Lofoten Islands, Norway - Dave Banks

Shetland Visit

Having been to Orkney, I had always wanted to visit Shetland. Several years ago a combined Orkney and Shetland holiday fell through, so when the opportunity arose again to visit Shetland, I jumped at chance. We would stay in a hotel for the first 2 nights, then with friends for the remainder of the holiday.

We had decided on the week of my birthday to go, so the main decision was, how we would get there, fly or by ferry. Neither option was cheap, the ferry did work out cheaper though.

I wanted to take my main camera gear, but it is heavy and bulky, so if I wanted to fly I would need a flight case for it. We would also need to hire a car for our visit. The alternative option was a 14 hour ferry sailing from Aberdeen. We would take our own car and I could take all the camera gear I needed without the expense of having to buy a flight case.

So the ferry it was, not my favourite mode of transport, but I survived a 5 day cruise down the coast of Norway in the Autumn, so I should be able to survive a 14 hour sailing. We didn't book a cabin, but opted instead for "sleeping pods", which seemed good on paper, but in reality they weren't ideal. It still cost us £580, but due to the Scottish Governments RET scheme (Road Equivalent Tariff), the price has dropped to £436. The ferry we would be sailing on was the MV Hjaltland, which is old norse for Shetland. Some basic facts about the ship:

Year built:		2002
Passenger capacity:	600
Cabins:			117
Car capacity:		140
Gross Tonnage:		11,720
Length:			125m
Beam:			20m
Speed:			24 knots

More details about the ferry can be found here, and the ferrys current position can be found on the Vessel Finder website.

I did a bit of research on the internet and created a list of places to visit and for photo opportunities. Some of those locations didn't work out, as I had hoped to get dusk shots, but it didn't get dark enough for them. At least we experienced the Shetland "simmer dim".

With the holiday just 2 weeks away, unusually high winds had hit the British Isles causing disruption to transport services. These winds took a while to subside, even a few days before our sailing, they were still quite strong. I wasn't looking forward to the ferry sailing in those conditions, and was hoping they would subside even further as the forecast was predicting. A supply of sea sickness tablets was purchased for the trip, which would come in handy.

The Norwegian long term forecast was:

Sat - Mon:  Overcast skies, 15 - 20 knot winds
Tue & Wed:  Broken cloud, 5 knot winds
Thu & Fri:  Clear skies, 5 - 10 knot winds
Sat & Sun:  Broken cloud, 5 - 15 knot winds

Temperatures would range from 12C to 16C Thu and Sat. The forecast turned out to be pretty accurate, only Saturday was wrong, the skies were still clear. The wind seemed stronger at times during the day, but tended to subdue at night. The temperatures were also slightly higher than forecast by a few Celsius according to the car. Overall, we were very fortunate with the weather.

Norwegian longterm weather forecast for Shetland

Day 1

Sat 23rd June

We arrived in Aberdeen just after mid-day, and parked in Union Square car park opposite the NorthLink ferry terminal as there is no parking at the terminal itself. We bought a Tesco meal deal in case we needed it on the boat (wise decision), and got a decent lunch in case I couldn't manage an evening meal on board the ferry.

With the parking ticket almost ready to expire, we headed to ferry terminal at 15:00, but we had a 30 minute wait to get on board and park on the main car deck. The cars were queued down the road waiting to get through the ticket kiosk. The whole setup seems rather poorly implemented.

The ferry, the MV Hjaltland, left slightly before scheduled at 16:44 and carefully made its way through Aberdeen Harbour towards the North Sea. This allowed us to see the variety of ships that use Aberdeen Harbour, from small boats to large oil rig supply vessels and bulk carriers.

The sailing started off well, with a fresh wind, light seas and little swell. With the slightly broken cloud, there was some nice light on the oil rig supply vessels waiting outside Aberdeen harbour next to the new offshore windfarm Donald Trump objected to, as it was opposite his new golf course and it "spoiled the view".

By the time we passed Peterhead, the sky had totally clouded over. It would stay like that all the way to Shetland. The swell was still slight, but more noticeable.

By 18:30, I had to retire to my pod, I was OK out on deck, but the swell was making me feel ill when inside. I could hear someone else being ill as well. The pods are on level 6, the window next to my pod was wet with spray as the wind was really strong. I didn't have an evening meal, but resorted to my Tesco meal deal. By 21:20, I felt well enough to have the packet of crisps as I was feeling hungry, and by 22:20 I had the sandwich as well. The sea sickness tablets seemed to be doing their job, as I only felt rough, and wasn't actually ill.

