18 September 2009--Short ferry hops connect us from Mainland to Yell, and from Yell to Unst. We secure a room
outside Baltasound and drive up to the Herma Ness Nature Reserve. A walk of a couple of miles brings us to cliffs looking
over the open northern sea. We are at the very tip of Britain.
Below us, several rocky islets jut up out of the water. Wintering gannets cover some of them, their guano simulating blinding white snowcaps. There are fulmars gliding around, as well. The signature bird up here is the great skua, or bonxie, as the locals call it. Bonxies nest on the ground (there aren't any trees), and are very territorial--they've been circling overhead, monitoring our progress, all along. During nesting season, hikers are advised to carry long sticks to ward them off, as they can be very aggressive.
One of the rocks below, named Muckle Flugga, has a lighthouse on it, built, somehow, by Robert Louis Stevenson's father. Just beyond that, the Outstack is Britain's northernmost speck of land, if you can call it that. We have the feeling of being at the edge of the world. Were you to travel due north from here, you would pass between Spitsbergen and northeastern Greenland, over the pole, and south to landfall on Wrangel Island, between the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas. Maybe next trip. Muckle Flugga is remote enough for me just now.
Back out of Herma Ness, we drive around to Skaw, where the northenmost bit of road in Britain ends at the northernmost house in Britain. For some reason, there are half a dozen cars parked here. It's not until I step out onto the beach at the Wick of Skaw that I realize why. Turning toward the house, I see a group of twitchers (the mildly derogatory British word for serious birders) throwing up their hands in disgust. Whatever rare avis they've been spotting, I have spooked it, and off they all go to try to track it down again. I feel terrible, but I can't understand why they didn't warn me--I must have been directly in their line of sight as I approached the beach.
Back toward Baltasound, we visit the famous Baltasound bus shelter, which has been made quite comfy with couch, reading matter, computer terminal (ancient and nonfunctional), and various decorations. There is even a guest book, and Mr Tattie Heid makes an entry. The shelter gets a makeover every spring, a community project instigated by a young schoolboy's plea for a replacement for the previous dilapidated structure. It's a whimsical tourist attraction, a statement, perhaps, about life on a remote northern isle.
Dinner is at the Baltasound Hotel. Last time I was here, the place was booked up; tonight, it is nearly empty. I am relieved...I had visions of a dining room full of angry twitchers.