Face west and take in the scenery. It’s one of my very favourite places to take visitors, just for the western view. You can see for miles. It can be windy, but even a Shetland breeze (gale!) is an adventure for some newcomers to the islands. As well as being in the top dozen of my “must show them” places, it’s also one of my least favourite places to go in Shetland, and one which I wouldn’t dream of showing to my worst enemy, let alone cherished friends. But back to the view out west. Rank, wild moorland stretches away at our feet across the curving hillside, out of sight. There is an exhilarating expanse of sky and a slow motion race of clouds. Beyond the vanishing point of the heather, pale sea shimmers all the way west to Foula and the Earth’s curve. But just at the line where an artist would shift the colours from ground to sea, the silky outline of St Ninian’s Isle cuts a ragged profile of its own, in the haze, looking as if it is balanced upon a slim strand of sand, fixed to the mainland shore.
If you choose to walk due west, you unwrap more and more of the view, and it extends and widens, eventually encompassing the whole of Bigton, with Ireland to the north and Rerwick to the south. The weather and light conditions are never exactly the same two days running, so it is worth charging up the camera and going again and again to take in this scene. Some days illuminate every wrinkle and angle in enamel bright, ultra colour and others cast silvery screens across the view, transforming the sense of reality. The isle floats like a jagged kite above a pale, smoke-screened landscape without a trace of visible human life.
Wonderful, photogenic, beautiful; call it what you will, but try not to look around behind you. No use. It’s not possible. You can’t avoid it. Great concrete pillar posts struggle to retain their grip on sagging remnants of vicious barbed wire strands. Heaps of smashed cement and brickwork lie in aimless dumps. Buildings glower as they gradually crack and crumble. It could be the setting for a particularly nasty and depressing gloom movie. There is no question that the place has not been smart and efficient in the past, with a vital role to play and many dedicated staff giving it their all. But the mess just now serves only to shame Shetland and degrade their efforts by association as well.
The road, stretching across Shetland from east to west, rises right up over the top of the great spine and snakes down to sea level on the far side. Right at the watershed, the pinnacle of the trip, all you can see is decay, dereliction and devastation. But it could be very different. There is huge potential for the most spectacularly sited visitor facility. Here, with barely a twitch of the imagination, you could find a restaurant; relax with a cup of hot chocolate on a coarse day or a fragrant tisane on a fine one and drink in the scenery in comfort. But back to reality! The scene is one of dismal destruction; half-started demolition and worse – dangerous debris.
This could be one of the highlights of a stay here, if cleaned up and made safe, even if it wasn’t actually developed. A simple shelter with places to sit and enjoy the view on a fine day would be enough. There are actually two of these eyesores. The second one is at the end of the road which branches north as you descend to the west. One local woman wondered why it hadn’t been chosen for the windfarm. Road access already in place, no residential overlooking concerns, plenty of space. Fair point. Why not?
But enough of the squalid, the hazardous and abandoned.
Scene shift to Bressay and the chilly, windy but dazzlingly sunny day when I tried to take my cousin, his wife and six year old Oliver over to Bressay to see Muckle Hell; picnicking en-route beside the broch site on the shore facing Noss Sound. However, when we got there, the wind had backed and had turned chill and very strong. The tide was well up, leaving no sandy pockets of rock poll shore for six year olds to dream over, and the waves were lashing right over the banks. We had planned, after eating, to walk along and examine the lurid pools of Muckle Hell. But the wind had knives in it and the sea was attacking the rocky shore with such spite, that it became too risky for a lively peerie fellow with no sense of danger.
We split; Nigel prised Ollie away from the lure of the waves and up the hill to the tower. We headed west, then doubled back to meet them at the Voe of Cullingsburgh as they descended. Ollie, undaunted by a steep climb, a mile of heather and a steep descent, came flying to meet us, bearing trophies. A scabby, bedraggled rabbit’s leg, trailing torn, drying fur and flesh, a razor shell, a small jawbone plus teeth and a very smelly scaddieman’s head, or sea urchin shell, found half buried in a muddy ditch. The treasures of the crown could not have given him more triumphant joy! The only problem was how to carry them, while picking up more things along the way. He soon dragooned us into being Sherpas.
But to my shame, they nearly missed a real thrill. Liz spotted a seal, or that’s what I told her it was. A dark, shiny blob out to sea, which sank beneath the waves, then reappeared some way away. “Isn’t it an otter?” she queried. Middle of the day, choppy sea, unlikely, I thought, and set about singing a sad wailing song, to lure the seal back up again. It was a very small one. Twice, three times the blob surfaced, seal-like, to investigate the source of the siren voice … or so I thought. Drat it. A Draatsi! It wasn’t a seal at all, it was an otter. Some wildlife enthusiast me! It was an otter, and a big one at that.
The otter repeated the head-out-of-the-waves act half a dozen times, following our progress along the shore. He came amazingly close, near enough to be able to see the colour of his coat, the sharp, beady eyes and the squared off head, ears up, as he tried to focus on what had been making those awful noises. He duck-dived several times, popping up again much further off then vanished completely. But no sooner had we calmed down after one spectacle, than another one started up.
Two gannets swung round the headland and began quartering the bay, diving from time to time and taking off again. Despite the wind, we could hear the giant splashes as they plunged. We stood and watched, each time waiting for the huge birds to re-emerge, with a wrestling kerfuffle of wings as they surfaced and struggled to get airborne again. What massive effort is expended in this process. The shock from the dive must be enormous. No wonder their skulls are so dense and reinforced. Look at a gannet’s skull if you get a chance. The new Shetland Museum is bound to have one.
The excitement on three visitor faces was all the reward you could wish for after a day in sun and sea air in Shetland. Now I’m off on a hedgehog hunt. They must be emerging by now, but all I’ve seen so far, is dead ones; squished on the roads.
Jill Slee Blackadder