Falling in Love with Shetland


Our last port of call in Norway was Bulandet , an extraordinary collection of tiny skerries stuck out in the Norwegian sea , mostly interconnected with small bridges and filled with prosperous looking houses. Each one had a deep water mooring outside , often with a large trawler on it. There seemed a much higher proportion of folk actually living there (rather than just coming for the holidays) than on many of the off lying islands we have visited. Our original idea had been to explore the area in the canoe, but a ferocious 40 knot Northerly was whipping up even these sheltered waters, so we explored this Nordic little Venice on foot , intending to cross to Shetland the next day.

From Alesund back to Alden and the Outer Skerries

Unfortunately the next day’s forecast was for a further 48 hours of 30 knot winds. 50 miles off the coast it looked less horrid, so with some trepidation we put to sea for a rough, cold, but very fast crossing to Shetland. 23 hours later we were anchored off the pier at Balta Sound , Unst , the Northern most inhabited isle in the UK. It was a cold grey drizzly morning and our first impressions of Shetland were not good. The treeless slopes were dotted with ruins, and such houses as were still standing suggested a distinct lack of prosperity with none of the gay colours we had become used to in Scandinavia Here they were unpainted stone or cement , with only the occasional beige for light relief. There was no sign of human activity and altogether it looked a dour depressing sort of place.


From Unst and Yell

First impressions are not always reliable! days later we have helped rig a real Viking ship on Unst, had our best ever day of bird watching on Yell  ( and nearly bought a house!), danced the Eightsome Reel on out Skerries and seem to have fallen for the islands and their warm , friendly inhabitants in a big way!

The perfectly sheltered Balta Sound has always attracted ships, from Viking time onwards. At the height of the herring  trade 10, 000 people thronged its shores in the season. We found a few less folk; there were 4 yachts on the pier sheltering from the strong Northerlies , but otherwise the place looked deserted! On closer inspection there was a small boat marina, mostly small motor boats , but at least one traditional rowing and sailing fourareen in pretty good condition. Ashore was a rather battered selection of Mirrors and Albacores and one Shetland “model” – a cross between a Merlin Rocket and a small Viking ship. I had heard that the tradition of small boat seamanship was still strong on the Islands , and here was evidence of it.

Study a chart of Shetland and it is obvious you are in real Viking territory. In Norway any place name ending in Vag was bound to be a natural harbour. Here the equivalent is Voe , or perhaps Wick, and the place teems with sheltered nooks and crannies with exotic Norse names – all crying out to be explored. In Unst, just to the North of where we lay is Haroldswick – a bay reputed to be the landing place of King Harold of Norway. He came to Shetland to deal with his compatriots there who had taken to returning to the motherland and indulging in a bit of rape and plunder  ( bless them , it was what they were good at !) Pulled up on the shore is a full size  replica of the Gokstad ship, built in Sweden to replicate the voyage of Lief Ericson to America. They got no further than Unst before the crew mutinied – and there she stayed. The first half of my perfect day was spent chatting to a shipwright who was working on her , and poking around with him ( the device to lock the mast in place once hoisted was a wonderful piece of wood engineering!) before helping  rig the steering blade ( on the steerboard side of course!)

On the other side of the bay was the Unst boat collection. Over the years one local man had gradually collected and restored specimens of the traditional small craft of the Islands before they were lost forever. Latterly he had managed to get together a grant to house them in a purpose built building resulting in one of the best small museums I have ever come across , with a knowledgeable curator who was happy to chat to me all afternoon.

Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to make sure you are not dreaming – but no, this was really happening. A truly great day.


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