It was still light at 22:30, even though it was cloudy, but by the time we reached Kirkwall in Orkney at 23:00 it was dark. After taking on more vehicles and passengers, the ferry left at 23:45 for Lerwick.

I didn't really sleep well, the pods don't recline enough for my liking, so I couldn't get comfortable.

Day 2

Sun 24th June

I was awake at 07:00 and felt shattered due to the lack of sleep, although some people seemed to manage OK.

At 07:30, I took the car off the ferry then came back on board for breakfast. I was starving as I had little to eat the previous day, so had a full Scottish breakfast.

After breakfast, we disembarked the Hjaltland and headed south from Lerwick to find our accommodation. We couldn't check in until 15:30, but now knowing where it was, we then continued further south towards Sumburgh Head until we saw a sign for St Ninian's Isle, so we went to St Ninian's Isle on the west coast instead. We dozed in car for about an hour and a half, as we were both still tired, before heading out with the camera.

There was a strong wind and grey overcast skies, so photo opportunities were poor. I decided to travel light and just use the Canon 100D, there was no point in carrying the main camera gear when I wasn't going to benefit from it.

We then went to Quendale water mill, it had been completely restored to working condition, it was just a pity it did actually operate. After Quendale, we then went to Sumburgh Head to see the birds and the lighthouse. The wind was very strong and it was still overcast. I took some puffin shots with the Canon 100D and the 100-300mm lens.

When we went to check into our "Hotel" at Hoswick, there was no one at reception, just a welcome A4 sheet of paper with some information on it, and our room key on top. There were other keys laid out as well for other guests. It looked more like a converted house than a hotel, it only had 6 rooms. The room was tiny and the advertised sea view reminded me of the Fawlty Towers scene - "it's over there between the land and the sky". Or in our case, if you look between the branches of the trees, you get a glimpse of the sea. The bathroom was really narrow and had a sliding door for access, as there wasn't enough room for a normal swing door. After having a shower, the change in humidity in the bathroom caused the door to jam, and Elaine was trapped in the bathroom. I envisaged having to kick the door in, but some brute force got the door open. There wasn't much room around the bed either, I managed to walk into the heavy wooden frame twice, the second time I thought I had broken my knee it was that bad. Elaine ended up putting the small pillows from the sleeping pods on the corners at the foot of the bed to prevent any further mishap. There was no evening meal on offer, we appeared to be the only people there, so we had to head into Lerwick and chose a Chinese restaurant to have a meal at instead.

The skies had cleared a little and patches of blue sky were visible, but the wind was still strong. By 23:15, the wind had dropped and it was still light outside, our first experience of the "simmer dim".

Day 3

Mon 25th June

The skies were still cloudy, the patches of blue from the previous night had disappeared. The wind had got up again, a common theme for the week.

When we went down for breakfast there was no sign of any "hotel" staff, in fact the only sign was an A4 sheet of paper folded in half and the message "Gone to town for supplies, back in hour or so". No indication when they left to go to town, it could have been 5 or 55 minutes ago for all we knew. Left on our own, we managed to deduce that it was effectively self catering. We used the communal supplies to have cereal, toast with marmalade and some tea. The place really was like Fawlty Towers, just without Basil and Manuel.

The plan for today was to explore the south of the island, the Croft House Museum & Norse water mill, Jarlshof and the Ness of Burgi.

Just as we were approaching the Croft House Museum, we saw some Shetland ponies with young in a field next to the road. We stopped for photos, as they were really cute. It wasn't easy getting photos, as soon as the foals saw the camera, they were right up in front of it, so it was almost impossible to get any decent shots. Shetland is full of ponies, it reminded me of Iceland with the Icelandic horses. There is a lot of Norse influence in Shetland, and some names are quite similar to names found in Iceland.

The Croft House Museum was closed, but we could look around the grounds and we headed down the path next to fields to the Norse water mill. The sky was pretty overcast, so I only took the Sony HX90V, but planned to return later at night if the skies cleared again, like they had the previous night, with the Canon 1Ds.

We continued south to Jarlshof, but as we approached Sumburgh Airport, we saw Kris and Fiona's plane come into land, so we headed to the airport to meet them. The road actually runs across the top of the runway, so traffic has to stop when a plane comes in to land or takes off!

By this time it was past lunchtime, so we went to the Jarlshof Hotel for a late lunch and then the ancient site itself. We met up with Kris again and we went back to Sumburgh Head for Puffin shots. I used the Canon 1D with the 70-200mm lens and 2x convertor this time.

