An Island Called Yell

We all have places we are so familiar with, that we disregard them and take them for granted. That’s what Yell was to me. An important stepping stone on an onward journey. Yell sits on the north of Shetland and is part of a trio of inhabited islands. Yell, Fetlar and Unst. Yell is the closest of the three to the Shetland mainland meaning you have to get onto Yell to board a ferry onto Fetlar and Unst. Therefore, having visited and explored both Fetlar and Unst, I’d shamelessly only used Yell as a means to getting to these other islands.

Yell is the largest inhabited island after the Mainland in Shetland at 82 square miles but with a population of just under one thousand, most of the islanders are spread out in three settlements in the north of the isle, the middle and the south, giving the isle a feel of three individual communities sharing one island. When you disembark the ferry at Ulsta, you drive the length of the isle to get to the next ferry at Gutcher. In this 30 minute drive you don’t drive though any of the settlements and pass just a few houses, including the formidable haunted ‘Windhouse’ which stares at you from the top of a hill as you hit the accelerator as you pass by. Hear one of many yarns about the Windhouse from Yell man Brucie Henderson here. By the time you reach the next ferry terminal at Gutcher you’d be forgiven to assume there isn’t much to Yell. The lonely main road seems to go on forever as you dodge the road hog sheep on the way, it being November they were often seen licking salt off the road.

However, this weekend I boarded the ferry to Yell and took a right off that highway through Yell and  began to explore the island. I’d been to a wedding in Yell once, but it was dark, and to a country hall as a teenager on the spree, but I struggled to think of any other time I’d just gone to Yell to be in Yell. So it was about time I spent some time here and seen what it had to offer.

On route via the ferry

We set off at 10am from Lerwick arriving at the Toft ferry terminal at 10.45am to catch the 11 ferry to Ulsta, Yell. The ferry crossing takes 20 minutes and the ferries are the best we have in Shetland. They offer a lovely lounge with balcony access so you can enjoy your crossing indoors or out in the fresh sea air. On the crossing we got word there were two humpback whales just around a mile from the ferry. Having seen them in Lerwick the previous Saturday I couldn’t believe my luck. Therefore, our plans were put on hold to go and track down these amazing creatures in the wilds of the North Sea. We set off from the ferry and scoured the coast, but couldn’t see them. They don’t tend to move too fast so we kept going, eyes peeled with high suspense. We didn’t find them, so figured we’d need to get on with our planned walked, but popped into the famous ‘Mary’s Shop’ for some treats on the way. On leaving the Aladdin’s Cave of Yell, there they were – right in front of the car outside the Aywick Shop! As we stood and watched the whales, locals were wandering in and out of their local shop for their Saturday messages and I had to appreciate the lightsome, un-phased mutters: “Is dir a Whale oot yunder or someteen?” “Yis, twa Humpbacks” Can you imagine the hysteria if there had been any tourists or if two Humpbacks appeared outside M&S on the Scottish mainland? This familiar, calm but blyde reception to what is in fact to most people a once in a lifetime experience is one of the special things about Shetlanders, and how they appreciate what island life brings them without being animated about it. I like to think the whales know they can relax in Shetland’s waters without being bothered, followed or hunted. Maybe that’s why we are seeing more and more of them coming close into the coast. In the last few years there has been Humpback Whale sighting around Shetland’s coast at this same time of year. It is known that North Atlantic Humpback Whales migrate south to the warmer waters of Cape Verde and the Caribbean, making huge ocean crossings, Shetland must be a fine stop off. Find out more here.

On leaving the whales we travelled up the east coast of Yell enjoying the stunning views out over to Fetlar on this flat calm winters day. The temperature was reading 2oC, but there wasn’t a whisper of wind meaning all the Lochs were like mirrors. The frosty air and the low sunlight of November made the red heather on the hills glow and the setting was nothing short of a picture perfect winter scene.

We arrived in Cullivoe 20 minutes later and made our way to The Sands of Breckon. A place I never knew existed until last year. What I was about to discover was this is one of Shetland’s best kept secrets. Due to its very rural position on Yell and it’s hard to reach location this beach is hands down one of the most beautiful beaches, yet probably one of the least walked beaches in Shetland. But maybe that’s one of many factors which makes this beach so appealing. With its crystal clear, turquoise waters and sparkling white soft sands, this beach sprawls out and grows as you make your way down onto it through the dunes. It’s deep, long and plentiful in its beauty. Due to its location, the waters come off the currents where the North Sea and Atlantic meet at the North of Shetland, throwing in powerful waves which break and foam by the second offering a beautiful show from nature. North of Breckon there is nothing over the horizon until you reach the Arctic.

