Scotland - the Ends of the Earth

Pony jokes. From the moment I mentioned that I was going to the Shetland Islands, the pony jokes started. In self defence, I resorted to naming my other destination, the Orkney Islands, instead.

As a one man poll, I have determined that every Australian knows where Shetland Island ponies come from. Keen bird watchers also know these islands are the summer home of that insufferably cute bird, the puffin. Beyond that, the knowledge gets scratchy. Students of war are aware that Scapa Flow, a place of great strategic importance in both world wars, is the basin in the middle of the Orkney mainland. Collectors of trivia delight in stating that the Old Man of Hoy is a distinctive pillar of rock off the west coast of the Orkney Islands. Knitters may know Fair Isle is part of the Shetland Islands.

Through an accident of scale, Australians have a reputation as great travellers in Europe. That's because many of us at home would drive as far for a Saturday night party as the average Londoner would go for annual holidays. Travelling from Lands End, in the south west, to John O'Groats in the far north east is regarded as the ultimate odyssey to them. For us, the ocean off the top of Scotland seems like an unnecessary barrier to a decent drive.

So, we look at the map and notice that the it's only a short car ferry trip from John O'Groats to Orkney or a much longer one to Shetland. Is it worth the cost and effort? The answer is resoundingly yes for Shetland, a more qualified yes for Orkney.

The Shetland Islands represent a side of Britain that has almost completely disappeared in the south - a place where nature dominates man. Its hundred islands are home to just 22,000 residents. On the other side, there are over 800 different species of flowering plants and ferns - and over 340 bird species.

That's why it looked like being a major tragedy when an oil tanker ran aground here just over a year ago. First reports suggested that the spill would exceed the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. Fortunately, a Shetland winter gale averted any lasting damage, especially as the oil spilled was very light and readily dispersed by wind and waves. Still, it didn't stop television news crews photography the naturally brown/black local sheep and running the images as oil-coated victims. I visited the site of the spill at the south end of the Shetland mainland a few months after it happened and could see no sign that the event ever happened (the tanker, of course, was immediately pounded to the bottom of the Atlantic by the huge waves).

Incidentally, the islanders have misleadingly named the largest of their dots of land "mainland" ignoring the greater claim of the bulk of Scotland or, indeed, Europe.

The people of Shetland are so tough that I doubt nature could dish up much that they couldn't deal with. This is a place where it's likely to snow in the middle of summer and you can lean far over cliffs faces, secure in the knowledge that the hurricane force winds won't abate long enough to let you fall.

That may be painting a bleak scene - an image that's far removed from the truth. The rolling green hills of the Shetland Islands and the picturesque grey towns of Scalloway and Lerwick are very appealing. And, considering that the islands are more than 60 degrees north of the equator, the climate is quite mild. When the sun comes out, the scenery is magical.

Nor do you have to worry about trees blocking the view. Shetland is well north of the tree line. The only exception is one village that, by a freak of topography, has some small trees. The people of Shetland come to marvel at the spectacle. My local guide told of a friend who went on a walking holiday in England' Lakes District. Upon his return, someone asked if the area was as beautiful as they'd heard. "I can't say," he replied, "I couldn't see any scenery past all the bloody trees they have down there!"

My guide was Magnus and his colouring was as Scandinavian as his name. His brogue, however, was pure Scot, though softer than the more incomprehensible dialects to the south. In these isles, place names such as Grunnasound and Steenibroykir are found alongside Muckle Roe and Kirk Ness, reminders than Norway is just as close as Aberdeen. Indeed, Shetland was ruled by Scandinavia for 600 years before it was given to Scotland as a dowry.

Australians hardy enough to come to Shetland in January will discover how strong the Nordic heritage is. The last Tuesday of January is the time of the Up Helly Aa festival. Local men dressed as Vikings parade through the street, burn a Viking ship, and then get drunk. The islands are basically closed for the next few days.

Winter visitors are laso in the perfect place to see the northern lights, the aurora borealis which plays across the polar sky as curtains of mauve or flashes of gold. There's a strong element of chance in striking a clear night when the light show is on, but when it happens, it's an unforgettable event.

I knew that fishing is a dominant part of the Shetland economy. Indeed, it's been said that the people of Shetland are sailors who farm while the people of Orkney are farmers who sail. Even so, there seemed to be too many large vessels in the harbours and sounds around Lerwick.

"Those are Russian trawlers and mother ships," Magnus explained. "Basically, they are acting as prison ships because many have run out of finance to continue and the Russians on board have no money to spend in town. You'll see them wandering the streets, just looking in the shop windows."