The skies had cleared very slightly by the time we headed round to Scatness. We had a sandwich before heading out to Scatness broch and then onto the iron-age blockhouse on the Ness of Burgi. To get to the iron-age blockhouse, you need to traverse an narrow, rocky path, but there is a chain safety rail to help you negotiate this tricky part of the walk. The waves crashing in on the west coast were really dramatic, I took loads of photos of them. Apparently, they were tame compared to real storm conditions.

We stopped off at the Norse mill again on the way back to the hotel. The skies had cleared, so the conditions for photography were good, even though it was 10:30 at night.

Heading down the path between the fields to the Norse mill, curious cattle in one of the fields next to the path followed me all the way down to the mill. I hadn't noticed that when I went through a gate near the mill, I was actually now in the same field as the cattle. With the camera set up on the tripod and composing the shots, I became aware of the cattle behind me. They kept about 5 yards away from me except for one, this particular cow was really quite close, too close for comfort. There weren't any calves in the herd, so it wasn't being protective, but it wasn't being curious either, it had a misdemeanour about it which I didn't like. After being shooed off several times, it wasn't for keeping a safe distance, so having finished taking photos, I took the camera off the tripod and used the extended legs of the tripod to fend the troublesome beast off. It did the trick, the cow would come within a few feet of the tripod but wasn't willing to come any closer. I made a retreat back through the gate to safety, then up to the car with the images I wanted in the bag. The cattle in the field continued to follow me as far as they could go, as I made my way up the path.

Day 4

Tue 26th June

We found someone at reception when we went down for breakfast. We also found a pack of bacon and an oven ready evening meal in our allotted bin in the fridge (presumably last nights evening meal), so we cooked the bacon and some eggs for breakfast.

After washing the dishes and packing the car, we checked out and headed off to the Mousa ferry a couple of miles away. The cloud had more definition in it and it was looking brighter.

The Mousa ferry to Mousa Broch was an hour later than normal. We had to wait for the boat to return with cruise ship tourists doing a cruise round the island before we could head off at 12:30 on our island trip. The clouds were clearing and more blue sky was appearing.

A short 15 minute crossing got you to the uninhabited island of Mousa. We did the 2.1m/3.4km circular walk of the island in about 1Hr 10min, stopping frequently to take photographs and seeing lots of birds on the way. The dry stane dykes were unusual as they had quite a lot of holes in them, at first I thought they weren't that well made, but later worked out it was to let the wind through to avoid them being blown down by the high winds Shetland experiences. Details of the walk can be downloaded here in either GPX or KML formats, and a profile of the route around Mousa can be viewed here: Profile of Mousa walk. As it is a RSPB reserve, you have to stick to the designated path to protect the ground nesting birds.

We arrived at the broch last and explored it without too many people in the way, as most people went to the broch first, then walked round the island. Mousa was good, it was warm with plenty of blue sky, in fact there was a bit too much sun at times when trying to get photos of the broch, as the glare of the sea caused problems. Returning to the boat from the broch, you pass a seat made out of driftwood. The location of the seat is significant, not because it is next to the path, but because it marks the 60 degree latitude line. We returned to mainland at 15:30. That was our first visit to Mousa Broch, but I had arranged for another visit the following day, much to Elaine's dismay.

We stopped off on our way to Lerwick at Cunningsburgh at a farm shop for a late lunch at 16:30. After lunch we headed to Lerwick to pick Fiona up from work and she would give us directions to her home in South Nesting, a 20 minute drive north of Lerwick.

Just after we finished our evening meal, Kris got a message to say Orca had been spotted, and there might be a small chance of seeing them. We weren't going to see them sitting in the house, we decided a small chance of seeing Orca was better than no chance at all. We headed south for an hour to see them briefly at Spiggie as they passed through the Muckle Sound just as the sun was setting, before heading off to St Ninian's Bay where Kris predicted they might be heading.

We were about to give up at St Ninians's Bay, it was 22:50 and the light was fading and then we saw them again, in the last available light for photography. I managed to get a shot with the Canon 1D, 70-200mm lens & 2x convertor. I set the camera to its maximum ISO of 3200, the lens wide open at f5.6 and managed to get a shutter speed of 1/80th second which was just fast enough to capture an Orca next to some cliffs some 200 yards away.

A Channel 5 cameraman who had been following the Orcas was set up next to me filming them as well.

We didn't get back until after midnight, you could drive the car without any headlights and you wouldn't notice the difference, it was that light. The only noticeable difference was the cats eyes in the road weren't reflecting the car headlights.