Of course, as always I was prepared and excited to get Leah’s culinary skills in the hills on the go, so we found the perfect spot to set up the outdoor kitchen and in the November sun I cooked up some lamb burgers from my uncle’s farm and served them up in some rolls from the Skibhoul Bakery, on the neighbouring island of Unst, with some Orkney cheese. Who said beaches and burgers were a summer thing?

On from lunch we walked the dramatic coastline and ventured through what had once been a Viking settlement. This exposed, windswept area looks directly out towards Norway and you couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like. Keeping in mind, the landscape is still exactly the same to this day as it would have been then. We grow up in Shetland knowing the Vikings are a huge part of our history. We know our heritage and culture is a mix of both Scottish and Nordic influences, but actually standing on an ancient Viking settlement in the exact surroundings those people would also have experienced hundreds of years ago is very powerful. On this site the island of Unst peers over to you and you feel like you could touch it from the cliff side. You can see Tonga and Hermaness out in the distance. It’s a very interesting and distinctive spot to take a pew and absorb the geology, the scenery and history.

We then moved onto Gloup via the ancient grave yard where the stones tell a sad story of how hard island life was not even a hundred years ago. So many children and young people lost to the harshness of reality. This was proven all too poignantly at the Fisherman’s Memorial which stands tall and powerful at Gloup with a mother and her baby looking out to sea searching for all the sons, brothers, husbands, fathers and grandfathers who didn’t make it home. In July 1881, the Gloup Fishing Disaster occurred, in which 58 fishermen were killed by an unexpected summer storm coming from the direction of Iceland. In 1981, a hundred years after the event a memorial was erected to commemorate the victims. Ten boats were lost into the storm which decimated a small island community. A reminder that our beautiful coast line has cost the lives of far too many.

By now it was late afternoon, and the sun was setting fast. Unfortunately a beautiful day was being cut short due to the darkness rolling in. With winter comes shortened days and long nights. So we made our way to LJ’s Diner to defrost and eat! A hard frost had set in during the short 15 minute drive and it was now dark. So a bowl of chips (made with Shetland tatties) and a homemade pizza was a pleasing way to refuel before the concert at night. Bellies full and fingers thawed, we made our way to the Burravoe Hall for an evening of Shetland’s best.

In Shetland we have a great deal of musical talent and nothing proved it like the line-up of this gig. Freda Leask launched her new single ‘Magdalene’ Followed by a set from the beautiful Herkja who released their first EP. Then the night was concluded by one of Shetland most famous traditional bands, Haltadans who have released an album. What a superb variety concert packed with the most talented musicians. The perfect way to conclude the perfect Shetland day.

After spending a full 12 hours in Yell exploring, after just driving though it countless times before, it was clear that it had been my loss. I should have discovered Yell long before, but now I know it’s no longer just a stepping stone, it’s a platform of history, natural beauty and individuality. I’m glad to have discovered and experienced what Yell has to offer. You should to.

Garths Croft, Bressay

Bressay… Lerwick’s little sister.

Bressay lies to the east of Lerwick, shielding the town from the mighty North Sea. Bressay is Shetland’s fifth largest island at 11 square miles, and is home to around 360 lovely people.

One of my most memorable walks. In the far distance you can see the Bard where I cooked up dinner at the WW1 gun looking over to the Island of Noss which sits behind Bressay.

Because Bressay is so accessible given it’s just a 7 minute ferry crossing from Lerwick, it can often be dismissed as a destination to go and check out. But don’t be fooled by its ‘toonie’ connections, Bressay is an island rich in splendor. With its seabird population residing on the notable cliffs that boast a number of sea caves and arches, a dozen freshwater lochs, a stunning retired but refurbished lighthouse, a heritage centre, a friendly local café and a pub, restaurant and hotel Bressay definitely is a place to be visited and explored.

Bressay has always been the protective sister to Lerwick throughout its existence – in the 20th century that role turned especially seriously when, during World War One, two naval guns were placed on either end of the isle to protect Lerwick form any unwanted visitors approaching via the sea. We’d learned our lesson with the Vikings, this wasn’t going to be an option again!

One of two WW1 guns placed on Bressay in the 20th century. Note the island of Noss in the distance.

As someone who actually resided in Bressay for an all too short time I have a soft spot for the isle and its locals. There is a strong sense of community in Bressay. Although it is very much a commuting isle being so close to Lerwick, the community works hard to preserve that special island lifestyle. Although I left the isle a few years ago, I regularly go back to events in the hall, or to the local for a dram, or for a cycle or walk which I loved to do so much when I lived there. I still feel very much part of it and at home when I get on that ferry. The people in Bressay are some of the most welcoming and genuine people I’ve been lucky enough to know.

Which brings me to introducing you to one of them. This is Chris. Chris is originally from the south of England and moved to Shetland thirteen years ago and has been in Bressay eleven years now:

Chris delivering the goods at Bressay Up Helly Aa. Bannocks with salt beef is a traditional Shetland supper which is paired with reested mutton tattie soup – the best!


