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A Woodland Walk

by Alastair Hamilton -

Locals and visitors never tire of exploring Shetland’s 1,679 miles of coastline. Now and again, though, it makes a change to turn our attention inland, though that’s a relative term, as nowhere in Shetland is more than three miles from the sea.

One of my favourite walks is in Weisdale. It’s possible simply to walk up the road and explore the landscape to either side, or, with more time, a ridge walk to the west or east can be added. Either way, this is one of the most appealing parts of inland Shetland.

But we do start by the sea, because the southern part of Weisdale is occupied by the voe of the same name; and the view south is spectacular.

Close to the western shore, at Sound, is a ruined haa (or laird’s house) that was the seat of the Clunies-Ross family. In 1786, John Clunies-Ross was born here. He was to become a sea captain and he travelled far and wide, eventually settling in the Cocos (or Keeling) islands in the Indian Ocean, where, in 1827, he proclaimed himself King. Queen Victoria was later to grant the islands to the family, and what was essentially a private dictatorship survived through several generations. However, Australia obtained sovereignty in 1955 and eventually, in 1978, bought the islands and promised to end their feudal system. It’s a bizarre tale, though not entirely surprising, given Shetland folks’ past and present enthusiasm for travel and exploration.

From the head of the voe, a minor road threads its way northwards through the valley. Almost immediately, my eye was drawn as always, to the attractive community garden on the banks of the stream, below the Kirk. It was created by local volunteers with some help from BBC Scotland’s Beechgrove Garden team. There are seats here, too, if it feels like time for a rest.

But life in Weisdale wasn’t always so carefree. As I walk up the road, the shells of former croft houses up on the western side of the valley come into view. They have a story to tell, for this was the scene of one of the episodes of clearance that took place in Shetland in the 19th century. Crofters were evicted by the landowner to make way for sheep, in much the same way as happened in the Highlands.

The late John J. Graham wrote two novels about those times; this extract is from Shadowed Valley (1987):

The eviction notices threw the valley into a turmoil. Folk were used to sudden, even wanton, blows to their existence. They had become resigned to long tracks of bad weather, poor fishings, crop failures and the stony indifference of lairds to their poverty….But the thought of fifteen families being turned out of their homes was something beyond their comprehension.

Hard times indeed.

It’s a very different place today. Just a little farther on, there are several recent houses and, on the left, is the Bonhoga Gallery, housed in a former watermill. There’s always something to see here, for the gallery hosts art and craft exhibitions and there’s a good gift shop. But for the thirsty walker, the first port of call may well be the conservatory café overlooking the stream, serving up light meals, tempting cakes, great tea and coffee and, if you’re really lucky, the chance to spot a heron or an otter.

North of the mill, the landscape morphs into one unlike any other in Shetland, for here we enter the most extensive woodland in the islands. It all began with some tree planting around Kergord House, a mid 19th-century mansion, in the early years of the 20th century. Later, more plantations were created on both sides of the road and on the higher slopes to the west. In the 1950s, the Forestry Commission planted an experimental plot, which now holds very tall, straight and fully mature trees. Further planting began in the 1980s, in the form of extensions to the earlier plantations and the creation of a couple of new ones.

The largest plantation is known as Lindsay Lee and I always enjoy exploring it; there are stiles and rough paths to make it a bit easier. It’s a fairly easy scramble up towards the top, though you do have to navigate around a few fallen trees. The plantations are managed these days for nature conservation, by the Shetland Amenity Trust, and leaving some fallen wood is important to provide homes for more insects and minibeasts.

There’s a good range of trees throughout the plantations, including for example sycamore, alder, whitebeam, horse chestnut, birches, holly, laurel, Japanese larch, rowan and copper beech, plus some spruce and pine. There’s lots of variety in the ground cover, too, with ferns, brambles, wild flowers and many sorts of fungi. One or two of the sycamores were already showing their autumn colours.

Because the plantations demonstrate just how successfully trees can grow in Shetland, they’re a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Contrary to what’s sometimes suggested, the weather isn’t the main barrier to tree growth. Tree or shrub cover was widespread when people first colonised the islands some time after the last Ice Age. Today, the landscape looks the way it does because the tree cover was cleared for agriculture, grazing and firewood, since when sheep have mostly prevented natural regeneration of woodland.

The plantations at Kergord attract many birds, including some real rarities, such as the Caspian Reed Warbler, a first for Shetland, that turned up in 2012. Commoner sightings include blackbirds, chaffinches, blackcaps and chiffchaffs. A cuckoo may sometimes be heard and here, too, is Britain’s northernmost rookery; but the sound that accompanied my walk was mostly from a very vocal rooster in the plantation near Kergord House.

It was time for a rest, so I settled down in the ruin of one of those croft houses vacated during the clearances. Its fireplace is still in occasional use by folk who want to boil a kettle or heat some food. The tiffin from the Voe Bakery went down particularly well.

I returned to the road through the plantation near Kergord House, where the Shetland Amenity Trust maintains one of its tree nurseries. The focus is on species that are native to Shetland, like downy birch, willow, alder and hazel, but others that are known to do well are also grown.

Kergord House, formerly known as Flemington, is privately owned. However, during the Second World War it served as headquarters for the Shetland Bus operation, which supported the Norwegian resistance. Resistance workers were briefed and debriefed here and the garden was used for testing various devices used by resistance groups.

Northwards again, the road takes me past more plantations, Leagarth and Springfield (or Greenlea), the Forestry Commission plot. The road leads east from here, over the western ridge towards Sandwater, journey’s end.

This was an easy walk, but Shetland offers a huge range of walking opportunities to suit all abilities and with varying levels of challenge. What’s more, sensible laws mean that, provided we act responsibly, we have freedom to roam on moors, meadows, clifftops and, yes, woodland. Ease of access to all our magnificent scenery is very much part of Shetland life.

I take a last look back towards Weisdale; next time, it’ll be the ridge walk, but I’ll need a more generous supply of that terrific tiffin.

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