BY MARY FISCHER
I WAS on one of two Northlink ferries that makes the daily journey from Aberdeen to Lerwick with a group of photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. Settling into our comfortable cabins and preparing to enjoy the trip north, we had high hopes of seeing some of Shetlands famous wildlife and scenery and experiencing the ‘simmer dim’, Shetland’s long light summer evenings.
The name of the ferry, the MV Hjaltland, and its overscale image of a Viking covering most of the side of the ship made it was clear that this was not a trip to a run-of the-mill Scottish destination.
Shetland has been nominated as one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 places to visit in Europe this summer alongside Slovakia’s High Tatras and Madrid.
I was curious to see what it has to offer.
A survey commissioned in 2018 by Visit Scotland and the Shetland Isles council shows that visitor numbers are on the rise. Most cite the scenery, the remoteness and the landscape as the reason for their visit. Nearly a third of the visitors in 2017 were influenced by television programmes such as An Island Parishand Shetland.
Unfortunately, Shetland’s attractions were not immediately obvious as we glided into Bressay Sound early next morning. In fact, very little was visible, blanketed in a familiarly Scottish blanket of cloud and fog.
Most of the excitement on the viewing deck was reserved for a close-up view of the Lodberrie. This is a traditional merchant’s house built on the sea edge, with a history of smugglers and secret tunnels but now best known as the home of Jimmy Perez, the detective in the BBC drama Shetland, based on Ann Cleeves’ novels.
Like many of Shetland’s visitors, however, our focus was the wildlife. More than 10% of Britain and Ireland’s seabirds nest in Shetland. It has seven internationally important seabird colonies designated as Special Protection Areas, including two national nature reserves at Hermaness and Noss and an RSPB protected site on Mousa.
Our trip took us first to Unst, the most northerly island. On Unst we stayed at Saxa Vord, an incongruous collection of former RAF buildings bordered by a small, grey housing estate in the far north of the island where our surprisingly luxurious holiday accommodation was located.
There is some talk of locating the UK’s rocket launch facility at Saxa Vord, although a recent announcement suggests that a site at A’Mhoine in Sutherland is the current front-runner.
In the meantime, the former industrial buildings host a brewery and a distillery which produces the distinctive Shetland Reel gin and no doubt provides consolation to visitors and locals alike.
On Unst we walked along the boardwalk path to the cliffs at Hermaness, being occasionally investigated by the bonxies, Shetland’s notorious and frankly nasty great skua, and stood at the top surrounded by clouds of gannets, who entertained us with aerial acrobatics, with guillemots and puffins taking a supporting role.
From Unst we travelled south to Lerwick on Mainland. After a few days we had become blaséabout sightings of seals and otters. We had filled several memory cards trying to catch terns in mid-flight or gannets diving for mackerel thrown from a boat, feeling the rush of air and the splash as they entered the water a couple of feet from us, off the cliffs at Noss.
We soon had an impressive hit-list of species observed and recorded, including the rare phalarope, the northern diver, twites, snipe, golden plovers, redshanks, black guillemots and many more.
Alongside the otters and the birdlife, however, the main event of the Shetland wildlife summer is a visit from the local orca pod. Known as Pod 27, it can be seen in the waters round Shetland and as far south as Caithness.
When we had news of the first sighting, we dropped everything and drove to the reported location, only to be told the pod had left a couple of minutes earlier. Never mind – it had been an exciting experience.
The next time, we were equally determined but slightly less optimistic. We drove from bay to bay and lay-by to lay-by, sharing intelligence with locals with binoculars and slightly jealously admiring photos taken by others on earlier occasions.
Then the shout went up that they were approaching round a headland. We saw a series of dark fins first, out at sea, and used up a lot more space on the memory cards, just in case. Then the pod came close in below the cliff and headed into a nearby bay.
What seemed like the whole local population converged on the single-track road above the bay from both directions. The gridlock meant going further or leaving was impossible, even if you had wanted to. Locals directed cars into their driveways and offered their gardens as viewing platforms. Schoolchildren stopped on the way home from school and watched transfixed.
Visitors and locals saw the pod hunt and kill two seals a few feet from the edge of the sand. As the splashing died down bloodstains spread and disappeared on the surface. When it was all over the gulls came in to clean up the scraps. The orcas celebrated for a while and then headed south, past Mousa Broch and out to sea. The onlookers stood for a moment in silence and then melted away as fast as they had come.
After that all that remained was to head to Sumburgh and spend the rest of the day taking pictures of puffins posing in the evening sun.
We did not have time to explore Shetland’s other attractions: the prehistoric sights such as the brochs at Jarlshof and Old Scatness and the famous Clickimin Broch on the outskirts of Lerwick; the reminders of the Vikings like the reconstructed Viking ship and longhouse at Haroldswick or the many craft workshops of artists who have made Shetland their home. We did see lots of very cute Shetland ponies and a surprising number of toy trolls and garden gnomes scattered across the countryside. There is speculation that this is a nod to Shetland’s ancient folklore. Who knows!
Our final day was spent in Lerwick, beginning the gradual readjustment to traffic (traffic lights!) and shops. Lerwick offers a range of options for retail therapy for those who have maxed out on wildlife and scenery – everything from traditional knitwear and handmade soap to designer chocolates in the shape of vintage cars. There is also an impressive museum and Mareel, an arts centre and cinema for those days when the rain doesn’t stop.
It did stop for us, however. We discovered that it really doesn’t get dark in midsummer. We saw beautiful beaches and terrible cliffs and heard seals singing on a beach below us.
Shetland does not give away its secrets all at once. Instead, it gradually seduces you with its beauty and strangeness.
I for one will be going back.