Saturday, 16 August 2014

Lerwick, Shetland Islands - 60 degrees north

I was quietly watching rain run down the windows of the ferry terminal and reflect the lights of the MV Hrossey, my ferry to Shetland, as it pulled into Kirkwall in the black of night. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity as a police car pulled up and four officers strode purposefully into the waiting room. They questioned each of the passengers and when they got to me, I learned that wooden carvings had been stolen from the Italian Chapel.  I'd visited just a couple of days before. It was very sad news, not just the theft but also the abuse of a system of trust that still works today on the islands. But at least it was also heartening that people still care so much about that wee place to despatch posses of police to all the ports.

Next morning l cycled off the ferry at Lerwick and onto Shetland, an archipelago of rugged islands belonging to Scotland but a long way adrift in the North Atlantic. It was still pouring with rain and blowing a hoolie so I considered my options over gluten-free toast and coffee in a harbour cafe. The harbour stretches all the way along the waterfront and really dominates the town. With rain set to continue and winds forecast to build, I had to rein in my plans to cycle to the top of the islands and instead set out on a tour of Shetland's mainland that was "peerie". That's Shetland for small!

I pedalled out of Lerwick, Shetland's capital, up the east side into a stiff northerly. I quickly left the busy main road that runs the length of the islands and followed quiet, single-track roads that hugged the coastline or made impossibly steep climbs over headlands. There were no beaches here, just rugged rocky shores and cliffs. The interior of the islands is composed of hills of heather moor and peat bog, and I cycled over this on idyllic tiny roads to cross to the west side. From high points I could see other islands rising steeply from the rough seas.

On the west side I meandered down a convoluted coastline with many sea inlets called voes in Shetland rather than fjords. l gazed out over a myriad of offshore islands and skerries. Terns screeched and dived and I had a glimpse of an otter. In the gentler areas at the coast there was a patchwork of worked fields dotted with houses and farms, and every now and again a small village set around a harbour or old fishing station, as of course fishing has been central to Shetland life for many generations.

Through the rain showers there were glimpses of Shetland's dramatic coastal scenery from white sand beaches to plunging cliffs. Glimpses that made me tell myself I'd be coming back for a longer visit. It's funny how in conversation we always lump Orkney and Shetland together but they're very different. Shetland is wilder, emptier, more rugged and much more mountainous. Life is squeezed out to the coastal margins. The Norse influence, from the days when Shetland belonged to Norway, is still strong but most of all Shetland reminded me of that other remote, North Atlantic archipelago, the Faroe Islands. The landscape was similar, the existence marginal and the elements dominant.  There was one other thing that completed the picture ... the wind. There is always a fierce wind blowing in Shetland. It can change the weather in seconds and drive grown cyclists to tears.

I pedalled down the west on a mission to visit a place in Shetland with a very moving story. On a sunny morning I cycled along the harbour front of Scalloway, Shetland's ancient capital. Halfway along and looking out to sea was a simple but beautiful memorial to the Shetland Bus. The Shetland Bus was a network of boats based in Scalloway during the war that ran clandestine operations between Shetland and Norway to support the Norwegian resistance movement. The boats, disguised as normal fishing boats, carried Norwegian agents and military supplies, and in season brought back Christmas trees for treeless Shetland. To assure good cover the boats operated at night and in stormy conditions, and inevitably many Norwegian fighters lost their lives. The memorial sits on a cairn of stones collected from the towns on Shetland involved in the operation and from the home town of each of the Norwegians who perished. A very simple but very moving gesture.

I've spent all of this trip living in my tent but there is a unique type of accommodation in Shetland that I wanted to check out called the camping bod.

Historic buildings with a bit of rustic charm have been renovated to provide cheap beds for visitors whilst at the same time assuring their long-term future. I cycled into the small hamlet of Voe to spend a night in one of these called the Sail Loft. It was once the winter store for the sails of fishing boats and when steam boats took over, it became the thriving woollen workshop of TM Adie & Sons. But the really interesting thing about the Sail Loft is that it was here that the woollen sweaters worn by Sir Edmund Hilary on his successful first ascent of Everest in 1953 were made. I guess you know how to wrap up warm when you live at 60 degrees north.

After my pedal down the west side I cycled back over the hills to the east and pootled around Lerwick on a rare afternoon of sunshine. I loved Lerwick's tight little streets presumably designed to keep out the worst of the weather, the charm of its old harbour and the bustle of its new. I loved its grand Victorian buildings stacked on the hill and accessed by the steep stairs of a "closs". That's Shetland for "close" which is Scots for "passage".

It's hard to believe its already late summer. Here in Shetland there's now a wee chill edge to the wind and the geese are becoming restless. As summer draws to a close so does my "northern exposure" cycle tour. Tonight I'll take the boat from Lerwick to Aberdeen and return south, if mainland Scotland counts as south.

Keep reading for some final ramblings, thoughts and highlights. In other words, an epilogue. What was my favourite place? What was the hardest thing? And will I be trading my bike in for this Shetland pony?

More Shetland photos on flickr - click on the link.

Fact File
Daylight - 17 hours, 45 mins
Distance - 5656 miles, 9102 kms
Days -  140
Route -  cycled north of Lerwick on national cycle route 1 which initially uses Shetland's main trunk road which is quite busy. Soon leaves it for B road on the east side.  I followed it to Voe and south to the Tingwall Valley, Scalloway and back over to Lerwick. Mostly on delightful single track roads.  Shetland doesn't have big hills but there are plenty of short, very steep climbs. There are regular wee grocery stores that make logistics easy.

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