“I liked that there were lots of folk I could ask for crofting advice, and folk gave me an opportunity to help out, volunteer and work to get more experience in Shetland agriculture.”

Chris

Chris lives on and runs ‘Garths Croft’ which is the quaintest, tidiest and most beautiful story book croft I’ve ever seen. He takes great pride in his set up which is reflected in his happy and friendly animals who are delighted to welcome their visitors. His beautiful white croft house, sprawling land, fruitful polytunnel and stunning views out over the sea to Lerwick makes for the ideal modern day croft life. 

Garths Croft, Bressay

When Chris got in touch to announce the arrival of some new additions I got over to Bressay as soon as I could. How adorable it was to see some brand new piglets:

Chris has a keen interest in breeding top quality animals and prefers to focus less on mass-market breeds but more on native and heritage breeds. His main focus is on his Saddleback, Tamworth and Iron Age pigs, which he cleverly uses to plough and fertilise his land before reseeding. This method is working well for Chris – you can visibly see how beneficial this system is working for his land, beautifully complemented by the hundreds of tons of drystone dyking undertaken to create a new yard, garden and shelter for existing and newly planted trees – hopefully one day to be a woodland! The dykes provide shelter for the amazing polycrub that’s growing plums, cherries, apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, grapes and then, outside in the beds, you’ll find veg, tatties, corn and salads growing….. I told you this was story book stuff!

Pollycrub dreams…

Other residents on the croft include our adorable native Shetland sheep who are bred for their uniquely coloured fleeces, some Norfolk Bronze turkeys, and Shetland and Orpington hens who just strut around unphased by visitors.

Shetland sheep. Famous for their unique fleeces which provide beautiful natural colours. The wool has been used for knitting traditional Fair Isle garments for centuries. Shetland wool uniquely keeps you cool and warm and has been used for generations to make ganzies for fishermen and crofters and still today is very popular locally. Shetland Sheep are also reliable flocks and during lambing are renound for being very able and independent.

Chris works in conjunction with local restaurateurs The String to supply produce for their seasonal, local menu and to the cafe at the marts. Chris aims to supply more local restaurants, cafes and hotels with his produce to provide excellent fresh low-mileage ingredients to feature  on menus across Shetland.

Chris’s traditional croft with a contemporary twist is well worth a visit. It’s a delight and a welcome addition to Bressay’s offerings.


“I’ve developed and diversified the croft to incorporate croft tours as part of the business model. I welcome and encourage visitors keen to visit and look around and learn about native, heritage breeds and crofting and sustainable agriculture to come and get up close and personal with the animals, fleeces etc. This started with Shetland Wool Week but I now work with a number of local tour operators,  and I’m enthusiastic to welcome further future visitors. All they have to do is call me on 07748 926454 to arrange.”

Chris
The best photobomb ever?

Garths Croft is en route to the Bressay lighthouse which makes for the perfect combined afternoon visit to Bressay, or as part of a much larger exploration of the island. Go check it out and experience this quaint and happy place.

You can stay at this lighthouse which offers stunning sea views and the opportunity to stay on Bressay for a holiday or staycation. Find out more information by clicking here.

Have you ever noticed how the sun is always shining down on Bressay?

Shetland Islands with Leah

For more information on the Bressay ferry timetable click here

Wanders and Wallabies in Burra

And then it was April. April in Shetland is a funny month. The daffodils pop up, lambs appear on the hills and the puffins return, but don’t be fooled by these cute spring additions. April usually brings bitter northerly winds and snow showers!

Nevertheless, the lovely thing about April is the lengthening daylight. The clocks have changed going into April bringing the start of the ‘the light nights’ which peak in mid-May to mid-July when the ‘simmer dim’ returns. When, if it’s been a fine day it’ll not get dark at all. The climate is totally unique up here – if you want to find out more, you can do so here. It’s really quite interesting.

Saturday brought us the first weekend of ‘the light nights’ allowing for a few extra hours of daylight to go out and explore. I’d had a pretty stuffy week in the office so was desperate to get out walking. I’d had a little circular walk in mind for a while so given the weather was gusting a north-easterly I thought it would be a lightsome one to try.

My chosen destination isn’t one usually associated with walking; it’s the Algarve of Shetland with its beautiful, white, dazzling beaches. The island of Burra is one of the most stunning areas of Shetland. With engrossing views over to the Clift Hills you get a very Scandinavian feel as you enter Burra over two bridges and drive along, with a mini fjord-like roll of hills alongside you. These formidable hills across the voe are very prominent as they stand tall in the distance towering over Burra. However, the flat land of south Burra allows for views down to Fitful Head, and the best view of the island of Foula from Hamnavoe.

