31 July, 2023

The Land of Jimmy Perez...

Shetland, Scotland

The Shetland Islands (pop: 23,000), only known to most of us through the eponymous TV crime series, is another archipelago belonging to Scotland. We spent about four days here. The Shetlands represent the northerly extremity of the United Kingdom. They are closer to Bergen in Norway than to major cities in Scotland, and they were ruled by Norway until about 1470AD. Like Orkney, most placenames in the Shetlands have Norse origin, and the islands names are often strange, brief and sometimes monosyllabic, like Unst and Yell. The Shetlands live on fishing, but North Sea oil did wonders for the economy in the late 20th Century, and tourist is obviously significant. There is a movement in Shetland for a greater degree of autonomy from Scottish rule. Humans have populated the Shetlands, well before the Vikings came: it is replete with Neolithic remains, ruins of stone. Nights are very short close to the summer solstice. For our stay, sunset was about 10:30pm, sunrise at 03:30am with a bright twilight in between.

The largest town in the Shetlands is Lerwick on the Mainland, the largest island, founded, apparently by smugglers who found it ideal for their trade. Again, thanks to the NatGeo Explorer's itinerary, we were able to enjoy this town on two seperate days. The NatGeo Explorer dock was within easy walking distance. Lerwick has a decidely British feel arising from its architecture and (lack of) colour, as distinct to Bergen, but the islands cling enthusiastically to their Viking heritage. Prior to one of our arrivals at Lerwick, local immigration officials required a 'face check' for all passengers (quick comparison of our passport photo with our faces). It seems that the immigration procedures on these remote islands depend on where you have come from, and the mood of the officials on the day. More often, any formalities were completed with the purser with a spreadsheet of names over a coffee in the ship's bistro.

Docked in Lerwick, only about 100m from the ship was what might be argued as the most famous house in Shetland, that of the fictional detective inspector Jimmy Perez (played by Douglas Henshall). It's called The Lodberrie and was immediately recognised by fans of the TV series. The word Lodberrie is from Old Norse for landing place, and Jimmy's house is certainly that. Lerwick is an interesting and easy town to walk about. One highlight is Fort Charlotte, with a zig-zag parapet, first built (~1650) to defend against Dutch and French warships, but it has never fired a shot in anger. On top of the town hill is Lerwick Town Hall is a fine building whose clock tower can be seen from far and wide. Plenty of churches, like all Scottish towns, notably St. Columba's and St. Magnus'.

The solid brick cityscape of the Lerwick waterfront. [9628]

View of the tiny high street in Lerwick. [9691]

Fans of 'Shetland' will recognise DI Jimmy Perez' house in Lerwick. [9650]

Two brave ladies take to the cold waters of Bains Beach, a favourite haunt of Jimmy Perez, in downtown Lerwick, a replica Viking longboat offshore. [9645]

Good use of a retired fishing boat keel at this garage in Lerwick. [9660]

Fence constructed in the Neolithic style in Lerwick. [9663]

The adjacent houses in Lerwick have Christmas colours, or are they just Rabbitohs supporters? [9676]

The side wall of St. Columba's in Lerwick. [9670]

Interpretive signs are helpful, but the grand Lerwick town hall would be better off without these jarring appendages! [9683]

Admiration for chimneys. [9688]

It looks as though Fort Charlotte in Lerwick is targeting the NatGeo Explorer! [9686]

Scalloway and Hamnavoe

Another day, the weather started out 15oC, sunny and still, but grew progressively darker and windier as the morning progressed. On a drive out of Lerwick, we came to Scalloway (Old Norse: bay of the hall) on Mainland, an impossibly beautiful fishing town (aren't they all?) which was the capital of Shetland until the 18th Century. In WW2, Scalloway was a base for the Shetland Bus, a secret fishing boat route into Britain for refugees escaping occupied Norway. Bridges now join Mainland to the islands of Tronda and then West Burra and the town of Hamnavoe, and 'one of the best beaches in Shetland', the Sands of Meal. From here, we could glimpse the island of Foula, which we were to visit another day.

The fishing town of Scalloway showing the ruins of Scalloway Castle, built in 1599 by the brutal Earl Patrick Stewart. Stewart was executed for treason in 1615, and not mourned in Shetland. [9706]

A shell decorated house in Hamnavoe, Shetland. [9733]

Arnold, a particularly voluble fisherman of Hamnavoe, tells of his life and work as he throws fish to the hungry seals in the harbour. [9741]

Traps at a fisherman's house in Hamnavoe. [9745]

The clear waters of Meal Beach were inviting but none of us took a dip. [9773]

Foula, Shetland

Well west of the other Shetland islands is Foula (old Norse for 'bird island'), a privately owned and very picturesque island. It's one of the most remote in the entire British Isles, and after a rough Zodiac ride in, we landed near Foula's only community, neat as a pin, some 35 people, in bright sunshine and no wind. The island has a decent little harbour for such a little place. The island sports some of Britain's highest cliffs (372m) packed with seabirds. Most visitors to this island are birders. We enjoyed a pleasant walk to check out the puffins and fulmars, to visit the island's school (yes, there is one), and to look at an impressive Great War memorial. The four or so children at the school were ready for us, with cakes and scones, and selling handicrafts!

