On either side of each island, water splashes and harbours life. Twice in July, I took a boat and shared the beauty of nature with Catherine & Michael, from the “Far-far south”, who came to revisit the very edge of the realm. For their second adventure in the “Far-far north”, they chose to focus on the isles of Mousa and Fetlar in my company.
With still around 18 hours of light on our latitude, Michael and Catherine wished to step on Mousa by night, or should I say, twilight, to marvel at one of our world’s most extraordinary spectacles – that of the storm petrels‘ exchange of place on their nest. Since the tiniest of the Petrel family would make a perfect delicious snack to any bonxie (great skua) or swaabie (great black-backed gull) the swallow-sized seabird camouflage itself through the curtain of twilight. Our two intrepid adventurers, avid with a love for the natural world, even though freshly arrived on our 60N Parallel, were at first bamboozled by the absence of night at 2330 BST. We walked the newly refurbished Stevenson Pier and embarked on our first shared adventure. Early to mid-July remains my favourite time to observe and share such avian show, since indigo nights begin to replace the azure blue “Simmer Dim” type of light twilight in June. Our vessel, Solan IV, operated the 15 min crossing in glass-like waters across the Mousa Sound. Either during daytime or night time, the crossing is an adventure in its own right.
The twenty-minute walk to the island’s iconic broch (here, photographed during daytime on a previous summer) was animated by fabulous nocturnal soundscapes – notably calling shalders (oystercatchers) & drumming snipes – an eerie mist around the uninhabited island. Instead, we listened for the magic of nature. Catherine and Michael were in for a treat. I first led them to Skaarfie Geo, this abrupt sheltered cliffledge just off Skaarfie Stack to tell them about the truly marine cousin of the cormorant, shags. Then to the magic of the island’s star attraction, that can actually be heard everywhere around the isle, since they nest around stones and boulders. To listen to a storm petrel remains an unforgettable experience alone. We then proceeded to the double-walled Iron Age tower with great anticipation. The walk along Burgi Ayr (the beach at the Broch) offered furtive though clear calls & views of the white-rumped seabird. The show had already begun. For over an hour, Catherine and Michael wandered in & around the broch in utter amazement. Such a spectable is best viewed outside, as Mousa Broch turns a Poltergeist with so many birds whizzing around back to their nests… PLEASE CHECK IT OUT HERE! A copper Moon had risen to the SE, which added to the magic of the experience. As we wandered back to the boat at the West Ham, night turned indigo and we waved goodbye to the Bothie with a sense of exhilaration that had overridden fatigue. Catherine and Michael’s holiday began in earnest with the WOW effect. I knew they would dream of this very first adventure back at their holiday base for the rest of the night at Cheyne House.
Adventure Two began with a question from friend & wildlife photographer Paula Moss, who also happens to manage Cheyne House. “What are you doing tomorrow?” rhymes with an invitation for a great day of fun between shores. I still remember Paula’s words, “we’d like to have you for Entertainment.” I smiled and joined them at Cheyne House, where Paula offered transport for the day. The Citroen Berlingo would turn a formidable hide from which wildlife could be admired and photographed at close quarter. So we wandered off through the familiar Lang Kames – this stretch of road bordered by long rounded ridges, the by-product of the last great ice age some 12,000 years ago – before reaching the peaceful village of Voe on our way to our first ferry terminal, Toft.
I love the Yell Sound. By the time Paula lined up the car to the bow of the ferry, I reminisced Moby Dick and Finding Nemo, as we were to enter the mouth
of a gigantic whale! Unimpressed by the wind, Paula and I kept each other’s company inside the motor, whilst Catherine & Michael clambered up to the passenger lounge. The 20 min crossing did not feel so bumpy on such a breezy day. On our arrival at Ulsta, we opted for the eastern side of the second largest inhabited isle, as we took the traditional road to Burravoe – home of the Old Haa Museum – and Mid Yell via Aywick, Bobby Tulloch‘s homeground. This lush area offers a fantastic pocket for crofting as well as fabulous land- & sea scapes, where we pit-stopped on our way to our second ferry terminal, Gutcher, the former home of my friend & “Master”, Lawrence Tulloch. Opposite the Post Office (Lawrence’s former home) stands The Wind Dog Café, owned & operated by friend & fellow guide-writer Babette Eikelmann. Although Babette did not stand behind her counter on that day, we still enjoyed a delicious homebake & a cup of tea, as we awaited our second ferry to Oddsta. I would keep the other half of my brownie for the Garden of Shetland later…Meantime, we all enjoyed the second Sound of the morning – da Bluemull Sound, this phenomenal motorway for wildlife, avian & marine fauna, as I remember it from my days, guiding for Johnathan Will’s Dunter II expeditions to the Muckle Flugga– from which we gazed at the sea in hope of a dorsal fin or gannets in a single file… Although we were not graced by the presence of cetaceans, we marvelled at a myriad of seabirds – shags, gannets, guillemots and puffins, with a beakfull of sandeels for their offsprings – even Paula enjoyed the trip, as she joined us on deck! We marvelled at the smaller islands, such as Hascosay on our way to Fetlar.
