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For part 1 of this story, The Long Road to Shetland, click here.



A cockroach died in the night. Close inspection revealed it lying on its back with its little feet pointed up into the air.

The rooms were awful, located in wood cabins out the back of the hotel, damp and musty. There was black mould inside the shower cabinet. Not that I had any intention of showering. Or of sleeping in the bed for that matter. I lay on top of it fully clothed and used a jacket as a pillow, cold and damp seeping into my bones. I was sorely tempted to go bashing on Jimmy’s door and retrieve his keys. The car would have been a better place to spend the night.

Instead it was Jimmy bashing on my door that woke me, way too early. We should have breakfast at the airport, he suggested. There’d be no argument from me there. We paid for the rooms and left. It didn’t cost much. The girls processing my expenses in Accounts were never going to believe this one.

After a freshen up and a change of clothes I found Jimmy at a table overlooking the runway. Aberdeen may not be Scotland’s largest airport but it has to be one of the busiest. As well as commercial airline traffic, a heliport provides the supply route for Britain’s oil industry in the North Sea.  It was buzzing, a constant stream of helicopters taking off and returning from the rigs. I cast a sideways look at Jimmy through the froth of a cappuccino. He looked tired. Scotland vs. Norway had taken its toll. Not that I would have appeared much better. The long drive, the stress of (not) finding a hotel worthy of the name and a virtually sleepless night. For the moment it felt good enough just to be somewhere that didn’t smell of mould.

We watched our plane taxi up to the front of the terminal building. Just as my Scottish job was coming to an end British Airways began to introduce natty little city jets for some of the regional routes. This plane, however, was one of the oldest. A turboprop that I could easily have believed was constructed from balsa wood and string.

There wasn’t much talking once we were onboard. It was pretty much an impossibility anyway until the engines throttled back. Hard enough just to hear yourself think. And of course we were over water. Boat phobia extends to planes in these less than ideal circumstances. But the weather, thankfully, was calm. On a previous occasion I’d flown on a similar aerial boneshaker into Inverness in a Force 8 gale, an experience I was keen never to repeat.

By way of diversion I pulled the inflight magazine out of the seat pocket and studied the route map. “Oh look Jimmy, Shetland is closer to Norway than it is to Glasgow. Now isn’t that funny?”

A stewardess appeared at just the right moment. “Coffee?”
“Yes, he will.”

We were met at Sumburgh (Shetland) airport by an enthusiastic fellow holding aloft a large board bearing his company’s logo. Fresh faced. Freshly showered. I dread to imagine his first impression of us. Initial pleasantries exchanged, we made our way to the car.. and had barely reached the airport perimeter before the conversation turned to football. Boys, huh.

The landscape provided more than sufficient interest for me. Green, yet rugged. Trees are few and far between. If they exist at all they are short, sparse and sculpted into weird shapes by the wind.

A movement above a grassy area off to the left caught my eye. A huge bird. Some sort of raptor? “Crikey, what’s that?”
“Aye, that’ll be a Bonxie. A Great Skua.” I’d clearly struck a chord with our host. He launched into a description of the bird, it’s distribution on the islands, and how it would probably dive bomb me if I was to leave the car. We were stopped at a junction, about to turn right for Lerwick and The North, according to the signpost. ‘The North’? The NORTH???? How much bloomin’ further do you need to go? Surely the Arctic Circle must be round the next bend..?

There was a pause and he looked at me for a moment. “Do you like puffins?”
“I adore puffins.”

Right indicator cancelled, we turned left instead. Sumburgh Head. The road took us down an ever narrowing peninsula and out on to grass. The car stopped 50 yards or so from the cliff edge, nose pointing out to sea. Soft snoring could be heard emanating from the back.

“There was beer..”
“Aye, there would have been. He’ll be fine here, he can sleep it off.”

We set off on foot down towards the sea. It was a glorious day, blue sky and sunshine. “You’re lucky. It’s rare to have a day like this up here.” Just before the cliff edge we look a path leading to a lower level of grass. “Now we need to get down on the ground.”
“They’re just over that edge. We need to creep up on them. Very quietly.”

And so, in my working suit, I got down on my hands and knees and crept towards the edge. And there they were. About 20 puffins within a few square yards. Waddling along the grassy slope and ducking in and out of burrows. The odd spat with a neighbour. Shorter than I’d imagined at little over a foot in height. But oh so cute. Inching forward on my stomach now, getting ever closer to the cliff edge, one bird was so near I could have reached out and touched it. How long we stayed there is anyone’s guess, but it was very many minutes. I was transfixed.

Walking back up the hill, a horrible thought. Jimmy. Good grief, what if he’d woken and found himself in a car on a cliff top with his colleagues nowhere in sight? I needn’t have worried. We opened the doors quietly so as not to disturb him and drove back to the road.

“Oh, that was fabulous.”
Another pause. “Do you like beaches?”

A quick look back over my shoulder. No discernible change. “I love beaches..”
puffins sumburgh head

via Shetland Lighthouse Holidays

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