Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Scalloway, Shetland Islands

Two days ago we made the 65 mile passage from Sanday in the northern Orkney's to St. Ninians Bay on the southwestern end of the Sumburgh Peninsular. A cold and rough trip, hard on the wind the whole way, in a Force 4 - 5 northerly wind. But what a spectacular place to anchor. A mile wide bay, steep cliffs dotted with nesting birds, grass covered slopes to the east and west and a bright yellow scimitar sand beach at the head. Yesterday we motor sailed against the north wind 15 miles up the Peninsular to the old town of Scalloway set at the end of a winding passage between islands. Scalloway was once the capital of the Shetlands as evidenced by the massive fortified 16 century castle at the head of the harbour.

Our last report was from Shapinsay where we spent three days before moving north to Sanday one of the richest agricultural islands in the Orkney's. It is also the richest in terms of archaeology with many sites from 6000 years ago through to Viking times. One that we visited was the burial site of a Viking longship discovered in 1991 complete with three skeletons and a trove of jewelry and an iron sword.

We had to make a carefully timed passage north through the 3/4 mile wide Sound between Sanday and Eday and on to Pierowall Harbour on Westray. The tide races through the Orkney's and although we thought that we would be in the narrows at relative slack water we ended up shooting through at 10 knots. An energy company is in the process of testing various sites around the Orkney's for the installation of tide driven power generation. Several years ago we saw such an installation by the same company in the Strangford Loch in Northern Ireland. Very impressive. Wind farms are a common site around the Orkney's and no wonder.... rolling hills to create uplift and it's always windy. They are more common in the Shetlands where there is even more wind and steeper hills.

Westray is probably the most dynamic of the Orkney Islands. Population about six hundred. Productive cattle and sheep farms, an offshore crab fishing fleet with a processing factory at Pierowall, several excellent craft shops selling their fine wool/silk/cotton clothing over the internet, a major salmon farming operation based in Pierowall that provides well paying work for young men, an offshore trawler that lands it's catch for processing in the town and distribution throughout the Orkney's and, finally, a bakery that supplies bread, biscuits throughout the Orkney's and often to Lerwick and mainland Scotland. The UK suffers from being a welfare state, but in these Islands and the Shetlands, the work ethic and sense of enterprise is alive and kicking.

We had some great walks on Westray while we waited for a change from the northeast wind. On one hike to the north shore we came across rows and rows of low (3 foot) stone walls. Later we found out that they were used in the late 1880's to dry seaweed which was exported to the UK for the manufacture of a variety of products including explosives, perfume, soaps and more. This was a major source of revenue for the governing Lairds of the Islands.

There is a recently refurbished museum in Scalloway telling the history of the fishing booms in herring, then cod followed by haddock. All that is now history and there is now only one trawler working out of the port. Much of the museum is devoted to the dramatic WWII exploits of The Shetland Bus. When Germany invaded Norway in 1942 many Norwegians escaped in fishing boats and most headed for the Shetlands. Over the next three years Norwegian sailors took fishing boats to Norway from Scalloway loaded with small arms, sabotage experts and radios. On the return trip they brought out refugees fleeing the Gestapo. The Norwegian Resistance tied up twelve battalions of Germans as Hitler become more convinced that England intended to launch an offensive in Norway. The Resistance blew up the German heavy water plant and put an end to German's development of an atomic bomb. To avoid German surveillance most of the to and fro traffic was in the winter months and many lives were lost to the fierce winter storms of the Norwegian Sea.

We have been to the Shetlands on other trips, but never to the west coast. We have only stopped at Lerwick en route to somewhere. So this time we are looking forward to one or two weeks of exploring the islands and bays of the northern Shetlands, visiting some of the old fishing villages and seeing some of the spectacular bird nesting cliffs.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Shapinsay, Orkney Isalnds

There was a forecast short period of light NE winds on June 9/10 so we made an overnight 110 mile passage from Loch Laxford, around Cape Wrath and then NE to the Orkney Islands arriving at the western end of Eynhallow Sound at 11:45 just as the tide turned favourable to carry us the final 15 miles through the rather tortuous channel down to Kirkwall, the principle town in the Orkney's. The following day the wind piped up again...15-20 knots from the NE. Southern U.K. has been lashed by rain and strong winds for the past month as one low pressure system after another comes up the Channel or the Irish Sea. Meanwhile, the north of Scotland has had reasonably fine weather and NE winds.

