The arse in the window, and other tales of island life

IN THE END, it was Max who made it happen. I had spent four decades dreaming of a return to the Shetland Islands and had consistently failed to find a travelling companion until I mentioned it to Max one day over lunch. Within weeks, it was sorted - and then some.

Max is a tourism consultant and founder of The Great Canadian Travel Company: a man obsessed with timetables and with a nomad’s instinct for travel. I first met him on a trip to remote St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic, and then travelled with him through the Republic of Georgia. Now, we were off to the Northern Isles - Shetland, Orkney and The Faroes.

We weren’t going alone either. Clive - founder of a well-known UK travel business; John - Max’s accountant (and retired body builder) from Winnipeg; and Sam - a property investor, gifted photographer and natural comic from Toronto, were joining us. The working title for this blog had been Five Go Mad in the North - but that was before the arse in the window happened.

My itinerary was interesting. It took me from Gatwick to Glasgow to Sumburgh in Shetland, then by ferry to Orkney, plane from Orkney to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Várgo Airport in the Faroes and then back home to Heathrow via Copenhagen. 

It was a lot to do in ten days, and - with Max and Clive driving mini-buses into places that mini-buses should probably never be driven - we saw a lot more than most visitors would. A proper record of the trip would be the length of a novel: my own sketchy journal tops 4,500 words.

In brief, though, Shetland is rugged with vast peat bogs spangled with bog cotton, and wonderful seascapes. The natives are very friendly, if sometimes eccentric, the history startling and the wildlife amazing. Shetland’s geology spans almost three billion years and is more diverse than any similar-sized area in Europe - which is why it has been awarded membership of the European Geoparks Network. Geologically, it has a bit of everything.

Orkney has a softer landscape, closer to that of northern Scotland. It is relatively low lying and agricultural, with farmers producing excellent grass-fed beef. The visible history is even more surprising than that on Shetland though: Skara Brae on the Bay of Skaill is the site of Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It still looks lived in. More than half of the island is looked after by the RSPB, and bird populations thrive there.

The Faroe Islands are volcanic with towering sea cliffs - the highest in Europe - and sparkling fjords. There are waterfalls everywhere and, on a clear day, the views are breathtaking. Gjógv on the northern tip of Eysturoy is one of the prettiest places I have ever seen. The 18 islands in the archipelago are spectacular, but tall, steep and difficult to use if you’re not fit. The highest point is 880 metres and the cruise passengers, who crowd the tiny capital of Tórshaven, don’t go there. Thanks to Clive's contacts we saw the stark beauty of the islands - on a blessedly clear day - from a helicopter. Clive, I bow low in your general direction.

Memories are episodic, like outtakes from a film. And so I remember the charming ladies of the North Roe Community Garden  on Shetland - actually an abandoned graveyard - who downed tools to greet us like old friends and then whisked us off into their garden shed to be offered tea, coffee, cake and huge corned beef sandwiches. We were all - men and women - in the same age group, which made the banter easy. The women put up with us snapping candid shots of them in their gardening gear, and then posed for formal group shots. 

“They say I’m an old bat,” one said in a delightful, lilting Shetland brogue, “… and do you know, they’re right.”

On one side of what locally is known as ‘Da Nort Trow Community Gairden’, residents had recreated the Shetland Croft House Garden from the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show - a Gold Medal winner - using the original plants.

Just up the road - a little before it finally petered out - the fuselage of a wrecked Potez 840, a four-engined, 16-passenger plane, nestles in the garden of engineer Duncan Feather. By the gate, a sign reads: “This is a prohibited place within the meaning of The Official Secrets Act. Unauthorised persons entering the area my be arrested and prosecuted.” He has a sense of humour Mr Feather.

I remember too the pair of piping oystercatchers mobbing a great skua - known locally as bronxie - as we stepped into Skara Brae,  where we discovered that Neolithic man had invented the dresser on which to display valuables. There it was, like the Neolithic bed boxes, made out of stone slabs, in a cosy, little home that wouldn’t have required much - a roof, perhaps - to make it habitable again. It suddenly occurred that we’ve been keeping ornaments for 4,500 years. That’s a lot of dusting.

On Orkney, we visited Max’s friend and business partner Cameron and his wife Angela, who provided us with a barbecue and much more, which we ate in their garden overlooking a loch with redshank calling above us. Thank you Mr and Mrs Taylor, you are kindness incarnate.

The weather was generally kind to us too - it was actually warm on Orkney, and Clive got sunburned - but we flew into the Faroe Islands in a storm. Passengers decanted onto the tarmac in gale-whipped blasts of rain struggled with a revolving door, partly because the passport queue began on the other side of it and the revolving door could only turn in fits and starts like a broken cog.

But I was glad of the rain because the journey to Tórsaven was made more memorable, with the black sides of a fjord striped with scores of waterfalls that were being blown skyward in the wind. I have never seen waterfalls spuming into the air like that. It was very dramatic.

A few days later, at the restaurant Áarstova in Tórsaven a tall blonde girl called Lydia served us lobster bisque and shoulder of lamb in a private room at the top of what had once been a family home. We had two vast shoulders of lamb between five of us, and Lydia - a modern-day Viking, if ever there was one - said cheerily: “If you want more, just ask; there are plenty more shoulders of lamb.” There are more sheep than people in the Faroes.

But you’re probably wondering about the arse in the window. 

We were staying at the Scalloway Hotel - a respectable three star not far from the Shetland capital, Lerwick, and overlooking a harbour. We had eaten really good food in the dining room the two previous nights, and we had decided to chance our luck in the crowded bar for a change.

My back was to the window, and Sam was on my right. We were tucking into excellent fish and chips, when Sam said something like ‘what now?’ A small boy had clambered on to a bench outside one of the bar’s windows, and was looking in. As I turned to see what had piqued Sam’s interest, the boy turned, dropped his track suit bottoms and bared his backside to the diners inside - a practise I believe the Americans call ‘mooning’.

Sam fell about, laughing so much he could hardly breathe. He thought the kid deserved a medal. The landlord and his wife - good, hard-working people with an eye to their hotel's reputation - took a different view, and (I guess) set off in pursuit.

Not one of us photographers got a shot of the incident, and - on balance - that is probably a good thing.

People are already asking me which island I preferred. There is no answer to that - they were all so different: the Orkneys tranquil, the Faroes full of drama, Shetland friendly and eccentric. Would I go back? Yes, and tomorrow if at all possible. Thanks, Max.

Click on the images below to get a slide show. Go on, do it - it gets more colourful after a while.