Shetland Islands, Part III – Unst

After the busy and exciting events of Up Helly Aa it was time head north to much quieter pastures, in particular Hermaness and the rugged coasts at the top end of Unst. A mere 100km away the drive itself turned into its own little adventure. Three service stations, three rides on the Toft-Ulsta ferry the Daggri (that was two too many), a bemused but smiling ferry ticket man, another ferry, Muness Castle and the briefest moments of sunshine piercing the blanket of cloud which didn’t seem to move anywhere despite the impossibly string winds. I reached Norwick, the second most northerly town – if you can call it that with just a 1/2 dozen houses – in the UK, just on dusk. Pity it was only just after 4pm. Spent the afternoon evening listening to Radio 4 and reading Dark Star Safari.

Awoke to fresh snow dusted across the hillside like icing sugar and headed off to Hermaness National Nature Reserve. Home to 100 000 birds during the Spring and Summer, the Fulmars are the only birds to ride out the winter but their nests on the rugged, 150m high cliffs and rapidly changing weather make for dramatic scenery. Watching the storms roll in from the North Atlantic was quite a sight, until the it hit you in the face with thousands of tiny knives – snowflakes driven by the wind. Double thermals, shirt, jumper and a GoreTex jacket and the wind was still getting through so I took refuge in the remains of a viking building for a moment while the Fulmars floated on the updrafts created by the cliffs, seemingly oblivious to the changing weather.

At the far northern tip of Hermaness, just off the coast, are the last stops before the North Pole, Muckle Flugga and Out Stack. Unfortunately by the time I made it here I was down to my last few shots, my hands were somewhat numb and the light was fading fast. I did happen to stumble across some amazing icicles of  sorts though. In a gully the wind had driven the rain uphill where it had frozen, creating stalagmite like structures on the grass.

On my final day in the Shetland I was greeted with more fresh snow for my drive back to Lerwick. On the way I said hello to some more locals (Shetland ponies), more sheep, possibly the only forest in all of Shetland and an amazing sunset. I must have made a few too many side trips and combined with snowy roads all the way back to Lerwick  it made for a slow journey and I managed to miss my ferry – I don’t seem to have the best of luck with Shetland ferrys. Luckily though, there was also a cargo ferry leaving later that evening. Goodbye Shetland Islands. I’ll go back sometime but in the summer.

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Shetland Islands, Part II – Up Helly Aa

On the last Tuesday of January for every year since 1882, Lerwick has held a torchlight procession which from humble beginnings has grown to feature over 1000 Guizers today and is now considered the largest fire festival in Europe. It was this that heavily influenced my trip to Shetland.

After a late lunch I needed to kill some time before the main event in the evening I just happened upon the Shetland museum as the Guizer Jarl and his squad were making a visit.  It was a good chance to get up close with the Jarls and check out their viking costumes and weapons. The Jarl Squad consists of 16-25 Guizers dressed in their viking suits and each year hold a new shield designed to fit the chosen theme. The chosen weapon can vary from axes, swords, spears, daggers, bows and crossbows.

The street lights are turned off leaving the Jarls basking in the rich glow of their torches. The main Jarl squad is followed 45 other squads totaling nearly 1000 Guizers ranging from police, priests and punks to stormtroopers and superheroes plus plenty of cross dressers who are responsible for Up Helly Aa’s “Transvestite Tuesday” nickname.

The procession makes it way through the streets for about a 1km in front of thousands of onlookers before gathering at the burning site where the 1000+ Guizers hurl their torches onto the galley which after taking local craftsmen months to construct goes up in smoke in minutes.

With the galley burnt to a crisp the night is just beginning. All 45 Jarl squads including the Guizer Jarl and his squad make their way to 12 halls which have been set up for a solid evening of merrymaking, singing, drinking, eating and dancing which continues until 8am the next morning which fortunately brings a public holiday.

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Shetland Islands, Part I – The Mainland

I’m digging into the archive for this first real post but it has only been rather recently that I managed to process these shots.

Backtracking for a bit. It was December ’08 and HR at work had decided it was cracking down staff accumulating excess holidays. All my flat mates already had other plans or none of their own holidays remaining so after much deliberation I decided on somewhere slightly different, the Shetland Islands. My penchant for rugged, faraway places winning me over but more importantly, the timing of my visit would include Up Helly Aa, a celebration of the Shetland Islander’s heritage. What’s not to like about festival full of vikings and fire? More on that later.

Getting to the islands from London was half the fun. A quick ride to Euston Road station only to realise I my train left from Kings Cross, I managed jump on the tube and scramble to my train just as it was about to pull out. No seconds to spare that time. The 6 hour journey to Aberdeen via Dundee was quite enjoyable; plenty of nice scenery along the way. After quick change of trains in Dundee I spent the afternoon drinking coffee and taking in the Aberdeen vibe before boarding the overnight ferry to Lerwick.  I was too cheap to pay for a bed for the night but found myself a nice, long lounge for what turned out to be a very rough journey. I later learned this was the first ferry to sail in 3 or 4 days due to bad weather.

Given the size and sparseness of the islands public transport wasn’t going to cut it so I hired a car; much easier to get around but also somewhere to retreat to from the amazing winds. Despite the islands relatively mild winter – balmy compared to London – the wind cuts right through you; double thermals, shirt, jumper and a goretex jacket was no match some points. The timing of my visit to the island meant I was enjoying some of the shortest days I’d ever experienced. Sun up at 9am and dark by 4pm meant I had to be productive with my daylight hours but it did leave plenty of time for a few beers at the pub. The main island simply called Mainland, held plenty of interesting sights, Sumburgh Head and the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Eshaness, countless hidden coves and beaches usually occupied by some lazy seals or otters  and a few Shetland ponies.

Standing on the cliffs at Eshaness I felt like I was looking at from the edge of the world. There is an endless battle here between age old volcanic rock and a tireless North Atlantic. Nothing west for a couple thousand kilometers – either southern Greenland or Canada. The windiest place I have ever visited.

Two things so far had stuck me about the Shetlands Islands, their sparseness with a population of only 22,000 you could have whole stretches of coastline to yourself to enjoy and also hospitality of the people I did meet, whether in the pub or passing them on the road.

More Shetland to come.

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A Quiet Introduction

Hello and welcome to my tiny corner on the web. I’m glad you made it here.

I’m a photographer of sorts; landscapes and travel related subjects attract most of my attention.  Here I hope to share some of my past and hopefully future works and probably some musing on the camera world in general.

You can read a little about me here and browse a bunch of photos on flickr.

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