"The best road trip you've ever taken"

Oh that’s easy! It was in June 2009 and was a two-and-a-half week clockwise circuit of the far north of Scotland.

A road trip in Scotland is always a thoroughly enjoyable experience, though the presence of white camper vans and caravans on single track roads in the far north of the country can get a bit tedious after a while. But, hey, we’re all on holiday so let’s try and chill out!

We set off from Southampton, up the west side of England taking in Cumbria and the Scottish Borders, and then up the west coast via Glasgow, Fort William, Applecross, Ullapool, Lochinver and Kylesku all the way to the very top (Durness), then across to Thurso. A leap across the Pentland Firth to Orkney where we spent a thoroughly enjoyable day with the Stromness Dragon, and thence to Shetland, the land of the midnight sun.

A view of Muckle Flugga and its lighthouse (see picture), the most northerly island of the United Kingdom, was our turning point starting with the overnight ferry south from Lerwick to Aberdeen.

Muckle Flugga and its lighthouse

We then drove down the east coast of England from Northumberland through the Yorkshire Dales, Derbyshire (with a stop at Hardwick Hall) and Nottinghamshire to London, and finally home to Southampton.

You can read all about it at https://x333xxx.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/if-its-tuesday-it-must-be-thurso/

PS: I wanted to better it this year with a drive to Nordkapp up through Sweden to the far north of Norway. But that was vetoed by the management. I’ll be trying again next year ….

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A dash to Orcadia for a story

Next week I’m off to the Orkney Storytelling Festival. It has been organised by an islander friend of mine, the Stromness Dragon of Island Blogging fame.

Logo for the OSF

On announcing to The Sainted Marion yesterday that I’d decided to definitely drive up she elected to come too!  So we’re making a real trip of it, although we’ll only be aware from home for a total of six days.

Besides seeing the Stromness Dragon again (its been far too long!) and attending various festival events, its an opportunity to get reacquainted with Orkney. We last visited in June 2009 en route for Shetland and had just under 48 hours there so this time we’re really pushing the boat out and getting close to 60 hours!

En route there we’re going to cross off a couple of places I’ve wanted to visit for quite some time. Firstly the Strathnaver Trail in Sutherland, the scene of the worst of the infamous 18th & 19th century Highland Clearances, and then (not a million miles further on) the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows reserve on the edge of Caithness’s Flow Country. I’ve visited the Flow Country before but it’ll be a first for Marion, and I’ve wanted her to see if for as long as I’ve known her.  At this time of year it should be really quite special –  the rut is in full swing, and with the landscape in full swing autumnal colour extravaganza I’m sure we’ll both get some great pictures.  Then we’ll head for Thurso to catch the Stromness ferry.

On the return leg we’ll stop off in Golspie on the southern Sutherland coast to visit Dunrobin Castle, seat of the Dukes of Sutherland.  For as many years as I’ve been visiting Scotland (and that’s about 30 now) I’ve never yet managed to visit Dunrobin during its opening season, but next weekend we’ll be putting that right – finally.

And then it’ll be the long slog home ….

Name a book with a strong setting

During World War II, the “Shetland Bus” would go across the North Sea to occupied Norway, to take supplies and saboteurs into the fjords under the noses of the Germans, and to take refugees to safety on the return journey. This is the story of those secret wartime missions.

Buses can’t ride on water. But the Shetland Bus did. David Howarth paints a vivid picture of the heroism and bravery of Norwegian folk during the Second World War.

The Shetland Bus fishing boats ran the gauntlet of German occupying forces in Norway to keep the resistance supplied with arms, equipment and the all-important communications radios that kept the Germans on their toes throughout the occupation, forever wondering where the resistance were getting their supplies from!

We may not have been on those little fishing boats crossing the violent North Sea between Norway and Shetland in midwinter storms, but the author paints a dramatic picture of the bravery of those souls that wanted to keep hopes of freedom alive for ordinary Norwegians.

Through fantastic tale-telling we can build an image in our minds of the Norwegian fjords surrounded by majestic deep-frozen mountains, little villages clinging to the fjord edge, and the amazed faces of village folk when they realise that the famous Shetland Bus has been near where they live.

