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Trip 41 — Yell Walk

Day 3: Mid Yell to Cullivoe
Monday, 29 April 2024

Today: 38100 steps/29.55 km/18.36 mi/5h 56m
(including return to lodging 60831 steps/46.67 km/29.00 mi/9h 16m)
Total: 89227 steps/68.35 km/42.47 mi/14h 44m
(including lodging access 111958 steps/85.47 km/53.11 mi/18h 4m)

While I waited for the rain to pass, I fried slices of black pudding with cherry tomatoes from the Hillshop and two eggs from their creators, who were pecking at the grass under the kitchen window. "Thanks for breakfast!" I called out to them.

If it had been dry and I'd gotten out early, I might have attempted to cover the entirety of North Yell in one long day. But Alastair's descriptions of extra points of interest made it more desirable to split the north in two, even though it will mean a discouraging amount of route-retracing.

"I think you should cheat," Alastair said to me last night as we looked at the map. "Let me drive you up here, you can walk up this way, and I'll wait for you."

But that would be a flagrant violation of the Abecedarian Walks rules. I'm supposed to get around 26 islands of my own accord.

The tiniest sheep were having a happy morning. As a ewe suckled two lambs, their little tails wagged rapidly with joy. I saw this all over Yell, and it made me smile.

I glanced outside to see that the rain had stopped. But as I prepared to open the door, I noticed the flowers and grass dancing violently. It was going to be a blustery day.

Moving up the front middle of the "S" of Yell's shape, I left the main road and took a side road east into Camb. This was the bulge of land between Mid Yell Voe and Basta Voe (the incision into the front of the "S" and the larger inlet that forms the top of the "S"; a voe or firth is similar to a fjord). Alastair had said there wasn't much to see there, but I felt obligated to try to cover some of it.

There was a good view from Camb across the voe to Mid Yell and, in the voe itself, the dots of mussel farms. I turned north until the village ran out; my goal was to find my way across the peat to another road to take me back to the main road.

I climbed between two horizontal slats of a fence and scanned what was ahead for the best way to continue.

"Are you looking for something?" A man dressed all in red had emerged from the adjacent house.

"I'm sorry to bother you. I'm just trying to cut across," I said, gesturing ahead.

"Over the hill? Go through the gate and follow the road." He pointed to the other end of the property. "Are you looking for something?"

"No, I'm just on a walk. Thank you."

I climbed over the gate; it was almost always easier than trying to open it. The road was a muddy track at odds with walking. It was more fun to play peat-pong across the moor, to practice jumping over the copious rivulets and oversaturated sections, whose severity I learned to judge. Sometimes I landed knee-deep in bog, but I never got stuck or wet.

It was like finding my way through a maze. I sometimes had to backtrack or detour, but I managed to avoid doing the walking equivalent of painting myself into a corner. I didn't do a very good job of making forward progress parallel to the main road, however. I kept gravitating toward it, which under normal circumstances wouldn't have been a bad thing, but I wanted to experience more of this land bulge. I forced myself away from it, toward the coast.

I reached a fence, but it was easily crossed over. Beyond it the bog was lower and the rivulets more numerous. I scrambled carefully and eventually reached the side road at the northern part of the bulge. I turned left and rejoined the main road.

The road descended gradually toward the inner reach of Basta Voe, where it curled around toward Sellafirth and the air took on a salty aroma. This is where Allen Fraser grew up, and the amended versions of his childhood buildings still stand at Westerhouse.

The wind was strong in Sellafirth; it groaned musically. In "Footprints," Alastair writes of the Yell wind, "It is a sort of incessant moan that rises and falls like a muted siren." I started to become accustomed to tuning it out.

I turned right onto a one-lane road, which dissipated into a rough uphill track. "This is where people were evicted from their crofts," Alastair had said.

"John Walker?" I had read about him in Allen Fraser's book. He was Yell's nastiest land overseer. He was initially engaged to look after an estate and then set about driving crofters from their lands. He appropriated the common grazing areas for his own sheep, charged crofters to graze theirs, impinged on their land, and in general made life so unbearable for crofters that they had no choice but to leave, often moving in with others.

Alastair had given me a disapproving look. "I'm sorry," I had said. "Maybe you don't mention his name."

The track ended at the old stone house at Kirkabister, where a narrow gate-accessed passageway delivered me through a short peat section and then onto a beach. A woman was coming in the other direction; it was reassuring to see someone else exploring the area.

The land opened up to the headland known as Burra Ness. I scrambled across the bog to examine the remains of a broch, a circular stone tower built around 2000 years ago. The purpose of the brochs is not exactly known, but they combined elements of defense, communication, and high-status living quarters. I crouched inside the tower remains for an escape from the wind and a snack of tea cookies. Then I investigated what's left of the outbuildings, whose doors were lined up through the rooms as one approached the sea.

I left the ness (headland) and followed the cliffs until I reached the road at North Sandwick. This was an easy stretch, with the bog following a repeating pattern that allowed me to run ahead, springing from mound to mound. I soon arrived at Gutcher, where I saw my first Shetland cattle. Ferries were arriving from, and departing for, the islands of Unst and Fetlar; it takes three ferries and two buses to reach those islands from Aberdeen.

I took a break in the ferry terminal's waiting room. Across the way, looking like a croft house, was the old post office. It was turned into accommodation and operated as such until a couple of years ago, when it was put up for sale. It's too bad, because it was one of only three places to stay in North Yell, the others being a farm in the far north requiring a week's stay and a community hall in Cullivoe that may or may not actually take guests at this time of year.

I pressed on to Cullivoe. At the church, I turned downhill toward the pier, where salmon are packed and mussels are processed. Midway down was Alastair's birth house, a white building that was the former church manse. A few minutes uphill was the white house where his wife was born.

Past the village shop, the road continued uphill. The area felt downright suburban, with a primary school, a 30-mile-an-hour speed limit, houses more closely packed together, a sidewalk (ever so brief), a bicycle against a wall, and the ugly sight of oversized cars parked along the curb.

Just after the school, I reached the junction with the hill road. Today's walk segment ended here; tomorrow's will as well, from the other direction.

The hill road, with no traffic other than a parked van near the top where people were preparing to enjoy the sunset, brought me through a quiet predusk wilderness. The afternoon had become sunny, and all around were hills of peat bog, for miles, as far as I could see. It was easy walking for just over an hour, when I joined up with the main road near the curve at Sellafirth.

For two more hours I walked the stretch between Sellafirth and Mid Yell, a stretch I'll cover twice more tomorrow: "miles and miles of damn all," as a soldier described it to Alastair's father. It was just before nine when I finally spotted Mid Yell through the evening cocktail of dusk, mist, and cloud.

"Ah," I said. But it was drowned out by the wind.

Go on to day 4