Gathering pebbles may be great fun, but never turn your back to the sea

The route across Muckle Roe to the Hams is a great favourite among Shetland’s best walks.

I have been lucky enough to take the track out west here several times over the past almost 30 years, but there’s an exceptionally attractive add-on that I had forgotten all about until last week.

Muckle Ayre lies just to the south of the start of the Hams track. Today it is well signposted and accessed with stiles and gates. The approach is even and relatively easy, for families with youngsters and “oldies and goldies” as well, though the cliffs are never far away.

Here, a deep, curving smile of a beach welcomes rolling waves which drive in with mesmerising successions of hissing foam, sweeping across the sand with its scatter of pebbles. The pebbles were a delight.

Muckle Roe, described as the root of an ancient volcano, is largely composed of granite. On the geology map, it is almost entirely coloured in bright red – the colour for granite in the official geo symbol keys. The pebbles reflect every stage in its history. But there’s much more to this granite than might at first appear.

The map shows tiny chips of different colours, slitting the overall red in places. These mark the sills and dykes, points where, at various points in ancient rock history, jets of liquid rock have been forced through from below. These are the places to investigate, especially on beaches, where the weathered and eroded cliff faces are peeled clear of vegetation. You can see changes in the colour and texture of the rocks, where unimaginable temperatures have melted and altered their appearance. Minerals have re-crystallised, faults have caused shattering and twisting and on the strand behind you, examples of every conceivable stage in every process is recorded on pebble after pebble.

Here is a perfect plain red Muckle Roe granite pebble, evenly stippled with its three main ingredients; there one with stress cracks in it and next to it a pitted and pock-marked andesite, full of holes, once filled with gas, now sparkling with crystal spots. A toe kicks one of pegmatite, where the feldspar, quartz and mica have crystallised over long periods into great blobs of distinct colour; next to it, a plain quartz pebble, milky white, without a single fleck of anything else.

Reach next for an almost black pebble, decorated with amazingly bright, pistachio green epidote crystals in button sized circles, edged neatly with yellow and red rims. Epidote crystals with maybe carnelian and feldspar crystals enclosing them, in dark volcanic rock, from eruptions in the area hundreds of millions of years ago.

I’m just a geoholic, hooked on Shetland’s stones and rocks, without a scrap of official training. But when you go on the Shetland Field Studies Walks and listen in to the qualified geologists as they guide you around the outcrops, the exposures and dramatic rock landscapes of Shetland, you absorb a huge pile of information. Granite, we are told, contains quartz, feldspar and mica. Here on Muckle Ayre, this combination, together with a few other, novel minerals and crystals, has been displayed in millions of well rounded and naturally wave polished pebbles, no two alike.

Muckle Ayre rests in the arms of rising cliffs, with moorland stretching away behind to the north and west. An occasional granddaddy of a breaker drives in further, to lick up into the small burn that chatters away, out of the moors and into the sea. The burn itself is a beauty, which drops away from the higher heather slopes, winding and chattering through a narrow gorge. It spills out into the shingle close to the ruins of an old stone-built ruin.

We wondered what purpose this structure had once served, but enjoyed the shelter it offered, as others had obviously done many times before, judging by the remains of a fire; a blackened circle on the floor of one of the two sections. To sit there, out of the wind, gazing out across the open sea towards Vementry and the ragged hill profilers of the West Side, was pure heaven. We watched the reach of the waves and tried counting between giants, to see what truth there was in “seventh” waves being bigger than the others.

A second ruin lies a short distance upstream. A few hundred yards above the outflow the burn splits where two small channels come together, each draining a separate watershed from the moors above. Here stand the remains of an old mill, where local grain would once have been ground into flour. The burn on our visit was well tempered, prattling gently seawards, and the mill was silent. But long ago, when in use, there would have been a continuous din of gushing water below the floor, creaking and slapping of the tirl; a rattling, clattering, hissing and banging as the great stones turned and the steady stream of meal issued from the rims to be swept into sacks and cries of folk shouting to be heard.

There were hundreds of these tiny mills in days gone by, but today just a handful of restored ones survive. If you ever get the chance of attending a grinding, don’t miss it. I will never forget the day I spent watching Ian Smith from Troswick, working flat out, like a well oiled machine, moving from grain sacks to flour sacks, wooden scoop to brush, adjusting the clever little device which jiggled the grain hopper to stop the trickle from jamming. The great stones had to be adjusted, the drives linked and unlinked, the water flow checked and everything kept clear and clean at all times. It was a revelation.

We left the silent ghost of the mill and returned to the shore where an unexpectedly silent, giant wave washed suddenly past me, well above my knees and almost wrestled me over. I had bent down, back to the waves, to select a last handful of pebbles before heading home. Lesson; never gather pebbles with your back to the sea! Thankfully my waterproof breeks, pulled down over the outside of my wellies, kept me from a soaking and I managed to stay upright. One glance at the retreating surge, as it dived into a deep, cold, boiling trench below the lower shore, left me with a grim realisation of what might have been my fate if I had lost my footing.

The close shave left me elated and unusually light of foot as we retraced our route back to the road. Muckle Ayre was spread out behind and below us, bathed in sudden sunshine, a few small hollows and dips in the moor behind, still slashed white with relict snow. Winter tones of faded tawny golds, browns and greys still dominated the hill swards, but at our feet new green was inching forth. The new season was gathering itself for a spring surge.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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