You may not be into wartime tales (I’m certainly not), but this is one I think most people would find both moving and inspirational – and if that inspiration took you to visit Shetland or Norway, then what’s the harm in that? We can celebrate the liberty that the Shetland Bus eventually brought to Norway!

And if you do visit Shetland, look out for the Shetland Bus memorial in Scalloway town centre.

US readers: http://www.amazon.com/Shetland-Bus-Escape-Survival-Adventure/dp/1599213214/ref=cm_cr_pr_pb_t

UK readers: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shetland-Bus-Kjell-Colding/dp/1898852421

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See also: The Shetland Bus: on my soapbox

The Shetland Bus

This is a ‘soap box’ posting. I’m just stepping up onto it now …

Available from Amazon

Available from Amazon

Dark winters provided the perfect cover for missions to occupied Norway during the Second World War, and the closest base was from Britain’s most northerly group of islands, Shetland.

Most Norwegians knew about the “Shetland Bus”, which did not go overland, but across the North Sea, taking supplies and saboteurs into the fjords under the noses of the Germans, and taking refugees to safety on the return journey – journeys in small fishing boats which covered thousands of miles, testing the skills of the Norwegian seamen who risked their lives in hurricanes, fog and darkness to make the crossing.

David Howarth was a junior naval officer who helped set up and operate the base. After the war he wrote a book “The Shetland Bus”, a story of successes and failures, and the courage, skill and adventurous spirit of the men who risked their lives on the Shetland Bus.

If you’ve not heard of this episode in World War 2 then I can thoroughly recommend David Howarth’s book. I’m not a huge fan of wartime stories (fact or fiction) but this one is special and worth reading. It can be ordered online from Amazon at £7.59, or from your local bookshop (ISBN-10: 1898852421), or I’m sure you could order it from your local library (check the online catalogue on their website!).

I am fortunate to have in my possession a first edition (1951) copy of the book. I have read it many times since it first came to my consciousness in the 1970s. And last month I wasparticularly looking forward to revisiting some of the sites associated with the wartime operation during our visit to Shetland last month, in particular Lunna and Scalloway. I rather think Marion was a bit bored with my telling of the story before our visit, but I believe she now shares my own enthusiasm that the tale should be remembered appropriately.

We were rather shocked at what we found in the way of remembering this unique story on the British side of the North Sea, particularly after completing a tour of Lerwick’s splendid new museum and archives at Hay’s Dock which brought together a unique collection of memorabilia which tells the story of Shetland over the centuries, but completely omitted any mention of The Shetland Bus (even in the WW2 exhibit).

So shocked, in fact, that I resolved to contact Shetland Amenity Trust (the local body responsible for preserving and promoting Shetland’s culture and heritage) to lament the lack of an appropriate commemoration in Lerwick and also to highlight that the presentation of such exhibits as are available for public viewing at Scalloway Museum are in a parlous state and, I fear, in danger of being lost if prompt action is not taken to preserve them for posterity.

Twelve days ago I sent an email to the general manager of the amenity trust, copied to the two Shetland Island Council nominated trustees and the Norway’s Ambassador to the UK offering a visitor’s perspective on the apparent disinterest (in Lerwick) of something that I feel deserves to be given a much higher profile.

On 8 May 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of V E Day, a commemorative memorial naming the Shetland Bus men was unveiled in Ålesund, Norway, by HRH Crown Prince Haakon.

Shetland emulated Norway a full eight years later. In 2003 a local body called the Shetland Bus Friendly Society, acting under the auspices of Scalloway Community Council, unveiled Shetland’s not-easy-to-find – and rather more modest – memorial in the village. Someone called Barbara Melkevik officiated. I don’t think she had an HRH monicker

Well, hats off to Scalloway Community Council and hurrah for their memorialisation, but even so it does seem a bit half cock compared to how Norway commemorated the wartime heroism doesn’t it? I mean, why wasn’t this initiated by Shetland Islands Council? Perhaps the community council got nowhere with the council when urging them to do something?

I can’t help feeling that the official Shetland “remembrance” of the wartime mission isn’t regarded with quite the same priority or feeling of Anglo-Norwegian fraternity that still holds in Norway.

