But all good things have a downside, do they not? Warm, calm weather in Shetland is midge nirvana. The irritating midges on our holiday in Co Donegal the previous week were novice apprentices compared to their Shetland cousins. Stop moving on a still Shetland morning and the blood-thirsty hordes move in. Put on midge repellent and your skin blackens with the bodies of dead beasties. I can rank places in the north and west of Scotland by the ferocity of their midges and Shetland most definitely wins, with Rhum and Mallaig vying for second and Loch Sunart a close third. Although thinking about it Loch Sunart has bloodthirsty cleggs as well so perhaps that should bump it above Rhum. But even without cleggs, Shetland has no competition. The upside to all this, of course, is that if there were no midges, Scotland would be overrun with tourists.
I had arrived in Shetland slightly better prepared than on my previous visit with a midge net in my bag. Identifying seaweeds through green gauze may not be ideal but, as GPD pointed out, there aren’t too many seaweeds in Shetland anyway. And it was certainly easier than identifying them with nippy things clogging my eyes and nostrils and ears and hair (oh yes, I have hair! To follow…). My colleague Jon spurned such protective flummery and relied on one of my buffs and chemicals instead; I think I had the better deal.
Our regular haunt for these trips is a lovely bed and breakfast at West Ayre on Muckle Roe with a garden to drool over. This garden in the cold, windy, north west of the British Isles was ablaze with colour, a stark contrast to the wild purple moors around the house. The landlady Elsie has divided her plot up into a series of tiny compartments surrounded by high hedges to keep out the wind, a strategy that clearly works. She has gradually been eating away at the moor around the house and has designs I think on another little patch which surely needs fencing in. I’m not too sure that she’s told her husband yet, though. Her garden reminds me of one even further west on the island of Papa Stour. The couple who ran the B&B on the island – one of the best I’ve ever stayed in but no longer there, I fear – had rebuilt their croft from derelict rubble in the 1970s. They too had created a series of tiny fields surrounded by high walls, making soil from seaweed, and were almost self-sufficient. Elsie, by the way, makes the best breakfast.
Sadly we had no otter sightings this year, although there was plenty of evidence of their presence. Judging by the mess left behind after an otter dinner party they’re clearly worse than teenage boys. Goodness knows what state their holts are in. The birds, however, were another matter; we had seabirds of all sorts keeping an eye on us from above. The terns would be happily going about their business, screeching above our heads and dropping into the water like tourists on a plunge slide. But then those bullies the arctic skuas would arrive, often in pairs, and they would harry the terns like MIG fighters, even if there was no prize to hand over. Much more peaceful were the northern divers, tysties and occasional puffins bobbing about on the water.
Up on the moors the bonxies were in control, even at this late stage in the summer when their young must have gone. Holding a stick above your head is standard practice when they wheel off to the side, drop down to eye level, line up and accelerate in for the attack. Being somewhat vertically challenged, I was fine – I just had to stand close to my rather taller companion. Who held a stick above his head.
We survived the midges. We survived the early mornings. We enjoyed the fine weather while it rained at home. And we’ll be back to repeat the exercise next year.