To The Ends of the Earth
In the UK this is as far north as you can go! Four hundred miles further and you cross the Arctic Circle. The Shetland Isles are closer to Bergen, Norway than they are to Edinburgh, Scotland's capital.
Britain’s Most Northerly Golf Course
We’d been invited to play a charity Texas Scramble at Whalsay Golf Club, a wonderful headland layout on the island of Whalsay and Britain's most northerly golf course. I’d played a similar event there many years ago and when the opportunity came to return, I grabbed it. However, every silver lining has a cloud attached... On the night before our departure Robert, the club manager called to say, due to a particularly wet and windy weather forecast, they were cancelling the event. We decided to go anyway!
Weather is a constant factor in a place as far north as Shetland. I often glance north during a UK weather forecast to see what's going on and it’s almost always different from the rest of the Scotland. Shetland is unique in so many ways!
The island of Whalsay just off Shetland's Mainland has a population of 1000 people, mostly fishermen and their families. The island for hundreds of years has depended on fishing to survive. Today Whalsay has a fine fleet of boats from large trawlers to small scallop and lobster boats and, as in years gone by, this is what keeps Whalsay afloat.
At the island’s most northerly tip is Whalsay Golf Club. On my first visit in 2001, the course was laid out on a peaty, heathery headland with, apart from the greens, barely a blade of grass to be seen. Enthusiastic local fishermen were responsible for establishing the track in the mid-1970’s and now with infinite care and copious amounts of time and lime to encourage grass to grow, Whalsay has become a unique and challenging golf experience.
There are the jaw-dropping views on every hole and the series from the 10th to the 16th is the course’s best stretch, particularly the 10th, a long Par 5 ending at a tricky little lochan. The 16th is not too shabby either, a magnificent downhill Par 4 next to the cliffs with even more stunning views.
As the most northerly golf course in Britain, Whalsay attracts visitors from around the world who want to ‘tick that box’. And there are some who just keep coming back! Orca or Killer Whales are sometimes spotted cruising beneath the cliffs and along the beaches looking to catch an unsuspecting seal. “One year there were 6 of them coming right in," Graeme Sandison, one of the founding fishermen told me, “sweeping the beach in about 2 meters of water. A lot of folk saw it.”
I'd love to have seen that! Following my last visit, I recalled the clubhouse shenanigans which went on into the wee small hours. The ‘Simmer Dimmer’ or summer twilight is when the sun barely goes down and I was thinking to play a few more holes at midnight - just to say I’d done it! When I found several glasses of whisky arrayed in front of me, I asked what was going on? “We heard you were wanting to play golf at midnight,” said one of my playing partners. “We don’t want to - so we’ve decided to get you drunk instead.” Oh, well, if needs must! We went on to have one of the most memorable nights - except, for some reason, I can’t quite remember it! Maybe that was why I was so keen to come back!
Here are some wildlife shots that were taken by John Irvine, one of Whalsay's fisherman and keen photographer. Click to scroll through...>
And here's a short video shot by Graeme Sandison from his fishing vessel...
There was once another golf course on Shetland even further north on the Island of Unst. At the Tourist Information Centre in Lerwick they told us it no longer existed! But in the spirit of golf exploration and impetuosity, we decided to go to anyway!
You don’t have far to go on the final island of Unst to discover roadside attractions, partly because there’s really not a lot of Unst to go far on. A Viking Longboat, the Skidbladner, a replica had set sail from Norway in the spring of 2006, crewed by a group of modern-day Vikings to see if they could sail the ship all the way to America. They got as far as their first landfall in Lerwick and went home, leaving the Skidbladner to the Shetlanders.
Nearby, Shetland Distillery is making a variety of delicious ‘Shetland Reel’ gins from a tiny distillery the size of which I reckon could fit in my kitchen. They’re planning to install a whisky still soon to make their own single ‘Shetland Reel’ malt whisky and as much as their gins are delicious, this, the most northerly distilled single malt is surely a sure-fire winner.
It was the Royal Air Force that established a golf course on Unst many years ago but locals told us it hadn’t been used for more than 20 years and in fact, the land had been given back to the sheep. During the Cold War, Unst was the ideal listening post to monitor what the Russians were up to as they flew by on their way to peek at America.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
The ex-RAF station has since been turned into Saxa Vord Resort, Restaurant and Bar and we were delighted to find such comfort so close to the edge of known civilisation. The rooms were basic but much to my surprise and delight, the food and service was fabulous. It was one of the best meals I've had in a good while - but perhaps all the fresh air and walking helped. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Saxa Vord) is definitely a place to visit.