Day 5

Wed 27th June

Woke up to a very misty day, Kris predicted it would burn off and be a scorcher, and he was right, the fog burnt off by 12:00.

With Kris on holiday for the rest of the week, we had our own personal guide. He took us to:

Mavis Grind were the main road passed through a narrow strip of land (60m) that separates the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea.
Dor Holm Island off Stennes.
Lunch at Braewick Cafe.
The lighthouse at the South Head of Caldersgeo.
Photography exhibition at Hillswick, where some of Kris's bird photos were on display.

Returning home and with half a tank of fuel left, we stopped off at the local shop near Nesting which had also had a couple of petrol pumps. We filled the car up with petrol which was 141.9p per litre, 12p per litre more than back home. Luckily that was the only petrol we had to buy during our visit. We did 360 miles on Shetland averaging 38mpg, 540 miles in total averaging 40mpg. Just as well we didn't take my car, as I would have struggled to get 20mpg, and filling up at 141.9p per litre would have set me back over £140.

That night saw us on our second visit to Mousa Broch. Elaine's dismay had been replaced with excitement, as this time the visit was to see the Storm Petrels as they come back to roost under the cover of darkness for protection. They roost in the broch, nearby dry stane dykes and the stony beach near the broch. There are about 12,000 pairs of Storm Petrels on Mousa. It was a full moon that night, but thick mist obscured the moon. We just saw fleeting glimpses of it. That was good for the birds, but not good for any moonscape photography I had hoped to get. I took a couple of shots with the Canon 1Ds, and the rest was with the Sony HX90V on a mini table tripod on the top of the broch or with the GoPro on the main tripod at the base of the broch filming the birds returning to the broch. Elaine and I spent most of our time at the top of the broch, while Kris and Fiona preferred to spend their time outside the broch.

The birds reminded me of bats as they darted about the broch, they even flew into people they were that erratic. Elaine had one land on her shoulder. We could hear the birds churring within the walls of the broch.

The trip lasted 3 hours, we left at 22:30, and didn't return until 01:30 and we didn't get back home until after 02:00. We were all quite tired, and Fiona had to work the next day, but it was all worthwhile for such a wonderful experience.

Day 6

Thu 28th June

Today was my birthday. Kris didn't come with us as he was baking a cake for Fiona since it was her 50th birthday tomorrow.

We planned to head west and visit Stanydale Temple and the Scord of Brouster, but due to a navigational error, we ended up in Port Arthur at Scalloway. Reviewing our options, instead of travelling 23 miles to the Scord of Brouster, we decided to go to Banna Minn beach instead, as it was only 8 miles away. We crossed 2 reasonable sized bridges on the way, but they were only single carriageway, so you had to give way to oncoming traffic. This was a bit surprising, as the main roads on Shetland are really good.

Within 15 minutes of our arrival, just after 13:00, the skies cleared. That brought out the colours in the water in the bay, a brilliant turquoise colour. Realising there were now decent photo opportunities to be had, I went back to the car for the Canon 1Ds and selective camera gear. I got some good photos of the beach and of the ruined settlements at Minn, before climbing to a hill top to see Fugla Stack. We took a slightly different route back and got hounded by Arctic Terns. Luckily they didn't actually attack us. There were also Arctic Skua, Oyster Catchers, Plovers and Shetland Wrens. It was a good afternoon, the navigational error turned out to be fortunate.

We got back to the house at 18:00, and after a quick shower and change of clothes, we went to an Indian restaurant in Lerwick for my birthday tea. Kris took his car, so I could have a celebratory birthday drink with my meal.

Day 7

Fri 29th June

We had an early start, we left the house at 7:40 with Kris & Fiona to get the ferry to Yell. Patches of blue were already starting to appear in the sky. After a short drive, we arrived at ferry terminal at Toft with 10 minutes to spare, the skies were still clearing.

It was a short crossing to Ulsta on Yell, taking approximately 20 minutes. The skies had pretty well cleared by now and there was blue sky everywhere, but a strong cool wind kept the temperatures down.

We crossed Yell without stopping to get to Gulcher for the ferry to Belmont on Unst, this crossing is only 10 minutes.

We only stopped once on the way to Hermaness, at the infamous Bobby's Bus Shelter for photos, the current theme was the suffragettes. After a few photos, we continued to Hermaness National Nature Reserve where we walked about a mile across the point to the cliffs which overlooked Muckle Flugga Lighthouse.

