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.

Unst Staycation

Back in April, I was preparing for a big trip to the other side of the world, which was consuming all of my savings and brain space. Work was busy, life was becoming a drag after a long winter and I needed some time out. However, with such a big trip on the horizon I couldn’t justify leaving Shetland until that time, but I needed to get away. Easter weekend was approaching so I messaged some family and friends to see if they were available over the long weekend to arrange something, but nobody’s availability seemed to be aligning with mine. I felt deflated and disappointed that my first ‘staycation’ of 2019 had already been a flop until the idea of going it alone crossed my mind… No, that wasn’t for me. I’d definitely get bored of my own company over the course of the weekend and I’m definitely not capable of setting off hiking myself. What a silly idea. I’d just stay home… or was it?

I had a meeting arranged with a client on the isle of Unst the Friday afternoon. I wondered if it would be ridiculous to just stay up a night after my meeting, have a nice dinner and enjoy a glass of wine looking out to sea as the sunset. Although it sounded idyllic, my brain does tend to have a wonderful imagination sometimes.

Then as if by fate, my phone flashed and I’d been tagged in a post – ‘Gardiesfauld Youth Hostel’ has shared your post. Oh how lovey, I always appreciate a share “We hope Leah might head north sometime soon, and share some of our many gems. Maybe she’ll even stop over for a night at Gardiesfauld while she’s up??” Well I couldn’t not go now could I… but I’d only every stayed there once when I was 12 on a school trip. How could I go back now as an adult alone?! It’s probably pretty obvious by now that this whole wild, solo traveling wasn’t something I’m familiar with. Nevertheless, I needed to get away, Gardiesfauld had basically invited me and I already had a meeting in Unst scheduled so my staycation was indeed aligning after all, just not how I’d initially assumed.

I emailed the hostel and booked myself a room for two nights (different room sizes and sharing options are available) I used the ‘Visit Unst’ website to plan my trip and decided upon a flexible schedule. I wanted most to just set foot on as many beaches as possible, see a beautiful sunset and switch off.

I set off on the Friday, first by catching the ferry from Shetland mainland at Toft to get to the island of Yell. Here you have to drive through Yell to catch the ferry into Unst. My travel to Unst consisted of:

Drive from Lerwick to Toft – 40 minutes

Ferry from Toft to Yell – 20 minutes

Drive through Yell – 30 minutes

Ferry from Yell to Unst – 10 minutes

Keep in mind, these are estimates depending on speed, sheep on the road in Yell and waiting on ferries in-between. You can find the ferry timetables on the Shetland Islands Council website.

After arriving in Unst I attended my meeting and spent the afternoon working. Then when five o’clock struck my staycation started. On the drive to my accommodation I was excited to be a tourist so I stopped off at the reconstructed longhouse and longship placed at Haroldswick which recreates the rich Viking history on Unst. Unst being situated close to Norway meant that many Vikings came across Unst before landing in mainland Shetland. “Unst is thought to be the first foot-fall of Vikings in the North Atlantic and there are remains of at least 60 longhouses on the island – the highest density of rural Viking sites anywhere in the world. Viking Unst is a project run by Shetland Amenity Trust. There are a number of places to visit to discover the true Viking history: The Skidbladner is a full size replica of the Gokstad ship, found in a Viking burial mound in Norway in 1880, and is built using the same materials in the clinker fashion.  The original ship is thought to have been built during the reign of Harald Fairhar, who is said to have landed in Unst, and after whom the bay of Haroldswick is named.” – http://unst.org/web/viking-unst-archaeology/ Truly amazing huh?!

Afterwards, I arrived at Gardiesfauld Youth Hostel where I found my room that had a beautiful view out over the beach below. I couldn’t believe that at just £16 a night this was home for the weekend. On previous trips to Unst we’ve always rented houses. I’d never considered staying in the hostel before. More fool me. I took a look around to familiarise myself with the facilities and discovered a lovely conservatory looking out to sea, a large modern kitchen, laundry facilities and picnic benches in a beautiful garden. I was kind of chuffed I’d taken this plunge. This wasn’t what I expected a hostel to be at all. Very homely, clean and it had everything I needed to feel at home.

