Featuring Scalloway, Mousa, Lutra Lutra and Stormy Petrel
We so much enjoyed our trip to Orkney last year that we decided to travel to the remote islands of Shetland, the most northerly land of the UK. In fact Shetland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London and on a par with Alaska in terms of latitude. There are 100 ‘islands’ in this archipelago, though many are just sea stacks and most are uninhabited. With only 23,000 inhabitants there’s plenty of room for wildlife which is what makes it so attractive for us.
Whilst you can take a ferry from Aberdeen to the capital, Lerwick, it’s a 12-14hr crossing on top of the journey up from our home so we elected to fly from Birmingham to Aberdeen and thence to the airport at Sumburgh in the very south of Shetland. The two flights themselves lasted less than 2 hrs but it still took us 12 hrs door to door because of flight timings. So we were pretty knackered when we picked up our hire car and headed for our AirBnB in Lerwick.
Shetland is one of those places where weather forecasts are more or less meaningless. It gets every weather known to man and at every time of year. So we had come prepared for every eventuality but perhaps not wall to wall sunshine which is what we experienced on our first full day. Mind you, don’t get carried away and think it was tropical. There was a very stiff breeze blowing with a definite nip to it but the clear skies were a welcome sight.
We wanted to do a bit of exploring close to home for our first foray into Shetland – the wild part would keep until later in the holiday. So we drove to the ancient capital of Shetland – Scalloway. People have lived in this area for at least 6,000 years but it was the Vikings around AD750 who gave the name to this sheltered place. In old Norse, Scalloway means the site of a Viking hall. There’s not much evidence of that history now though the adjacent Tingwall valley is the site of the ‘aithling’ or parliament which was held once a year in ancient times.
South of Scalloway lie two islands, Trondra and Burra West, which were connected to the mainland by road bridges in 1971.
On Burra there is a pretty harbour at Hamnavoe and fishing is still an important occupation in these parts.
The island also boasts a beach which could quite easily grace the front page of any holiday brochure. Meal Beach is reached by a path descending through marshy fields filled with Marsh Marigold and with Starling and Wheatear, whilst overhead Arctic Terns graced the clear blue sky. With an aquamarine sea you might well have been in the Caribbean, though we didn’t venture as much as a toe into the frigid water.
Back on the mainland we decided to carry on southwards to Sandwick from where a boat takes tours to nearby Mousa island. We stopped off at the boat pier as we had booked on a tour of Mousa later that evening. We got talking to the captain of the boat who suddenly pointed into the water. ‘Look!’, he said, ‘an Otter’. And there but a few metres offshore was, indeed, an otter. We watched, mesmerised, for 20 minutes or so as the otter dived and surfaced in the waves. What an utter privilege to see such a magnificent creature on only our first day on Shetland.
It was going to prove a long day, however, for the evening trip to Mousa was to depart at 10.30 in the evening. Why so late? Well, the tiny, uninhabited island of Mousa is one of the most important breeding grounds in the UK of the Storm Petrel, a diminutive seabird which is extremely difficult for even seasoned birders to see.
We gathered with a large group of other ‘enthusiasts’ willing to sail on a boat late at night and set off in the dim light. In midsummer, just a few weeks away, the sun hardly dips below the horizon and even now it stays just about light enough to see well into the night. The crossing to Mousa is short and before long we were being handed torches with a white light to illuminate the ground and a red light if we wanted to look for Petrels as red light doesn’t harm their eyesight.
On the way out is was light enough to see our way, though the track was rough and rocky in places. On the way our captain, who was also our guide and fount of all knowledge, stopped at a very rustic looking seat which he himself had built out of driftwood found on the island. It was emblazoned with the word 60 N for the seat had been placed on the 60th parallel North – a line which runs through Mousa, St Petersburgh and Anchorage in Alaska. No wonder it was cold!
It was a good half-hour walk to the far side of the island where probably the best preserved broch in Shetland is sited. Brochs are a kind of iron age roundhouse found only in Scotland. The one on Mousa is thought to have been built around 300 BC but in the dying light it was hard to appreciate its architectural niceties. What we could appreciate was sound – the churring sound of hundreds of Storm Petrel nesting within crevices in the stone walls. It’s hard to describe that sound as it’s not one that you associate with a bird – a little like the purring sound of a cat but with a mixture of little squeaks and clacks thrown in. And to hear this you go into the broch put your ear to the stone walls. It’s like hearing a soft conversation taking place in the room next to yours and wondering if you should really be listening in to the pillow talk. But, in the darkening, in a broch that has stood here for 2,500 years, in a silence in which you can hear your own heart beat, it is simply magical.
Outside the broch, stand by the walls and you will see dark shapes flitting by, just above head height. You can just make out the shape of wing, the sharpness of bill, tiny feet as they seek to grip the stones. And then the bird just simply disappears into the tiniest of crevices, like a magician’s trick. It is spellbinding.
The small, hardly noticeable island of Mousa is one of the most important breeding grounds of the diminutive, difficult to see Storm Petrel. As we stumbled back across the rough headland I think we were all thinking of the natural wonder we had just witnessed. It was late at night but our hearts were as light as the air in a Petrel’s wing.
It was too dark to photograph either the broch or the birds who live in it. But sometimes you just have to put your camera, phone, iPad to one side and experience what is around you.