Our aim must exceed our grasp – reasons for voting YES

AWAY back in the mists of time, or at least the late seventies I found myself in a situation where I was to make a choice that was to completely change the rest of my life.

After leaving school I found myself taking on a number of jobs – but I wasn’t entirely happy in any of them. In my mid-twenties, with a wife and young child, I went off to work for the Scottish Youth Hostels Association and absolutely loved it. We ran the hostels and I started doing a little bit of writing in my spare time. I did a Mountain Leader Training gig and got some work teaching climbing and hillwalking and cross country ski-ing in winter.

A number of years later, now with two young sons, my wife and I sat down to have a think about our future. She was doing some part-time nursing.

Could we continue to run youth hostels for the rest of our working lives, or was this the time, while we were young, to try and satisfy other burning ambitions?

I desperately wanted to be an outdoors writer. I had been chuffed to have had some pieces published and I had been greatly encouraged by the features editor of the late and much lamented Sunday Standard, a forerunner of the Sunday Herald.

It all seemed like a dream that was very unlikely to become real. I hadn’t done particularly well at school; I didn’t go to university; I couldn’t really settle in a job; I didn’t have any savings stored away; I was in a job with a tied house and I had a young family. I really just wanted to climb mountains and write about it.

My dream of being an outdoor writer seemed impossible. Then I remembered a quotation from the poet Robert Browning, a quote that had been given to me by my boyhood hero, Lynn Davies the Welsh Olympic gold medallist long jumper.

“A man’s aim should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Lynn Davies, son of a coal miner from a working class background in Nantymoel near Cardiff became the greatest long jumper in the world. His ambitions far exceeded his grasp. What indeed, was a heaven for unless you believed in your own destiny?

My wife and I discussed the situation and we went for it. We got a little house in Kincraig and I worked my backside off, teaching outdoor activities by day and writing from 6-8 in the morning and then between 7 and 9 in the evenings.

It wasn’t easy but somehow we survived, and more importantly, it was possibly one of the happiest times of our long marriage.

After a few years I became deputy editor of Climber & Rambler magazine, then editor, then in 1990 I became editor of The Great Outdoors magazine, a role I remained in for 20 years.

During that time I was fortunate enough to enjoy some radio work and then some television work.

It was a fabulous existence. From the very comfortable base of a monthly salary and a company car I climbed hills near and far, led treks in the Greater Ranges and made several major television series for the BBC. My sons grew up, went to University and went off on their own career hunt. Then Gina and I were blessed with two granddaughters.

The risk that I took in leaving SYHA had paid off. At the time it seemed a silly thing to do and a number of people suggested to me that I lacked the experience, the skill and the qualifications to make a go of it. They meant well but they were wrong.

Then, almost five years ago, I had to make another decision, another personal choice that involved risk.

I had reached the grand old age of 60. I was in a comfortable, well salaried job. I had made my name, I had written about 15 books, made a number of television series for the BBC. I was gioven a lifetime achievement award for services to magazine publishing in Scotland. I was made an honourary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. I had climbed the Munros several times and had walked, climbed and skied throughout the world but one thing niggled me…

I became aware that time was not eternal. I was growing older and I still had many things I wanted to do while I still could, while I was still reasonably fit. I wanted to travel more, I was keen on doing more television work, I wanted to write about other outdoor related things than just climbing hills, I wanted some time to campaign more effectively for the political issues I thought were important.

To have the time to do these things I would have to give up the relatively time consuming job as editor of The Great Outdoors.

Could I, at age 60, pick up a career as a freelance writer and television presenter?

My wife had just retired as a staff nurse, so once again we had to sit down and discuss our future and once again I recalled those words by Browning…

“A man’s aim should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

With a renewed sense of adventure, but probably better prepared this time, I resigned from TGO and went into the big wide world on my own again.

I’ve not regretted it. Not once.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the writing I’m doing for the Scots Magazine and WalkHighlands, I’m enjoying the role I have in BBC Scotland’s Adventure Show, but more importantly I’m doing a lot of things I didn’t have time for before. Lots of long distance cycling, much more travelling with my wife, and being able to spend more time with my granddaughters.

I smile when I hear people talk about the risks of independence for Scotland.

I laugh when I hear people suggest Scotland is too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent.

Compared with the risk I took when I was was determined to earn a living as a young writer the risks that face Scotland are negligible.

