Shetland Diaries - Day 4
I got up early in glorious sunshine to take pictures and as I opened the van door, along the beach bounded a large otter. I’ve never seen an otter in the wild and rushed to grab the camera. Of course, he heard, smelt and saw me in my fumbling haste and took a diversionary detour straight into the water. I did manage to get a shot of him as he surfaced but then he went under again and away. Wildlife photography is not my forte! What a thrill though to see such a fine specimen in his own, natural environment. I guess that's what goes on here. Wildlife abounds without the omniscient intrusion of man!
Uyeasound is a sparse little hamlet with a few crofts or cottages, Shetland Ponies in munching grass in small paddocks and endless beach walks. We made use of the hostel’s showers, tidied up the van and continued on in search of yet another ‘elusive’ breakfast.
Baltasound is a fair-sized community scattered across the tundra-like landscape of Unst and we felt confident of finding breakfast somewhere. The Baltasound Hotel, so they claim is the last, most northerly hotel in Britain. It had just turned 9am but in the empty dining room there seemed a reluctance to take in two hungry travellers. Eventually, the Bulgarian waitress convinced the Bulgarian chef to stick on some more bacon and eggs and we scraped a decent feed from the detritus of the earlier breakfast-eers.
As well as making you sleep better, this fresh air definitely gives you an appetite boost and I started eyeing up the small mountain of toast our hostess had proffered - with jam and a building block quantities of butter. I shouldn’t eat bread as it gives me gut-ache, an intolerance to wheat, but just one square smeared with butter and marmalade was calling to me. “Stay on the light side,” says Ewan. “Don't be attracted by the dark!” "The dark side of the toast" I enquired. I gave up the idea and had another slice of cheese.
Bobby's Bus Shelter
We'd noticed on the way up a couple of bus shelters that had been enhanced with the likes of an office chair or an old, creamy leather Chesterfield to facilitate the comfort of Shetland bus travellers. I suspect buses are few and far between in these outer reaches - we’d never seen any over the past couple of days so in order to make their time more comfortable for indeterminate waits, the travelling public had taken to enhance their shelters.
None more so that Bobby’s Bus Shelter at Baltasound. I suspect Bobby’s Bus Shelter has reached legendary status now in bus shelter circles. The story goes that Shetland Islands Council had decided to do away with Baltasound’s one and only bus shelter, probably due to underuse. This was back in 2002, when a local seven-year-old, Bobby Macaulay, wrote to them asking them not to tear it down, explaining that the shelter was where he kept his bike while at school. The council in their infinite wisdom and beatitude left the shelter where it stood and since then, every year this simple perspex and steel space has been decked out in a variety of colourful, contemporary themes. In 2010 for instance when Bobby visited South Africa to watch the FIFA World Cup, it was given a football theme. And in 2014 a tribute to Nelson Mandela when the great man passed away. It’s seen sheep motifs and puffin events and won the best shelter in Britain award. Thousands of names are recorded in the visitors' book every year and George W Bush, worried that the idea might spread, had it declared a Rogue State. The Donald’s indifferent but if the idea spreads to his mother’s island of Lewis, he might do a gold version probably with a fountain out front and adorned with paintings of himself. The Queen was invited to visit during her Jubilee Year but she was making her Royal Progress trip down the River Thames at the time. Otherwise, she would have come!
This has gone on since 2002! That’s a decade and a half! I presume Bobby has now left the island, Banksy-like in search of further public facilities to transform or maybe he’s become a window dresser at Harrods - same sort of thing. But Bobby’s legacy lives on and a mysterious local or subversive group have continued the tradition. Maybe it’s Bobby’s mum.
You don’t have far to go on Unst to come to the next roadside attraction partly because there’s really not a lot of Unst to go far on. This time it was a Viking Longship, the Skidbladner, a genuine working article that 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 thing all the way to America. They got as far as their first landfall in Lerwick, fell out with one another almost to the point of axe-blows then went pillaging and carousing with the local wenches - as is a Viking’s want. The ship made its way to Unst. Unst is thought to have been the first stage in the great Viking explorations of the North Atlantic including Iceland, Greenland and quite possibly America. There are the remains of at least 60 longhouses scattered around Unst, the highest density of rural Viking sites anywhere, including Scandinavia.
We came across a workman restoring the Viking Longhouse adjacent the Longboat who looked like a direct descendant of Eric Bloodaxe. He was a one-man band apparently but making a superb job of the Norse-style joinery and clay pointing of the longhouse exterior. I reckon it was in his genes. The aim of the project, so he told us was to increase understanding of Viking Norse settlements which we all know extended throughout Britain from Unst to Southend-on-Sea and up the west coast as well. On Unst, three longhouses have been excavated at Hamar, Underhoull and Belmont.
Next up was the Unst Heritage Centre and nearby the Unst Boat Haven both of which gave further fascinating insight into this far-flung community, its traditions of fishing, crofting, knitwear and lace. But we were a tad more interested in two other businesses in the far-flung community of Haroldswick. Shetland Distillery has been around for less than three years and we enjoyed a tour with Rob, their PR & Marketing official. The tour took two minutes as the gin still is tiny. It reminded me of the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz and I’m sure I could fit it in my kitchen if I was that keen on gin. We took much longer, however, sampling the various gins Shetland Distillery produce.