Shetland 40 Coast and Country Walks by Paul and Helen Webster (Available in the Peerie Shop)

We headed to the most southerly point of Burra to stunning Minn Beach. It was a flying gale, but wrapped and prepared it didn’t really bother me too much. Even little Pippa was delighted to be running free on the beach, rolling in the sand. It wasn’t a cold wind and it was a beautiful bright day.

Pippa at her happy place: the beach
Walking along the tombolo to Kettla Ness

If you walk the length of the beach there is what looks like an island at the other side, but it’s not an island, it’s just narrowly joined by the beach tombolo. This is Kettla Ness peninsula. Heading off anticlockwise along the banks you get a westerly view out towards the island of Foula. You’ll first see ‘Fugla Stack’ which is the scene of a shipwreck where a steamship ran aground in 1910. It now lies on the seabed only to be seen by divers. The famous ‘Sweetie Wreck’ was named by locals because so many tins of peppermints later washed ashore.

There then is a small hill to climb marked by a cairn. Although the incline doesn’t seem substantial, I was surprised at the 360 ̊view it revealed. On walking down the hill there is a picturesque loch with some nice cliff views at ‘The Heugg’ looking back towards the west of Burra. As you follow the banks of this walk you are led to Kettla Ness and Grot Ness where you can see the cliffs of Fitful Head standing in the distance in all their glory. Then, as you walk around on the east side, the views change from cliff side to East Burra appearing. Three quarters of the way around you’ll come across a scattering of old ruins which look to have once been an impressive crofting community.

We took shelter in one of the houses so I could prepare ‘Leah’s Culinary Skills in the Hills’ a title which has developed from ‘picnic queen’ as I’ve gradually become more adventurous in my outdoor cooking prospects. On the menu was some local fresh baked bread and scallops. Easily and quickly fried up on my peerie gas stove, it made for a perfect warm and comforting lunch as we squatted in the ruins completely sheltered form the wind. As we sat enjoying the scallops and a cup of tea we sat looking out the little house window which perfectly framed Minn beach. I wondered if the old occupiers had ever considered how precious their view was, or if they’d always been too busy crofting and fishing to sit and appreciate their surroundings like we can today.

At this point we’d been out for around three hours. My lungs were full to the brim with the freshest of fresh air and although my lugs were starting to suffer the consequences of a north easterly, I thought what a wonderful way to start my Saturday. But it wasn’t over yet…

Carly and Pippa towards the end of the walk approaching the beach from the opposite side

Burra is an ancient fishing community. Scattered with a mixture of old croft houses and modern Scandinavian wooden mansions, you get a feel for the old and new Shetland. But now in Burra you can also get a feel for the Australian Shetland. Eh? I hear you think… Deep down in East Burra you’ll find ‘The Outpost’, home to a Shetland family with a twist. Dad Dave is Australian and on his croft you’ll find a more exotic range of animals than your usual sheep and Shetland ponies. Here you can experience a little bit of Australia in Burra. Dave has created a visitor friendly experience where you can go to see his wallabies, emus, possums and some Kunekune pigs, goats, rabbits, a cat and an adorable dog called Toffee for good measure. The enclosures are set up to allow visitors to come and feed the animals at their own leisure.

The Wallaby family. Dave is sure there is another Joey in Mums pouch waiting to hop out very soon.
Carly feeding the very friendly goats who live with the Wallabies
One of two tiny little possums wakening from her nocturnal sleep and having pear for breakfast

Then afterwards, if Dave is kicking about, he may even invite you into his personal, homemade bar for a refreshment. Dave is a keen brewer and I was lucky enough to be offered a little cider tasting experience where I was treated to everything from honey mead to chilli cider… There I was thinking the wallabies were random enough. I couldn’t have enjoyed my experience at the Outpost more.

Dave the Australian Shetlander convincing me to try his chilli cider

Now, I must stress that this is not a business. Dave is providing an opportunity to allow locals and visitors to see and experience something a little less traditional Shetland. If you visit, please treat his property and animals with respect and adoration as he rears and cares for the animals with so much love. If you do visit be sure to take some donation money to slot into the feed boxes which are positioned at every enclosure. The Outpost is a truly unique and unexpected day out, but definitely now one of my favourites.

While we were there an emu egg had just hatched. Emus will be the newest addition at The Outpost
You’ll find feed boxes at all the different enclosures, which you are welcome to feed the animals from

After spending the whole day in Burra I arrived home around 6pm with a huge smile on my face reflecting on the randomness of my day. A stunning beach, sharp cliffs, fresh scallops, wallabies, chilli cider, holding an emu egg… then the phone went off. I was summoned to help feed at my uncle’s farm. Suddenly baby lambs didn’t seem so exciting… I wonder if he’d consider some joeys next year…

Another unique and exciting day here in Shetland. Is it any wonder I find it hard to summarise living on these inimitable islands!?

You can find the full photo album on the Shetland Islands with Leah Facebook page.