I embarked on my adventure with few qualifications, only determination and ambition. Scotland can embark on her adventure with a bagful of qualifications.

Some of the best natural resources of any nation in the world;

A skilled and hugely talented workforce;

Existing industries like food and drink, whisky, agriculture, engineering, digital resources;

A thriving arts and cultural sector;

Bigger oil reserves than the likes of Abu Dhabi or Quatar…

I could go on but do you get the point? Scotland is well qualified to go it alone on the world stage.

The question is do we, as Scots, have the ambition to do better, or are we happy to remain as we are and face another uncertain future, a future that could see us, against our will, being dragged out of the EU;

A future where billions of pounds are spent on renewing weapons of mass destruction and stored in our midst;

A future in which decisions about Scotland are made by right wing politicians who want to punish us for having the audacity to think we could become independent;

A future in which we will for ever be known as Scotland The Feart!

Let’s grasp this opportunity. Let’s aim high, far beyond our grasp. If my personal experiences are anything to go for, we, and our children and grandchildren, will be richly rewarded. September the 18th is our date with history. Let’s take our place in history, by voting YES! And let’s remember Robert Browning’s words…

“A man’s aim should exceed his grasp, or what a heaven for?” 


Revolution Country Premier touring bike – thoughts after 200 miles

Loch Laggan looking pretty spectacular under blue August skies

Loch Laggan looking pretty spectacular under blue August skies

WHAT a magnificent day it was for a bike ride. With the sun shining from a cloud-free sky It didn’t take much for me to  decide that I had no immediate deadlines pressing and it would be a computer-free day.

There’s little point in living in one of the nation’s most beautiful areas if you can’t enjoy it on a lovely day so that’s exactly what I did, very aware that the BBC weather forecast was full of gloom and doom for tomorrow.

It wasn’t however, a complete work-free day. Next week I’m taking a new touring bike to ride the Hebrides from end to end. I collected the bike, a Revolution Country Premier from Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op, last week and I’ve now ridden a couple of miles on it, including today’s 100km (sounds more impressive than 60 miles) down to RoyBridge and back to my home in Newtonmore.

In short I’m really impressed with this bike, although I changed the saddle after a hundred miles or so. The Selle Royal saddle that came with the bike felt hard-edged and very uncomfortable. Probably I should have given it longer to break in but I’m afraid I tend to be impatient with saddles.

The Revolution Country Premier at Creag Meagaidh

The Revolution Country Premier at Creag Meagaidh

A painful backside on a bike ride is even worse than riding all day into a wind as far as I’m concerned and after a couple of outings I was very uncomfortable in the sitting department. Everything else was fine so it seemed sensible to change the offending item.

And here’s the strange thing. Some time ago I bought a Brooks saddle but even after 5-600 miles it still felt very uncomfortable so I relegated it to a shelf in my garage. Some sixth sense made me look it out the other day and fit it on the Evolution bike and do you know what? It felt fine. Still a bit hard and unforgiving but a big improvement on the Selle saddle.

I also fitted some Shimano M324 combination pedals. I like the fact that these are clipless on one side and flat on the other. Sometimes when you’re touring it’s useful to have a flat pedal and I’ve used these on all my big bike trips over the past few years.

So, having changed the saddle and the pedals, how did the Revolution Country Premier perform in its first couple of hundred miles?

Well, it performed well enough to for me to commit to taking it across to the Hebrides next week instead of my usual steed, my Ridgeback Panorama.

It’s taken me a little while to get used to the multi-position ‘butterfly’ ergo bars, offering a wide variety of riding positions, and I’ve found that by using the top bars I can occasionally stretch my back quite nicely. On the lower position I find my fingers going a little numb so I’ll perhaps need to look at changing the height of the bars just a tad.

Gear shifting, courtesy of the latest Shimano Deore LX 3×10 shifters and gear mechs, is excellent and very exact. The spread of gears is much the same as on my Ridgeback –  48/36/26 chainrings and Shimano 11-32 10-speed cassette. This setup offers a higher top gear than a regular mountain bike transmission with 42/32/22 chainrings to enable a quicker burst of speed on the road.

