Shetland: to a lighthouse


Café society was on the pavement, students were sunbathing on the Meadows and sunglasses required on our first morning in Edinburgh. We had 36 hours there for business and pleasure: seeing our solicitor, picking up supplies and having a very enjoyable dinner with a friend before and early start to drive to Aberdeen the next morning. We had hoped to be driving over the Forth on the new Queensferry Crossing which was originally scheduled to open in May but has been delayed so that will have to wait for another trip. There were several signs on the A90 warning that deer might be crossing the road, even in the middle of Dundee. However, it was not until we were on a minor road to Fettercairn that a Roe hind ran across in front of us and disappeared into the forest. The diversion to Fettercairn was to photograph another distillery for the photobook of all those in the British Isles.

The unicorn comes from the Ramsay family crest: they founded the distillery. Noticing signs to the arch I had to ask about that and was told that it had been erected to commemorate a visit to Fettercairn by Queen Victoria in the early 1860s. The arch is dated 1864.

Just south of Aberdeen there are extensive roadworks as a city bypass is being constructed. Looking at the map I could see that its route might be contentious especially through Deeside and the friends we met for lunch in the city confirmed this. Interestingly Aberdeen also missed the chance to develop the waterfront with historic buildings behind it and instead has an enormous shopping centre. Our friend also showed me some street art which is in a small back street and I would never have found it without her help.


Pottering around the city centre before we had to board the boat I discovered a good-sized Oxfam book and music shop on Back Wynd, just off Union Street. I added a volume to my New Naturalist collection and James found some music. A little while later we were on the ship. It was built in Finland and the harbour had boats registered in Bergen, Panama, Limassol and Monrovia that I could see. We cast off and as Aberdeen disappeared in the mist, the pilot boat left us and we sailed past the last light on the harbour wall.

We arrived into Lerwick on time and after picking up more supplies at the Co-op, stopped at a coastal espresso bar. They directed us to the nearest petrol station more reliably than the car’s satnav and James was given a free can of Irnbru after filling up there. While he was doing that, I noticed Clickimin Broch across the road. It was built over 2,000 years ago and no-one knows whether it was a fortress or merely a residence. It remained partially submerged until 1874 when the loch water level dropped. various excavations have taken place since the 1860s.

Driving north on the A970 we passed abandoned crofts and Voe where the last clearances took place in 1799. The residents farming the land were removed so that larger scale sheep farming could be introduced. We reached Mavis Grind, just south of Brae. The name means ‘gateway of the narrow isthmus’ and the just over 100m wide strip of land separates St Magnus Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on one side with Ell Wick, Sullom Voe and the North Sea on the other. Until the 1950s it was used as a boat drag to enable rapid travel from one sea to the other. On our visit locals were trying to clean up the shore, disentangling plastic from seaweed. A lot of it comes from fishing nets and creels. I spoke to one of the women who said that as a child she would pick broken glass from the net floats off the beach but that now it was all waste plastic. There is a path around the area but as it was extremely windy and the car thermometer was reading 1 degree, we decided to leave that for another day. A little further on we stopped for a picnic lunch. We stayed in the car as the thermometer now read -1 degree. This did not last as we continued into Northmavine but as the thermometer rose, the rain fell. A small diversion from our route took us to the St Magnus Bay Hotel in Hillswick where we ensconced ourselves in the bar until we could get into the lighthouse. Renovation was under way and the proprietor told us that this was the first time for 50 years. He explained that the building was listed and this was delaying work. The toilets have already been re-vamped and I have never seen a sparkly toilet seat before. We eventually reached Eshaness Lighthouse which was ready for us. It is the last Northern Lighthouse constructed by the Stevenson family and was automated in 1974. The light keepers house fell into private hands and in 1999 an American author Sharma Krauskopf bought it. She wrote a book about living on Eshaness called ‘The Last Lighthouse’. I must try and find that. In 2005, the Shetland Amenity Trust purchased the cottage and now rent it out as holiday accommodation. They do not have access to the tower. We settled in hoping that the mist would lift later.

Back in Southwest Scotland

A coach-load of Rangers fans en route to the Old Firm match in Glasgow, accompanied us on the 7.30am Larne to Cairnryan ferry.
They were very well-behaved despite some having cider for breakfast but G4S security were lurking in the background just in case. As we disembarked there was a police presence at the port. We were heading for Wigtown, Scotland’s book town but en route stopped at Torhouse Stone Circle. It is about 4 miles west of Wigtown and dates from the Bronze Age. It is thought to have been designed to represent the midwinter sun. There are 19 granite stones. The three large upright stones in the centre of the circle are known as King Gauldus’s Tomb (he was a mythical Scottish king). This type of stone circle is most commonly found in north-east Scotland and unusual for this part of the country.

At Wigtown we browsed in the shop which says it is the largest bookshop in Scotland, Byre Books in a cowshed surrounded by greenery and Reading Lasses which is devoted to women’s literature. Another was holding a reading as there is a festival on this weekend so we could not look in there and one was inexplicably closed.

Laden with books and a few plants from a market stall we drove into Newton Stewart to find Elmlea Plants, a nursery specialising in perennials and grasses. More purchases were made for garden renovation projects at home. The A75 follows the edge of Wigtown Bay amongst gently undulating fields with the southern uplands ahead. We cut inland to Kirkcudbright where we had arranged to spend the night. In the harbour fishing boats were returning and the tide was coming in.