Every island has its welcome sign. Fetlar does not fail.
The island – commonly known as The Garden of Shetland, due to its unparalleled lushness, and home to our Earth’s most ancient bedrock, serpentine, as well as gneiss and conglomerate; a plethora of wildlife – once thought to be two, during Viking times, was once separated
by a drystone wall, most of which is now demolished, and is known today as da Funzie Girt. Believed to be built overnight by Finns in exchange for a farmer’s best cow, I love legends. Our chief destination, Funzie – Loch and later, Beach – was on Catherine &
Michael’s top agenda. However, we first decided to explore Tresta, just off the main east-west road, the B9088. From Tresta, we enjoyed many local treasures: views from the Lambhoga headland, the beach and the surrounding fertile land, for it was time to stretch our legs and have a bite. Just behind the beach, Papil Water (a fresh water loch, or lake) harboured some of the local population of seabirds – boxies & gulls – that come to de-salt (wash their feathers off salt, that in turn, burns keratin). We watched and walked to the sands and began to digest the majesty of the place. Moment of bliss for everyone.
Incidentally, Tresta’s Old Manse, enclosed by a tree plantation, is up for sale. This reminded me of the islands’ darker history – that of its depopulation from
the 19th century & battle for fresher re-settlement. Like the rest of Shetland and the Scottish Highlands & Islands, Fetlar – in the name of the mercantile world – suffered the fate of clearances, or massive evictions. The island’s (then) laird, Arthur Nicolson, favoured sheep grazing to tenants. As a result, entire toonships (settlements) were emptied and the stones from their crofthouses (cottages) were recycled to have his Folly built at Brough Lodge.
On our way to Funzie (pronounced “Finnie”) we smiled at a gang of donkeys on a croft – unusual place for such quadrupeds, since a) Shetland specialises in ponies and, b) I associate donkeys with Provence (south of France) far more easily, especially since the animals were the farmer’s & miller’s best friend! Anyhow, we drove past the island’s hub, Houbie, where one can also find the
island’s Interpretative Centre. Interestingly, we only smiled at one human soul (!) even though we did not step inside the island’s only shop… Funny, I pondered for a nano-second. maybe local folk were busy somewhere else… Argh, weel, we continued east through the wildlife el dorado. By the time we reached the Loch of Funzie, the wind had picked up a bit. This was my major concern, as its star attraction – the delicate-looking red-necked phalaropes – were sensitive to breezy conditions… As expected, none was in sight. Males must have been confined to their incubation duty whilst their concubines hid with another mate! Those dwellers from the tropical oceans return to Fetlar every summer for only one purpose: breeding. However, windy conditions also belong to our latitude and the waders have to make-do with it. If they did not grace the shores of the small lake, Catherine & Michael were compensated with other impressive sightings, including those of 4 red-throated divers (another Shetland speciality) courting on the loch, and fabulous views from our tirricks (terns) preening on the nearby rocks… And what spectacle we had! Prime views, photographic opportunities (that’s when Paula self-indulged through her monstrous lens!) and memories to treasure forever.
A brief encounter with a French elderly couple from the Perpignan area, on holiday around our isles, wrapped up like North Pole explorers and brave enough to venture to the nature Reserve’s hide, confirmed the invisibility of the gorgeous waders… Michael later confessed this would make the perfect excuse to return to Shetland the following summer. And what an excuse! 🙂
Once again time had stopped. Thankfully, Paula had booked the 8 o’clock ferry back to Gutcher, which left us plenty of time to wander around hillsides… And this we did – via Tom Thomasson’s home (also known as @tomfetlar on Twitter) and a detour via Neverland – as enchanting meadows were to display a palette of treasures. Treasures, botanical and avian, such as that breeding whimbrel photographed here on the right.
But Paula had something else in mind: The bonxie experience at the top of the Wart! Those muckrakers – once praised & adored by the local crofter for getting rid of the erne (white-tailed eagle) from the Shetland landscape & then gradually associated with epic tales – have a clear function on our shores, that of keeping bird colonies from avian epidemics… As I have already written in a previous blog entry, every creature has a function on Earth, otherwise, it simply does NOT exist. So we drove up in slow motion towards the top of the main hill and marvelled at the peatlands & dwellers.
Magic moment, with once more, the WOW effect. Catherine & Michael would not forget that experience either. Chiefly, Golden plover and bonxies graced our lenses. So is the magic of this hillside in the evening. As we looked at our clocks, we knew it was time to go home. So we retraced our steps through the Sounds to the starting point at Cheyne House.
I shall treasure those days in my heart forever. With renewed thanks to my pal, P, for her friendship & chauffeuring through such a long day, and to Catherine
& Michael for allowing me to share my passion for my northern home. Friendship is sealed & precious 🙂
Michael’s accounts of his 2012 Shetland adventures can be found at: Michael’s TalkWildlife Page
and here too: “A Journey through a Shetland Garden”
See you again next summer!