The NatGeo Explorer anchored off picture-perfect Foula, and cliffs populated with nesting fulmars. [0033]

Downtown Foula and the harbour, surprisingly well equipped for such a small island. The shed in the centre of the image has a ferry timetable mounted on the wall. [9468]

One of the guides on Foula seemed to know every bird and every plant by name. [9417]

When you saw NatGeo Explorer naturalist and photo instructor Steve with this gear, birds will be about! [9371]

A large stone WW1 memorial sits on top of one of the cliffs of Foula. [9330]

Maybe derelict stone house on Foula. The twite(?) on top has food in his mouth. [9368]

Window on one of the few houses on Foula. [9366]

This traditional longboat on Foula is probably no longer seaworthy. [0323]

There were half a dozen harbour or common seals lazing about or frolicking in Foula harbour. [9343]

A mother dunlin(?) leads her eight progeny across Foula harbour. [9357]

Nesting fulmars on a Foula cliff. [9426]

Surely one of the world's most telegenic birds, this puffin seems totally unconcerned with human company nearby. [9445]

Arctic skua, known locally as a bonxie, swirling around looking for prey or someone to rob. They are described as kleptoparasitic, animals which steal food from others. [9393]

What else would you expect on Foula but Shetland ponies? [2906]

Mousa, Shetland

Off the south-east coast of Mainland is Mousa (rhymes with Noosa, name is from Old Norse for 'moss island'), an uninhabited island which makes Foula look big. The sheep we saw are unattended and are left to roam free for the summer. For our visit, it was fine but cloudy, and we walked a kilometer or so across the 60o north parallel, to the island's main attraction, an intact pre-Viking broch. This 13m tall stone roundhouse is about 2000 years old and is a two walled structure built with local rock with an internal staircase that we were able to climb. Exactly what was inside and on top of this broch when inhabited is uncertain, maybe a lightweight multi-storey structure of timber (but no trees!), and it would have been used as a shelter and lookout tower. The residents would have been farmers. The Orkneyinga Saga (12th Century stories, partly factual, covering Orkney and Shetland) refers to difficult attempts to take the Mousa Broch by force.

Landing on Mousa. This tiny island is uninhabited, except by sheep, but well cared for. [9479]

Expeditioners from the NatGeo Explorer make their way to the broche on Mousa. Signage warns us not to disturb nesting seabirds. [9540]

View of the internal walls and clouds looking up the Mousa broche from the bottom. [9519]

Windswept atop the Mousa broche is Matthew, Irish art historian oboard the NatGeo Explorer. [9505]

Unst, Shetland

Third largest island in Shetland is Unst, the most northerly of all inhabited British Isles. Norse heritage is very strong, and many Viking remains have been unearthed, including 60 Norse longhouses. Having arrived at Baltasound, the port, by Zodiac, we were able to see a replica longhouse based on design aspects from multiple excavations. Next to it was a replica Viking longboat. Unst is blessed with idyllic countryside and must provide total serenity for the 630 residents, but what makes it unusual is that a (controversial) rocket launch site is under construction with the first takeoff scheduled for late in 2023. The Shetland Space Centre plans to launch satellites into polar orbits.

Replica Viking longhouse based on excavations from numerous sites on Unst. [9568]

Interior of a replica Viking longhouse based on the 60 or so unearthed in Unst. [9564]

Shallow drafted Viking longboats could be sailed or rowed. Keels were clinker built (overlapping planks), and crews were 25-50. This replica is of a 9th Century boat found in Shetland. [9570]

With ready access, visitors are able to inspect the design and construction aspects of Viking longboats. [9558]

Arctic terms are fiercely protective of their nests, and this one definitely did not like my proximity at Norwick Beach. [9586]

At Unst's Norwick Beach, this fossicker seems oblivious to the frantic swirling of arctic terns overhead. [9588]

A glimpse of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse, the northernmost in the British Isles. The name has Old Norse origins and is thought to mean large, steep-sided island. [9602]

The Unst boat museum carried an excellect collection of maritime treasures. [9616]

Isle of Noss, Shetland
The NatGeo Explorer did a sail-by along the cliffs of the tiny Isle of Noss (Old Norse: nose), east of Lerwick and once connected to the island of Bressay. Noss has been uninhabited since 1939 and is now a national nature reserve. The sandstone cliffs on Noss, Noup of Noss, have weathered into multiple horizontal ledges making them irresistable as breeding grounds for seabirds, most notably gannets.