It has been thirty years since we were last in the Orkney's and much has changed....for the better. The rich soil of these low windswept islands have always yielded a good farm living. Much better than in nearby stony, rather barren, Scotland and Norway. The Pict's from Scotland took over the Islands from 500AD to 800AD only to be conquered by the Vikings from Norway and Denmark who settled here and used the islands as a base for annual raids down the west coast of Scotland and around Ireland. The islands are rich in archeological sites. The most famous is Skara Brae, a collection of interconnected low stone houses dating back to early Neolithic times (3100BC). It was partially uncovered by a big storm in 1850 that swept away the sand dunes covering the village and surrounding middens. Subsequent excavation revealed a treasure-trove of stone and bone implements. We took a bus trip out to Skara Brae on the western side of the Main Island and on the way back we took a tour of Maes Howe (2900BC), a burial mound, 24 feet high and 110 feet across. The large central chamber is capped by stone slabs, some weighing up to 30 tons. The whole structure was covered in water-proofing clay and then grass sod. The entrance is positioned so that sunset on the winter solstice shines a beam of light up the narrow low entrance tunnel and into the main chamber. A 40 minute walk away is the Ring of Brodgar, 60 standing stones (only 36 now standing)in a 310 foot diameter circle created around 2500BC, five hundred years before Stonehenge!

Kirkwall is dominated by the huge, red stone St. Magnus Cathedral built in 1137 and still very much in use. Nearby, an excellent museum traces the occupation of the Islands through Neolithic to Bronze and Iron Ages and on to the history of the feudal control by a succession of Scottish Lairds after the gift of the Orkney's to Scotland when James V of Scotland married a Danish Princess.

There is a strong connection between the Orkney's and Canada. In the 18th century the Hudson Bay Company ships stopped here to take on crew and employees who signed on to work five year stints in the Company's trading posts across the Canadian north. John Rae, the famous explorer and the man who found the fate of John Franklin came from here.

Yesterday we moved 3 miles to a lovely sandy bay on the south side of the island of Shapinsay to sit out a nasty low that is tracking up the North Sea and will give us Force 6 NE winds tomorrow. In southern England several famous outdoor annual mid-June festivals have had to be cancelled. The land is too sodden!!

The Orkney's are rich in birds, both nesting and migratory, so today we took a long walk to one of the many RSPB R.e.serves to do a little birding. Along the way we got talking to the locals about farming. Shapinsay is famous for its Aberdeen Angus cattle. They fetch good prices in the UK as attested to by the substantial farm houses and new cars on the island. We plan to visit other Islands many of which we have been told also have well-to-do farming communities. All the islands are now connected by ferries and all have good community facilities, schools etc.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Summer Isles

This weekend, Whit, is usually taken as the beginning of summer in the UK. It is certainly so here in northern Scotland. The high pressure continues, the wind stays from the NE, no rain. Not so in southern England. It rained on the magnificent Thames River pageant which we watched on a big screen TV in a warm sunny pub in Ullapool along with a happy crowd there to drink it all in and especially to cheer on their own Ullapool four man gig that had gone down (by road) to row in the 1,000 boat flotilla. All good fun with lots of home cooked cakes, scones etc., kids running wild in dress-up "royal" costumes, rowing machines etc. Ullapool is a friendly place full of interesting welcoming people. Many are not from here but are attracted by the lifestyle....lots of community activities, two excellent book shops, great access to wilderness, including the nearby Summer Isles which must be one of the best kayaking locations in the UK. Winding waterways, big tide range (12 feet), many sandy beaches.

We spent three days in Ullapool, some of which was taken up with repairing the windlass. When we were retrieving the anchor in Inverewe the windlass gave out a horrible grinding, grating groan and stopped. The motor had fallen off, the spindle had fallen out and oil was running out. Three 6 mm bolts that hold the heavy motor in place had pulled out. We went to Ullapool and rushed to telephone the windlass manufacturer in Norway for their suggestions. It was Friday afternoon before a long weekend. Thankfully we got the boss who emailed instructions for disassembling the windlass, refilling it with oil and the suggestion that the three 6 mm be replaced with 8 mm bolts. Fifteen years ago it would have been easy to find a machine shop in Ullapool that was servicing the then thriving fishing fleet. Today all that is no more. The nearest help would be a 2 hour bus ride to Inverness. Well it so happened that in Oban I had spent a day showing a young man (and his wife and two littl'uns) how to sail their recently purchased 45 foot yacht. Their previous boat was 24 feet. They were most grateful. His father is a fisherman (langostines and crab) out of Ullapool so we called for advice. Two hours later we were having drinks in a pub with the father, his wife and a friend who had the required tapping tools and a drill press. Eight AM the next morning he picked me and the windlass up at the dock and off we went to an old stone barn that was now used by him and a friend building wooden boats. There, amidst the lovely smells of wood chips, oils and varnish we did "the necessary" and the windlass is again fully functional. Later that morning everyone came out to the boat for coffee. The fisherman and wife told how grateful they were for the help given their son, the boat builder was delighted to explore Taonui as he is in the process of restoring a 45 foot steel yacht, and we were more that happy to have the machining work done and that afternoon we all gathered at the pub to watch the Pageant on the Thames. There is an accepted truth amongst yachties "what goes around comes around".

Earlier last week we visited the world famous gardens at Inverewe. Masses of rhododendrons of all colours, tall mature trees from around the world and a carefully tended walled garden of flowers and vegetables...and with the warm weather, midge's!!. These are even smaller than no-see-ums and can they bite!