How far North can I go with my UK visa? John o’ Groats, at the north end of Scotland, would be a popular answer, but the UK goes further northwards before ending in an archipelago. This comes between the Faroe Islands and Norway, in the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Shetland, that is what they call this place.
On a typical rainy morning day in Leeds, I head for the port city of Scotland, Aberdeen. When the first rays of the day peep out in Northumberland, the train is closer to the sea than the road that runs parallel to the track. It is the North Sea, separating Britain from the Scandinavian countries. As the sun sets for the day I’ll be catching the ferry to the Shetland islands through this ever furious sea, my first sea travel.
Welcome to Shetland
By the time we dock at Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, there is nothing left in my stomach. On a journey that reminded me of the last 30 minutes of the Titanic movie, throughout the night, I was throwing up, thanks to motion sickness! Every 5 seconds, Hrossey, the Northlink ferry, got tossed into the sky by the raging sea before smashing down on it again. It was a night I passed counting every single minute.
Winter is around the corner, but on an October morning the sun would be up by 7 am in Leeds. Not here in Shetland though. I have come a long way North. Where I am standing now is closer to the North Pole than the southern tip of Greenland, just a couple of degrees below the Arctic circle!
Lerwick is waking up slowly. They have turned the lights in the grey buildings near the water. It is all cloudy and moody, a typical day in Shetland I am told. Taking the first bus to the airport I head for its southern side, Sumburgh. Within a few minutes, the bus moves out of the town into the vastness of Shetland, giving me my first taste of these islands.
Although the sun, out finally, is on course to hide beneath the horizon even before evening falls, nothing else is in a hurry here. There are hardly any villagers outside their houses. A few cars and pickup vans are moving on the deserted roads, and then, of course, there are sheep… here, there, everywhere. Ravens fly over some ghostly looking houses far away. Even with a handful of passengers on the bus, I felt solitude.
Sumburgh – The southern tip
Have you ever stuck on the road for a flight to take off?! Come here to Sumburgh to experience it. The small runway cut across the sole road to southern end, making it one of the rare piece of engineering works around the world. LogonAir blasted its engine to towards the sea that almost touches the runway and flew across the ocean, soon to disappear in to the darkening clouds. Three evenings from now, I’ll be in one of these flights, I told myself as the gates opened for the traffic to continue.
The lighthouse, which is at the end of the road, lies away from the bus route. Hiring a cab at the airport I headed there.
“The tourist season ended last month and with that most of these establishments get closed.” said Paul, my driver, seeing me sulking at the visitors centre’s ‘closed’ signboard. But the natural beauty of Shetland is something accessible to everyone throughout the year. I stand close to the cliff behind the building. Fierce waves are hitting the rocky bottom on both sides of land shaped like a pointy edge. Yet some black-feathered birds keep on flying back to them in the brief interregnums between the waves.
For puffins, one of the most beautiful birds of Shetland, this is their favourite spot during the summer season. As the mating season is now over, they’ve all flown back to the deep Atlantic where the water is warmer than the land. It wouldn’t be taking longer for these fellows flying around to follow their friends. When the last set of birds migrates south before winter sets in, it seems sheep are the only company for people on these islands.
Over the horizon, on the southern side a land appears like a mirage. Or is it just a slightly darker cloud? I am not sure. If it is in fact land, then it should be ‘Fair Isle’, one of the fifteen inhabited islands out of the hundreds in this archipelago.
The cold wind blowing in from the sea pierce my ears, giving me a headache. This is one of the things that vexed me in the UK and in Shetland I faced it at its worst. I try to cover my ears with my hands but in vain.
“Do you see the seals lying on the beach?” Back in the car Paul stops the vehicle for a minute and points toward a beautiful bay at the far end. A dozen seals are relaxing on its golden sands, making use of a brief period of sunlight. With just around 23,000 thousand people on these islands, there are miles of unattended spaces, idle for wildlife to thrive without any human disturbance.
St Ninian’s Isle
Moving on Paul next takes me to the St Ninian’s Isle. Like two lovers holding hands, the small island of St Ninian holds on to the main one with the help of a narrow strip of golden shell sandbar. I walk along the empty beach. One giant storm or a high tide should be enough to cut through this umbilical cord made of sand. But it’s withstood millennia and might survive many more. There used to be a monastery here in the past, hence the name St Ninian. Unlike the cliffs at Scumbourgh though, the ones here were mostly devoid of life, except for a handful of seagulls. The raging waves smashing on their rocks don’t seem to bother them, as they keep on flying back to the same spot.