Gannets, mostly, crowding the ledges on the Cliff of Noss. [9833]

Gannet in smooth flight off the Noup of Noss. [9802]

Common guillemots sit comfortably in the water near the Cliff of Noss. [9806]

In the North Sea

There was unexpected excitement on the NatGeo Explorer when the UK Coast Guard conducted a rescue drill by practicing a winch drop onto the rear sundeck of the ship. Passengers were warned of the drill and instructed to stay indoors, but many of us found a perfect vantage point in the Fitness Centre which overlooks that deck. We were able to see the helicopter apprach from afar and skillfully position itself to lower the 'rescuer' onto the deck. It was an exciting 10 minutes or so!

The UK Coastguard helicopter appraoches the NatGeo Explorer for a rescue drill. [9879]

The NatGeo Explorer's crew who assisted the Coast Guard rescue drill. [9883]

28 July, 2023

The Orkneys with Scapa Flow and Skara Brae...

Orkney, Kirkwall

The Orkney Islands are an archipelago of 70 islands, directly north of Scotland, of which 20 are inhabited. The largest is imaginatively called Mainland. The Orkneys have been inhabited for at least 8500 years, by Mezolithics (middle stone age, hunter-gatherers), Neolithics (stone age with farming), Picts (metal ages, roughly 300-800AD) until the Vikings (Norsemen) from Norway took over in 875AD. The archipelago became part of Scotland in 1472 after a royal marriage dispute. Placenames around Orkney reflect hundreds of years of Viking/Norse rulership. The Orkneys are a place to momentous history, from the stone ages through to the World Wars.

Adventure Canada appears to be another smallish expedition vessel that appeared to be following a similar itinerary to ourselves. [9227]

Cormorants overhead. [9234]

We called in at Kirkwall, the capital, on Mainland, for a city visit and a drive around Scapa Flow. Kirkwall port could accommodate the NatGeo Explorer, and we docked in incredibly fine weather, sunny and breezy, and we noted how amazed the locals were! We spent the day wearing sunglasses! Kirkwall is the home base of the Orkney shell fishing fleet (not going so well now, what with Brexit constraining ready exports), and on our dock, we were entertained by four fishing boats being raised from the water for presumably regular maintenance. Each boat came with a dog who appeared somewhat discomfited by their boats being out of the water!

Kirkwall, as seen from the NatGeo Explorer's dock. [9228]

Fishing boats hoisted out of the water in Kirkwall to have barnacles removed and receive a fresh paint job. [9240]

Kirkwall town is a pleasant place to walk, and thanks to the sailing itinerary of the NG Explorer, we were able to do so on two different days. Town was immediately adjacent to our dock. The town has done well by converting the main high street to a pedestrian mall. A highlight of the downtown area was the magnificent red and yellow coloured 850 years old St Magnus cathedral, originally built on the shoreline, but with multiple land reclamations, is now 100m back from it. The cathedral is named in honour of the murdered Earl of Orkney (believed to be religious but how does that make him a saint?) whose bones were later placed within. Next door was the ruins of the Earls and Bishops Palace which once belonged to the illegitimate nephew of Marty Queen of Scots.

Kirkwall's main downtown street has been converted to a pedestrian mall. [9289]

The truly stunning interior of St. Magnus' Cathedral. [9308]

Memorial to the HMS Royal Oak inside St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. [9315]

Out of town, on a bus tour guided by Jane (who was an incredibly good ambassador for Orkney tourism) and accompanied by naturalist Steve off the Explorer, we visited the pretty waterfront hamlet of St. Margaret's Hope, with its two main roads being called Front Rd and Back Rd. A pretty walk, not much open, except for a corner store. The town is thought to be named after Margaret, Maid of Norway who was the 'queen-designate' of Scotland around 1290AD. She may have died at the location of this town on the southern Orkney island of South Ronaldsay.