From Lerwick, you can take a boat trip out around the neighbouring islands of Bressay and Noss to see a remarkable concentration of wheeling, diving, breeding and screaming sea birds. Most visitors who do so are too overwhelmed by the bird life to note Cradle Holm, a tiny plug of land with a classic tale of island life tied to it.

Early this century, sheep pasture land was at a premium. A farmer noted that there were a few hectares of grass on top of the inaccessible holm, which rose in sheer cliffs straight from the sea. So he climbed the cliff and set up a cradle on ropes and pulley so he could get his sheep over to the grassy crown. But rather than use the newly erected cradle, he elected to climb back down and, on the way, fell to his death. Another opportunist benefited from the now accessible extra pasture. But the cradle is now long gone, the story fading and the grass again grows undisturbed.

The Shetlanders are a hardy people with a strong respect for tradition and religion. Indeed, it remains illegal to fish for sea trout or salmon on a Sunday.

One sunny afternoon, I went for a walk along the crags to the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head at the southernmost point of the Shetland mainland. From this high vantage point, I could see a sample of what makes these islands special. Gulls, skuas, fulmars, terns and gannets swooped and cried overhead. Looking down past their rocky nests, I could see seals fishing in the surf and basking on the rocks. A flock of sheep came over to see why I was there and rabbits stood at the entrances to their burrows keeping an eye on me.

While I was looking down at the turrets and gables of the Sumburgh Hotel, my accommodation for the night, a British Airways plane came in below me to land at the island's only airport. It was joined by a giant helicopter bringing in a crew from a North Sea oil rig. Just past the hotel, I could see some people walking around the Neolithic ruins of Jarlshof where people lived for more than 3000 years. Beyond, rolling green hills stretched into the grey North Sea.

I couldn't imagine living here. Indeed, the mere concept of an Australian summer beach outing seems like an indulgence in this muted green land. But the wild beauty surrounding me increased my admiration for the islanders who settled Australia. What must they have thought when they first saw a coral reef and found that sea water could be tepid and aquamarine?

Those early colonists certainly wouldn't have expected that one day Sydney would be within two days of Lerwick. Or that a colonial would ever stand here and think of the bad tempered Shetland pony he rode as an infant on the NSW Central Coast.

Travel is educational. It took a trip to the very top of Scotland to find out that there was once a time when Shetland ponies were useful. They have been here since Viking days but there was a millennium of grazing before they were used last century in British coal mines, where they could fit down low tunnels and carry loads.

The following day, I left livestock and lighthouse behind and flew to Kirkwall in Orkney. This is altogether a more gentle place. Indeed, it looks like a huge golf course surrounded by a giant water hazard. The line between land and sea seems very indistinct - the island's very existence seems a mere matter of chance.

Despite tourist board claims to the contrary, the main attraction of the Orkney Islands is their almost undisturbed Neolithic heritage. Standing stones dot the horizon and many rolling hills contain burial mounds. You are still level with the bottom of Greenland so there are no trees. So the several stone circles, like more delicate models of England's Stonehenge, can be seem kilometres away.

The most remarkable feature on Orkney mainland is the ancient coastal village of Skara Brae. After 500 years of settlement, a savage storm buried it under sand dunes 4,500 years ago. In 1850, another storm blew some of the sand away and revealed the buildings. The houses are small but exceptionally well constructed with damp courses, drains, and easily recognisable cupboards and dressers. More remarkably, when the stone beds the ancients slept on were exposed after more than four millennia, the people of Orkney were still sleeping on stone beds. In the absence of wood, there was little choice (although whale bones were probably used for rafters). One almost feels like a voyeur, looking into these houses with their wealth of intimate detail.

At the "tomb of the eagles" on the other side of the island, the feeling is more of standing aghast in the face of archaeological despoliation. This burial mound is on private land and has been privately excavated. Paying visitors are welcome to hold the spoils of the dig.

Anyone studying a map of the islands would immediately realise the strategic importance of Scapa Flow, the bay almost completely contained by the surrounding islands. Before World War I, British naval exercises often had over a hundred ships here. It was used throughout the war but there were several losses when German U-boats entered and attacked through the several passages between islands.

After the war, the surrendered German fleet of some 250 vessels was brought here and impounded. But the German commander secretly arranged for all the vessels to be scuttled simultaneously so they couldn't be used by the British. There are still 12 unsalvaged wrecks that are now popular dive sites. (I'd recommend a thick wet suit.)

