Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Beginning the Book: the Kayak Down Atlantic Shetland.

This month, the journey began. Via three ferries & hundreds of miles by road, I made my way to the northernmost rock in Britain. Then I started the slow process of kayaking & walking the Atlantic coasts of the British Isles, exploring their natural & human histories along the way. A month later, I’ve kayaked all of Atlantic Shetland, some of Orkney, spent ten days in archives & made a detour to the Shiant Isles thanks to a generous invitation from Adam Nicolson.  Writing as I go along, a draft of the Shetland chapter of The Frayed Atlantic Edge has now been sent to my editor & a few people whose insights I knew would improve it (thanks Sally, Ben & Llinos).

I was taken aback by Shetland. I hadn’t expected to find its landscapes so spectacular, its wildlife so riotous, or its culture of poetry, prose & art so rich. I guess it's only the expense of getting there that stops this archipelago being a far bigger draw for outdoors & cultural pursuits. I spent my first night on the cliffs of Hermaness, watching puffins, fulmars & gannets pass below. Although I'd soon meet lots of people putting Shetland's coasts to diverse uses, during this first evening & the morning that followed I saw no bird- or sea-watchers in a landscape that would be thronged with tourists on Skye or further south.
I woke to find myself watched at close quarters by a formidable-looking skua...
...then wandered down to the coast & launched the boat. At the jetty, I was struck (as I would be again & again on Shetland) by the unusual blurring of lines between history & the present that's created by the presence & uses of ruins
After paddling to the very northernmost chunk of rock in Britain, the moment I turned to travel south was spectacular.  A vast gannet wheel – thousands strong, perhaps half a mile wide & surely ten times the size of the biggest I’d ever witnessed before - had formed around me, issuing from their colony on the Muckle Flugga skerries to escort me past:
Here they are above that northernmost rock:
Their colony was dense & filled with gugas (of which there are at least twenty hidden in this photo):
In the shelter of Muckle Flugga the only sounds were a million gannet feathers cutting through the air, and occasional squawks when skuas tried to pluck them from the sky:
But once beyond the skerries’ shelter, the infamous tides & swell of Shetland made their force felt:
The first few miles of the journey down Unst were a stupendous challenge that really made me wonder what on earth I was putting myself through for this book. Halfway down the island, I landed in sheltered Woodwick bay, shaken, salty & soaked, but utterly exhilarated.
Later, I pulled into a bay further down Unst, where I could sleep on a pretty, sheltered islet with an old fishing store & a broch (every skerry here layered in histories).
The iron-age & Viking sites of Underhoull looked down as I whiled away the evening. I sat & read about a theme that now plays a huge role in the Shetland chapter: the unique tradition of small wooden boats with which all island families once plied the routes I was travelling. (Two weeks after this, I spent a wonderful day exploring the archive of the Boat Haven on Unst – full of amazing material on Shetlanders & the sea. I was surprised & overjoyed to find a large folder compiled as part of the collection of the Boat Haven’s founder, Duncan Sandison, simply called ‘Poetry & Stories’: what more could I want in my quest to comprehend Shetland?).

The first half of July provided the most fortuitous run of good weather imaginable. In sections that could have been huge challenges, I was often sat as if on an armchair at sea. In these conditions, the creatures that popped up close by could be watched & photographed:
Near the island of Muckle Roe, a gannet popped up and, as soon as it saw me, arched its wings in an utterly swan-like manner:
Whenever there were small seabirds around, marauders like this arctic skua would be there to thieve their catch:
Drifting past skerries, there'd often be chicks out in the open, such as this young arctic tern (why these adults didn't do the usual arctic tern chitter & dive as the kayak passed I have no idea - nor do I know why they were raising a chick away from the usual dense tern colonies):
Passerines, including the Shetland wren - a variant species, symbolic of the islands' richness as an isolated archipelago - were also plentiful whenever I was on land:
I made my way through truly stupendous geologies:
When there was big rolling swell it was of the most extraordinary gentleness. I’ve never enjoyed high walls of water so much as this benign roll beneath Shetland’s cliffs. 
Looking into the cross-sections of huge volcanos – separated from writhing magma only by time – while moving constantly through four dimensions (head plunging far below where my feet had just been) was as atmospheric & time-scrambling as can be. Being able to take bearings and choose courses only from the peaks of waves was an intriguing added challenge: I'd chosen to leave all electronic navigation aids at home for this journey since part of its purpose was to give me insight into the coastal cultures of Shetland’s past. Real maps, charts & traditional navigation seemed more suited to this than screens. And the sea’s rhythms stayed with me long after landing: the cliffs I slept on often seemed to shift during the night.

The calm days stripped swell of its dangers, but stillness can’t disarm the tides. Never in my life have I been battered by so many ferocious tidal runs. At the moment I hit the mainland, after crossing from the northern isles of Yell & Unst, a combination of gentle swell and ripping tide made life interesting:
Later, an infamous tidal race known as ‘da roost’ at Shetland’s southernmost point, felt still more likely to rip the paddle from my hands or me from my boat:
Never has the relief at being spat out into still seas been so great.