The biggest advantage of this bike is undoubtedly the cable operated disc brakes. These are Avid BB% mechanical disc brakes which roll on ball bearings to ensure smooth engagement and release and they operate beautifully. What a difference to the rim brakes I’m used to. You barely have to squeeze these to slow you down, indeed ‘sqeeze’ is not a good word. Squeeze these and you’ll go head over the handlebars. All you really have to do it gently tickle them and you slow down. Wonderful. Too many times I’ve had cramp in my wrists because I’ve been squeezing the hell of out rim brakes when on long downhills, especially with a big load on the back.

revolution-country-premier-14But there’s one a potential problem with these disc brakes. The mechanism on the front wheel means that it looks like it could be pretty awkward to fit front pannier racks and that could be very inconvenient. There is so much weight already in the rear of this bike that I’d be keen to split any load between front and back. I’m not sure I can…

I’ll have a further tussle with my front pannier rack before I head west and if I can’t fit front panniers I’ll just use a Wildcat Mountain Lion handlebar harness that I use on my mountain bike. That should be able to carry my tent at least, freeing up a bit of space and weight  from the rear panniers.

So, after a couple of hundred miles I’m really enjoying riding this bike. It has a turn of speed on the flat, climbs well and is becoming more comfortable with every ride as I get used to the handlebars and the saddle.

At this stage is seems to me that the retail price of just under £800 is very good indeed for what is a pretty up-market touring bike.



Why I’m voting YES

SOMEONE said to me recently that Alex Salmond has “divided a nation” with the independence referendum, but if division is about discussion, about debate, even friendly argument, with so many people engaged in something as important as the future direction of my country, then I’m absolutely all for it.

I heard someone discuss this on the radio the other morning and he said his family were Italian – and they often have loud, vociferous family arguments about kinds of things – but they still loved each other… 

I think it’s wonderful that a small nation like Scotland can reach this point in considering its future direction with what has been a campaign of hope, optimism and positivity.

But before I set out my reasons for voting Yes I should remind folk that I’m not a politician – mind you, that’s not stopped Danny Alexander from becoming First Secretary to the Treasury!

I don’t think anyone who has watched any of my television programmes could be in any doubt as to my love of Scotland, my passion for the hills and mountains and wild places, its history and legends, but of course independence is much more than that.

I’m at an age where the result next month won’t actually make all that much difference to my career, or my finances, or how I feel about Scotland, but I actually have two very important reasons for voting YES – and they are aged seven and five!

I really don’t want my granddaughters to grow up in a Scotland that is governed by a Westminster elite that has no concern or vision for a more equal society.

I don’t want them governed by a privileged few that have absolutely no commitment to the protection of the most vulnerable in society.

I don’t want them to grow up in a country that harbours weapons of mass destruction.

I don’t want them governed by people who, when they talk about “times of economic uncertainty”, actually mean fluctuating oil revenues or increased borrowing costs, rather than the economic uncertainty of insecure or poorly paid work, and food banks, and pay-day loans and the kind of deprivation that sees one in four men in Glasgow die before the age of 65!

I don’t want them to grow up in a Scotland where one in five children are in poverty.

In my lifetime the UK has had five Tory governments, and the people of Scotland didn’t vote for any of them.

I want my granddaughters to grow up in a Scotland where, if our government is cheating on us, or telling us lies, or producing legislation that puts the most vulnerable at risk, we can simply sack them, by not voting them into power again.

With a Westminster government the like of which we have at the moment, we can’t do that, or we can, but only with the unlikely help of Middle England. And it’s become increasingly clear over the years that the political aims and ambitions of Scotland and Middle England are poles apart. 

I believe, like many others, that Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands, so that we can together build that better, fairer, greener, more prosperous country that we all know is possible – a fairer and more equal society, a nuclear-free society, an environmentally sensitive society with a burgeoning renewable energy industry, and one in which we can bring to an end the grotesque situation where 7% of people own 84% of the land.

We talk endlessly about the importance of democracy but how democratic is the current UK set-up?

Let’s not forget that as a nation state the United Kingdom was an imperialist construct. To this very day it retains the undemocratic trappings of such a concept:

A hereditary head of state,

An unelected second chamber,

No written constitution and

A ruling elite drawn from a narrow, privately educated strata of society.

It’s time for fundamental change.

Let me ask you a question. How do you see Scotland? Do you see it as a poor, wee, grey northern country with its hand out for more and more subsidies?

If you do perhaps you need a paradigm shift. You know these drawings you see of an ugly old person, but the harder you look the vision changes to that of a handsome young person?

