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Trip 41 — Yell Walk

Day 1: Ulsta to West Sandwick
Saturday, 27 April 2024

Today: 21634 steps/16.58 km/10.30 mi/3h 43m

Niue may have only one inbound flight a week, but it's more straightforward to get there than to Yell. After flying into Edinburgh, I took a train up to Aberdeen (Scotland's third-largest city), an overnight ferry to Lerwick (the Shetland Islands' main town), a bus from Lerwick to the north end of Mainland at Toft, and a 15-minute ferry ride to the landing at Ulsta on Yell.

Sure, Loganair flies to Sumburgh at the southern tip of Mainland, but it would still have been two buses and a ferry to Yell. Besides, this way I got to stock up on snacks at Crombie's in Edinburgh. Nothing says Scotland like munching on a black-pudding Scotch egg while rolling across the Forth Bridge and then dozing off to the student behind me telling her friend of her favorite Friday activity: heading directly from school to the family cottage and going fishing.

Aberdeen's time-worn granite buildings greeted me, with the drilling-fluid cylinders looming behind. At the Aberdeen Maritime Museum, two stories ran in parallel from the top floor to the bottom. One side had the trading history from the city's origin in 1136 — perhaps earlier, but that's when the harbor was first mentioned. Items such as Belgian pottery and Venetian glass were imported; wool and flax cloth were exported. In more recent times, fishing was prominent, especially since trawling began in 1882. Overfishing has been a problem, and laws were enacted to regulate the size and quantity of the catch.

Running down the other side of the museum was a model of the Murchison Platform, one of many set up in the North Sea in the 1970s and 1980s to drill for oil and gas and since decommissioned in favor of more environmentally friendly energy sources. Workers spent up to three weeks living on the 254-meter-tall structure.

This was one of those museums where reading the words — detailed as they were — couldn't give a sense of what life was like. You had to take time to imagine yourself bobbing up and down for three weeks, clinging to handholds as you operated the machinery and thought about your family at home, or, if you were a saturation diver, feeling the confinement of being in a pressure chamber for a month. What was it like to put on the 832-pound diving apparatus known as the Newtsuit?

I walked out to Footdee, pronounced "Fittie" and named for its location at the foot of the River Dee before the river was rerouted. Once a fishing village, Footdee has been cut off from the Aberdeen by the city's industry and harbor activities. Its small row houses — I'd have to duck my head to enter — have doors that face away from the sea, as protection from the wind. The entrances bear sayings such as "Probably haunted — Sleep tight" and the lawns are crammed with quirky ornaments. It probably tries too hard to appeal, but it was worth the walk, and the inviting Fittie Bar, festooned with buoys, framed ship knots, nautical maps, and a signed Aberdeen Lifeboat Crew flag on the ceiling, served me a good breaded haddock and chips. That and two pints of John Smith's Extra Smooth, coupled with a flight too short for much sleep, had me in bed on the ferry not long after sunset.

Yell is shaped like a fat "S" with an incision in the middle on the right. On the ferry from Toft, I was the only foot passenger; the other travelers came in about ten cars. It was chilly and windy when we disembarked in Ulsta, at the bottom of the S. Today's walk would bring me most of the way up the bottom left curl of the S. I started heading along the road that climbed gently from the ferry landing and generally followed the western coast.

On the way over, I'd skimmed the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. In Scotland people are allowed to walk wherever they like, provided they respect people's privacy, peace, animals, gardens, and crops. Fences are there to keep sheep in rather than keep people out. The code maintains a modicum of intensity and suspense for its 135 pages, but essentially it keeps repeating that as long as you walk responsibly and don't act like a nuisance, go where you want.

Coming from a country where they shoot trespassers, I wasn't quite ready to put this permission completely to the test. When I reached Clothan after a half-hour, a road veered left toward the Ness of Sound, a kind of skin tag hanging off the island and connected by a tombolo or small spit. It would have been nice to incorporate the headland into the short walking day. But a sign said "Private road," and I forwent it.

Ahead of me, the sky was gray. Behind me it was almost black. To the left, at one of the little islands in the distance, sky and earth fused together in a column of torrential muck. Maybe I should keep the short walk after all.

There was very little traffic, except at 10:07, when about a dozen cars and a giant truck came zooming by. They must have crossed over from Toft on the 9:45 ferry, an hour after I had.

The scenery was rolling hills of peat, undulating on my right and sloping down to the sea on my left. There were mature sheep and tiny lambs, white as cotton; this is the lambing season, a month later than on the mainland. There were a few Shetland ponies, shorter than I, with manes stylishly combed to one side, sometimes covering an eye in the wind. I passed croft houses, with their symmetrical basket shape and chimneys at both ends; a giant could grab them with its fists and hoist them out of the ground.

