AT THIS time of year, despite the darkening onrush of autumn, the chill of early mornings and increasingly frequent showers, a final colour burst hits the eye. Gaudy fungi splash the sward; meadow wax cap, citrine wax cap, scarlet wax cap and the suspect blackening wax cap bubble up at your feet. Tormentil and Sorrel begin to produce a few dazzling scarlet leaves among the green ones.
Bell heather still sparks from the moor among the russet fading masses of ling and cross-leaved heath burns like tiny lamps.
Bog asphodel stems glow lurid orange as they begin to ripen and eyebright refuses to fade and thousands of their little stripy faces continue to brighten the eye. All this and more decorated the east shore of the Loch of Strom last Saturday, when the Shetland Field Studies Group walked from the Whiteness shop all the way along Shetland’s biggest brackish loch from south to north.
Strom Loch is amazing. It’s so long that you would think at the north end it must be fresh water, with such a tiny opening into the sea at the south end. Salt in the south, gradually changing to fresh at the distant far end, but no. There is seaweed growing right up to the mouth of the burn and the water still tastes salty. Another loch plant is Tassel weed, a thread-like, delicate plant which hops in infinitely slow motion across the underwater wastes of soft, sandy, mica glittering mud. Further north, out of sight upstream rushes grow, at least they must do, since short lengths of their dead, brown stems lie clustered in the loch ebb.
The chemistry of the loch, half way between freshwater loch and the open sea is perfect for maturing baby trout. They can adjust gradually here to the more challenging environment of their marine future. A local crofter recalled his family catching cod in the loch in days gone by. Apparently the occasional seal turns up in it too. I am not quite so sure about otters, but I did come across a fair number of what looked like “spraint heaps” along the shore from time to time.
There are other amazing things about it too. What other loch in Shetland has such a plethora of prehistoric sites and finds ranged around it. Some sites are already on the map; others, well known locally, have been identified and confirmed by experts, but are not yet mapped; yet more are still in the pipeline, artefacts, field boundaries, ancient dykes, curious stone structures up in the surrounding hills.
Again and again along the east shore, ancient structures nudge the brackish strand line. Why so close? Then local history comes swinging in with the obvious answer: this hasn’t always been a loch. At barely three metres deep anywhere along its length, the loch lies where five or six thousand years ago it would almost certainly have been above sea level. So where an ancient house site seems absurdly close to the flood limit, it may well have been overlooking a rich green valley. Ancient field systems are known to underlie today’s agricultural footprint. Local crofters have ploughed across long, curving earth banks, signified by changes in soil colour and texture, not to mention ard points and other artefacts. From the road which runs along the west side of Stromfirth, the whole of our route was laid out clear as a map, with Hogaland and Hamarsland to the north, set like a gem in a rich yellow green surrounding. We could see every inch of the shore from Whiteness right up to the burn mouth. But what looked longish but easy, turned to be the opposite. The first part was green and light, with history and geology turning us this way and that. First came stories of the building of the first house at Hogaland, with the discovery of a souterrain, an underground tunnel which by all accounts was “filled in pretty fast”. Some theories about a possible broch site here had also be gleaned from comments of visiting experts in the past.
The stretch between Hogaland and Hamarsland was liberally strewn with tantalising man made features, mainly along the shore. A boat house, some small stone piers; the crumbling remains of a small, decked boat and strange stone half enclosures which could have been old, very old and even ancient in origin, but remained mute despite our best efforts. Trying to tell collapsed planticrub from clearance cairn, sheep shelter from winter noost, when the shore is no longer where it once was, can be frustrating in the extreme. Earth fast stone and outcrops of the knobbly, water worn local limestone complicated things even further. There seems to be an endless string of function possibilities for stone features in the Shetland settled landscape.
One splendid thing about the onset of autumn is the gradual dying back of vegetation. Walking in the hills and remote or less accessible places becomes easier. It does help if you can actually see what you are about to set your foot on to! Access is so much easier too in many places since the advent of the new stiles and self-closing gates which flowed from the new freedom to roam legislation.
All over Shetland, little posts now point the way to places worth exploring. But wherever they lead and whatever their new delights, the freedom doesn’t mean that anything goes. As the autumn walking season gets underway, it is easy to forget that the Access Code includes responsibilities.
Here and there in Shetland, folk have come across a “grumpy old farmer”, who apparently is less than happy about the new set up and who remains set against the arrival of strangers on “his patch”. I am lucky enough never to have had this experience, but I have met farmers with some pretty grim stories of downright stupid and selfish, ignorant behaviour of walkers. Stories of injured animals, sheep cut off from their water supply, cattle let out onto main roads, sheep being chased over the banks, fences being broken down, gate hinges bent so that they won’t open or shut properly. The tales are endless. It’s a wonder that farmers can face letting anyone anywhere near. There is plenty of room for farms and walks, if livestock, fences, crops and machinery are avoided and the farming needs respected at all times.
Jill Slee Blackadder