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Trip 41 — Yell Walk

Day 5: Mid Yell to Aywick
Wednesday, 1 May 2024

Today: 15818 steps/10.25 km/6.37 mi/2h 51m
Total: 140166 steps/100.64 km/62.53 mi/22h 52m
(including lodging access 200310 steps/154.00 km/95.69 mi/32h 44m)

I turned onto the hill road from Cullivoe at 5:56 p.m. yesterday, five minutes earlier than the previous day, to retrace the 17 kilometers back to Mid Yell. But it took much longer the second time. I was tired from the steep ascents and picking my way around the peat bog.

"Nobody, but nobody goes to Vigon at this time of year," Alastair wrote of my trek into the hills. He had initially suggested it and then reconsidered, recommending that I concentrate on Breckon and Gloup. But I had to cover Yell's bulge of uninhabited wilderness in the northwest.

In the late-afternoon sun, I saw no people for an hour and a half on the hill road, just sheep, birds, and the occasional rabbit. The puddles on the unpaved road had evaporated slightly with another day of sunshine. I shuffled along, much more slowly than usual.

I lost time trying to save time. The hill road used to feed into the main road at its bend, after a bridge over Basta Voe. But the bridge is out, and the hill road was rebuilt to turn sharply toward the main road above the bend. This results in significant extra distance for people heading below the bend.

Surely there must be a way over the voe upstream from the bridge, I thought. Every time I'd needed to cross a rivulet, there had been a way. I followed the voe — more a brook west of the road — in search of a place to cross.

The crossing wasn't much distance, only about three steps. But I needed a couple of helpfully placed rocks to step on. I couldn't find any. It wasn't until I had gone almost ten minutes along the voe that I found a narrow point with an almost-submerged rock to get across safely. Then I had to come back along the other side, which was boggier than I expected. It cost me about 20 minutes to save seven.

I trudged along the main road, listening to the radio. A talk station had wonderfully diverse segments about the comedy-mystery program "Inside No. 9," Kosovo's controversial adoption of the euro, and a London special-needs school whose staff had been maltreating students as long ago as 2014 (some of them still work there!). The day before, subjects had been the increase in economically inactive people in Britain, the underappreciation of flies (they pollinate chocolate, for instance), and why some people get sick after a breakup (the body diverts its energy to the emotional healing). It was a fantastic "I wonder what's next!" kind of station.

Two hours on the main road, one in daylight, the other in twilight. The evening haze rolled in earlier than it had the day before, shutting off the sun sooner than the numbers promised. There was no "Ah" when Mid Yell came into view, because I couldn't make out the skyline.

A car stopped. "Are you all right?" the driver asked.

"Yes, I'm fine. Just going to Mid Yell."

"Would you like a lift?"

"No, thank you. I'm almost there."

He drove off. There had been few cars in the evening, no spurts of traffic coming from the ferry landing.

A story about the James Webb telescope began. I could see the turnoff to Mid Yell and the kilometer or so of road ascending to the town. A car was coming down it. It turned onto the main road in my direction. I waved as it passed.

It slowed down and turned around. The window opened.

"I'm fine, thanks," I said. "Just walking to Mid Yell."

"I've made lamb tagine and couscous. We've got some left; would you like it?"

It was John from my lodging. I didn't recognize him at first, didn't expect to see him.

"That would be wonderful, thank you! It would really hit the spot."

"Are you sure I can't give you a ride?"

"No, I'm too stubborn. My arbitrary rules."

"Well, then, I'll put it in the bottom oven. You've still got some distance."

"Yes, a half-hour, maybe twenty-five minutes. Thank you and see you shortly."

He drove back into Mid Yell. He had come out just to see whether I was all right, after Alastair and his wife had checked whether I'd gotten back yet. It was almost 9:30, past sunset but not completely dark.

I arrived at the Nurses' House Annexe, fell backward into the sofa, and sat for a few minutes. Then I went into Lindsay and John's place, next door. That was the Nurses' House, built long ago by a doctor for his nurses (and there's a book about that, of course). Lindsay and John moved in from Norfolk five years ago — examples of English arrivals who embrace the Scottish ways of doing things. They built the annexe, the building I was staying in, which occupies a surprisingly small footprint considering how spacious it feels inside.

"Good evening," I said. But they had the TV on and didn't hear me calling from the door.

I went further in. "Good evening," I said again as John emerged from the living room.

He sat with me in the kitchen while I had the lamb tagine, couscous, and wine, and then we joined Lindsay in the living room. John told stories about the Shakespeare readings they used to host in Norfolk. Somebody from New York had attended their read-through of "The Tempest" and played the lute.

