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.
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.