I was lying in bed the next morning and in spite of a slight hang-over from the bottle of wine and couple of whiskies I’d had the night before, I was feeling inspired and wondering why? It began to dawn on me, it was this place! There was no golf course here any longer but I was still glad we came. Shetland and especially Unst is teeming with light and life. It’s the chance to spot an otter or a dolphin breaching. There are gannets and terns swooping through the skies, sheep and Shetland ponies on the hillsides and beautiful Sea Campion and Red Campion wild flowers. This is clearly a place to be, most certainly for our planet's more selective inhabitants. For those of us that will walk these roads less travelled, they'll be the ones that wake up, possibly with a slight hangover and a lingering smile on their face.
Shetland Golf Club
The next day, we drove south again and arrived at Shetland Golf Club just north of Lerwick with enough daylight left for a game. Shetland Golf Club otherwise known as Dale has seen the same great improvements over recent years as Whalsay. The Dale looks down a voe or fiord so it’s setting can be quite breathtaking. The 1st tees off towards the voe, the fairways defined with tall, thick rough and a few boggy marshes. But the greens are impeccable which must be quite a challenge in this often wet valley.
A funny thing happened when we were at Dale. A Canadian couple flew their private jet into nearby Tingwall Airport to play ‘Scotland’s Most Northerly Golf Course’. Apparently most delighted, they set about their round at Dale, jumped back in their plane and flew off home to Canada to tell the tale. No one had the guts to tell them they’d visited the wrong golf course!
Herrislea House Hotel
We were staying at the Herrislea House Hotel which is extremely handy for both golf courses on Shetland’s mainland, Dale and Asta Golf Club. Herrislea gives you an impression of Shetland life in days of old with its antique decor and interesting wall hangings. The bedrooms are also unique, each one with its own character. We had a spacious top-floor room with a Shetland bed which my son, Ewan grabbed as it had its own curtains to block out the near constant daylight at this time of year.
Asta Golf Course, is situated 5-minutes away next to Asta Loch, a simple 9-hole course but well worth a round because of its lovely location. They do an interesting thing here to ‘spice’ things up. They switch the tees around mid-month to give two quite different nine hole tracks! The ‘Classic Course’ is available for the first two weeks of each month, identified by Yellow Flags and they say it offers a tighter, trickier challenge. We played the New Course available the last two weeks of any given month and identified by Red Flags which gives big hitters the chance to let fly with fewer water hazards and a bit more space. It’s a great idea and seems to work.
The Village of Scalloway
Just six miles from Lerwick, Scalloway is Shetland’s second, well, fishing village. Once the capital of these islands, it’s a seafaring port where most of the scallops and whitefish are landed.
Rumour has it that the Scalloway Hotel is probably the best place on Shetland for fine dining. It’s certainly very popular for its bar food as we witnessed plate after plate of fish & chips being marched through to the bar. Peter and Caroline McKenzie run the show here, Peter in charge of the bar while Caroline conducts the two AA rosette restaurant.
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse
At the very southern tip of Shetland, Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve is a series of attractions neatly wrapped into one. The cliffs surrounding the lighthouse are teeming with birdlife during the summer breeding season and this is where you’ll get those great close-up shots of puffins. You might also catch a glimpse of dolphins, porpoise, Killer and Minke whales from this lofty vantage point.
Jarlshof is the primary prehistoric site in Shetland. Bronze Age settlers were the first to built small oval houses here with thick stone walls. The Iron Age people added a broch and a defensive wall. The Picts decorated the place with various works of art in a hippy-like manner and the Vikings no doubt bullied everyone around and added their graffiti and longhouses. Finally, The Scots came and built a fortified manor house which is the main edifice you see today surrounded by more ancient stone piles.
St Ninian’s Isle
St Ninian's Isle is a small rocky outcrop connected to the Shetland mainland by the largest tombolo in the UK. You can walk across the 500-metre long sandy stretch during the summer months when it’s above sea level. During the winter, maybe not such a good idea.
Shetland Museum and Archives
As our cultural day, as well as the trip drew to an end there was one final stop before we queued up for the ferry back to Aberdeen and mainland Scotland. It was the award winning Shetland Museum and Archives officially opened in 2007 by HM Queen Sonja of Norway and the Duke & Duchess of Rothesay (aka. Charles & Camilla), it’s a pretty impressive installation taking you all the way back to when Shetland was part of Antarctica.
To The Ends
It was time to head back ‘sooth’ and we were first in the queue for the Northlink Ferry. It wasn’t that we were desperate to get away… we’d simply had enough in a very good way. There’s so much to actually see and do on these islands, so many ‘different’ experiences, there comes a point when you realise you have to ‘come back down’ to the normal world. I actually fantasized about living here, that’s how much the place got to me. I’d go for Scalloway for all its fresh, delicious seafood. Or maybe a croft near Haroldswick on Unst. I’d then set about reclaiming the Unst Golf Course from the sheep. Then it really would be the most northerly golf course in Britain.
Northlink Fact Box
Northlink is the best way to get to Shetland, a superb service all the way so it’s like your holiday begins as soon as you get on board in Aberdeen the night before. For more information visit www.northlinkferries.co.uk or telephone +44 (0)1856 885500