Shetland Diaries - Day 2

Shetland Diaries - Day 2

DAY 2 - LERWICK LANDING


At Lerwick Harbour, you have to take your car off the ferry for  7.30am but a nice touch with Northlink is you can park up and get back onboard for breakfast, a mega-plateful for only £10. Ewan was particularly keen that we do that!

From the ferry port, it’s only a 5-minute drive into town and we took a brisk walk around the town’s main street knowing rain wasn't far away. It was great to see some of the familiar sights of Commercial Street, a narrow, paved thoroughfare that allows for the passage of cars between the shops and pedestrians. You find this a lot in Scottish fishing communities; the centre was invariably the oldest part of town where they built narrow streets and buildings with their back to the sea to protect against the constant sea winds. 

I got the feeling that Lerwick’s Commercial heart hasn’t changed much since the 1970’s There were a few new shop facades as there are in every modern High Street throughout Britain but much was how I remembered it. 

There’s a decent book shop next to the Post Office that must open early to catch the ferry passengers but we couldn’t see a local guide book that seemed to suit. By 9 am the Tourist Office at Market Cross opened and within 15 minutes, the well-informed assistant had our week planned out, scrawling his notes on one of their free maps. That was our route planner for the week, all we needed and we were on our way again to catch the 10.30am ferry to Whalsay.

THE LAST COURSE IN BRITAIN

The ferry to Whalsay only takes 25 minutes and I slept for most of them. There's definitely something about the air up here that just knocks you out. I awoke refreshed and ready to take on the most northerly golf course in the British Isles.

Whalsay 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.

Giving You The Finger

On Whalsay as well as nearly everywhere else on Shetland drivers give you the finger. It's not that they're bad tempered or don't like tourists, it's just the island way of saying hello - to every car that goes by. It would be weird if you didn't do it. All it consists of is a raised, slightly bent index finger off the steering wheel.  Works a treat! 

It's easy to drive around this small (7.6 square miles - 20 km2) isle. At its most northerly tip is the infinitesimal community of Skaw with Whalsay Golf Club just beyond it. I had been invited to Whalsay Golf Club many years ago to play in the Fisherman's Mission Charity event. The course then was laid out on a peaty, heathery headland with barely a blade of grass to be seen - apart from the greens. Enthusiastic local fishermen were responsible for establishing the track in the mid-1970’s and now with great care and copious amounts of lime to make grass grow, Whalsay has become a very acceptable golfing experience. But not today! The club had been right to call off the Texas Scramble because everyone would have been ‘scrambling’ to catch their hats, trolleys and brollies. We dared to take a stroll around the course but wind was gusting up to 40 mph or even stronger. On an exposed headland like this, it would have been nigh impossible to play. 
 

Our lodgings were back down towards Symbister so we somewhat dejectedly trundled back. Whalsay’s landscapes are full of interesting quirks; an old boat used as the roof of a hut, a statue of a bare-breasted mermaid in someone’s garden. I suppose their creative quirks have to leak out somehow, even in a modest little community like Whalsay.

Graeme Sandison is one of the founding ‘fishermen’ and my playing partner back in 2001. It was good to catch up with him again and learn how the course has been progressing. “In 2005, we got money from the ‘Coonsil’ when the NatWest Island Games came to the Shetland Isles,” he told us in his inimitable Whalsay accent which is even more distinct than on Shetland’s mainland. The International Island Games is a big deal indeed! They visit an island-based community every two years, bringing together thousands of athletes from across the globe.

“That helped bring the course up to scratch,” Graeme continued. “We extended the tees, rebuilt four greens, installed drainage and limed and fertilised the fairways. It’s a lot better now.” I’ll say it is! In my brief walkabout, I could see that acres of brown heather had disappeared along with the peaty banks, replaced by luxuriant grassy fairways - well, relatively speaking. It’s a proper golf course now and one of the most challenging I reckon there is, especially in a wind. There are the jaw-dropping views on every hole and the series from the 10th to the 16th must surely be one of the best stretches of golf anywhere, particularly the 10th, a long Par 5 ending at a tricky little lochan and the 16th, a magnificent, downhill Par 4 next to the cliffs with stunning views.

“That helped bring the course up to scratch,” Graeme continued. “We extended the tees, rebuilt four greens, installed drainage and limed and fertilised the fairways. It’s a lot better now.” I’ll say it is! In my brief walkabout, I could see that acres of brown heather had disappeared along with the peaty banks, replaced by luxuriant grassy fairways - well, relatively speaking. It’s a proper golf course now and one of the most challenging I reckon there is, especially in a wind. There are the jaw-dropping views on every hole and the series from the 10th to the 16th must surely be one of the best stretches of golf anywhere, particularly the 10th, a long Par 5 ending at a tricky little lochan and the 16th, a magnificent, downhill Par 4 next to the cliffs with stunning views.

