Abby explores North Mainland with James Tait of Island Trails
by Abby -
The best piece of travel advice I've ever been given was to 'seek local knowledge'. Throw away the guidebooks, stop looking at your iPad/smartphone and all the techie gadgets we carry and speak to someone face-to-face who knows the place, has up-to-the-minute advice, top tips and can tell a great yarn. There's no better person than local crofter (he is the 6th generation of his family to live in the Bigton area) and tour guide, James Tait of Island Trails, to accompany you on a Shetland voyage of discovery. He is worth every penny (and more) for his exceptionally interesting bespoke tours. I was booked, with 3 other ladies, on the North Mainland Tour. We all got on incredibly well, there was lots of laughter throughout the day, James was the perfect host and I loved using old school maps to navigate our way around the area - so much more fun than a Sat Nav. Come on then, all aboard James's uber comfy Berlingo and let me share some of the highlights we experienced during a magical day up north, including a story about Geirhilda, daughter of Flokie of the Ravens...
Are you sitting comfortably with a packet of Hobnobs and a nice cup of tea? Let me tell you about the story of a Scandinavian girl, Geirhilda, whose father was famous Norseman Flokie Vilgerdarson aka Flokie of the Ravens. Geirhilda was very much in love, but her father disapproved of her man and one day after meeting with her lover, Geirhilda returned across the Loch of Girlsta but sadly, she drowned. She was buried on a holm (island) in Girlsta Loch, which was named after her. By the by, Floki of the Ravens sailed to Iceland and the story of the three ravens and the part they played in the discovery of the island is not to be missed...Now over to James - he'll share the fascinating story when you meet!
Back in the Berlingo and off we go to Mavis Grind (means 'narrow isthmus/gate') where the Atlantic & North Sea meet - a narrow gateway to beautiful Northmavine (look out for the Hollywood style 'welcome' sign!). Back in the day boats were hauled across this narrow isthmus as a shortcut between fishing grounds. This location is significant area for Geopark Shetland, home to Eshaness Lighthouse perched on the rim of volcanic cliffs (I stayed here and it's a superb get-away-from-it-all, especially during the winter!) and there's an incredible and very easy circular walk - a truly wonderful and explosive volcano trail to be discovered which is a highlight of any trip to Shetland. We ambled along the cliffs, learnt about the geology of the area and everyone in the group was stunned by the ignimbrite boulders thrown up during violent storms and the beauty of Calder's Geo - an inlet gouged out by the sea. The sight of Fulmars floating on air currents, above the raging sea below, was breathtaking. The stunning wild landscape will definitely blow you away...Image: me standing fast and trying not to be blown away at Eshaness!
We stopped awhile at fascinating Tangwick Haa Museum, built in the late 17th century for the first Cheynes of Tangwick (Shetland vintage heaven, open from April-September). I loved the Laird's room which is furnished as a traditional sitting room from the 19th century using many locally sourced exhibits.The gift shop is superb - look out for delicious locally made Rhubarb jam for sale (didn't last long back home!) and don't forget to meander in the garden, too - an idyllic place for a picnic. Did you know: Haa means the house of the laird?
At Tangwick Haa we discovered this technical looking machine, featured in the above image. Any ideas what this machine does?! (The answer is on the Promote Shetland Facebook page) Hint: cosy toes!
All aboard the Berlingo - we're off again to hear about John Williamson, better known as Johnnie Notions - an uneducated man, but a man who could turn his hand to virtually anything, including his pioneering method of innoculating aganst smallpox in the 18th century (James will tell you how he made the vaccine involving peat smoke, camphor, cabbage leaves and a small knife made by his own hands). Johnnie saved over 3000 lives (M - a lady from Australia, also on the tour, was taught about this famous Shetlander at Medical School back home across the pond!) Top tip: If you're on a budget: Johnnie Notions camping böd (he use to live here) is an excellent place to stay. (click here for information re: camping böds)
We were famished after all this touring and talking and where better to stop than Braewick Cafe, Northmavine? Soup, cake and a good old natter about life in Shetland - past and present, and a spine tingling story of love and fate was shared by James. We heard how Robert Nicolson and Elizabeth Anderson met - a love story set across the islands of Unst and Fetlar - involving a daring rescue mission, a Sea Eagle and a baby girl found in a nest...Want to hear this story? You know the drill - book a trip with James and find out more! The image shows myself and James posing in front of the towering sea stacks - Da Drongs (can be seen from the cafe and just above my right ear in the photo!)....Top tip: Rent a fun wooden wigwam at Braewick (the beach is cut down the middle by a major fault)
We visited sheltered Stennes, location of a thriving Haaf fishing station and community from the 1800s. James told us the sad tale of a wicked laird and a poor woman who had lost her husband at sea and received meagre compensation, only for the laird to demand money from her - for the loss of the boat and tackle, to which she replied, 'your loss can be made up, my loss can never'. A local hero - a lawyer, represented her for free and successfully set about the laird....The large roofless house in the foreground is the böd - the merchant's trading base and accommodaton in the summer haaf fishing season. The merchant, often working in league with the laird always had the best digs!
We carried on to Sullom Voe (now home to an oil terminal) and we learnt about how North Sea oil changed Shetland life and about the heroic John Cruickshank, a Flying Officer based at Sullom, who won a Victoria Cross for attacking and sinking a German U-boat. His incredible bravery is astounding - when the depth charges failed to drop from his Catalina Flying boat, he returned a second time without hesitation and was met with intense fire. The U-boat was sunk and it took over five hours to return back to base. He was so badly injured he had to have a blood transfusion before he left his plane.... We also learnt about the Shetland story behind the World War II song 'run rabbit, run rabbit, run! run! run!' Did you know that this song was inspired by an German attack on the RAF Flying boat base at Sullom Voe in 1939? However, the Germans missed the boats and in defiance a photo was taken of a local with a dead rabbit - the only casualty! The rabbit was in fact brought in from elsewhere!
Crikey, there's so much more to share - the far reaching views (and Mars like scenery) from the top of Collafirth Hill to Fitful Head, Unst and Muckle Flugga Lighthouse. The incredible sight of Ronas Hill - Shetland's highest point...The impromptu visit to Sunday Teas at Hillswick Hall (a Shetland tradition and an absolute must-do) was a fantastic highlight of the day and everyone enjoyed the group playing traditonal Shetland fiddle music as we savoured our delicious homebakes. A real treat. We viewed the house where reclusive Magnus Bain (played by Emmy-winner Brian Cox) lived - chief suspect in the BBC crime thriller Shetland - penned by one time resident of Fair Isle, award-winning author Ann Cleeves (don't miss the Shetland Noir Festival in November). We learnt about the clearances in picturesque Weisdale, about the the great variety of scenery; both coastal and moorland and drank in the wow-factor views of Whiteness Voe and so much more besides (including where Edmund Hillary purchased his Shetland wool garments, knitted for the Everest expedition). But most importantly we all experienced a truly 'do-you-remember' day with a fascinating and gracious host. Thank you James.
Book a guided tour or walk with James and experience the real Shetland. Each tour is tailored for you and this makes it a very special experience and not to be missed. If there's a large group - James will hire a minivan. What I especially loved about the tour was that it was very customer focused and if there's something in particular you want to see or do in the area, James will make it happen. He didn't rush us around, he took time sharing his extensve knowledge of the islands and he's great fun to be with. What more can you ask for?! Website: Island Trails Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Telephone: +44 (0)7880 950228 Pssst don't try and call James via one Shetland's iconic red phone boxes you see scattered across the islands - it's time to get out your techie gadgets and contact Island Trails! Happy touring all x
Posted in: Exploring Shetland