An optical illusion that demonstrates the way in which a paradigm shift could cause you to see the same information in an entirely different way. Maybe some of us need to start looking at Scotland through different eyes.

A Scotland with the potential to be amongst the five wealthiest nations in the world.

A Scotland with enough natural resources to create a huge renewables energy industry that could be the envy of the world.

A Scotland with massive oil reserves,

A Scotland with a hugely successful whisky industry,

A Scotland with enormous agricultural and fishery resources,

A Scotland that has the best educated society in the world,

A Scotland with a diverse and hugely talented workforce,

A Scotland that has a well loved song that is sung around the world every New Year,

A Scotland whose people are welcomed wherever they go, from Tibet to Timbuctoo…

Think of these things, then look at that grey old picture of poor wee Scotland once again.

Two years ago I walked through Scotland from end to end, 470 miles from Kirk Yetholm in the Borders to Cape Wrath.

I walked through the country because it’s only by walking that you can actually hear the heartbeat of the land; it’s only by walking that you can read the small print of a nation.

In the course of that long walk I saw a land that was rich in potential, from the fertile argricultural lands of the Borders to the world-leading engineering example of the brilliant Falkirk Wheel, to the natural resource potential of renewable energy – wind, wave, tidal and of course, the world famous landscapes of Scotland that attracts visitors from all over the world.

Earlier this summer I cycled the length of Ireland, from Mizen Head in the south to Malin Head in north Donegal.

In the course of that my mate Hamish and I were astounded by the apparent affluence of the place. We cycled on roads that were well cared for and smooth.

We never had less than four bars on our mobiles and even in remote places like the Aran Islands or the west coast of Clare we had Wi-Fi in every bed and breakfast and hostel we stayed in.

And in the course of dozens of conversations no-one at all, absolutely no-one, thought it would be good if Ireland once again became part of the UK.

And do you know this – recently Ireland was voted as the best place to live, in the world. A small, independent nation, just like Scotland could be.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Scotland is too wee, or too poor, or too dim, to go it alone.

Let me finish by sharing the advice of the arch-capitalist himself, the former pin up boy of Margaret Thatcher – Richard Branson.

This is what he said; “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not too sure you can do it, say yes anyway – then learn how to do it later.”

I think that’s fine advice. On September 18th let’s say YES, and set out on that adventure together, overcome the difficulties and strive for the summit.

I’ll be voting Yes so that Scotland and England can enjoy the relationship of equals that the Union, in over 300 years, has never actually delivered.

Thank you. Saor Alba gu Brath!












First Wind Farm on Wild Land Map refused

IT’S very good new for those who have campaigned against the proposal for the 34-turbine Glenmorie windfarm near Ardgay in Sutherland.

This morning the Energy Minister Fergus Ewing issued a notice saying that he is refusing permission, following last year’s public Inquiry.

What is really good news is that the refusal is because “the wind farm would  cause unacceptable landscape and visual impact, including on wild land.”

That last point is vital and in a sense history has been made this morning. The Glenmorie proposal was for a 34-turbine windfarm at Kildermorie and Glencalvie Estate near Ardgay, and was sited within an area of wild land, as identified on the SNH Wild Land.

That means the Glenmorie proposal is the first to be refused on the grounds that it would be sited on recognised wild land as described in the Scottish Governments’s recent Third National Planning Framework.

While the Government’s Scottish Planning Policy on wild land and the accompanying SNH Wild Land Map were generally given a welcome by Scotland’s outdoors NGO’s, there has been a certain measure of uncertainty over the promises of protection for those areas contained in the Wild Land Map.

In his statement Mr Ewing said:

“Scotland has enormous potential for renewable energy that is delivering jobs and investment across Scotland, and I am determined to ensure communities all over Scotland reap the benefits from renewable energy. We need a balanced approach in taking forward this policy and have to consider what impact any development would have on the local area.

“That is why I have refused permission for the proposed wind farm at Glenmorie, which would have had an unacceptable landscape and visual impact, including on the wild land, in the Highland Council area.
“The Scottish Government wants to see the right developments in the right places, and Scottish Planning Policy is clear that the design and location of any wind farm should reflect the scale and character of the landscape and should be considered environmentally acceptable.”

The refusal of the Glenmorie proposal is a very positive step forward towards re-assuring Scotland’s walkers and climbers that the Scottish Government is sincere about protecting wild land in Scotland.

