Right, so somehow I got the idea into my head that camping in January in Shetland was a great idea.
…it probably wasn’t, but that didn’t stop us from having a blast.
My boyfriend of two years, Jeremy, flew over from Canada to visit me for a few weeks, and the Sunday after he got here we packed up all the rented camping gear we had and took a train to Aberdeen where we caught the ferry to Lerwick, Shetland.
Immediately upon boarding the Northlink Ferry, we were given a free shot of whiskey, of course, because obviously it was Robbie Burns day. It definitely felt like a good omen for the trip ahead (and was the first of many whiskeys downed!!). Our vessel was called the HRossey, whatever that means. It was an experience. We grabbed a bite and a drink at the ship’s bar then passed out because of the sleep-inducing motion sickness medication we’d taken (though the noise of the engine, which was right below us, certainly prevented us from having the best night’s sleep). The next morning we arrived at 7:30am while it was still pitch black; Shetland is sub-arctic and therefore has very little daylight hours in the winter. (*Note: sub-arctic. Yes. I know. This should have triggered a “do-not-camp-here” feeling in me. Whatever). We grabbed breakfast on the ship and then wandered out into the largest[/only] town on the entire archipelago, Lerwick. We checked quickly at the only hostel, Islesburgh House, to see if they had any availability (they didn’t—apparently they’d had bookings 14 months in advance) then started a quest to find a place to pitch our tent. It took us all day.
Finally, as the sun was going down, we came to the Sands of Sound beach, which had been recommended to us by one of the many many locals we’d asked. The sand allowed enough water drainage that it was pretty much the only spot of land that wasn’t boggy, and there was a decent amount of grass over that sand to make it easier to pitch on. Little close to the water and therefore windy, but at this point we knew everywhere on the entire island would be very very very very windy.
The first entry of the journal I kept while travelling ends with: “We finally set up camp as the sun was setting. We have a nice view 🙂 Hope we don’t die.”
The next morning, January 27th, was both of our birthdays! I turned 21 and Jeremy turned 22. We blearily clambered into town for a delicious brunch at Coffee & Keetchen, then found the main square because it also so happened to be the day of Up Helly Aa and we were looking to join in the festivities. In the main square they had a giant hand-painted billboard up for the day, a ‘proclamation’ from the Jarl, which was basically just a big board of inside jokes for Shetlanders.
We had some time to kill before the later processions and so we wandered out to the Clickimin Broch.
Once again, the UK shocked me with how little importance they place on ancient structures (simply a symptom of having so damn many, in my opinion), because we were allowed to climb up on top and around the broch.
Since going out to Clickimin brought us close-ish to our tent we went quickly to check that it hadn’t blown away (it hadn’t, but this was a genuine concern of ours). Our campsite’s neighbours, two Shetland ponies and a large horse named Paddy, were very excited to see us.
Then we returned to the town centre and went into the Lounge Bar, where we could hear a toe-tappin, hand-clappin music session going on just upstairs… obviously we therefore went to the upstairs portion of the bar. There was an accordion, a fiddle, a guitar, a drum, and various people singing vocals (plus probably other instruments, I don’t know). The music was fantastic. A guy in a kilt was dancing. It was so Scottish. There we met a couple from Glasgow who were visiting family in Lerwick for the festival. We also met Theo, a man who is also born on January 27th. Like, what even. He was pretty excited about the fact that the weird-looking Canadians who were insane enough to be camping in the winter had the same birthday as him and that that day was today, so he went around the entire bar telling people about us. Many people wished us a happy birthday on their way out 🙂 Theo told us about how the Jarl had visited his mother 65 years ago on Up Helly Aa day while she was in labour… the Guisers (the people who dress up as vikings) spend Up Helly Aa day visiting schools, hospitals, and the like. Anyway, since it was Up Helly Aa day, the bar was closing at 4pm, but on his way out Theo gave us his address and told us that he’d give us free accommodation because he thought we were stupid for camping, but actually our tent was pretty cozy so we thanked him but declined. He was going to be spending his night in a Hall, which sounds like the place to be. Apparently the Halls, which are only open to those with tickets or specific invites, serve drinks all night. Literally booze until 8am. Also vikings. Standard, really.
Before the sky darkened enough for the torchlight processions to start, we grabbed fish&chips at the chippy that was right above the parking lot where the Viking Galley was on display. Then the Junior Procession started… They gave small children in costumes—most of which impede their eyesight and all of which are extremely flammable—giant flaming torches. Safety first! Gotta learn ’em young, I suppose.
We were glad to have watched the Junior Procession because we were able to gather the gist of the operation, namely that the First Ranks (in the Juniors’ case, the eldest boys) were clothed as vikings and the rest dressed up in whatever costume they liked… we saw chickens, lumberjacks, disco dancers, a fish… Then the First Ranks pushed the Galley along the procession route while yelling “oggy-oggy-oggy,” which had an accompanying reply something along the lines of “aye” or maybe “och”, and the rest followed behind. (*Note: these children were accompanied by a few men dressed as vikings whose sole job was to make sure that no one caught fire). They brought the Galley to a park and threw their torches on and that was that for the children.