"I can't remember his name, but he's with a theatre company in the West Village," John said. "Any chance you might know him?" He knew what a long shot that was. "Here's a picture. He's hiding behind the tree."

"There can't be that many lute players in New York — I'll see what I can find out," I said.

We talked about peat. As much as I'd seen it, I'd never examined it. It's partly decayed plant and other organic matter accumulated into a material (the dirt under all the plants I'd been tramping over) that gets extracted and used for fuel. It's very light, like polystyrene, which is why it so easily gets saturated with water. Traditionally, land ownership in Shetland came with a peat entitlement; John's peat cuttings were in a field a couple of kilometers out of town.

"Sleep late," they said as I left.

I planned to, but John came in at 8:07. "Take a look at this song!"

I put some pants on and he presented me with sheet music for "Farewell ta Yell," four zippy verses sung by a sailor embarking on a three-year voyage to the southern hemisphere.

I went back to sleep for an hour, made the last of the black pudding and two of the eggs, and then prepared to leave. It was a sunny, warm day, and for the first time I opened the door to the terrace. The five hens marched up the stairs and approached me so closely that I thought they might peck at my jeans.

"I have just one piece of advice," Lindsay said just before I departed. "Dinna stick your grice on a waning moon." A Shetland proverb: Don't kill your pigs when the moon is waning, because you'll lose all the blood for the black pudding.

I headed south through Mid Yell, past the leisure center and Yell's only restaurant (not yet open for the season, though the Hillshop serves meals on Fridays and Saturdays) and around the bend at the cemetery and church. There are surprisingly few churches on Yell, and this one apparently is being turned into a music studio.

Just after John's peat bank, I turned down a side road and crossed a little spit to reach Vatsetter, a protrusion of land known for its otters. Alastair had given me the tips on observing them: stay downwind of them (they have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell), don't move if you see them, and crouch down to secure a viewing angle when they dive to feed for 30 to 45 seconds.

I sat down on the cliff above some rocks. It was so warm and peaceful, I could have taken a nap. I saw a whole bunch of critters moving about in the water — those must be otters! No, it was just seaweed flowing with the current.

It would be a mercifully short walking day. I had only to go as far as Aywick, a village with about 50 people and a village shop next to my B&B. It also happens to be where Alastair lives. "I'm at Vatsetter now, hoping for some otter luck but also enjoying the warm day," I messaged him.

I made my way slowly around the peninsula, looking for otters on the rocks. There was the occasional oystercatcher, easily visible with its orange beak, scanning the water. I figured the otters might stay away from sheep. When I crossed a fence toward some, I searched less intensely.

I proceeded along a lake and then aimed for an opposite shore just outside of Aywick. I thought I might look for otters once more and then head into the village.

Ahead, I saw a person climbing over a fence. We walked toward each other.

"Are you allowed to have a companion?" he asked.

"Absolutely! I knew it was you," I said to Alastair.

We saw no otters, but he did show me the holes where they burrow. It surprised me that they burrowed up on the cliff, making their way down to feed. He also pointed out their white dung, known as spraint.

On a narrow headland, we climbed a fence to examine some overgrown ruins thought to be Neolithic. They were all covered in grass, with the occasional visible rock. The wavelike repetition of the grass was evidence that it was covering a series of structures.

"I'm going to leave you here," he said a few minutes later, "because I've left my car over there, and I refuse to drive you." He understood the rules. He explained where to go to reach Aywick, which was visible ahead, and we planned to meet later.

I found my way down past some ponies and a large, brown ram. I stayed on the water side of a fence as I approached a beach strewn with rocks, kelp, and seaweed. I was following along the beach a short distance above it, just outside the fence. There was a rivulet, and I held onto the fence as I lowered myself down and—

"Khhhhhhaaaa," came a grunt in front of me: an otter. It was so close that if I'd reacted quickly enough, I could have petted it.

It took off for the beach rocks but it didn't go away completely. I found a place to sit down and it played peekaboo with me, ducking behind a rock and then poking its head out to see whether it was still there. We stayed like this for a few minutes and then I continued along the beach, hoping it would feel safe in resuming its activity.

When I was under Aywick, I walked uphill between two sheep farms. I emerged just below the village shop and crossed around a house to reach it. A pair of black and white Shetland sheepdogs barked their disapproval at my presence, but they were fenced in and had no power to act on their objection. (I had been barked at by another sheltie in Gloup that wasn't fenced, but it ran home when I yelled "Hey!")

The shop was next to my lodging. Alastair and his wife lived just up the path. Things couldn't get much more convenient than that.

Go on to day 6