It’s a luxurious ferry that takes you from Kirkwall to Lerwick; the sleeping pods, at £18 each extra, are almost like business class seats at a plane, and include free use of shower. We don’t dwell on the attractions too much, though: we’d waited until 11:45pm to board, and will be setting off at 7:30am the next day, so we quickly go to sleep.
After a nap in the car park, we pass through Lerwick on a long, bumpy ride north; the target for today: reach as far north as possible. That involves not only a 60-mile drive, but also taking two ferries. Thankfully, we have all day to do just that.
There is a little civilization still for a few miles beyond Lerwick, and a couple of scattered, distinctly Nordic-looking villages along the way, but for the most part, Northern Shetland proves desperately empty and desolate. Too empty; the road goes on for miles and miles of peatland and pasture, without even the sea coast or line of horizon to look forward to, as everything is hemmed in between low, claustrophobic hills, steeped in thick mist.
The peat fields are covered in deep scars and ridges, as if the island was constantly shaken by earthquakes. Some of these are traces of peat cutting, others are carved by streams, others still may be results of minor landslides; altogether it doesn’t do much to reduce the bleakness and harshness of the landscape. As we approach the first ferry, the sea finally shows up, pocked with islets and rocky reefs. The ferries here are mercifully frequent here, so we only wait about half an hour at a tiny local cafe for the next vessel. We buy the tickets on board: funnily enough, the ferry ticket to the first island, Yell, covers also the second island, Unst.
Of the two small northerly islands, Yell is the slightly less densely populated one, as bleak and empty as the Shetland mainland; but not far from the next ferry harbour, literally in the middle of nowhere, we spot a couple of newly built prefab houses on top of a bald hill, with a Gallery sign pointing towards them. This turns out to be the Shetland Gallery – Britain’s Northernmost Art Gallery – and a EU-sponsored weaving studio, with real, new, hand weaving machines, and a “resident weaver” in form of a student who spends her summers weaving upholstery fabrics before returning to Aberdeen for Uni. A small hand loom is there for any visitor to try; seemingly complex, weaving is a calming exercise, and surprisingly similar to playing an instrument – the patterns are like chords, and the threads are like strings… There are a few nice drawings and paintings in the gallery next door, as well as some jewellery, but more importantly, there are leaflets showing the Shetland Arts&Crafts trail. Like all the Scottish islands, Shetlands try their best to support their local craftsmen and artists, with a lot of the usual help from the EU funds. The main craft here is, naturally, the famous knitwear, but jewellery is close second.
The final island on our journey, Unst, is the northernmost settled land in all of United Kingdom (there are some tiny rocks off the coast that take the crown of northernmost land of UK). As such, it holds a number of other extreme records: the northernmost village, castle, campsite, natural reserve, petrol station and… a ghost, the White Wife of Unst, who shows to unmarried men on the main road; the site of her apparition is marked with possibly the creepiest of British monuments, a pile of rocks topped with a black wig straight from “the Ring”.
Unst is tiny, but a lot more busier than what we’ve seen so far. The geographical location draws in a number of tourists (us included) and the local community does its best to keep them here as long as possible. There are two major settlements along the only road, and a number of minor tourist attractions, including the aforementioned castle and a smattering of Viking excavations. One of the longhouses stands reconstructed right by the side of the highway, next to a large dragon boat: the boat is the Skidbladner, a fully functional, highly impressive replica of a Viking longboat, which had sailed here from Bergen in the 1980s. Both sites are free to visit and explore.
A bit further on, a little less likely tourist attraction awaits: Britain’s northernmost (of course) brewery, the Valhalla. It must not have too many visitors at this time of year, as the shop is closed until we ask to see it; among the brewery’s more standard fare one bottle catches our eye: a beer brewed from bere, an ancient variety of barley, brewed uniquely by Valhalla.
We turn left just before the small harbour village of Haroldswick, and three winding miles later we reach the car park at the gates of the Hermaness Natural Reserve. This is it, the climax of our entire journey: this is as far north as we manage to get. From here on, we will be only going south!
The location is not as glamorous as it should be, as the car park is covered in sheep and rabbit droppings: the northernmost poo in Britain. Nonetheless, we make ourselves a long awaited lunch (northernmost lunch) and watch gannets and skuas fight it out in the sky – the reserve is home to thousands of these mighty birds. We eat in the shadow of a 300-feet hill, on top of which stands a mysterious grey orb: once a RAF radar base, now a self-catering enterprise, Saxa Vord holds not only the record for Britain’s northernmost holiday destination, but also the greatest speed of wind ever recorded – 177 mph in 1962, “before the equipment was blown off”. Luckily, the wind is a bit less today.
It took us almost three months and more than 8000 kilometres to reach this far. The road back will be faster – the Eastern coast of Britain is far shorter and straighter than the West, and there will be no more islands to visit. It still feels daunting, as we look at the map; we are really far away from everywhere, and almost as close to Norway or Faeroe Isles as we are to Scotland, not to mention a distant, now almost legendary lands further south. Has it really been just this summer that we ate freshly grown tomatoes on Isle of Wight…?
The brief moment of contemplation passes and we head back south. As we wait for the return ferry, Unst bids us farewell with one last example of its quirky charm: a fishing boat turned into a xylophone. The sign above says, in Norn – a language spoken on Orkney and Shetland before arrival of the Scottish immigrants: “Salist a meenit and hae a ton on da plinky boat afor du gengst”; which is exactly what I do.
Night and mist falls quickly on Shetland in September, and we barely make it to our final destination before it gets too dark and dangerous to drive.
The Westings Inn is a pub sat on a remote, foggy pass leading towards the western Mainland. Part of its car park is set out for campers, and it’s one of the strangest locations we’ve ever spent a night at. Surprisingly, there is a small set of camping amenities, including hook-up – if you have a long enough cable – shower (we couldn’t get it to work, and were too tired to bother the owner) and drinking water tap, all huddled in the bottom corner of the pub. For a mere tenner, it was good enough – and we wouldn’t have made it anywhere else that night, anyway.