All eyes will now turn to the imminent announcement regarding the Allt Duine windfarm in the Monadh Liath, another proposal which is contained within an area of the Wild Land map.

Revolution Country Premier Touring Bike – first thoughts


BEGINNING to make plans for a wee bike trip up the length of the Western Isles next month, from Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis.

I did this trip a few years ago as a bike and hike for the BBC – the programme was called the Hebridean Trail, but this time my old pal Hamish Telfer and I will be purely cycle touring.

Much as I’m loathe to ignore my trusty Ridgeback Panorama touring bike this time I’ll be using a bike from the Edinburgh Cycling Co-op.

Their Revolution Country Premier is new on the market and it’ll be interesting to see how it compares. I picked it up yesterday and haven’t really had a chance to get to know it yet but hopefully I’ll get a few big rides in before Hamish and I head off from Oban early next month.

The Revolution bike has multi-position ‘butterfly’ ergo bars, offering a wide variety of riding positions, and pretty good gear shifting, courtesy of the latest Shimano Deore LX 3×10 shifters and gear mechs.

There’s also a good spread of gears, so vital in a touring bike, courtesy of its 48/36/26 chainrings and Shimano 11-32 10-speed cassette. This setup offers a higher top gear than a regular mountain bike transmission with 42/32/22 chainrings to enable a quicker burst of speed on the road.

The frame is good old Reynolds 525 Chromoly Steel and although the bike is slightly heavier, by about 1kg, than my Ridgeback it does initially feel a bit more lively, but we’ll see. Time will tell.

I think the big difference for me will be the disc brakes. The rim brakes on my Ridgeback are not brilliant – that’s the one downside of that otherwise excellent bike, but the Revolution Country Premier has cable operated disc brakes – Avid BB5,  mechanical disc brakes which roll on ball bearings to ensure smooth engagement and release. Being brake cable operated (same as cantilever brakes) mechanical disc brakes are less daunting for the likes of me to deal with than hydraulic disc brakes.

Like the gear shifters, the brake levers are mountain bike style. In this case a handsome pair of Tektro 4-finger levers with comfortable Kraton rubber non-slip rubber grips.

Road contact is through Continental 700 x 32 Sport Contact Tyres which offer a good blend of low rolling resistance for speed and sure grip for stability.

Finally a word on price. The Revolution bike retails at just under £800. That compares well with the £1200 or so that a Ridgeback Panorama now costs, but will it be as good? I’ll let you know as soon as I can, plus what other gear I’ll take along, including lightweight camping gear.

Protecting the Scottish countryside from unsightly hill tracks

IT’S something many of us have been campaigning for – new planning controls to stop the current plague of badly made and unnecessary hill tracks on the Scottish hills.

Today, Derek Mackay, the Planning Minister has announced new planning controls to help safeguard the Scottish countryside from what has become a real blight on the landscapes of Scotland.

Mr Mackay has introduced a “prior notification and approval process” which will allow planning authorities to consider how proposed tracks will impact on the environment and allow them to intervene to ensure that the design, siting and appearance are acceptable.

The requirements will be introduced across the country later this year, and will be an extension of existing prior notifications under Class 18 agriculture and Class 22 forestry which currently apply to tracks in natural scenic areas.

“These new controls will ask planning authorities to weigh up proposals and consider all aspects of where the hilltracks will be built, while at the same time allowing work that does not have an adverse impact to proceed with minimal delay or costs,” said Mr Mackay.

Historically, agricultural and forestry tracks could be constructed and upgraded under permitted development rights, meaning that provided they met certain criteria a planning application was not required.

Tracks for any other purpose (leisure, sport shooting, etc) do not benefit from the permitted development rights; they require, and always have required, a planning application to be made and permission granted.

Unfortunately there has been a real spate of hilltracks built that are very obviously created for shooting purposes, but the various land agents have claimed them to be for agricultural or forestry use, which means they wouldn’t have required planning permission.

Hopefully these new controls will considerably tighten up the process and stop rogue landowners building poorly constructed tracks that both deface and destroy the landscape, all so that they can get a few more shooting clients closer to their targets.




Shetland, and some of the finest coastal walking you’ll find anywhere

Sunset at Eshaness, Shetland

Sunset at Eshaness, Shetland

I went north to Shetland with two real preconceptions that turned out to be completely false.