The view from my cozy room

I changed into some walking clothes, packed my rucksack and made my way down to St Olaf’s Kirk, where I parked up to take in my first dose of beaches on the walk to the Westing for sunset. The first and main beach is Lund which in low tide is a mixture of pebbles and stunning vast white sand. On walking this beach you get a real sense of Unst. It’s alone, it’s wild and it’s beautiful. At the end of the sand, if you venture up over the broo (small slope of a hill) and out to a point, you see another smaller white beach. Here is where I’d originally planned to cook my dinner, but I discovered the carcass of a whale that had washed up and come to rest. I decided to go and have a closer look, so I made my way down off the broo and shuffled my way down onto the beach to check out what was once a mighty mammal of the sea. It was so decomposed by this stage it was hard to tell what type of whale it had been. As captivating as the discovery was, I didn’t fancy eating dinner on a beach with a dead whale, so I followed the outline of the land and walked until I found another small beach. This time a very stony one, which was a mixture of big rounded boulders and small smooth pebbles. The variety of colours in the rocks made it interesting, but what took my attention was the stack which shot up out from the sea in the geo, where hundreds of kittiwakes were nesting. They weren’t so keen on my presence so I left them in peace and kept on moving. Keeping to the edge of the cliffs I could now look back and get an impressive front view of Lund and the voe which revealed the scatter of mini beaches picked into the coast line. It is here you discover the ‘secret beach’ which lies under the Cliffside boasting its superior natural beauty with deep white, crystal clean sand. The best kept secret of the Westing. I sat there as the daylight started to dip and realised I was miles from the car by this point, alone on the most northerly coast of Britain. The noise of the sea, the swoosh of the birds above, the beauty of the views. I’ve never felt so at ease, so at peace. I sat there in my own silence just absorbing the moment as the red sun started to set. I made my way back to the pebble beach and by then the birds had settled a bit. It was less chaotic. The sunset had brought calm all around. The sea was still and the stack,  black in the shadow of the sunset. The raw, organic beauty was mind blowing and I didn’t seem to care I was out there alone with no phone signal. By this point I hadn’t even eaten, my hunger had disappeared because who has time to cook when all this is happening around you? By now I was half way back to the car and because it was April the night sky was kind to me and allowed me to make it back in reasonable light. Guided by a full moon like a torch illuminating the coastline, I’d now made it back to Lund beach, but the tide had come in since I’d left, meaning half way across the beach the sand just came to an abrupt end and a tall wall of rock was blocking my route back to the car. In fact I couldn’t even see the car. How long had I been out here for this to happen? Whipping out my best rock climbing skills I laughed at myself as I scaled up over this surprise challenge. Up and over, the car was in sight at the kirk and suddenly I was knackered and hungry but completely fed on fresh air and high on what had been an exceptional evening. Everything and more that I’d pined for.

My walking route out to the Westing from St Olaf’s Kirk

The following day I claimed the conservatory at the hostel. I sat in the baking hot sun, like lady muck in my glass room, looking out to sea on this splendid island. Relaxed and tuned out from the real world. It was too much effort to endure the painfully slow Wi-Fi so I was delighted to disconnect from the world and UN-communicate. After enjoying breakfast in this ideal setting I set off to discover more of Unst. I’d always heard of this ‘Hermaness’ place, but like a lot of Shetlanders we are often guilty of never venturing to these places which tourists pay thousands of pounds to come and see. And since last night’s adventure had given me the confidence to find my inner Dora the Explorer, I was well up for finding my way to Hermaness where there are over 25,000 pairs of gannets, but I wanted to see my pals the Tammie Nories (puffins) who had returned to Shetland for the summer. On route to Hermaness I stopped off at Burrafirth beach which sits under the towering Cliffside road which leads you to Hermaness. This beach is a very unique beach. Firstly its sand is like a huge flat oil slick of yellows, oranges, greys and ivory’s but if you place your hand in the sand it will sparkle and glint as the beach is covered in natures glitter.