At this point Jer and I grabbed snacks and drinks (and a coffee for me) at Paparazzi, a hilariously-inaccurate American themed restauraunt. We made it back to the procession ground just in time for the actual procession and climbed up onto a wall with some locals for a better view… DAMN it was cool. We watched the 8-10 hundred torches wander back and forth to a campy marching band. They walked directly by us with the Galley and torches—the sparks were falling like snow and being whipped around by the wind. Eventually they all circled into the park, did some singing and hip-hip-hooraying, then tossed all the torches on (after the Jarl had stepped out, thankfully). The Galley went up in flames and fireworks went off, sending more sparks and ash flying into the crowd. We watched the ship blaze for a while then struck for our wee beachy home.
The next morning pounded us with very very wet snow as we walked into town, soaking my not-exactly-waterproof overtrousers and the hood of Jeremy’s hoodie. Most things, including the Tesco, were closed the day after Up Helly Aa, but we went back to Paparazzi and stayed for a couple of hours planning for the following day. Jer had a mutton burger and I had an amazing Canadian-themed burger (maple syrup and bacon, obvs). We were planning on leaving Lerwick the next day to spend our last two nights somewhere else, so with the pamphlet from the tourist centre that listed all the campsites on the island we found the closest campground and figured out how to bus there (and figured out the return trip on Saturday so we could catch our ferry home). It was called the Westings Inn and Campsite; I called them and asked if we could camp and they said sure.
Finally all organized and mostly dry, we packed up and went home to find the snow had stuck and was covering our tent! Quickly scraped it off but our trusty little tent was still dry on the inside. Then we wandered down the beach a bit but the oncoming darkness and the increasing angle of the rocks left us with nowhere much to go, so we returned to the tent to our books.
January 29th we packed up with a surprisingly little amount of wet gear and stopped for a quick breakfast at the chiptruck in the Tesco parking lot nearby, then hopped on a bus near the ferry terminal towards the west. Got off at a random junction (the bus driver knew where it was) off the main highway that pointed to two “towns”… actually just two short roads with about 8-10 houses each, right beside each other… that was Nesbister and Wormasdale! Haha. We were momentarily lost but once I got cell service again (towards the top of a hill), I called the Westings and got directions. The inn and campsite were just a few hundred yards uphill on the highway.
We got there and the man, Bill, pointed us to the “campsite” that’d been listed on the “Campsites in Shetland” pamphlet, and told us to pick between that sodden corner of ground on a wee precipice and the patch of grass in the parking lot… hmm. Not ideal, especially since they hadn’t mentioned on the phone that their inn and therefore their campsite were on a brow in a bowl-shaped valley that descended down to the water far far below… it was basically a wind funnel. We kicked around at the snow for about 30 seconds, trying to decide which shit piece of grass was better, before his wife came out. She pointed to the campervan in the parking lot and told us that they were selling it in the spring, and that even though it had no heating, electricity, or gas, it’d be dry and less windy inside if we wanted to use it, at no extra cost. We readily agreed. Bill even set up the electricity for us so we could use the lights.
We wandered into a very close town—actually just another grouping of houses—called Whiteness, where there was a little grocery shop. The slogan underneath the name of the shop was “Beer, Wine, Spirits, Grocery, Fresh Meat.” Gotta love those priorities. Ate Orkney cheddar and crackers and some trail mix for dinner, then went to the Westings bar which adjoined the inn and began drinking Simmer Dim, a Shetland ale (“simmer dim” is what they call the darkness in the summer months because it doesn’t get completely dark). Gordie, the bartender, lived in the flat adjoining the owners’ house and the inn. He, along with the inn’s pet sheep, was our neighbour. Oh, also, this was the first night the bar had been open in a while because a windstorm a week or two prior had blown part of their roof off and water had mucked up all their electronics. Yay. So glad we weren’t in a tent those two nights.
That Westings Bar was quite the experience. Jer and I had never really been exposed to rounds and everyone there was very excited about the fresh blood that we brought in so they were extra eager to buy us drinks. At one point, Gordie said to me “the bar owes you three drinks” and I looked down at my half-full beer and just laughed. We met a couple, the lady of which was from Inverness, who were very kind and soft-spoken. We also met a guy called John and his adorable fox-terrier, Reuben, who was very friendly. There was another couple who had been big into rock-climbing and loved that Jeremy was still into it. There was also an awkward squirrely guy and the group of guys who didn’t move much but were decent guys and shyly nice… Foggy? Collin? Not sure what their names were. Foggy we call Double-Gin-and-Tonic-Guy because that was his drink. Anyway, we also talked to the bartender Gordon and the innkeep Bill. So we went hard and fast into a combination of Simmer Dim and the various whiskeys they had around and stayed late talking.
