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By Chris DyerJanuary 27th 2022

Garths Croft Bressay owner Chris Dyer continues to explore the island of Bressay and recalls an early morning adventure through snow drifts and across frozen burns as the sun rose against a perfect sky on a crisp February morning.

It's 4.30am, calm, dark. An admittedly early start although it could be considered relative.

Fast forward three months to early May and the Simmer Dim is approaching, lending long hours of daylight, meaning there's no recourse to a headtorch for early morning checks of lambing sheep. However, the start of February is somewhat more challenging as the sun rises around 8am before setting shortly after 4pm.

Nevertheless, the Shetland adage that daylight hours seem to race ahead following the spectacle of Lerwick Up Helly Aa on the last Tuesday in January is certainly justified whilst by the end of February and the related Viking festivities on the island of Bressay, we are positively leaping with pre-emptive Springtime energy!

Sadly, there will be no Up Helly Aa festivities in Lerwick or Bressay in 2022 due to the impact of Covid-19.

Harbour lights twinkled across Bressay Sound and sheep settled down at night benefiting from the protective cover of former peat banks in the hill.

New Year resolutions can be perilous promises and 12 months ago I had set myself the challenge to explore more of the island of Bressay in new or interesting ways. Early February 2021 brought heavy snow and then a subsequent period of beautiful high pressure which heralded still conditions and consistently freezing temperatures ensuring that the white blanket over Shetland did not disappear.

For two weeks, the islands enjoyed scenery befitting of a Victorian Christmas card as lochs froze, harbour lights twinkled across Bressay Sound and sheep settled down at night benefiting from the protective cover of former peat banks in the hill. In Voe, 18 miles north of Lerwick, the temperature was such that the sheltered sea inlet froze and a boat was employed to "ice-break", clearing a navigable path to allow access to the pier.

As cloudless morning skies and bright, low winter sunshine, were almost guaranteed I developed a notion of taking in the sunrise at the southernmost point of Bressay, the Bard, looking out into the North Sea with the South Mainland stretching in front of me and, to the east, the National Nature Reserve of Noss.

This would be a fascinating culmination to the adventure as it is marked by one of two Great War six inch naval artillery guns and ammunition bunkers that defended the northern and southern approaches to Lerwick Harbour. Remarkably, after over a century they are still in situ, reflecting the true strategic significance of Shetland’s geographical position on the northern fringes of the United Kingdom and Europe during 20th century military conflicts. The northern counterpart to the Bard gun is at Aith Ness, Bressay, linked by the Anderhill watch tower atop which semaphore signals allowed communication between the sites and personnel.

Choosing a route to begin this exploration shortly after 5am was not straightforward, the lying snow concealing more commonly-trod footpaths and hill tracks. And so, as the grouse called from their heather-clad hillside cover and startled snipe wondered exactly what was going on at this hour of the morning, I set off, tramping through snow in rubber boots and climbing the western slopes of the Ward Hill above Garths Croft.

The visibility was perfect, despite the pitch dark, with bright, lying snowfall providing a slightly surreal illumination. The sheep, who I was anticipating would look for feed at any sign of human interaction, lay still as I aimed for the peat banks on the horizon of the Black Hill, a summit beyond which I would look down towards the drystone hill dyke surrounding the Veng. In summer months, this parcel of green reflects a historic settlement far away from modern patterns of dwellinghouses.

The Veng (which is the Old Norse word for meadow) was first recorded in a document of 1732 although doubtless has greater antiquity. It was the home in 1808 of James Lamb, who most famously escaped the clutches of the Press Gang by jumping over the cliffs and onto a hidden ledge where he survived, later moving with his family a short distance north to the now derelict settlement of Grimsetter.

Descending downhill to the Veng burn, I discovered a frozen valley and the only visible sign of water flowing was the air bubbles beneath a sheet of ice. The landscape was more akin to Narnia, as great stalactites encapsulated a landscape where time was standing still and the usual channels of water flow had been gloriously arrested by nature.

Care was needed to climb the incline out of the Veng and onto the Bard headland. During summer, the inland moorland is heavily populated by territorial great skuas, or bonxies, making a coastal route a priority! However, as the glow of the imminent sunrise grew against a now lightening sky, I chose the direct path, encountering the ruinous foundations of the Great War barrack hut accommodation. This was where those manning the gun resided whilst not on – and the site of a famous party following the cessation of hostilities in 1918 with the building subsequently demolished and salvageable timber used to line the houses of nearby Kirkabister, overlooking the Bressay lighthouse.

When the gun position was established in April 1918, it took 116 marines to winch the infrastructure up the near-vertical sandstone cliffs and indeed part of the crane can still be seen today.

Nevertheless, as the sun rose a brilliant golden orange and illuminated the morning sky and the highpoint of the Noup of Noss to the east, I found myself the sole observer to a truly beautiful natural spectacle.

Shetland has almost 1,700 miles of coastline and I would encourage everybody, visitor and resident alike, to make this a year of exploration, adventure and enjoy truly memorable experiences.

A short reel of Chris Dyer’s early morning exploration to the Bard, Bressay can be seen here. Instagram photos and videos and a longer film of the adventure can be viewed here.