After a stroll along the beach, being chased by nesting birds, I made my way up to the walkway which leads you to Hermaness, home to more than 100,000 breeding seabirds – one of the UK’s largest seabird colonies.You can follow a boardwalk path for the majority of the walk over the moorlands and choose the 8km or 12 km route. You can find out more by clicking here. I set off on an extremely windy day fully exposed to the harsh North Atlantic Ocean. But I’d committed to going and forced my way through the gusts, out into the wilds of nature. I kept walking, forcing my way up over the hill, feeling like this was the route to nowhere. I met a few tourists on their way back “be careful out there, it’s really windy at the cliffs” I guess they weren’t to know this is normal for me. But as I reached the overwhelming sight of this extraordinary bird colony, I was made all too aware of just how windy it was. My back pack kept catching in the wind, dragging me with it. I was alone, on the most northerly tip of the UK with no phone signal. Suddenly my know-it-all cockiness stood for nothing, this was dangerous. But I’d made it all the way here and my Tamie Norrie pals had spotted me, so I had to go say hello! I took off my rucksack and stowed it under a ridge so I had more stability and I carefully found a sheltered spot on the cliff side to sit and converse with my pals. I’d worn red socks because a guy who works for the SNH had once told me they are attracted to them. So I dangled my legs their way to carry out the red sock challenge. Tammie Norrie’s are inquisitive creatures with big personalities. If you are calm and quiet they will brave getting close to you. I sat there for a bit as they all started to pop out of their burrows to see who this visitor was. The cliff sides were smothered in thousands of pairs. It’s an extraordinary sight to watch as they carry out their flight and squawk to one another returning for a beak bashing and a ruffle of the feathers. My red socks had been noticed by one little guy in particular. He was fascinated and slowly made his way towards me, being watched closely by his pals. I sat there, still and relaxed, avoided taking pictures in case it would deter his progress. Eventually he was there. Closely followed by his pals. I was sat at Hermaness surrounded by these amazing little birds full of character and charm. They hung around, sussing out my presence, waddled around, accepted me being there and were cool with this massive human sitting on their patch. When you see puffins in magazines or on postcards or posters you’d be fooled into thinking they are quite big birds, but in real life they are so petite. Their colours are vibrant and their personalities are cracking. I’m by no means a bird person, but watching Tammie Norrie’s to me is delightful. I could sit and watch them for hours.

But unfortunately on this day the piercing cold wind was getting the better of me. I went back to the broo where my rucksack was and discovered it was lea under there, so I set up my outdoor kitchen and prepared dinner as the sun set over the sea. I toasted marshmallows and drank tea until it was getting dark, when I remembered I had to find my way back to the car, so I headed home after what had been a totally unique and new experience up at astounding Hermaness.

The previous two days had been full of adventure and new experiences. I was starting to feel quite at home alone in Unst. No concept of time, constant fresh air and scenery to keep me amused and the benefits of a digital detox were starting to work its magic. The third and final day of my trip took me to a couple more beaches. First stop was the iconic Norwick Beach: known for its ever changing burn, the natural course of the burn often changes direction and ‘the taing’ is a unique piece of rock which jolts out form the long white beach which also makes Norwick Beach special. The unique geology of this beach is what makes it a must see attraction. The beach has information boards situated for you to learn more about its unique rock formation – I won’t ruin the surprise.

After a morning stroll along Norwick I headed to Skaw beach which is the most northerly beach in the UK (hence why I didn’t take my bikini) it’s rural location, down a long and winding road leads you to a view  out into the wilds of the North Sea. Your next stop is Bulandet, Norway. Here I cooked up some Tapas for lunch while taking in the last of my staycation tranquility. I enjoyed the beauty of my location and the novelty of this rather posh picnic, much to the amusement of a tourist as he passed by- he was just jealous he was probably having a pre-packed ham sandwich for his lunch. I then made my way back south of the isle towards the ferry, but I wasn’t ready to leave just yet… so I drove to Muness Castle for a quick pit stop before the ferry to enjoy one last piece of history. Muness Castle is tucked away on the South East side of Unst. Like everything in Unst it’s “The UK’s most northerly….” And in this case Castle, a remarkably fine tower house of the late 1500s. Its structure still stands remarkable strong given its exposed and weather beaten location. It’s really a very lovely little castle and I’d highly recommend finding it.

But like all good things, they must come to an end and the next ferry out was here to take me on my two part ferry crossing back to mainland Shetland. I’d had the most amazing time and due to the sheer amount of things I’d done and seen in my short visit to Unst, I felt like I’d been gone a week. I returned rested, detoxed and revived. I was so glad I’d challenged myself to take this trip alone and explore not only a place, but who I was as a person. I learned so much on my trip to Unst and felt excited to plan my next solo staycation. I couldn’t recommend it more!

To summarise my stay, if I were to describe to you the feeling of being on Unst I’d have to say I felt free and at ease. Totally relaxed and calm. For such a small place, the range and quality of experiences are huge. I took a very holistic approach to my stay to allow myself to unwind and enjoy the natural beauty of Unst, but there is so much more to see and do. On previous trips I’ve visited the Boat Haven which houses an impressive historical collection of Shetland traditional boats used over the years. I’ve enjoyed the Gin tour at the Shetland Reel Gin distillery. I’ve learned about the history of Unst at the Heritage Centre. Been humored by the famous bus shelter. Had high tea at Victoria’s Tea Room. Made use of the facilities at the Leisure Centre and much more. You literally could never be bored in Unst. I’m already looking forward to my next visit. Roll on Unst 2020.