The big news here though is they’re planning to install a whisky still to make their own single Shetland Reel malt whisky and this is surely a sure-fire winner. I know what whisky people are like and the most northerly whisky in Scotland will undoubtedly attract attention. It’ll be few years before we sample any output but meanwhile, they’ve produced a cheeky little 'Bottled in Shetland' blend to test the waters with.
Directly across the parking lot is the Valhalla Brewery, much more up Ewan's street, not so much mine as craft beers are just too hoppie! It looked a bit desolate but someone did respond to us ringing the bell.
Sonny Priest came to the door and welcomed us in, a really fine chap who was clearly passionate about his products. But ill-health so he told us was forcing him to sell and move south to the balmier climes of Cawder near Nairn on Scotland’s Moray Coast, an area renowned for its warmer, sunny clime - well, relatively speaking. It’s still in Scotland mind! He’d started his business in a shed in Baltasound in 1997 and built it up single-handedly over 20 years exporting his beer to Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and even Japan. But this very week, he was about to close, hand over the keys and put his baby in the hands of another company.
Sonny showed us the scant few bottles he had left on a rather empty looking shelf, including the intriguing 'White Wife' with a picture of an old lady on its label. We were curious as to what this one was all about and Sonny told us the tale.
On a stretch of the main road between Haroldswick and Baltasound an ancient, white-faced crone had appeared to lone male drivers and appears sitting next to them in the car. Holy Skíta! How utterly bowel-relaxing would that be! And only lone males! Maybe she fancies a toy boy… a ghoulish Cougar. Who knows! Sonny didn’t elaborate if the drivers had been sampling a few of his brews beforehand but so bad was the accident rate on this particular stretch, (nearly exclusively involving lone males) both sides of the road have been barricaded to stop vehicles going off-road and onto the rocks.
It’s funny how such tales emanate a hair-raising reaction. Both Ewan and I felt chills running right through us as Sonny unfolded the story. He told us someone had put a makeshift statue of the White Wife by the roadside to warn lone males. On our way back south we noticed it - but didn't stop for some reason to take pictures. Sorry about that folks. You’ll have to go take your own!
Sonny also told us an easy way to get to the most northerly point of the entire British Isles, Muckle Flugga. The inimitably named Flugga is a tiny island just off Unst’s north shores. “It’s a six-mile wak,” says Sonny, “there and back again but if you take da road by the MOD Radar Station, you can drive up the opposite hillside and get a much better view onyhoo.” A bit of local knowledge helps you to avoid walking a long way. Muckle Flugga is a small rocky island often described as the northernmost point of the British Isles, but in actual fact, the smaller islet of Out Stack is farther north. It also used to be the northernmost inhabited island, but when the lighthouse was automated and the last residents moved out, it no longer was. The name comes from Old Norse, Mikla Flugey, meaning "large steep-sided island".
The radar station on Unst was named after Saxa Vord, the highest hill on the island. It holds the unofficial British record for wind speed, an astonishing 197 mph (317 km/h) back in 1992 just before the measuring equipment blew away and the rest of the Island got hammered - but not in a good way!
THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
I had heard a rumour that there was a golf course on Unst, truly the most northerly and it had been located next to the RAF Radar Station. Unst was ideal for listening post to monitor what the Russians were up to as they flew by on their way to peak at America. As if they couldn’t just tune into the Montel Williams Show to find out what was what.
The course had existed up until around 20 years ago but, we were told there was no sign of it now. I’m sure the sheep would have been happy to take it back into their possession and not have to worry about all these airmen playing with their balls.
We pulled into Saxa Resort which was, in fact, the ex-RAF station and barracks for lunch then, rather than spend another night in the van decided to check- in. Once again, it was a sort of hostel setup but a very good one - apart from the fact that I was the only one that had brought a towel and we both had to use it. Sometimes that’s what you have to do for your offspring.
In my cynical way, I wasn't expecting much from the Saxa Vord Resort. It's a hostel converted from the ex-RAF station, bound to be cold and draughty I thought, some urban escapee's attempt at scraping a living whilst living here on the edge of the known universe.
I met the owner and head chef Steve and he cracked on about his previous life at Goodwood and Brighton. I didn't pay much attention and didn't dare blurt out what I was thinking...i.e. "So how the hell did you end up here?"
Our twin hostel room was quite basic and my heart sank a little further when I noticed there were no Bayliss & Harding luxury soap dispenser nor towels. "You have to rent them," Ewan had noticed. But it was warm and comfortable enough. And private! We didn't have to share or space with a squadron of smelly, snoring hikers.
In the evening, hippy, hikey, dikey types gathered round the only internet signal in the village just outside the reception door attempting to keep contact with their former lives without much success it would seem. I determined to get up at 5am before the throng and send an email or two.
No one goes to any lengths for dinner dress-wise. You can't pack evening gown in your backpack, I suppose. But the place was really busy... a houseful of hungry walkers, bird watchers and general oddballs that seem to end up in these places.
I did wonder why they were so strict about booking us in for dinner. And all I can say is, it was superb! How Steve and his team fed so many people with such excellent fare, I really do not know. The staff were spot on, professionals shipped in by a catering company it turns out called Shetland FM. John and Beth who had only been here for a few days became our instant friends and they were consummate pros. I'd say this is one of the best meals I've had in a good while, not only the food - which was truly excellent but for the bon ami and general vibe in the place. The restaurant at the end of the universe is definitely the place to be.
The hostel prices are £22.50 per person per night with a twin room for the at £45.00. www.saxavord.com or call on 01957 711711