Passing through the land, at each spot I am realising the great vastness and emptiness of these islands. Shetland lies before me as far as my eyes can see, not even a tree in sight! Turns out you need some deep soil for trees to grow. And Shetland lacks it because it was one of the last pieces of land to emerge from the sea. Mother earth had less time to generate the soil necessary for large vegetation.
Finally, Paul dropped me off at the Jarlshof prehistoric site where the earliest settlers on these islands lived. The oldest archaeological findings here date back to 3200 BCE. It is astonishing to know that people have been living here since the Bronze age. The roundhouses they made during the later stages of their civilisation still stand here, withstanding harsh weather over millennia. Perhaps the sea was not so close as it is today and the climate was warmer. Yet I still stand in awe imagining the living conditions of their early ancestors.
In the evening I walk through the cobblestone streets of Lerwick, occasionally talking to some strangers. Although the accent of the islanders is supposed to be different from Scottish I couldn’t find much difference, except for the old lady at the inn where I am staying. I repeat her sentences to make sure I am getting it.
The town hall bell rings at regular intervals, echoing across empty streets and breaking the ghostly silence as night falls. If this is the town center, one wonders how the outskirts are.
It has been hardly 12 hours since I set foot on the island, yet it feels like forever.
Imagine being on a remote island, in another part of the world, and running into a local resident who speaks your native language! That happens to me when I meet David at the Tourist Information Center at Lerwick. My jaws drop when I hear him asking “Neenga eppadi irrukiraye?” (How are you?) in Tamil after I tell him I am from Kerala. Though Tamil, spoken in our neighboring State of Tamil Nadu, is not my mother tongue I know the language very well.
“Neenga ennavida nalla Tamil pesuringe!” (You speak better Tamil than me) I reply.
“Appadi illai, ippo pesi romba naalachu” (That is not true, it has been a long time since I spoke the language.)
David had lived in Madurai, a historic town in Tamil Nadu, for some time and traveled extensively within the State. His excellence in landscape and wildlife photography and knowledge of local history is apparent from some of the books he shows me, published by him over the years. Unfortunately, he isn’t available the day I met him so I have to look for someone else.
Don’t fall off the cliff
With David being busy, the guide at the tourist center arranges another driver, again a David, to take me to the great cliffs on the eastern side, Eshaness.
Within minutes of leaving the town center I realise that, whichever direction you go, there won’t be any human soul anywhere near you. Throughout the journey to Eshaness, David gives me an account of life in Shetland — the oil industry, mussels farming, waste management, fisheries and much more. Though an Englishman, he has lived for most of his life here in the archipelago. Passing ‘Mavis Grind’, the narrow strip of land where the Atlantic Ocean nearly cuts through to the North Sea, we reach our destination.
“Don’t fall off the cliff” he warns as I get down from the car. My heart goes pumping as I gaze at the grand spectacle in front of me. The scenic peninsula stretches to the north as far as my eyes go. The sound of raging waves, unleashed by the Atlantic ocean, hitting the rocky bottoms of her deep cliffs echoed everywhere. Near these deadly cliffs, the howling gale coming from the ocean takes a sudden 180-degree turn and pushes you along. If you fall down, not even your scream will survive and if it does make it back there won’t be anyone to hear it.
Many layers of rocks in Eshaness were formed across various periods of the earth’s natural history. Millions of years ago this was nothing but a huge volcano that had erupted hundreds of times. Like a detective unravelling a crime scene, geologists bring out the many stories these rocks hold within them. Because of the strong waves that comes from ocean, Eshaness is regarded as one of the high energy coastline across the globe.
At this point, the fact of being a solo traveller doesn’t surprise me anymore. I’ve learned much about Shetland within a day. No wonder it is regarded as one of the most unspoiled destinations around the world. The lighthouse is closed for the season. Darkening clouds gift a slight drizzle only to be pushed away by a gust of wind. Like minuscule dust on a giant rock, I stand in the vastness of Eshaness, awed by her strength and beauty.
“People say you can see whales here in Shetland. I have seen it once in my whole life.” shouted David from behind. I don’t think I can take a whale sighting now, my mind already overwhelmed.
Each moment passed feels like a day here. The heavy clouds, howling winds, vast empty landscapes, darkness that spreads by afternoon … all of them stir up emotions, emotions I have never experienced in my travels before. An emptiness, melancholy, solitude … depression. But why do I yearn for more?