I do feel very passionate about this heroic tale; I’ve been thinking of blogging about it since I sent my email. Today I decided to publish the text of my email for posterity’s sake.

“I should like to offer you some feedback on a recent visit I made to Lerwick and Scalloway Museums, which I hope you will receive in the warm spirit with which it is given: constructive rather than critical.

“I was most disappointed to find that the Shetland Bus story does not merit any form of mention in the (Lerwick) museum display areas. I looked very carefully and found nothing. I even enquired of museum visitor services staff in case I’d missed something less obvious – but they confirmed that there are no ‘bus’ exhibits at Lerwick with the singular exception of a model of a Norwegian fishing boat (the ‘Arthur’) at the foot of the staircase in the shop area.

“[A representative] from Visitor Services explained to my companion and I that the Scalloway Museum holds the Shetland Bus collection since Scalloway was the base for the wartime operation. Notwithstanding this, I found it rather peculiar that the islands’ principal museum, a landmark development indeed, made no mention of the Shetland Bus, particular in those exhibits that related directly to the last world war. This seems rather disingenuous to the memory of those who participated in the operation at a local level plus of course the many Norwegians who would have had Shetland connections during, and after, the German occupation of Norway, not to mention the souls who lost their lives during the ‘bus’ operation.

“Earlier the same day we had visited the Scalloway Museum with the explicit intent of seeing the ‘bus’ exhibition. I’m afraid we were rather shocked at the poor presentation and condition of many of the exhibits available to view. There were plenty of original items on display, available to touch. Many precious documents than cannot be replaced were looking – frankly – a bit moth-eaten and frayed at the edges. Such exhibits deserve much better preservation and presentation for the benefit of future generations. The museum staff at Scalloway were most welcoming and very friendly, but we left with the impression that they and the museum itself was a bit of a time warp; left behind by the 21st century. I don’t mean that in any insulting way to the individuals concerned – they clearly have a passion for the artefacts in their care, but I do question whether they have the right resources and skills to both preserve and present the history of Scalloway and the Shetland Bus to best effect.

“Our later visit to Hay’s Dock in Lerwick only accentuated what we had perceived to be really quite significant shortcomings at the Scalloway Museum. A comparison between the two establishments would not be favourable. [We were informed at Lerwick Museum] that there are plans afoot to redevelop Scalloway Museum, and we were heartened to learn this, but I am greatly concerned that swift action is required now to preserve the Shetland Bus memorabilia before it is too late.

“There were quite a number of Norwegians in Shetland last month for Johnsmas Foy. We couldn’t help wondering what they thought of the lack of representation at Hay’s Dock for the Shetland Bus; I’m sure some of these visitors must have known about the Shetland wartime operation (particularly those who had sailed across from Bergen) and have taken an opportunity to visit both Scalloway and Lunna during their stay. I can’t help but believe they would have been disappointed to see the way in which this important element of Shetland’s maritime history seems to have been pushed to one side.

The North Sea Monument in Ålesund

The North Sea Monument in Ålesund

“I should very much like to encourage you to find a way to present the Shetland Bus within the main museum in Lerwick in addition to the existing (or future) museum facility at Scalloway. It is such a wonderful story from the last war, very much a secret wartime operation (not unlike the Bletchley Park/Enigma story in many ways), and I believe that much could be done to improve the telling of the tale to future generations.

“But I believe the most pressing thing is to preserve the memorabilia on display at Scalloway to save it for posterity; it really is quite tragedy that’s unfolding there, and I’d like to ask you please to do something about it. I care for its well-being and I think that many Norwegians will do so too. In the darkest days of WW2, ordinary Norwegians knew that fishing boats were making dangerous journeys across the North Sea on their behalf. That kind of historical connection between Shetland and Norway is well worth celebrating and preserving properly.

“If you can find a way to marry the two museums together to present the ‘bus’ more appropriately I should certainly wish to return and see it for myself.

“Finally, the Shetland Bus memorial on the harbour-side in Scalloway is a lovely monument, but not very easy to locate if you don’t know where it is. I think Scalloway would benefit from a brown tourist sign pointing the way to the memorial!