The next morning we slept in too late and were too hungover to get any significant walking done (we had been planning to embark on the 2.5-hour walk to Scalloway to see the castle there, but with the short short amount of daylight we would have had to leave very early), so we went for a wander along the highway just around the area we were in, and back down to the store for a few more bites to eat. Jer’s mini camping stove wasn’t exactly compatible with the gas canister we bought in Edinburgh and Gordie had mentioned that we could use his stove, so we confirmed this with him in the bar then went into his flat and cooked some soup and ate more cheese and crackers. Then we rejoined all our pals back in the bar, and met a few new people and another dog… apparently Gordie occasionally has a black lab named Tia, who was absolutely lovely. We didn’t stay long, we were both pretty tired, but John (Reuben’s owner) offered to drive us to the “Best Fish and Chips in the UK” which also happened to be the “Most Northerly Fish and Chips in the UK” (These are official titles, it wasn’t even just opinion… they had plaques and everything), and he’s offered to drive us back to Lerwick afterwards. We were obviously very down for this scenario, so we said goodnight and got a good(ish) night’s rest (it was the windiest night yet and very very loud).
The next morning we packed up all of our gear for the last time and waited for John to show up (and kept an eye on the bus timetable just in case he didn’t). He did show up, with Reuben, and right on time, but the plastic that was temporarily covering the Westings’ roof while they waited for repairs had ripped in last night’s wind so he offered to help Bill (who is older and also kind of afraid of heights) and enlisted Jeremy as a second pair of hands. They were up there for an hour or so as the snow gradually stopped and the sun came out to a beautiful view of the voe down below.
That done and all of us famished, Jer and I piled into John’s car with Reuben and drove out to Brae where we stopped at Frankie’s Fish and Chips. It did NOT disappoint
Next he drove us out to Eshaness Lighthouse, where the cliffs were absolutely spectacular. It was very very windy, which is funny because it was a calm day.
Afterwards we still had some time and John wanted to find somewhere warmer to walk Reuben (despite his wee coat, Reuben was a little too cold in the rain and wind), so we drove to the Burn of Lunklet. Apparently this burn is one of the largest in Shetland, complete with a little waterfall. It was very nice, and the sun began to go down as we walked back to the car.
Then John drove us into Lerwick and dropped us off at the ferry terminal and we said goodbye.
The ferry wasn’t ready for boarding yet so we dropped off our rucksacks and went back into town to pick up some cards then returned and boarded. No free whiskey this time 😦 but we finally got to have hot showers and Jer made the ramen he’d been craving all week, so all in all we were two very contented individuals. Then we read and ate Whiskey Fudge and other junk food as we waited for the ferry to leave (it was late departing). Went to sleep on our wee bunk-bed… they provided a rail for the top bunk which was a very good thing because it was a roughish crossing and we got pitched around quite a bit. The next morning we ate a huge breakfast in Aberdeen as we waited for our bus to Dundee (for some reason the train line was closed that day). Aberdeen is quite grey and dull but the surrounding countryside was beautiful as we drove out into the sunlight. We both dozed and got off blearily in Dundee and piled into the first pub we saw for a pint. Within five minutes of being in Dundee, someone asked me for directions… asked me if I knew where a certain Chinese restauraunt was. I responded with “no, can you tell me what street I’m on” in my obviously-foreign accent, which discouraged them from asking me for any more directions preeetty quickly. Watched some football in the pub then caught our train to Waverly then finally piled home and crashed.
Thoughts from Jer and I post-trip: 1) we will return at some point in the future when Up Helly Aa is on our birthday again 2) we won’t camp there again 3) Scottish people, specifically Shetlanders, are very very nice.
P.S. if you have any camping plans in the UK, I recommend this camping gear rental site; painless and cheap, with good quality gear: http://www.outdoorhire.co.uk/
And I deeeeefinitely recommend the Westings Inn to anyone planning on visiting Shetland… not glamourous at all but full of lovely lovely people, and the people (and the drink!) are the best part about Shetland.
Now, once we got home, we did some cool things and stuff in between when I was at work and in class.
1) Climbed Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise then walked down to Portobello to have breakfast on the beach, then walked back along the Innocent Railway Cyclepath (NOT psychopath):
2) Pub crawl! We went to four pubs before a party at my flat on Friday 🙂 It was fabulous.
a) The Abbey Bar, where I drank Dalwhinnie Highland Malt and Jeremy drank Isle of Arran dark lager
b) Clerk’s Bar, where I drank One Inch Punch IPA and Jeremy drank Drygate Bearface Lager
c) The Ensign Ewart, where I drank Addlestones Cloudy Cider and Jeremy drank Bellhaven Best
d) Dragonfly Cocktail Bar, where I drank a Bajan Basil cocktail and Jeremy drank a Riot Punch
We also tried out many many pubs around, which was a lot of fun. We’d just wander until we found something cool. So exciting. Jer’s gone home now and I definitely miss him, and miss drinking every night! Haha. Can’t wait to see you again in March, hun 🙂