Back in Lerwick the ferry to the adjacent island, Braine is ploughing on. Mainland, Braine, Yule & Unst, these are the four big islands here. In order to reach the northernmost point, I must reach Unst tomorrow. With just a few people visiting here during the winter season and most of the islanders using their own vehicles, the public transport goes into hibernation during the cold days. But you can wake it up whenever you want to. All you have to do is to ring up their number a day in advance and tell them the route and the timing. It is as if you’re chartering transport according to your need! I doubt if there are other places in the world that has this system. Shetland just keeps on surprising me.
A journey to the end
First a bus, then a ferry, again a bus and a ferry, and finally a bus. That is how I get to Unst, the northernmost island of Shetland. With each passing island, the bus is getting smaller, like the size of the islands. With each mile, less and less vehicles and houses. And, with each minute, I move further away from humanity and civilisation.
The clouds are getting darker but luckily the drizzle hasn’t turned into a storm yet. This has been the worst climate since I set foot on the islands. By the look of it I don’t think the sun will come out today.
“This is where I’m dropping you. I’ll be back here at 3.30 pm. Don’t miss it, else you might end up sleeping in the Vikings’ boat!” said the young bus driver, dropping me in the middle of Unst. I looked at the replica of a boat in which Vikings had come from Norway during medieval times. Yah, that doesn’t look very comfy.
The destination is Hermaness national park. I look at the map. It is a 15-20 kilometers walk, to and fro. There is no time to waste, I must hurry. Even after walking an hour, passing several houses and buildings on the way, I haven’t seen even a single human being. Unst certainly feels like a ghost town.
Roads in the UK at its northernmost end here, in front of that building over the rocks. I go up there, to ask for the way to the Hermaness cliffs and the time it would take to get there and back. No one is around. Though on a tight schedule, I couldn’t resist spending some time up there.
The sole trail leading off from the top must be the way to Hermaness. I decide to go by my instincts and start walking briskly. There is no cell phone reception up here. The only way to catch the bus is to be back on time. The hue of the land in front of me starts to change with each step, from its pale green color, the common Shetland theme, to a pungent maroon. Why is this place so different? Wishing to keep to my schedule, I run along the plastic boardwalk put across the bog. It cannot be very far now. Maybe this terrain could be the reason why Hermeness is such an ecologically sensitive spot. A few areas here are blocked for humans since various sea birds throng there during the mating season in summer. The boardwalk soon gives away to a green meadow on top of a deep cliff, Toolie. A few more steps and I have reached lands-end, the end of the UK.
I drop my backpack and sit on the wet grass, laughing away, delighted by the spectacular view in front of me. Huge waves, relentless, pounding the rocky bottom. Sea birds aimlessly glide over before tiring and returning to their small caverns on the sides of the cliffs. At the far end, clouds and the ocean fused together, making it difficult to identify the horizon. The wind is not harsh yet still annoying, the drizzle not so cold yet very sulky; a perfect day in Shetland… On the steep edges some sheep stand, eating fresh grass. Startled by an unexpected visitor they suddenly lookup. I look around. No signs of a human soul.
I have arrived at the North.
It is certainly far more overwhelming than Eshaness. Perhaps because I know I am completely alone and nobody is here to tell me not to go near the dangerous cliffs? If something happens to me right now will anyone ever know? I stand at the edge of that country, no humans anywhere near for kilometres together, just a flock of sheep for company. Have I ever been so lonely like this before? I mean literally, not figuratively. Probably not and probably never.
Muckle Flugga is visible from here. In Scottish it means a large steep-sided island and that is exactly what it is. A lighthouse built in the 19th century on that small rocky island stands, awaiting darkness to spread for it to come alive. A beacon of hope for humans on the ocean to tell them they are not far from land.
They say this is the best place in the whole of Shetland, right at her edge. Would a sunny day have been better, to walk around and absorb the beauty of Hermaness? No, I don’t want that. I like this. This gloominess, this somberness, this sadness in the air… it suits my yearning for solitude perfectly.
It is past 1 already. If I want to be on the last bus that leaves for the ferry terminal, not only I should start now but I’ll also have to run occasionally. With a heavy heart I walk back.
When the ferry leaves the island I look back at Unst once more. It is fading away from sight in the fast spreading darkness.
On the last day, I go to Scalloway to visit the Shetland fort. The afternoon is spent at the Lerwick museum.
At night, like the puffins who fly away, escaping the cold nests of Shetland seeking warmth, I am airborne on my return trip to Aberdeen and eventually to Leeds.
Will I ever return? Perhaps, when I am old and retired, I will come back, on a rainy, moody, gloomy day like this… in one October…to get away from all the people.
I’ll come back for Hermaness, to be at the North, at the end of the UK. Till then, see you Shetland….