“I hope you will find this feedback of some use in your exhibit and museum development planning.”

I’d be interested to know what you think of the above. Don’t hold back! If I’m wrong, then please tell me so.

I’m feeling a bit giddy now, so I’m stepping down off my soap box …

A happy holiday

Firstly, thanks to everyone for their lovely messages on my blog, Facebook and Twitter whilst I’ve been travelling!

We returned home on Saturday from our two-week journey around the north of Scotland. We had a great time and fabulous weather too, so I’m a happy bunny.

But even better than that, I’ve made a big leap in progress with my bad back. But the good news is that my holiday seems to have worked a minor miracle, I can walk and stand for much longer than previously, and I certainly don’t have anywhere near as much pain either. Instead of a cocktail of painkillers I’m now existing on just Ibuprofen, so that’s good too. With the exception of around 200 miles I drove the whole way – a total of 2600 miles in two weeks – and that’s something I really didn’t think I’d be able to do even when we left home on 13th June.

Whilst we were up in Shetland I had a bit of a mishap; I fell over! I was standing in a ditch photographing some cute Shetland ponies and stepped backwards to move back onto the roadside. I slipped and fell backwards, landing quite hard on my bum and then my back. But I didn’t hit my head on the tarmac thankfully. After moving very carefully in case I’d caused nasty damage I managed to get back on my feet and move about without discomfort. Indeed it seems to have been something of a miracle cure, because I’ve definitely been ‘less worse’ than I was previously.

But I’m by no means out of the woods yet, still need to have hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, and I have to attend a pain management clinic shortly, but that’s principally about identifying how best to manage things going forward. It looks like I’m going to have a degree of back pain for some time to come, but at least I’ve got to a point where I can now reasonably look toward getting back to employment.

There’ll be a more detailed update with pics soon (I’m catching up with emails and other stuff).

Unst-oppable Yell-ing

My return to Shetland has, thus far, lived up to expectations, indeed exceeded them. We have been blessed with superb weather, yesterday especially.

I am enjoying visiting locations I remember from 1976 and 1988, and the discovery of new places of interest.

Marion loves the close-up encounters with the local wildlife, particularly puffins, but a meeting with a friendly otter as yet eludes her.

We’re both loving the profusion of wildflowers on roadside verges and meadows, deep carmine red campion, purple and blue orchids, though none yet as special as the “Primula Scotica” that Stromness Dragon found for M at Yesnaby, Orkney, on Thursday.

I took a tumble on Saturday morning whilst snapping away at a cute Shetland Pony family. Losing my footing, I fell backwards landing on my back which, in present circumstance, was not the best thing. Mario, not unnaturally, was very concerned for my welfare.

Amazingly, however, it appears to have worked a miracle because – after I stopped laughing out loud – I got carefully to my feet and found no appreciable discomfort, indeed if anything, less than previously.

Yesterday we travelled up to Hermaness NNR for a sight of my favourite lighthouse, Muckle Flugga. Despite earnest searches of the sea whilst crossing to Yell and then to Unst, we did not see a killer whale from the ferries, unlike Mirlnlass the previous evening. Wall to wall blue skies and warm with it, sea flat calm.

Hopefully when we see her this evening she’ll have some pics to show us!

Today we’re heading for Scalloway and the Shetland Bus Museum (not the 4 wheel variety), shopping in Lerwick and an evening crossing to Bressay to see Mirlnlass and Moreorlesssocks.

We depart Shetland tomorrow evening , headed for Cornhill upon Tweed.

Dragon’s Den (Orkney style)

Quick update from car park of Tesco in Kirkwall to report an absolutely fabulous encounter with the awesome Stromness Dragon.

Approaching it’s lair with quite some trepidation us three travellers were given a typically dragonian welcome – a warm one!

Fresh-baked scones and copious cups of tea later we set off on a grand tour, and what a tour indeed.

I’ll blog in more detail later when I can use my Mac instead of my iPhone, but we’ll be sailing for Lerwick with very happy memories of our time in Orcadia.

A huge public thank you to SD for taking us under it’s wings today.

The Old Man of Hoy says “Hi!”

