The Alternative Route to Shetland. June 2013

I've driven and ferried to Shetland lots of times over the last five years but every time have taken essentially the same route, up the motorways to the Central Belt then over to Aberdeen and the overnight boat to Lerwick.

This time it was a bit different. 

From the Central Belt I carried on up the A9 pretty much as far as it goes. This is one of my favourite drives (another favourite is the M74 from the Borders up to Glasgow – this trip let me do both).  It gave me the chance to have a look at the Cairngorms in summer, and to stay on what was in my childhood called the Aviemore Centre.  Most of the hotels are refurbished versions of the ones that I remember from the 1970s and 80s, but other facilities have all changed.  The swimming pool has been demolished and replaced, and the ice rink has just been demolished.

Used to be the Aviemore Posthouse, now the Highlands Hotel
The last time I visited the ice rink was with a gang of Bristol electron microscopists in 1985 – and my strongest memory is of the local police trying to break up fights on the ice between the players.  It was rather an unfair conflict, the players had skates and sticks, the constabulary’s finest just had big boots. 

I also got to revisit the Happy Haggis, a very fine fish and chip shop at the south end of Aviemore village. I had only ever been there once before, when my brother and I took shelter while my father was driving up and down the road to Cairngorm looking for us.  He was trying to decide whether to declare us missing in the mountains and call out the local Mountain Rescue. We were trying to decide whether to have salt and vinegar. I can’t remember how the incident got resolved, but I'm sure I got into trouble!

The Happy Haggis, Aviemore
North of Aviemore the A9 carries on up to Inverness and along the east coast crossing the Moray,  Cromarty and Dornoch Firths.  My Mackenzie pedigree goes back to the town of Tain just south of the Dornoch Firth – I didn’t stop there this time.

Crossing the Dornoch Firth
Further north the A9 eventually reaches Thurso and Scrabster, I turned off at the village of Helmsdale to see some of the more remote bits of Caithness.  The only time I've seen this bit of Scotland before was in 1989 when I toured using a ScotRail pass. The rail line from Inverness was one of the ones targeted by Beeching, but fortunately was saved to continue to offer a fantastic way to visit this part of the country.
Forsinard Station - the station buildings are now the RSPB Visitor Centre. (There are two tracks here - this is one of the few places where north-bound and south-bound trains can pass each other).
My target here was the RSPB Reserve at Forsinard Flows, one of the places where the single track road and the single track railway meet. This is a really beautiful and bleak site that is slowly being allowed to recover to its original state.  I got a guided tour of the reserve which ensured I saw much more than I would have done under my own steam.

The Flow Country - RSPB Forsinard Flows
I rejoined the A9 for a final few miles at Thurso to get to Scrabster for the ferry to Orkney.  There are several ferry routes to Orkney, the Scrabster to Stromness route goes past the island of Hoy and the amazing Old Man of Hoy sea stack.  I’ve wanted to see this stack for as long as I can remember – I can still recall watching it being climbed live on television in the 1960s.

The Old Man of Hoy
On Orkney I had a couple of days before getting the ferry north to Shetland.  I split my time between exploring the cliffs and historical sites (and sights) on western side of the Orkney mainland, and the islands on the southeast side of the group.

In the west I saw the Ring of Brodgar (about 4500 years old), and the Kitchener Memorial on Marwick Head (almost 100 years old).  

The Ring of Brodgar
The museum in Stromness is fascinating.  There's a huge Victorian-era collection of stuffed birds, and lots of artefacts about the town and the sinking of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow.  My reason for visiting was to learn more about John Rae. Rae was born in Orphir, a little further along Scapa Flow from Stromness, and became one of the most successful of the 19th Century Arctic explorers.  He was a surgeon with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and mapped huge areas of the Northwest Passage.  He was also the person who found out what happened to Franklin's earlier Northwest Passage expedition.  Rae found evidence of cannibalism in the Franklin remnants, and realising that this wouldn't be well received by the authorities kept this gruesome details to a confidential report to the Admiralty. The Admiralty released the report – and Rae got the blame.  He was the only British 'Heroic Age' polar explorer not to wind up with a knighthood – but he did at least get a Gold Medal from the Royal Geographical Society.

The islands at the eastern side of Scapa Flow were once real islands.  In the early days of the Second World War the channels between the islands were exploited by an audacious U-boat commander.  After the sinking of HMS Royal Oak while at anchor in Scapa Flow in 1939, Churchill ordered that the channels be permanently blocked – a huge construction project followed linking up all the islands on the east side of the Flow.  These barriers, now referred to as the Churchill Barriers, were completed during the war and eventually had roads constructed on them providing access right down to the island of South Ronaldsay, at its southern tip only 6 or 7 miles from the Scottish Mainland.

A Churchill Barrier - and remains of a 'temporary' block-ship
My final stop in Orkney was back in Kirkwall – where I caught up with the ferry from Aberdeen as it stops en-route to Shetland. This route up to Shetland certainly isn't the quickest one, but it does provide (in the summer at least) lots of things to do and see.  I will certainly use it again when I've got time to spare.

St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall

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