It looks like a Hobbit's Croft - a useful way to use an old boat...

It looks like a Hobbit's Croft - a useful way to use an old boat...

I asked Graeme about the golf club as part of the community, remembering my last visit when it seemed like every one of the islanders plus anyone who could golf in Shetland were crammed into the clubhouse after the match. “At one point we had 200 members,” Graeme said. “That’s out of a population of 1000 folk so it’s as good as you can expect. It’s the volunteer work that’s really brought the place on though and keeps the club developing,” Graeme continued. “We also have a strong junior section with about 30 kids coming for weekly coaching either in the leisure centre or out of the course.” 

I think it’s great what these guys have done here on Whalsay to create and sustain such an excellent facility for the island and wider Shetland community. The fact that it is the most northerly golf course in Britain should attract plenty visitors but it’s the locals who have benefited most. There were some visitors to the golf course I was particularly keen to learn about. Orca or Killer Whales have been seen quite regularly cruising the waters at the edge of the golf course hoping to run into an unsuspecting seal. I had asked Graeme about it. “One year there were 6 of them coming right in, sweeping the beach in about 2 meters of water,” he said. “A lot of folk saw it.” As a deep sea fishing skipper out in the Atlantic or the North Sea, Graeme sees Orca all the time. He told us, “They hear the nets coming up and come rushin’ across to pick up fish. They have really sma teeth and can come in as close as 10 feet from the boat.”

I asked him how he managed to maintain a handicap of 4 when he was out at sea so often. Did he drive golf balls off the deck? “This new boat we’ve just got is no good for practising,” he said. “The auld boat had a net fixed up at the back and I spent oors hitting into that.” 

I recalled the clubhouse shenanigans after the 2001 Fishermen’s Mission event which went on into the wee small hours. The ‘Simmer Dimmer’ or summer twilight when the sun barely takes a break was calling me to play a few more holes at midnight - just to say I’d done it, only to find several glasses of whisky arrayed in front of me. “We heard you were wanting to play golf at midnight,” one of my playing partners quipped. “But we’ve decided to get you drunk instead.” As you can imagine, it was a truly miraculous night with no further golf attempted but the best fish & chips I’ve ever tasted straight off the boat, much singing and merriment and general Whalsay warmth. Late in proceedings, once I’d bashed out as many songs as I could remember on an old guitar, Graeme decided to give us a song. He won’t like me saying this (Whalsay folk I’ve learned are most modest by nature) but he really does have one of the most angelic voices I’ve ever heard!

Thar be whales out there. And you have a fair chance of seeing them at Whalsay Golf Club

Thar be whales out there. And you have a fair chance of seeing them at Whalsay Golf Club

The event that was cancelled this week is rescheduled for September 2017 so I might just make it back to Whalsay to sample the course properly, mostly to enjoy the post-round revelry and we might even see a couple of Killers cruising the bays!
 

 

 

The 16th at Whalsay is one of the best holes in Shetland.

The 16th at Whalsay is one of the best holes in Shetland.

Where We Stayed - Oot Ower Lounge


It’s worth noting that there are very few signs in Whalsay so finding our accommodation proved well nigh impossible. I called Ian, the proprietor twice to get further directions to what turned out to look exactly like a domestic house perched on the side of a hill. Of course, the locals know all about The Oot Ower Lounge and can probably find their way here and home again blindfolded. The Lounge is a popular popping-in-for-a-pint place for the island. Apart from the Boat Club, there’s nothing else in the way of pubs or hotels on the island. 

There are two chalets out the back of the Oot Ower Lounge and this constitutes Whalsay's main offer when it comes to accommodation. Ian, the proprietor had been 'at the fishing' so he told us for 35 years and didn't like the disco music they played at the Boat Club and so told his wife he was going to open his own place. Before they knew it they were serving dozens of meals and umteen pints per night. I guess you might say there was a demand. But, according to Ian it all got too much and now he’s cut that out the catering. 

That left us with a major problem! Where we were going to eat that night? But lo & behold the local Chinese take-away from Lerwick comes trundling up and crosses on the ferry every Saturday to cook up and serve their complete menu. It is hugely popular with the islanders, the only eating-out option on Whalsay and only once a week at that. 

The chalets I have to say, were a bit challenging! There was no soap nor towels so it seems it’s more of a hostel situation where you bring your own accoutrements. The rooms are fairly basic but comfortable enough. A TV the size of a tee box had a slot for VHS tapes so you could always bring any old movies you want to watch from the 1980’s. Oh yes, and bring some bacon and eggs with you too! Tell you why in a minute!