June 21 is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and we experienced almost 24 hours of daylight on Fair Isle. In the wee hours there was almost a ghostly bluish light in the air similar to the light during an eclipse of the sun. It was bizarre to see sheep lying asleep while a few islanders tended their gardens at 2a.m. in a strange twilight. It's hard to get to sleep when it's daylight for so much of the day.
Approaching the island of Fair Isle, Shetland
We left the next day sailing north to the island of Mainland of Shetland and arrived in the capital city of Lerwick where there is a very good harbour for recreational boats as well as the commercial harbour. When we checked in with the port authority we were given a key to the Lerwick Boating Club where there were showers and laundry facilities and a very welcoming community of local boaters.
At the Lerwick Boating Club we met up with cruising friends, Liz and Archie, who took us to local events like their dance club dinner for some Scottish country dancing. They also showed us some of the lovely sites around the Shetland Mainland. There are some beautiful beaches in Shetland, but at this latitude even in mid-summer you have to dress warmly to enjoy them.
Of course, we wanted to see Shetland ponies in their homeland. Although small, Shetland ponies are the strongest breed of horse or pony, being able to pull twice their own weight in situations where a draft horse could only pull about half its weight. It's not surprising that they have been the primary pack and saddle animal in the Shetland Islands since the Bronze Age.
Lerwick means 'the muddy bay' or 'bay of clay' in the old Norse tongue. For more than 500 years the Norse controlled the Shetland Islands, but they were given to Scotland in 1468 as part of a marriage dowry. At this time Lerwick was still just a muddy bay — it wasn't until the 1600s that a small settlement started here to trade with and supply the Dutch fishing fleet.
While we were in Lerwick the annual Shetland-Bergen sailing race took place. This is the largest ocean racing event in the North Sea and happens on the last weekend of June. The race goes between Bergen on the west coast of Norway and Lerwick.
It didn't take long before there was a cèilidh going on at the Lerwick Boating Club with tired bodies packing in to enjoy a pint, the company of fellow sailors, and traditional Shetland music. A cèilidh is a traditional social gathering often held spontaneously in Gaelic culture. The music is so joyful it can't help but raise the spirits of even the most exhausted sailors. Meanwhile, race boats were still coming in across the finish line. Almost 40 boats compete in the Bergen-Shetland Race each year, an event that has been taking place for over 20 years. The last of the boats came in around midnight, with light still in the sky.
Following the return race across the North Sea from Lerwick to Bergen on June 26, we set sail up to the Shetland island of Unst with Liz and Archie aboard. It was a great chance to catch up and benefit from their local knowledge.
Unst is the most northerly of the British Isles, in the northern Shetlands. The population of Unst is less than 700 — down from when the military base manning the old Distant Early Warning station was a major economic engine. This is the most northern point of Britain, back in the cold war they set up a station here to warn of Soviet attacks. The station is still there but abandoned. Now tourism is a large factor in the local economy and a special draw is the Hermaness Bird Sanctuary at the north end of Unst.
There aren't many harbours in the Shetland Islands, but the indented coastline means there are a number of anchorages we can use depending on the winds. We lucked out with light winds from the south so we anchored at the large sea inlet at the north end of the island within view of the famous rock, Muckle Flugga, which you have to say carefully. We were in the most northern anchorage in the most northern island of the British Isles. Cool!
One famous former visitor to Unst was author Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson's father and uncle were the main design engineers for the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga. Stevenson wrote Treasure Island — many people say he based the island on Unst. I compare our chart with his original drawing and it is a very good match. We anchored in the bay Stevenson called North Inlet in the story where his hero deliberately ran the Hispaniola right up on this very beach. But today, with south winds predicted we should be safe to leave Distant Shores at anchor here for a few hours. There are hundreds of seabirds — and hundreds of midges too!
Liz and Archie took the ferry home to Lerwick and we set sailed across the North Sea to Norway returning to Lerwick and clearing back into the European Union and the Shetland Islands on July 28.
From there we continued our southbound voyage back to Orkney. (Note: The islanders hate it if you call the islands, 'the Orkneys,' or 'the Shetlands.' You can say, 'Orkney,' 'Orkney Isles,' 'Orkney Islands,' 'Islands of Orkney,' or 'Archipelago of Orkney.' Ditto for Shetland.)
Our first stop in Orkney on the way south was at the small island of Stronsay. We tied up at the town quay in the harbour of Whitehall which is also used by the monks whose monastery is across the harbour on the island of Papa Stronsay. Their presence adds to the sense of peacefulness and timelessness here. In the early 20th century, Whitehall was one of the herring capitals of Europe and a developing boom town. But all is quiet now and although fishing is still important to the survival of the people here, it is on a considerably smaller scale. At the town quay we also have a surprise meeting with Dutch sailor and yacht designer, Dick Coopman Jr., and his wife, Jolande. Paul corresponded with Dick when we were searching for a new shoal-draft yacht so it was a delight to finally meet him and Jolande in person aboard our boats in such a remote place.
Twenty years ago, Jolande worked in Orkney as an archaeologist and wanted to sail back to see the progression of the excavations. We sailed on to meet up again in Kirkwall, the capital city and main harbour, on Mainland to visit the fantastic Neolithic sites with them. Timing the tides and currents around the island of Orkney is tricky because of their strength, and it was also the full moon.
Kirkwall is a Viking town founded around 1035. It has a busy port where the local fishing fleet and island ferries are based. It also has a 95-berth marina which we made our base. The name Kirkwall comes from the old Norse word for 'church bay' but refers to a much older church than the impressive St. Magnus Cathedral that dominates the skyline. St. Magnus Cathedral was founded in 1137 by the Vikings. The beautiful sandstone cathedral is considered one of the finest medieval buildings in the north of Scotland.
From Kirkwall, we make an outing by car with Dick, Jolande, and local sailors from the Kirkwall Sailing Club to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a name given to a group of impressive Neolithic monuments found on West Mainland. Included are the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, and the passage grave of Maeshowe.
Maeshowe is a unique chambered cairn and passage grave, aligned so that its central chamber illuminates on the winter solstice. The side of the entrance is one long solid piece of stone. Centuries after it was built, looting Vikings came ashore in bad weather and left one of the largest collections of runic inscriptions in the world. It turns out that young Viking men were not so different from some young men of today. When translated, many of the messages were typical graffiti about who did it with whom.
The maritime, military and ancient historical sites in the islands of Orkney and Shetland all relate to seafaring people. The wildlife and natural beauty is breath-taking and the navigational challenges, thrilling. Despite the cool summer weather the Orkney and Shetland Isles in North Scotland are fantastic cruising grounds and not to be missed.
Award-winning filmmakers and sailing authors, Paul and Sheryl Shard, have been cruising internationally since 1989. They are the hosts of the sailing adventure TV series, Distant Shores, which airs weekdays across Canada on Travel and Escape Channel and includes episodes on their cruise of Orkney and Shetland. Visit their website at www.distantshores.ca
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