The first was that we wouldn’t be able to escape the effects of the oil industry. Wrong! Despite the fact that the excellent NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick was busy with men who were obviously employed in the oil business once you reach the Shetlands there is little evidence to show that these northern islands are virtually the oil capital of the UK.

There are a few floating accommodation blocks in various harbours – the one in Lerwick harbour is particularly ugly and eyeball-searing due to its garish black and white stripes, and the Sullom Voe terminal isn’t pretty, but it’s virtually tucked away and you wouldn’t really come across it unless you were looking for it.

And a less obvious affect of the oil boom in Shetland is in the road infrastructure. The roads are unbelievably good, and I was told by several local folk that was because of oil money. I don’t think I saw a pothole for the whole time we were there. Compare that with the A9, the main trunk road north, which is like a slalom course as you try and avoid the potholes and subsidence.

The second preconception that was false was something I had been told by a number of folk – that the Shetland isles are covered in wind farms. Wrong?

True, there is a big fight going on over what could become the biggest windfarm in Europe but in the last few days we only saw one wind farm, a paltry five turbines on a hill close to Lerwick.

So wrong preconceptions apart what were the standout memories of Shetland?

We went for a walking holiday and a walking holiday we had – a superb walking holiday as it happened. I guess I could best describe Shetland as a cross between the Western Isles and Norway, and for virtually all of our time in the Northern Isles we felt we were in wild country. And yet at no time were we very far from a road. What was truly wild was the coastline…

The 1700 or so miles of the Shetland coastline offers some of the finest coastal walking I have found anywhere. Take Eshaness in North Mainland for example.


If you bring together the elements that are born in the wide expanses of the North Atlantic, wind, tide and waves, and then obstruct their gale-driven progress with an immovable object, like the cliff-girt coast of the Shetlands, then chaos is bound to ensure. Geological chaos.

The effect of millions of years of constant pounding by the North Atlantic waves on the Middle Devonian volcanic rock of the Eshaness peninsula of mainland Shetland has created a coastline that is dramatically ragged and broken and quite magnificent.

Wave cut cliffs and massive sea stacks rise up to 150 feet in height and blowholes erupt like geysers high above the turbulent seas. It’s as though the sea is trying to claim the land as its own, breaking it down slowly and deliberately.

It’s an age-old war of attrition, but take a walk along the cliff tops on a sunny day in summer and it’s as though a truce has been called. The visual drama is still there, but the dominant sensation is now one of beauty, a grandeur created by the raw power of nature.

The cliff scenery was astonishing and although we were a little too far into the summer to enjoy the spectacle of nesting seabirds there were still enough fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets and puffins to provide an ornithological spectacle. But what fascinated me most of all were the names of the various rock features. This stretch of headland is called the Villians of Ure, and we passed Moo Stack, Blackhead of Breigeo, Grind of the Navir and Head of Stanshi as we made our way round The Burr towards the hamlet of Ure.

With a ragged coastline of almost 1700 miles it’s not surprising that Shetland has more then its fair share of shipwreck stories. The White Wife of Otterswick commemorates a wreck on the eastern shores of the island of Yell.

The White Wife of Otterswick

The White Wife of Otterswick

In 1924, a German training ship called the Bohus set sail from Sweden bound for Chile but her skipper made a navigational error and the ship found itself floundering in fog and heavy seas off the east coast of Yell. Strong winds blew the ship into the rocks near the Ness of Queyon and four sailors were drowned. The ship’s figurehead was later recovered near Otterswick and was erected near the shore as a memorial to the drowned sailors.

A fine coastal walk visits the memorial, before visiting a lovely low lying headland where, on a summers day, it is hard to visualise the harsh conditions which led to such a disaster.

As on mainland Shetland, the east coast of Yell is considerably less wild and more low lying than the west coast where the cliffs tend to be higher and the coastline more broken. Nevertheless, the headland of Ness of Queyon and Salt Wick is very rocky and gets the full brunt of the north-easterly swells. On a windy day it can be very dramatic.

St Ninian is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland long before Columba and he was, for a time, the Abbott of Lindisfarne. A lovely little island, just off the shore of Shetland’s south Mainland, is named after him, although it’s unlikely Ninian ever travelled this far north.

The tombolo connecting St Ninian's Isle to Shetland's mainland

The ruins of a 12th century church are to be found on the island but what makes this place so special is the double curve of cockleshell sand that links the island to the mainland of Shetland. Technically this feature is known as a tombolo. Tides and currents sweep around the island and meet on either side of this golden strand, constantly washing sand up from the seabed.