At the start of World War II, Scapa Flow was lightly defended. So, in October 1939, U47 sank the battleship Royal Oak with the loss of 833 crew. Today it's an official war grave and, even 54 years later, oil is still leaking from her bunkers.

Anyone coming to Kirkwall from the terminal of the ferry from John O'Groats crosses four of the Churchill Barriers - land fill between islands, ordered by Churchill in 1940 and constructed from concrete and derelict vessels. Much of the work was done by Italian prisoners of war who still found time to build a strangely ornate chapel out of two Nissen huts. Inside, at first glance, the chapel seems elaborately decorated with marble, brick and chandeliers. On closer inspection, one finds the marble and bricks are painted on plasterboard - and the chandeliers are made out of food tins.

In Kirkwall, the much more imposing St Magnus Cathedral was built in 1137 and seems out of all proportion for a town of just 6,500 people. But it does give Kirkwall the feeling of a cathedral town, with the narrow cobbled shopping streets opening up to give glimpses of the church and spire.

Amidst all the Viking and Norse relics scattered across the landscape, there is one sight that is purely Scottish. The Highland Park distillery in Kirkwall is the world's northernmost. If you like rich, peaty, single malt scotches, this should be a place of pilgrimage.

When the Greek explorer Pytheas circumnavigated Orkney in 330 BC, he claimed that he had sighted Ultima Thule, the end of the world. He was close to the truth: only the Shetlands, Faroes and Iceland stand between here and the North Pole. These specks of land certainly provide an appealing holiday with a difference.

Travel Fact File

Getting There

British Airways operates four flights each weekday from Aberdeen to Shetland, and a reduced service on weekends. It has three flights each weekday to Orkney from Aberdeen, and one on Saturday. There are regular flights from London to Aberdeen.

If you are planning to visit these northern isles, there is good incentive to fly from Australia with British Airways. BA flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London every day (via Bangkok or Singapore), from Adelaide twice a week, and from Brisbane and Perth four times a week.

BA's fares are competitive and it has probably the most comprehensive collection of discounted add-ons for travel in the UK - in the form of free London accommodation, shows and shopping vouchers, free car hire and holiday discounts. It also provides heavily discounted accommodation if you decide to stopover in Asia on the way. For more information, call a BA office (there's one in each capital city) or the Australia head office on (02) 258 3300.

Getting Around

The island roads are relatively narrow but delightfully uncluttered. Except in the towns, every other car is a major event. You will need transport - the sights and attractions are widely scattered and travel by public transport impossibly slow.

Although your Australian driving licence should be adequate, some rental companies insist on an international licence, too. Take one with you - but remember it's only valid in conjunction with your real licence.

Staying

There are a lot of quaint hotels on the islands but none that qualify as grand. We largely avoided the towns and stayed in some delightful country inns. Some personal suggestions are:

Shetland

St Magnus Bay Hotel, Hillswick, tel. (0806) 23 371 - three stars and near some beautiful cliff top scenery.

Sumburgh Hotel, Sumburgh, tel. (0950) 60201 - four stars and looks like a baronial manor, very close to the airport.

Busta House, Busta, tel. (0806) 22 506 - four stars and perhaps the best food in the islands.

Orkney

Albert Hotel, Mounthoolie Lane, Kirkwall, tel. (0856) 87 6000 - right in the heart of town.

Standing Stones Hotel, Stenness, tel. (0856) 850 449 - four stars and close by many of the major attractions.

Climate & Crowds

To quote the brochure: "Shetland enjoys a pleasant, temperate, oceanic climate with average winter temperatures comparable to those in western Britain. Snow rarely lies more than a few days."

Perceptions really are relative.

True, there is only 40 inches of rain annually and in mid summer you get 19 hours of daylight every day. Even so, my suggestion is to take warm clothes - and an umbrella. There's one clear benefit: the wind that consistently blows here really does ensure that the air is crystal clear and unpolluted.

Further Information

For information about Britain, contact the British Tourist Authority at 210 Clarence Street, Sydney, Tel (02) 267 4555, Fax (02) 267 4442.

Specific information about the islands can be obtained directly from their respective tourist offices:

Shetland Islands Tourism Information Centre, Market Cross, Lerwick, Shetland, U.K. ZEI OLU, Tel. (0595) 3434, Fax (0595) 5807.

Orkney Tourist Board, 6 Broad Street, Kirkwall, Orkney, U.K. KW15 1NX, Tel. (0856) 872856, Fax (0856) 875056.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd