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Trip 41 — Yell Walk

Day 2: West Sandwick to Mid Yell via the Nev of Stuis
Sunday, 28 April 2024

Today: 29493 steps/22.22 km/13.81 mi/5h 5m
Total: 51127 steps/38.80 km/24.11 mi/8h 48m

"What time would you like breakfast?" Anne asked after dinner.

"I'll be ambitious and say eight. Is that too early?"

"No, that's fine."

That was before I knew what the breakfast entailed — haggis, sausage, tomatoes, an egg, bacon, toast — and before I spent a few hours looking up kittiwakes and Moine schist. (I still got it wrong: Turns out they were fulmars.) Perhaps I should have planned on 8:30 or 9:00; I didn't have long to travel today.

But the sun shone in a little after seven, encouraging an early start. The sky was almost clear, a rarity on Yell. Anne and Robert showed me how to get to the coast, corroborating the most walker-friendly interpretation of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Alastair confirmed it, too. For the next three nights, I'm staying at the Nurses' House Annexe in Mid Yell. One place for three nights is as much of a rarity as a sunny Shetland day. That's one night after getting there today, one night after a loop around North Yell, and a day of rest or a short fill-in walk. Depending on the weather, I can switch the last two.

Lindsay, who owns the Nurses' House Annexe with her husband, John, suggested I reach out to Alastair Christie-Johnston after they learned of my intention to walk the Yell coastline. His book "Footprints" fuses his passions as a photographer and a walker in the wild. He was born on Yell and returned after 50 years in Tasmania.

"Load of rubbish!" Alastair e-mailed me about the "Private road" sign at the Ness of Sound. He blamed it on English arrivals trying to foist English trespassing restrictions on Shetlanders. "I make a point by deliberately flaunting them," he added. "It's all bull!"

After eating far too much food for the hour, and resisting the urge to write "No Quams about staying here" in the visitor book, I headed up the driveway to the main road and soon turned back toward West Sandwick. Behind Quam, the Loch of Scattlands (a word referring to Scottish land tax) shimmered in the sunshine, waking up to the gentle rays as if unaccustomed to them. I took a path branching off to the right, past some sheep, another lake, and a stone enclosure probably used for sheep-shearing.

Just before the path fizzled out, I left it and began mushing along over the blanket bog. A pair of greylag geese were honking their way north. I reached the Loch of Birriesgirt and then climbed up to the coastal cliffs. Fingers of land poked into the sea. The third finger held the faint outline of an Iron Age settlement to which the undesirable were banished; there was another across the sea on Mainland.

The next few hours were slow, as I followed the terrain up and down, sometimes near (but not too near) the cliffs' edge, sometimes inland, occasionally rerouting to avoid sinking into the bog. (I would later learn from Alastair that Shetland has phrases as colorful as Yiddish. One is "Poesie aet dee": May you get eaten by a marsh.)

"Tut tut!" squawked birds overhead.

"I have walking rights, ya know!" I hollered back.

Each finger into the sea supported colonies of birds, and the boggy terrain attracted others. There were black starlings, oystercatchers, fulmars, gulls, and little wrens. An unusual group of three greylag geese appeared; they usually go about in pairs. Ewes with clean lambs kept their distance, but sometimes I followed the sheep to find gaps through fences.

A white sail protruded beyond the cliffs. No, it wasn't that: it was the shark-tooth-shaped Ern Stack. This was one of the last places where Scottish sea eagles (erns) nested until about 1910, before they were hunted down to zero in the U.K. and eventually repopulated from Norway. As I climbed higher, I realized that it was a double tooth, like two attached prisms that could fold inward to each other.

I turned from the Ern Stack to see a black sheep on its back. It wasn't moving. But it didn't smell of rigor mortis. I approached it and its legs started flailing. It was missing an eye; the socket held a pool of blood. Its back end was red, too. Had it gotten stuck while birthing a lamb?

I didn't know enough about animals to take action, but the first person I could think of to call was Alastair. We were planning to meet up anyway.

"I'm almost at the Nev of Stuis and there's a sheep that seems to be in trouble."

"When you say 'in trouble,' what do you mean?"

I explained the missing eye, blood, and grasping legs.

"When a sheep goes down, the first thing the crows go for is the eyes," Alastair said. Much later, I would take the time to imagine what that might feel like, as at the museum. "See if you can stand it up for a few minutes. If it walks away, it'll survive for a while. If not, then it's probably near the end."

I stood the sheep up. It still had its other eye. As soon as it was upright, it staggered for a few steps and then walked away normally. It was a beautiful brown color, like a walnut piano: a Moorit sheep, Alastair would tell me later. The hill sheep this far out, he said, are often left there all winter to fend for themselves, and perhaps to birth and find their way back if they choose to try.

Shetland has a surplus of sheep, which is at odds with a sign I saw at Crombie's in Edinburgh indicating that scarcity, demand, export, and thus prices have risen to the point where the store no longer stocks Scottish lamb. But perhaps the breeds raised on Shetland are being used for their wool more often than for their meat.

The tip of this part of the island — the end of the left curl of its "S" shape — was in view. It looked to be about ten minutes away, but it took more than a half-hour to reach, with the jagged coast and undulating terrain. A quartet of gannets followed me overhead, like drones. Just before the end was a wide field. Sheep roamed it, looking for grass. But there is not enough food for the hill sheep, and it had been eaten clean.

The tip at the Nev of Stuis opened like a hammerhead into a mess of craggy rock slabs. Ahead was the mouth of Whale Firth, the long inlet that shapes the inner bottom loop of the "S," so named because people used to trap whales in the narrow inlet. Across the inlet was another long stretch of bog: tomorrow's walk, or the next day's.

I turned back and walked along the firth. It was wetter on this side, and I often had to find my way over little streams and across saturated patches. After an hour and a quarter, I reached the settlement of Grimister, where I joined a muddy vehicle track, went through a gate, walked across a footbridge, and climbed up to a paved road.

"Good afternoon," I said to someone going to his car. It was good to see a person again.

Mid Yell is the island's biggest town. I reached the Hillshop, one of Yell's three stores, a half-hour before it closed. I stocked up and reached the Nurses' House Annexe a few minutes later.

Lindsay and John showed me my spacious home for the next three nights, and we remarked on the excellent weather.

"You may be the first person to get a suntan in Shetland," Lindsay said. "If you need anything, just come into our house. Don't ring our bell; just come in and call for us. That's how we do things in Shetland. No need to knock if you're looking for someone; just come through the door and look for them. And if they're not there, you can go into another house."

But she did knock before entering a few minutes later. "Would you like some eggs? They're from our hens. You'll see them scurrying about."

I thanked her for the eggs. On the property were also a few sheep and a bunch of tiny lambs. But they didn't belong to Lindsay and John; they were Robert's son's — Robert from Quam. They let his son graze the sheep in their yard in exchange for some fishing.

I was grateful for this network of people I'd stumbled into: the family from Quam, Lindsay and John, and Alastair all knew each other and were eager to help me learn about Shetland. At the Nurses' House Annexe there was even a copy of Alastair's book, along with a book specifically covering the stretch I walked today.

There was a third book on display, "The Measure of Manhattan." "Have you heard of this island?" John asked. Inside was a handwritten piece of paper: "Manhattan — 13.4 × 2.3 miles — 22.83 sq.m. Yell — 19 × <7.5 mi — 82 sq.m." John read the measurements aloud. His son had sent him the book: "I thought you might find this book interesting with the guy from NYC coming," he had written.

Within an hour, the rain started. Alastair had offered to come talk — he lives three miles away — and I'd messaged him with an invitation to do so Shetland-style. With the change in weather I said maybe it wasn't the best night if he didn't want to go out, but he soon pulled up and walked in, properly, without knocking.

He arrived with beers — somehow he knew I'd forgotten to pick them up at the Hillshop — and we pored over his giant fold-out map, exploring routes I can take over the next two days. He also identified the birds I'd been chatting with.

He left the map with me. "You can leave it here when you head out on Wednesday," he said. But then he thought better of it. "Actually, you may want it on your last day. You can leave it at the Shetland Times Bookshop” — way back in Lerwick on Mainland — "and tell them I'll come get it."

He reaffirmed his disdain for English people moving to Shetland and trying to prevent walkers' access, including one who held his keys hostage when he parked too close to her house and left them in the car. "She lived here for only a few years," he said. Either you get on with the Shetland way of doing things or you won't last.

We finished the beers and he departed. I cooked my pork chops and broccoli and noshed on venison pate and cherry tomatoes. The strong rain continued, along with a howling wind. But if tomorrow is to be taken indoors, I'll have plenty of reading material.

Go on to day 3