Da wind flans in frae Fitful Head
Wast ower fae blatterin seas,
Bit never da lang, lang lippen’d sail
Whaar lycht an lippnin dees.
- From the poem "Flans Frae Da Haaf", by Laurence Graham
The Scottish archipelago, the Shetland Isles, are comprised of 100 islands and skerries; sixteen of which are inhabited. The low wind-swept islands have no natural forests, although archeological evidence suggests the islands once had shrubs and trees – willow, birch and hazel. After thousands of years of habitation, using wood for shipbuilding, construction, and firewood the islands stand bare and exposed.
The Atlantic Ocean pounds the west coast, forming high sea-cliffs and breeding holes for the many sea-birds that populate these northern isles. Strong currents flow through the straits and around the headlands on the east-flowing flood and west-flowing ebb. Getting the time and weather right to transit is the key to a successful voyage.
From Lerwick we headed north with the goal of rounding the lighthouse of Muckle Flugga – the most northerly lighthouse in the UK. At midday we departed with a westerly breeze. Passing through the narrow strait between West Linga and Whalsay the current was against us at 2.8kn, but eased once through. We timed our entry into Bluemull Sound well, catching a 2.5kn current to travel along at 8.5kn arriving at Cullivoe by early evening. There’s room to anchor to the north of the fishing wharf, but there’s plenty of kelp too. The next morning our anchor came up in a ball of kelp, but we had no issues with dragging and the muddy bottom seemed to hold well.
I suppose it was optimistic to think the conditions up here would be pleasant for sailing – a quick whizz around Muckle Flugga then back south wasn’t to be. At 60 degrees North we’re in the high latitudes and the weather changes regularly up here as it rolls in from the North Atlantic.
The Arctic Circle is a mere 360nm north of us (66 degrees North) and we are 1,800nm from the North Pole. By comparison in the Southern Hemisphere it’s like being 1,300nm south of Melbourne.
So the weather forecast wasn’t ideal for rounding the top as a low pressure system was coming in fast with the intention of keeping us holed up for a few days. Wind against tide would cause rough seas, so we headed south to an anchorage at South Ayre where we stayed for a few nights. On the fourth day another forecast south-east gale was announced by the Shetland Coast Guard on VHF 16 so we decided to move to the anchorage at Lunna Voe.
The Shetland Bus was a nickname for a special operations group which linked mainland Shetland and Norway during WWII. On 9th April 1942 Nazi-Germany invaded Norway, which triggered a swift response from the French and British. The operations were initially coordinated from Lunna House, which overlooks the anchorage at Lunna Voe. The objective of the operation was to provide arms to Norwegians and to extract Norwegians who feared arrest by the Nazis.
Vessels used for the hazardous operation were initially fishing vessels but later in 1943 larger, faster navy vessels were deployed. The brave crews were generally local fishermen and sailors – tough and hardy with local knowledge of the seas. This is an amazing story of endurance and determination. The Scalloway Museum has a whole section dedicated to the men and women who took part in this extraordinary episode in recent history. A memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives making the treacherous North Sea crossing during WWII stands along Main Street near the Scalloway Hotel.
The gale passed over and by 9.30am the winds eased and the tide was in our favour so we left to ride the ebb tide flowing west. The day brightened up – blue sky, and winds no more than 20kn. Once out of Yell Sound we headed south and had a good sail along the western coast. By the time we’d reached the Eshaness Lighthouse our bearing was southerly and the wind was on the nose, but we had no choice. The wind wasn’t so strong at first, but then picked up to around 23kn true, slowing our speed as we bashed into the short waves which washed over our bow and the windscreen. Rather than fight the tide and rough seas on the western side of Papa Stour we navigated the strait between Sandness and Papa Stour to enter the southern anchorage. Once over a shallow bar entry the depth was good and we anchored in around 6m with kelp.
Papa Stour is a popular island for visitors to explore archeological ruins and sea-life, and has a small population of twenty or so people. Evidence of prehistoric settlement from around 5,000 years ago is dotted around Papa Stour. A reconstruction of a traditional Norwegian Stofa, or Viking house, is located along the road in Da Biggins.
The following day was sunny and breezy so under the watchful eye of a nearby seal, we packed our raincoats, launched the dinghy and headed ashore. Among the stone ruins and small fishing boats, woolly sheep took a break from nibbling grass as young lambs frantically wiggled their tails while suckling their mother’s milk.
There’s no 4G signal from the anchorage but once up on top of the hill we had good signal to pick up the latest weather files and check our emails. While up on the hill one of the large seabirds took me by surprise and swooped me! The bird, a Great Skua, has a reputation for dive-bombing those who pose a threat to their nest. The bird would glide towards me, staring straight at me, then buzz my head. I held my left arm up as a sacrificial offering and tried to capture a photo from the Nikon in my right hand. I didn’t think for a moment it would hit me, but you never know. By comparison, an aggressive Australian Magpie will attack until blood drips from your hairline.
From the top of the hill we walked along the short airstrip following the stone dyke, passing along the few houses until we reached the ferry dock. The grass in the fields is green and spongy, almost golf-course quality grass, and the heathland is covered with tiny coastal flora.
The next day after clearing the kelp from the chain we motored along for four hours in light winds until we arrived at Scalloway on the west coast. There are a couple of options to berth the boat at Scalloway and we chose to tie up on the hammer-head of the Scalloway Boating Club. At the bar we met some locals and had a couple of pints while our laundry went through its cycles. The boating club welcomes visitors and has showers, washer/dryer, and is a five minute walk into Scalloway.
Scalloway is much smaller than Lerwick, and there are a couple of convenience stores, the Scalloway Hotel and a few shops, but the local bus goes to Lerwick too. The Scalloway Museum is worth a visit and has an interesting section on the Shetland’s prehistoric history, stories of witches and witchcraft, as well as the history of fishing and whaling in this region. The main attraction of the museum is the role of the Shetland Isles in WWII and the Shetland Bus. Shetland has a long history with Norway. Place-names and local dialect are influenced by old Norse words as Shetland and the southern Orkney islands were once a Viking stronghold. This infusion of Norse culture is celebrated by Shetlanders and many Norwegian flags are on display around the town.
Next to the museum is the old Scalloway Castle built in the 1500s. The castle was the home of Patrick Stewart, the earl of Orkney and Shetland. Known as ‘Black Patie’, he was notorious for oppressing the people of Shetland, but eventually got his comeuppance and was ultimately executed.
So now that we’ve had a taste of the Shetlands, a weather window has presented itself this week and we’ll make our way south to the Orkney’s. As it’s our last night in the Shetlands, we’ll have a beer or two at the club tonight. The June solstice is upon us and the daylight hours will begin to diminish. While I’m still waiting for summer weather, already it feels like we have only a short time left before autumn.