A brief drizzle caused me to consider the shelves of peat and ponder whether I could lie down and shelter under one of them in a driving rain. But the dark clouds drifted northwest and the rain never came.

In a little under two hours, I reached West Sandwick. My lodging for the night, the Quam B&B, was one of those houses just ahead. But a peninsula hung down on the left, bigger than the Ness of Sound, like a serif on the S. I had rallied up some confidence and wanted to walk it.

I took the road heading into West Sandwick proper, a cluster of nice-looking homes evoking the croft-house style near a bus shelter. A woman was collecting the mail from a mailbox on the right. On the left, another woman, having arrived in a separate Royal Mall vehicle, was delivering a letter to one of the houses. Shetland, or at least West Sandwick, takes its mail management seriously.

To get around the inlet, I kept to a driveway parallel to the shore. I came to a gate with a stone wall on both sides. There seemed to be a break in the wall just up the hill. The break was there, but there was a wooden fence on the other side. I climbed over it, wondering whether anyone had seen me.

The driveway veered up toward a croft house. I continued straight, beginning to pick my way along the peat. The yard around the house was fenced in; I stayed on the outer side.

Another gate a few minutes later would have been easy to climb over, but the ground under it was waterlogged. Perpendicular to the stone wall was a wooden ladder; I climbed up. There was no corresponding ladder on the other side, but it wasn't much of a drop. I got up on the wall, testing each stone as many of them were loose, and then lowered myself down.

Now I was at the top of the peninsula. I started along the peat. At times it was squishy, and I had to reroute around soggy patches and little streams, but it wasn't difficult. Sometimes there was even the faint, thin stripe of a path.

After ten minutes, I checked the map. I must be nearing the bottom of the peninsula and about to head up the other side. No, this was slower going than I realized. I'd barely done a quarter of the right side. This detour was going to double the walk's length. But walking was the whole point, and it was still early.

As I got used to the terrain, I was able to go a little faster. Sometimes the path brought me down to a rocky shore; sometimes I stayed above it, trying to keep to higher, drier ground. Sometimes there were several paths to choose from.

I was being watched after all, from above. Perhaps a tern or a kind of gull. It hovered over me, roughly tracing my route. It seemed to have acquaintances in the distance. Was I approaching a nest? I thought of the terns that had dive-bombed me on Eysturoy.

"We cool?" I asked it.

I finally reached the bottom of the peninsula, and I continued clockwise. The bird didn't follow me.

The seaward side of the peninsula was wilder. There were higher hills, although none were difficult to climb or skirt. Pairs of kittiwakes were resting on a steep slope where the ocean cut into the land.

I came up to the top of the peninsula and continued along the coast rather than cut back across to the fences I'd climbed. As I approached West Sandwick Beach, the cliffs became laden with huge rock slabs, lined up and leaning against each other like folding chairs. There's been a lot of fracturing, colliding, and eroding in this area over the past three billion years, and the Moine rocks are the gneisses and schists that resulted from intense pressure, heat, and the reshaping of continents. The fine sand at West Sandwick Beach itself came from the rocks' erosion, and sparkling mica and other minerals add to the area's beauty.

I reached the road by the beach and then took a driveway past a house to West Sandwick's old cemetery. Its gate was guarded by sheep and lambs, but they moved to let me in. Some of the graves were from the 1800s; others honored war veterans.

With my newfound confidence in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, I climbed down the back wall of the cemetery, walked past some sheep and around a lake, and headed up through a field. I scaled a couple of fences and was soon near the entrance to the Quam B&B. Sheep and ponies watched me go down the driveway.

It wasn't obvious which building was the lodging itself, so I started to approach a man with his three kids who had come down the driveway and, I'm pretty sure, caught me climbing one of the fences. But they disappeared into a barn and closed the door.

It was the red house that I needed. Anne and Robert welcomed me. The white croft house was Robert's grandfather's; Robert had built the red one 30 years ago, and the man with the kids was one of their sons. The son keeps the sheep; Robert wants no more of that responsibility.

I had arranged for them to give me dinner, and I ate with three workers from mainland Scotland who were staying at Quam for a few weeks while they worked in aquaculture. They've been installing salmon-farming rings up near Cullivoe in the northeastern part of Yell.

Two of the workers were glad to be done after a long day, but the third was getting ready for more. "He's a psychopath," a coworker said. "He finished work, then he did a half-hour run. And after dinner he's going for a swim." I shivered just thinking how cold the waters at West Sandwick must be.

"And he likes to swim in the nude," the coworker added.

Thanks to that coworker's request, the main course, after a vegetable soup and bread as white as the lambs, was mutton with gravy, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes. Forget anything you heard or remember about mutton's being tough or tasteless. This was tender and flavorful, with just a little fat. Good for preparing for a naked swim in frigid water. But not enough to tempt me to join in.

Go on to day 2