Discover a peaceful corner of Shetland and compare the current and ancient capitals of the islands.
It was a pea-souper. Real ‘what the heck am I doing here?’ weather. But, having planned the ride six months previously for the end of a grand cycle tour of the Shetland Islands, I was determined to complete it. I reached the farmhouse where the road run out at the end of my linear route and ate lunch sitting on the ground, sheltering in the corner of a dry stone wall. Still foggy. Still questioning my sanity. Then, miraculously, as I began to retrace my route passing the places I’d earmarked earlier as good photo points, the skies cleared and so my ride can be shared.
I began in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland and its only town, where I’d been based for three nights. I stocked up for food for the ride at Tesco but no bananas were available. “Due to a transport issue our main fresh delivery did not make the main sailing”, read a sign on the door. Like the weather itself, such inconveniences are part and parcel of life on the islands, over 100 miles from the coast of Scotland. The Shetland Times dedicates 500 words to the weather forecast every week and, today, I was similarly preoccupied.
The first stage of the ride was an almightly climb or, at least, it felt like it to me even though the summit was only around 100 metres. I rested near the top in a what looked like an old war bunker. Since it doesn’t get dark in early summer until around midnight I hadn’t brought lights but could’ve done with them as I continued on and up into the fog. I passed a group of three cyclists coming in the other direction in one of those reassuring moments of solidarity that keeps you going when the going gets tough.
The reward for the ascent was a great freewheel down and picture postcard view over Scalloway, the ancient capital of the islands. It was a quintessential Shetland scene with baronial castle centre stage, the harbour beyond and red, timber, Scandinavian-style houses in the foreground with Shetland ponies grazing beside them.
I pootled around the village having a look at a plinth that commemorates the Shetland bus. This was the name given to fishing boats which covertly transported men, arms and cargo between Shetland and Nazi-occupied Norway during the Second World War, often under the cover of darkness. A new museum tells the full story. Next door is the early 17th century castle. I padded around its spooky passages having borrowed the key from the Scalloway Hotel. It’s all low key in these parts.
Even after these visits – and another hunt for that elusive bananas in the convenience store – the visibility had barely improved so I set off towards Burra on the second part of my ride still more in hope than anticipation. Tronda, my first island of the day’s hat-trick, became connected to the mainland and rejuvenated in the process by a bridge built in 1971. No sooner had I reflected on the structure than I was across the island itself and heading towards West Burra along a permanent causeway built at the same time as the mainland bridge. It reminded me of the Churchill Barriers that link the islands of southern Orkney and was just as novel to cycle across.
At the end of the road on East Burra (location of my infamous sandwich stop) I left the bike for a short walk across a narrow neck of land towards the deserted croft site of Symbister. The tenants had once hoped to build a proper access road but funds run out in the early 1930s so it was never completed and, the following decade, the settlement was abandoned. The same fate befell a 17th century merchant laird’s house, called the Haa of Houss, now roofless and part of a farm.
Back on the bike the fog had finally lifted and my mood with it. Now the ride was a delight, the gentle inclines, declines and bends adding to the interest. Burra feels much more like a backwater than much of the rest of the Shetland Islands. All of the archipelago used to be like this before the oil money, I was told. The wealth that came to the islands is the reason that their roads are so well maintained even though, for the most part and especially on Burra, they carry little traffic.
My favourite spot was Bridge End where the two lung-shaped halves of West and East Burra join. With a marina and canoeists on manoeuvres it almost had a bustle about it compared to the rest of the islands. The war memorial gave the best vantage point over the junction – and the bench in front of it was the perfect swig stop. The day was getting better by the minute. I also diverted briefly to Hamnavoe, Shetland’s only purpose-built fishing village developed in the 1920s but with a name that dates back to Viking times as does the headland with lighthouse that guards the bay, Fugla Ness. Far out to sea I could make out the distinctive shape of Foula, the most isolated, inhabited island in the UK. I’d tried but failed to fly there yesterday. Another place for another time. A quirk of Hamnavoe are its old decorative iron railings which, like those elsewhere on Shetland, were not removed and recycled for the war effort.
Back in Scalloway I varied the theme by returning to Lerwick via the northerly route which gave me a fine view over a golf course and into Dales Voe – as well as a long, gradual climb up the side of it. Now on the National Cycle Network I left the main road and approach Lerwick along a minor road and, finally – as if to bring me back to reality – through an industrial estate. I’d been very tempted but, in the end, I was so glad I hadn’t turned back early. All things come to he who waits.
Distance: 28 miles.
Time: 4 hours.
Directions: After seting off from Victoria Pier in Lerwick cycle south on the A969 which becomes the A970 as it leaves the town and continues up a long hill. At the top turn right onto B9073 signed to Scalloway then left onto A970 to descend into the town for a look around. Return briefly the way you came then, just after leaving Scalloway, turn right onto B9074 signed to Tronda and Burra. In Hamnavoe turn left signed to Papil, Houss and Bridge End. At war memorial in Bridge End bear left, cross bridge and continue to the end of the road at Houss. Repeat the route back to the Scalloway t-junction. Turn right onto A970 to Lerwick but, this time, follow it all the way to Lerwick. Ignore turn for B9073 at which point you join National Cycle Network Route 1. At top of hill turn right signed for Route 1. In Lerwick turn right onto A970 to return to the pier.
Hay’s Dock, beside Shetland Museum, Lerwick. 01595 741569 and haysdock.co.uk. Stylish, modern café/restaurant. Good choice of takeaways, restaurants and hotels elsewhere in town.
The Kiln Bar and Café, Scalloway. 01595 880830. Basic fare. Great picture window over the bay.
The Scalloway Hotel. 01595 880444 and scalloway-hotel.co.uk.
Hamnavoe has a convenience store (Andrew Halcrow’s) beside the harbour.
Grantfield Garage, North Rd, Lerwick. 01595 692709 and grantfieldgarage.co.uk. £12.50 per day. Highly recommended.