Soon, my black rash vest was silvered with salt, and my wetsuit trousers constantly sea-soaked. So I’d always stop a few hours before sunset, change into dry landclothes and read. For about half the nights of my journey I slept just in my waterproof sleeping bag, pulling the boat up in the most idyllic spots I could find...
...and seeking views from small islands or cliffs:
Sleeping in strange places meant I often had unexpected visitors.
Even in this case, the sounds of their approach always made them sound ten times their real size.

The nights – which, at the beginning of the trip, were never really dark – provided the most beautiful kayaking, so sometimes I’d sleep during the day on pebble beaches at the bottom of cliffs, inaccessible except by boat. 
Spending eight to ten hours a day paddling, with four to six hours sleeping, gave me lots of time to get through the shelf-load of Shetland literature stored in my kayak. This intensive outdoor reading is something I’ve done for more than a decade – isolation with a bag of books has long been my strategy to immerse myself in a theme I needed to learn quickly. This began in the North Wales Rhinogs in 2003, when I needed to learn lots about W.B. Yeats. As I’d hoped when planning this Atlantic journey, there was new pleasure to be had in this being the first time my reading & learning had been about the exact culture, land- & seascape I was travelling through.

Sometimes my reading provided me with wonderful cultural maps of where I was stopping, allowing me to walk or paddle every detail of the places I read about. This was most rewarding on the island of Havera, thanks to a 2008 book of prose, poetry & photography built from the archives of the community that left the island in the 1920s.
This island, with its single, pretty, landing...
...unusual windmill landmark...
...and its village packed onto a tiny promontory...
...will feature - alongside gannets, boats, geology, dialect & poetry - in the Shetland chapter of the book.

As I wandered the abandoned rigs & village of Havera one thing was particularly striking. This place, populated for hundreds, if not thousands of years, was now empty of people – thanks in part to the horrific injustices of the nineteenth century, when landlords tried to squeeze every possible profit out of land & made the lives of crofting & fishing communities far more demanding than they needed to be; but the human homes were now nesting sites for birds - from wheatears to fulmars - while the rigs were lorded-over by great skuas. The fulmars (and perhaps also the skuas) are birds the folk of Havera would never have seen, having occupied all these coasts after this island was left behind.
These weren't the only Shetland buildings that have been spectacularly colonised after their human abandonment. A little later (after completing the Atlantic coasts & turning into the North Sea) I spent a night under the Broch of Mousa - a fourth-century fortification now filled with the most delicate & delightful of seabirds: the tiny storm petrel. 
The unlikely spell of calm weather meant I finished travelling Shetland far sooner than expected. I could then dig deep into the incredible resources of the Shetland archive, staffed by an awesome team of helpful & knowledgeable archivists. This resource (built, in part, on Shetland’s oil wealth) is something that will have no parallel in many later parts of my journey: researching them will require far more ingenuity. One afternoon I told two of the archivists, Blair Bruce & Angus Johnson, that I was planning to use a poem by Donald Murray (best known as the author of a book about Lewis, The Guga Hunters) to open my chapter. I'd thought Murray lived on Lewis, but Blair & Angus told me that the building next door was his favourite spot for a coffee. That evening I gave his house a ring, and next morning we were drinking coffee in the local arts centre & talking poetry, landscape & the contrasting cultures of Shetland & the Western Isles. I also had time to visit Sally Huband – an ecologist & nature writer who had been really generous on twitter – she had just returned from Foula & her stories of being there made me realise my journey through Atlantic Shetland wouldn’t be complete without a visit. 

With the weather fixed to turn, I couldn’t risk the notorious twenty mile crossing by kayak. This is a crossing made legendary by the song 'Rowin' Foula Doon', full of references to lumps of tidal water & ocean danger. I took my boat on the tiny passenger ferry (less than twice the kayak’s length!) and then paddled round this most spectacular of islands. This was an utterly exceptional journey, in what is probably the most likely place to spot killer whales in the UK. Fierce seas meant that every inch demanded concentration, huge breakers frequently looming as if from nowhere... 
...but loons, geese, ducks, seabirds & seals were constant distractions - only ocassionally could I risk photographing them. 
It was a challenge to find places to sleep on Foula because – without predators – seabirds nested on the flat as well as on precipices – even a fulmar sat in the middle of a field might, to my surprise, be warming a fluffy chick.
 On my second day on Foula, with squally wind throwing spindrift in all directions, I left my boat behind & climbed the utterly amazing cliffs, passing some extraordinarily tame wildlife along the way.
In several spots, I sat dangling my feet from the edge & watching the life go on below (not playing Pokemon Go - honest...)
The puffins up here were on wonderful form:
From here I watched a storm pass a few miles to the north, its thunder resonating through the cliffs & sending spirals of kittiwakes & guillemots into the air.  