We retraced our steps and headed up to the radar station at Head Saxa Vord for closer views of the lighthouse. We stopped off at Loch of Cliff near Burrafirth for lunch, where we saw approximately 400 Great Skua (Bonxies), it is actually quite a rare sight to see so many together.

Leaving Head Saxa Vord, we stopped off at a couple of locations on the way back to the ferry terminal at Belmont:

The Skidbladner Viking longship and Viking longhouse.

Muness Castle.

Fiona had booked the ferry at 16:50 to make sure we got off Unst in time for heading out later that evening. The ferry is quite small and has limited capacity and can quickly fill up when busy. We couldn't afford to miss that crossing.

We briefly stopped at a beach near West Sandwick as we crossed Yell to get back to the ferry terminal at Ulsta.

We returned home via Sullom Voe Oil Terminal where Kris works. I had it on my photography list, but wanted a dusk shot of it, but that didn't happen due to lack of dusk!

After a quick shower and a change of clothes, we headed out to celebrate Fiona,s 50th at Busta House in Busta, near Brae. I drove this time to allow Kris to celebrate Fiona's birthday with a drink. Kris's homemade cake was a surprise for Fiona, and anybody that ate it. It was a good first attempt at baking, and nobody died after eating it, I will leave it at that.

Day 8

Sat 30th June

We arrived in Lerwick for approximately 12:30 under clear blue skies. The skies had cleared early that day, it was probably the best day of the week.

We visited Clickimin Broch, one of the last items on my list, then the nearby Tesco's for another meal deal.

Went to the old part of Lerwick and parked at the harbour. We had about 3 hours before our parking ticket ran out, so we wandered around the old streets and some shops. We watched the start of the Pantaenius Shetland yacht race back to Bergen and wandered along to the old harbour area.

Elaine had borrowed my old Sony HX9V for the holiday. Thinking she was getting attacked by beasties, she flailed her arms about to get rid of them, only for the camera to go flying out of her hand, smashing the LCD screen when it landed on the cobbles. The camera still takes photos, but without a working screen, it is totally unusable.

Arriving at the ferry terminal at 16:50, queues were already forming even though boarding didn't start until 17:00.

By about 17:15 we had boarded. We were put on the lower deck this time, which was quite cramped with cars parked everywhere to make the most of the limited space. One of the last cars parked had a cat in it, which was left there overnight. It had a litter tray in the passenger foot well, a basket, and food and water. The cat wasn't happy, and hid in the drivers foot well, with all the noise and vibrations it must have been pretty scared.

The ferry left Lerwick at 18:45, it was much busier than the trip to Shetland. On the way out of the harbour, it launched its fast rescue boat as part of a routine exercise, retrieving it again 15 minutes later, after it had completed its manoeuvres, all the time being watched and photographed by passengers along the side of the ship.

The sailing was slightly rougher, but there was no ill effect this time. We saw Mousa Broch from the ship as we passed the Island of Mousa. We stayed out on deck admiring the Shetland coast, until the ferry cleared Shetland, then we headed inside to the rear lounge area of the ship.

I managed an evening meal, macaroni cheese and chips as it could be easily eaten with just a fork, allowing me to see the ships handrail and the horizon, instead of concentrating on the contents of my plate. This allowed me to relate the motion of the ship and the horizon, with what I was feeling.

We stayed there until sunset 22:30, when Elaine went to her pod and I grabbed some last photos before retiring to my pod. On the way to Shetland, only about 8 pods were occupied, all 36 were occupied on this trip.

I finally settled down at 02:15, so I wasn't going to get much sleep again.

Day 9

Sun 1st July

We were awoken by a PA announcement at 06:00 announcing our imminent arrival at Aberdeen. The skies were cloudy, but were showing signs of clearing up.

As a car driver, I was ready to disembark at 06:45. The upper car deck had to clear first, so I had to wait until 06:55 before we were allowed access to the lower car deck.

The cat was still in the drivers foot well, but a tap on the window and it was up on the seat mewing away to me. The car which was right in front of the ramp to the main car deck left first, followed by the one to my left. There was just enough room for me to manoeuvre round the cat car in front of me to get out next. The woman had arrived back at her car and the cat was now sitting contented on her lap as I left.

I returned to the ferry to get my breakfast, before we disembarked to head off home. The skies had pretty well cleared by the time we left Aberdeen.

We were back in Perth by about 10:45, clear skies by now and it was really hot, our Shetland holiday now just a memory.

I would definitely go back to Shetland, but tour it by motorhome to make the most of the time available. There is so much to see, you need to use your time wisely to make the most of your visit.

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