Cute as a button, the town of St Margaret's Hope in the south Orkneys. [9257]

Almost midday, but the town of St. Margaret's Hope is almost deserted. [9267]

Larraine, a happy immigrant from London, has settled into retirement at St. Margaret's Hope. [9271]

The main feature of this out-of-town drive was Scapa Flow (the name being from old Norse meaning 'bay of the long isthmus') a huge natural harbour wrapped around by Mainland and other Orkney islands. Vikings found refuge here for their longships more than a thousand years ago, but Scapa Flow's fame arises from being the UK's main navy base during both world wars because of its strategic location with respect to defending German shipping channels to the Atlantic Ocean. The US Navy based here in WW2. After a German U-Boat penetrated defences in WW2, sinking the HMS Royal Oak with a loss of 833 lives, Churchill closed several extrances between islands with so called Churchill Barriers built, it seems, with the labours of Italian POWs captured in North Africa, including Tobruk. We could see the green coloured buoy marking the war grave that is now the Royal Oak, and we also visited the impressive hand-painted chapel that the Italians were allowed to build into two Nissen huts in their off-work time under an apparently benevolent prison camp environment. After Italy surrendered, the POWs were free, but could not go home, the war still raging, and many settled here. The chapel deteriorated but was refurbished by the same Italian families, and is now kept in good order by the community.

One of the Churchill Barriers in Scapa Flow, built by Italian POWs, to safeguard the harbour. [9254]

The Italian Chapel, built by Italian Prisoners of War with no funds, using matertials donated or sacvenged. [9277]

Jane, one Orkney guide, explains the skills of Italian craftsmen who built the WW2 Chapel. [9281]

On a separate outing in Orkney with another guide, we visited the Ring of Brodgar and (the archeological highlight of this entire trip!) Skara Brae, both Neolithic constructions dating back about 4-5000 years. The Ring is on Mainland about 16km west of Kirkwall in a natural amphitheatre, on a peninsula between two lochs, and consists of an almost perfect circle of (originally 60) stones surrounded by a ditch (a henge) up to 3m deep and 9m wide. The circle diameter is over 100m, making it the third largest in the British Isles. Our guide strongly pointed out that the henge is more significant that the circle, not only because it would have required much more effort to excavate and mould. In the vicinity of the Ring are numerous henges, cairns, burial mounds, other standing stones, suggesting that this area was an important cermonial site, but for what purpose?

Panorama of the 100m wide Ring of Brodgar in rural Mainland in the Orkneys. Jane explained that the ditch is much more significant (but significance unknown) than the circle of stones. [9966]

Wildflowers in the henge at the Ring of Bodgar. [9993]

But it was Skara Brae which took our breath away: it's a village of 10 stone houses (each 40m2) in a tight cluster about 16km west of Kirkwall, the houses separated by narrow, paved lanes. Maybe 50-100 people lived here. The houses are now unroofed, but visibly all are of similar design with central hearths and, amazingly, furniture! There are stone structures which are clearly beds, dressers, cupboards and secret compartments. There are doors. There are toilets and drains, one in each house! This is a mind-boggling place of incredible significance (but our guide openly deplored visitors who still found the rabbits nearby more interesting). Skara Brae is the most complete Neolithic village in Europe, and, proudly pointed out, older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt. No mortar supported the walls, but they were deliberately buried/sheltered by the occupants in midden, sand, peat and refuse. At the end of its 600 year life, the village was abandoned in haste by the Neolithics, no certain reason, and was quickly enveloped in sand, being adjacent to a windswept beach. Being so buried for 4,500 years, the village has been preserved, and wasn't discovered until a giant storm in 1850 exposed it. William Watt of Skaill, the son of a local laird and an amateur geologist, excavated the site soon after the storm, but it was then neglected and occasionally pillaged until 1927, after another storm, when Australian archaeologist Professor Gordon Childe (1892-1957) from the University of Edinburgh undertook the first professional and comprehenive evaluation of the site. The ocean is encroaching on Skara Brae, and a sea wall has been built to protect it.

A modern replica of one of the Skara Brae houses shows the roof structure and how the walls were encased in midden. [9997]

Near the Skara Brae visitors' centre is a replica showing what a non-ruined house might have looked like. [0046]

The Skara Brae village is now threaded with walking tracks so that visitors can better appreciate this amazing place. [0021]

So close to the Atlantic Ocean and very prone to the storms which revealed it, this Skara Brae house shows its hearth, beds, storage nooks, and cupboards. [0035]

In the presence of Neolithic magnificence, some visitors paid more attention to the rabbits, to the disgust of our passionate guide. [0024]

Orkney is home to many Scotch Whisky distilleries (and other spirits) and, thanks to our two visits, we twice enjoyed tasting evenings from Highland Park staff who joined us on board the NG Explorer. Everyone sampling these fine whiskies, encouraged by entertaining descriptions of the manufacturing process, including the use of once-used Bourbon casks from USA, was quite jolly for the rest of the evenings. Luckily, the captain and crew did not participate in the tastings! Seems there is quite a trade in used port, sherry and whisky casks in this business.