We visited Broughton House, the former home and studio of the artist E.A Hornel. He was influenced by Japan, used photographs rather than drawings as the basis of his paintings, collected books and was also interested in local history. Here is his studio which has his palettes and paintbrushes as well as several paintings.
Kirkcudbright ‘Castle’ in the centre of town is really a fortified townhouse dating from the 16th century. the original castle down by the river was captured by Robert the Bruce in 1313 and destroyed. There were attempts at excavating it in 1913 to 1914 but many of the stones had been removed by the townspeople for building projects. Hornel had a collection of some maps, drawings and dig notes from the excavation which was never completed because of the First World War. At the back of the house is a long garden extending right down to the marina. The house and garden are now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

We stayed in the Selkirk Arms which dates from the 18th century. It has been claimed that Robert Burns wrote the Selkirk Grace here in 1794 but this has not been confirmed. Just before we left we visited the plant sale in the centre of town and found a few more unusual plants for my woodland garden. There were only two stops on what was a quiet run home from Kirkudbright. The first was at Dundrennan Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery.


The last stop was at Annandale Distillery so that I could add some shots to the Book of British Distilleries I am compiling for James. This was only reopened recently after closing in 1918. They have excavated the place the old stills stood when it first opened in 1830.

The slow road back home

Sunday always brings out interesting vehicles and as today was sunny, all the convertibles. On the Edinburgh bypass we were overtaken by a Corvette, an Official Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500 in 1968. The countryside next to the bypass has enough pylons striding across it to satisfy a member of the Pylon Appreciation Society. Yes, it does exist; see http://www.pylons.org/. Our slow drive home started by heading to the Glenkinchie Distillery so that I could photograph it for the book I am slowly compiling for James, of all the distilleries in the British Isles. We clocked up quite a few last year in the Highlands, Orkney and Northern Ireland and need to continue filling the gaps.
Glenkinchie 5 June 2016-1
Afterwards we drove down the A68 passing the wind farm just north of Lauder. Scotland is way ahead in renewable energy than other parts of the UK but we could still all do more. The only traffic jam of the trip was in Lauder, as there was a vintage and classic car event at Thirlestane Castle. Parked in the village was a pale green E-Type Jaguar, I liked the colour but James disagreed. Further on we crossed the Tweed we had walked along the day before and passed the Leaderfoot viaduct I had photographed last year.
Leaderfoot viaduct (1 of 1)
On Carter Bar at the border, I got a discount on my coffee for bringing my own mug and admired the views in peace until a German tour bus arrived.
Carter Bar 1 5 June 2016-1
Carter Bar 3 5 June 2016-1
We carried on over the uplands and back down into fields yellow with oil seed rape flowers. In Stanhope we saw another classic car – a lovely red Lotus. There were also lots of bikers out on the B roads but these inhabitants should really have been in the Andes, not the Pennine Hills.
? alpacas 5 June 2016-1
On the A66, signs warned us about horse-drawn vehicles as Appleby Horse Fair was held this weekend and is a big event for the travelling community. South of Brough and on the surrounding roads they were camping for the evening with tethered horses grazing on the grass verge. We drove alongside the Settle-Carlisle railway which I must incorporate into one of my train journeys to Edinburgh at some point. All the way from Cumbria into North Yorkshire the flax was blooming in the upland bogs and buttercups in the lowland meadows. I stopped for a photograph of the Ribblehead Viaduct before we got back onto bigger roads and found ourselves following a shed on a trailer.
Ribblehead Viaduct 5 June 2016-1
The last leg of the journey was on dual carriageways and the motorways around Manchester. From the traffic reports we were hearing on the radio, avoiding the M6 seemed to have been a good decision. As ever, I made a mental note to revisit some of the places we passed in the evening with my camera.

To Skerray via a couple of distilleries

Today was a perfect day for driving, blue sky and sunshine but not too hot. I could see the hills ahead even from the city bypass and Sounds of the Sixties on the radio gave me a few ideas for the Lincoln Highway playlist which is under construction. We passed the Kelpies near Falkirk and the very familiar Ochil hills. There was still some snow to be seen on the Trossach hills. Driving through Dunblane took me past the restaurant I used to work at (now an Indian restaurant) and the old school bus stop. There were a few new buildings around but many things had not changed much at all. James saw a collection of photographs of distilleries in an Edinburgh Reclamation company we visited a few weeks ago and had the idea of compiling his own collection. We will never have the wall space so I agreed it could be a photographic book on the distilleries of the British Isles. This meant was had to divert off the A9 to Tullibardine in Blackford. Driving on the old road through the village was reminiscent of finding old sections of Route 66 off the interstate two years ago. Inside the distillery, a purchase had to be made.

Tullibardine 30 May 2015 (1 of 1)

The Blackford Hotel is now defunct and James remembered stopping off for a drink there on a Dundee football outing heading further south many years ago. Back on the A9 there were numerous warnings about deer on the road (I saw one hind grazing on the embankment and two corpses by the road) and there are now average speed cameras most of the way. Inverness CT fans were heading to Hampden and we had a quick coffee stop at Gloagburn.

Perthshire Road 30 May 2015 (1 of 1)

North of Blair Atholl there was snow on the Grampians and over Drumochter we had to stop at Dalwhinnie.

Dalwhinnie 1 30 May 2015 (1 of 1)

Lunch was a brief stop in Aviemore and we could see recent snow on the Cairngorm Mountains. Afterwards we were soon over Slochd Summit and descending towards the Kessock Bridge having decided that a visit to Tomatin Distillery might have to wait for the return trip. The same applied to Glen Ord on the Black Isle. Back in the lowlands the gorse was in full bloom on both sides of the road and I spotted my first seal of the trip just after crossing the bridge over the Cromarty Firth. We took a B road over to Bonar Bridge and then the road towards Tongue getting some shots of the Dornoch Firth from Struie Hill on the way.

Dornoch Firth 1 30 May 2015 (1 of 1)

We were soon installed in our cottage near Skerray harbour and time for a walk down there to stretch our legs.

Skerray Harbour 2 30 May 2015 (1 of 1)