During my night on the cliffs, my phone decided to update; without a signal it reset itself to midnight on the 8th June, leaving me with no way of knowing the time. On any other day, that wouldn't have mattered, since this whole journey was taking place with a flexible relationship to the day's hours. But this morning I had to guess when to leave for the 9.30 ferry with – since the sky never really darkened & the sun was obscured behind thick cloud – virtually no assistance from the skies. In strong wind & heavy rain I began the two mile walk to the jetty. When I arrived, there was no-one to be found. This isn't the kind of place that would ever have a waiting room, laser display board, or even a phone, so I just had to stand in the rain & hope. Since the ferry doesn’t travel in bad weather & runs only three times a week, the jetty’s emptiness was cause for worry: would my food last another two days? By the time I gave up, it felt like I’d been waiting several hours. I wandered towards the tiny airstrip a mile away where I hoped I’d be able to get a call to the people waiting for me on Orkney, letting them know I’d be three days late at best. But half way there, one of the ferrymen appeared & offered me a lift back down. It was 9.30 & everyone, he said, was running on Foula time (‘the skipper has never been known to hurry’). Who knows how many hours I’d loitered in the rain at the jetty. I booked myself into a B&B that night, and was regaled with tales of how, while I was on Foula, the Shetland mainland had been enjoying the closest of Orca encounters, people shopping at Lerwick Co-op & Tesco watching killer whales a few feet from the car park.

But by now July was drawing to a close: it was time to move to Orkney & stay with friends on the Sound of Rousay. No longer at sea alone, I was with my ‘chasmophile’ wife, so the next few days was all about caves – delving into Orkney headlands at low tide, hoping that the sea wouldn’t rise too quickly. 
But a sudden change of plan was about to take place. On a rough day, Llinos & I had headed to Hoy, where she hired an electric bike (her car accident a few years ago means she can’t walk the hills) & I ran along attempting to keep up. Eating lunch at Rackwick Bay…
 …a sliver of signal somehow allowed a phonecall through. This brought an unexpected opportunity. A few days earlier, I’d been invited by Adam Nicolson to join him and family on the Shiant Isles – if, that is, I could get there. There wasn’t time to travel by car, ferry & kayak. My only option was to fly to Lewis, but then I was confronted by the challenge of getting from Stornoway to the Shiants without a kayak (commissioning a rib would cost a totally unaffordable £500 each way!). I’d made some calls the previous week, to people who run boats in the area, asking that if they headed towards the Shiants for any reason they could let me know. This call was from Charles Engebret, offering me a ride to the islands at 9am two days later. Nervous as could be, I checked for internet access every minute or two as I ran back across Hoy. I had nothing until almost back at the ferry to mainland, but then – with the most ridiculous fortune – I managed to book the very last seat on the only possible plane from Kirkwall that could get me to Stornoway in time. I’d have three days on the Shiants. My first sight of the islands was from the plane:
The set up on the Shiants might sound basic – a small bothy without running water or electricity – but the people there gave the most phenomenal masterclass in how to live well in those circumstances. Excellent eating was built on lobsters & crabs from pots around the island, as well as mackerel & pollock caught off the coast from a little Pioner...
Coffee, Lagavulin, Highland Park & Negroni flowed. It was wonderful for these to be the circumstances in which I met the person who had set this whole process going by noticing this blog & passing the details onto his agent & editor (with both of whom I’m working on the book). 
We wandered the Shiants cliffs...
...sitting around among the second biggest puffin colony in Britain & watching their antics
My big regret from this trip is that I didn’t get chance to reread Sea Room – Adam’s memoir of the island – before going. Reading it back at home, I was reminded of all kinds of aspects of the islands that I should have remembered. 

The cherry on the top of all this was that Adam’s son had recently given him a tiny inflatable kayak as a gift. I was able to give it its maiden voyage, circumnavigating the main islands & the outlying skerries to the south. It was a remarkably seaworthy vessel...
...permitting visits to caves, cliffs & colonies of animals:
My last trip in this boat was out to the dramatic chain of skerries known as the Galtachean:
This is the view back to the 'Shiant mainland':
As I reached the tidal waters round the skerries, a huge wheel of puffins formed around the boat... 
...and a sense of symmetry began to form with the journey’s first day: my northernmost & southernmost paddle strokes surrounded by huge seabird circles. This was probably my last such experience until next year, the close of July marking the start of seabird winter.

Waking up on my last morning on the Shiants it was difficult to believe that Birmingham existed, nevermind that I’d be there by sunset. I now have two weeks in England & Germany before I can slip my leash to return to Orkney. There’s a luxury to these first two months – short distances, wonderful archives, summer weather – that make them a prelude to the challenge of the Atlantic coasts of the Western Isles in September. This month is the point at which it has become clear that the book is probably going to work - the chapter was an absolute pleasure to draft - but it also became clear that I only have a tiny number of words for each stage of this journey. With under 10,000 words per month, only a few stages of each stretch - and only a few themes in relation to each region - are going to get any real coverage. Question is, will anywhere else offer quite so much material as Shetland? 

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic adventure and, as always, illustrated with such beautiful photographs. It would be interesting to hear how you go about distilling your experiences and the various themes of each place into the limited word count.