  We took hundreds of photos, and have made a mental note to go back to both Kirkwall and Lerwick again in the not-to-distant future, perhaps even with the NTS.

We won’t, however, be setting foot on the MV Berlin again!

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