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Issue 85 - Shetland as a Gift

Scotland Magazine Issue 85
February 2016


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Shetland as a Gift

Sheena McDonald goes birdwatching on Yell and Unst

A week in Shetland – what a great Christmas present! My very well travelled husband has worked everywhere from Pakistan to Peru, but he had never set foot on Britain’s northern isles. I booked for the week of the summer solstice, knowing that it would be warm and the daylight would last until late. It would seem like a very long week. I was right about that… As we flew from Edinburgh to Sumburgh airport, the pilot warned us that low cloud cover over the Shetland Islands meant that it may not be possible to land, in which case he might have to take us to Aberdeen so that we could catch the overnight ferry to Shetland – a 12-hour voyage! In fact, we were the only plane able to land that day and were met by a relieved Shetland Wildlife representative who took us to the Spiggie Hotel, a small and characterful hotel that would be our base for most of the following week.

I had booked the holiday via the same company that had previously taken us to see bears in Finland - a very successful Christmas present that year. Over dinner, we found out that this time the wildlife we were guaranteed to see was birds. Our fellow holidaymakers were six experienced twitchers, each armed with binoculars, bird spotter diaries and a burning desire to see the red-breasted merganser. The extended northern daylight hours meant that the first time we all crammed into the minibus was well after 11 o’clock at night. We were decanted onto a small boat that chugged its way to the island of Moussa, in order for us to watch the return of hundreds of storm petrels to their summer home in an Iron Age broch - a 40-foot high stone fortification which they now inhabited. It was well after midnight before we fell into our two single beds.

So began our extraordinary week in the most northerly region of the United Kingdom. By the time we reached day eight, we would have ticked off swans and Arctic skuas, gannets and guillemots, otters and orchids, puffins and pipits. It turned out to be a textbook curate’s egg of a holiday. While the dislikes remained unimpeachable, the compensations were myriad and magical. To see hundreds of tiny storm petrels arrive home near midnight in great masses, reminiscent of bats, was but the first of many spectacles. Their name derives from St Peter: during their long months at sea, the birds attract fish to the surface by dabbing their feet on the waves – as if attempting to walk on water.

The previously arranged minibus took us efficiently all over the Shetland isles, from Yell to Fetlar, Unst to Bressay, each island displaying different rare delights. For instance, the tiny white flax Edmonstone’s Chickweed, found solely on Unst in the Keen of Hamar, which was discovered in 1837 by a 12-year-old who went on to become a professor of botany in Glasgow. Its flowers only open when the sun is out and last but a few days – and we saw it! The sun was out.

However, while the rest of the UK sweltered under a much-reported heatwave, we bought woolly hats and gloves at a marine store as the rain and cold confirmed that Shetland is another country – which geologically it is, being much closer in rock-form to Scandinavia than to the British Isles.

There are extremely civilized pockets in Shetland, but our visit to the main town of Lerwick was merely a travel necessity, enabling us to catch a boat-trip around Noss, a National Nature Reserve that is home to over 60,000 birds. And guess what? We saw gannets plunge-diving into the sea to catch their prey, learning that clothes manufacturers are still trying to understand and imitate their feathery wet-proofing. We watched seals lazing at the foot of mighty sandstone cliffs, while an underwater camera allowed us to view the watery habitat of sea anemones and soft corals unchanged for millions of years. By midweek, it became increasingly entertaining to listen to our competitive fellow tourists enthusing over dinner.

“I’ve spotted over eighty already here!” “And did you put a shag in your diary for today?” “Oh, yes!” Despite the weather, the memory of Shetland’s light and space and sea and sky still raises a nostalgic smile. And there’s that elusive red-breasted merganser still to tick off too.