In breezy drizzle the travellers have been welcomed to Orkney as the ferry slipped quickly passed the Old Man of Hoy a few minutes ago.

Unfortunately the forecast for the next 48 hours is not favourable but we don’t care two hoots about that.

The ferry is just turning into Hamnavoe, we’re close now to Stromness.

Both v excited about reaching Orkney at last. Molly very blasé though – to her it’s just another island to explore.

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Thurso

Taking advantage of free wireless connection at hotel to update my blog tonight.

Saturday (my birthday): departed the New Forest and headed steadily north for the border with deviations to Kendal and Carlisle en route. Overnighted at Annandale Water as per usual, but with an added excursion to Dumfries for a KFC supper, a first for Marion. My back held up remarkably well. Weather: gloriously sunny.

Sunday: Johnstonebridge to Ardrhu by Ballachulish via Glasgow and Oban. Took breakfast at the Dumbarton Little Chef (unremarkable), then halfway up Loch Lomond skewed west for Inveraray (with a flying visit to Loch Fyne Oysters at Cairndow).  Marion loved the historic town of Inveraray, particularly the architectural uniformity. A sharp shower of rain as we left the town, headed west for Connel (sunny again) and a loop down to Oban for a visit to McCaig’s Tower (a first visit for me as well as Marion). Heading north to Ardrhu we diverted to Port Appin bathed in sunshine and mirror still sea. And finally we arrived at Ardrhu to stay with P&D at their 1890s hunting lodge on Loch Linnhe.  I drove all the way from Johnstonebridge and felt remarkably well for it. The wonder of medication and a positive mind.

Monday: an early departure (well, 9.00am) with an ominous forecast of rain ahead.  North through Fort William to Invergarry and then west to Cluanie and Dornie, north/northeast to Stromeferry (no ferry) and Lochcarron, and finally to Applecross for a lunch date with J&C at Tigh Ruaraidh which was bathed in sunshine as had been the entire drive thus far. Two hours later we set off on our next leg of the day, destination Stoer by Lochinver. I already knew this would be a marathon drive in four hours available (we had a 7.00pm deadline for dinner), and we used the ‘fast’ inland route via Achnasheen and Garve (sunshine gave way to dark forbidding cloud) to Ullapool (sunny again), and then north of Ullapool turned left to Achiltibuie driving underneath Stac Pollaidh, and then turned sharp right onto the much-heralded (and greatly favoured by Wainwright) ‘Little Mad Road of Sutherland’ to Inverkirkaig and Lochinver, continuing on to Stoer and our overnight stop at Cruachan House (highly recommended). We arrived with fifteen minutes to spare before dinner! Later we took a drive out to Stoer Lighthouse and I gazed wistfully over to Lewis and Harris in the sparkling west.  Back still holding up remarkably well, but was not inclined to walk. Couldn’t have achieved so much without considerable dosages of painkillers.

Tuesday: scudding clouds with blue patches, weather forecast for heavy rain late afternoon and overnight. Headed for Clashnessie and Drumbeg, and thence to Kylesku and my all-time favourite bridge. We drove over it, and then back again, and down to the village and ferry slipway. Then back across the bridge, parked, and walked back over the bridge. Saw a seal swimming underneath the bridge. Patchy cloud with sunny spells set off the landscape beautifully, then north through Scourie to the Kyles of Durness.  Lunch at Balnakeil Bay (very short, sharp shower of rain), then to Tongue. Instead of crossing the causeway we (as recommended by Wainwright) we diverted along the original road to Kinloch for a spectacular view of Ben Loyal bathed in sunshine. Bettyhill next, I wish that we had had time to take the Strathnaver Trail, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long time but I’m afraid it will have to wait another visit to the north. And then we arrived in Thurso, found our super B&B for the night (Pentland Lodge House – again, highly recommended).  Fish and chips for supper and a flying visit to John o’Groats for Marion’s benefit. We’ve to be up early in the morning (7.00am breakfast) and a two mile drive to Scrabster Harbour for early Stromness ferry to …. ORKNEY!  Pills popped regularly during the day but I do feel a lot better nonetheless.

Really looking forward to meeting Stromness Dragon on Thursday.

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