Apparently this is the only tombolo in the British Isles that has been formed by sand. Other tombolos are shingle, or pebbles, although it’s likely that the St Ninian’s tombolo has its origins in shingle.

A car park and picnic area below the hamlet of Bigton offers access to the ‘sand road’ and once through some marram grass dunes you can enjoy the walk across to the island with the unusual aspect of waves lapping on both your left and your right. Arctic terns are very territorial hereabouts and will swoop down very close to you, screeching and sniping at you for invading their territory.

Once across the tombolo a sandy path climbs up onto the island itself. The remains of the old church lie to your right but leave that exploration to the end of the walk. Head south around St Ninian’s Bay and enjoy the prospect of the island’s ragged coast, culminating in the cliff girt islands of Inns Holm and Coar Holm. Although the cliffs are sheer and rugged the sheltered waters tend to be calmer here and you may see, or hear, a raft of eider ducks crooning gently or seals basking on the low lying rock ledges.

Follow the coastline west, crossing a stile over a large wall, before turning north with views across a broad expanse of ocean towards the distant outline of Foula. Pass Longa Berg and the seabird haunted island of Hich Holm, before negotiating your way round the big cove of Selchie Geo. Beyond, a stone built wind-break follow the cliffs out towards the long nose of The Neapack and its trig point. A narrow grassy ridge leads on towards the bare rock of Loose Head.

From here the views north take in the area of Walls and Papa Stour. To the west lies Foula and away to the south, beyond the big lump of Fitful Head, lie the distant shores of Fair Isle, midway between Orkney and Shetland. And dominating everything the continual, elemental cries of wheeling seabirds.

Virtually every cliff had its own population of young fulmars – downy, fluffy lumps with two eyes and a gaping, hungry beak. Cooried down, each on its own ledge, the chicks wait patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, for their parents to return to the ledges and regurgitate some food for them.

Natural history tends to dominate most walks on Shetland but there is human history here too! Plenty of it. It’s thought that man has used this island since the earliest mists of time. The ruins you come across as you make your way back towards the tombolo are the remains of a 12th century church but it’s believed the site was previously used by Norse settlers and before that as a pre-Christian burial site dating to the 3rd century. During excavations in the 1950’s a local schoolboy found a larch box containing 28 items of Pictish silver ornaments. They are all on display in the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, a long way from their place of discovery. How much better if they were displayed to the public in a museum in Shetland.

Possibly the walk I enjoyed most was to the very north of the most northerly island. I fell in love with Unst and its ‘northness”. Here lies the most northerly RSPB reserve in the UK. Here lies the most northerly lumps of land in the UK, and here you’ll find the most northernly brewery in the UK – the Valhalla Brewery, and their White Wife pale ale is wonderful!


On a bright and windy afternoon we risked the attacks of bonxies  (great skuas) and made our way along the duckboards of the wonderfully named Burn of Winnaswarta Dale to the Hermaness coast where we sat and gazed through binoculars at the antics of at thousands of beautiful gannets. Beyond lay the lighthouse of Muckle Flugga and the tiny island of Out Stack, the most northerly stretch of land in the UK. We then climbed the most northerly hill in Britain – Hermaness Hill, all of 200 m in height! It was simply wonderful.

We travelled to Shetland with NorthLink Ferries, leaving Aberdeen at 7pm in the evening and arriving in Lerwick exactly twelve hours later. The two-berth cabin was exceptionally comfortable and it was a real treat to go to bed at your normal time and wake up in Shetland. The staff looked after us well and a big thank you to Angela in the St Magnus lounge who went out of her way to make us welcome.

If you haven’t been to Shetland I would strongly recommend it. The coastal walking is phenomenal, the birdlife is rich and everyone we met was welcoming. We took our campervan and stayed in a few camp sites and had an equal number of wild camps in some absolutely glorious spots. Look at the photo of our wonderful sunset near the Eshaness lighthouse.

Time for a barbecue!

Time for a barbecue!

Earlier in the evening we had enjoyed a terrific barbecue. Then came that superb sunset and at 2am I had to pull down the pop-up roof of the van, and batten down the hatches. The wind and rain threatened to blow us halfway to Greenland. But hey, that’s Shetland.