Retail Therapy

A number of people have asked where or how they can get prints of some of the photographs I've posted here and on Blipfoto or on Flickr.

I now have a limited number of my images available via a Photobox Gallery.

There are four collections currently available in the Gallery.

At the moment, I'm making a series of prints available in various sizes ranging from 4x6 inches up to 12x18 inches, there will be ready-to-hang images (framed prints, canvas prints and, I hope, aluminium prints) in due course.

If there are images on this site or elsewhere that you would like as a print, do get in touch via

Historical Sites on Shetland

I'm doing a Google MOOC about the mapping tools they provide - this map (which is for one of the assignments) shows a number of historical sites at the south end of the Shetland Mainland.

The mapping tools are very good - but the embed function doesn't appear to let me control where the map is centred (so it's under the info box - just drag the map to the right....)

And the embed stuff renders very strangely on a iPad too, not sure who's 'problem' this is.

This is what I'm trying to get the initial image to look like.

Shipping Forecasts

When I get up to Shetland my regular online information sources change.

Shipping Forecast - no gales around Fair Isle today
Down in the south - and far inland - I’m likely to check various news websites and twitter on a pretty regular basis to keep in touch with what’s going on.

Up here, being right on the edge of the sea, there are two other websites that I pay much more attention to - both related to shipping.

The Met Office Shipping Forecast becomes a very regular source of information.  The standard weather forecast doesn't really cut it at the south end Shetland.  Suddenly it matters what's happening in sea area "Fair Isle".  I don’t know if other countries have institutions like the Shipping Forecast that still interrupt the broadcast of major sporting events (on the radio at least) - but it's a fantastic service!

Another Shipping Forecast - showing the passing ships
The other website that I look at very regularly is the ever amazing Marine Traffic site – this plots the current position of shipping pretty much anywhere in the world.  

I use this to identify what I can see going past the south end of Shetland, and as a way of finding out if there is anything interesting in the area that’s worth looking out for.  

I think I’m revealing myself as a bit of a closet ship-spotter.

Getting to Shetland

Orkney and Shetland
For many people, Shetland is just a bleak remote place in the far North.  

There is a lot of confusion about where it is, not helped by the media habit of leaving it off UK maps.  Even amongst those who can confidently point to it on a map without getting it mixed up with Orkney or the Faroe Islands there is real bewilderment about how to go about getting there.

Let's start with where Shetland is.  The Shetland Islands are the northern-most group of islands in the British Isles - the main town is Lerwick.  South of the Shetland mainland is Fair Isle - still one of the Shetland Islands, and further south of that are the Orkney Islands (biggest town, Kirkwall).  And South again you get to the Scottish mainland,

So how might you reach this isolated little group of islands?  There are two options for crossing the water, by plane or by boat.

Loganair Saab 340 arriving at Sumburgh

The flying option relies on Loganair - which labels itself as Scotland's Airline.  The planes are painted in Flybe colours, and although tickets are generally sold by Flybe, you can via the miracle of code-sharing also book tickets through British Airways.  This makes it possible to fly from pretty much any airport in the UK, changing onto a Flybe / Loganair plane at Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen.  The final flight into Sumburgh, the main Shetland airport, will be on a twin-propellor Saab 340, and it you're lucky you'll get a great view of Fair Isle as you start the approach into Sumburgh. There are a couple of other airfields on mainland Shetland.  There is a full-sized airstrip at Scatsta which takes some of the oil industry charter flights, and a little airstrip at Tingwall which is used for the inter-island flights on even smaller planes that the Loganair Saabs.

Northlink Hamnavoe arriving into Stromness, Orkney
If you don't fancy flying, or you want to bring your own transport, there is currently only one ferry route you can take.  Northlink Ferries run a service from Aberdeen up to Lerwick every night of the week, with a stop-off in Kirkwall every other night.  The direct crossing takes about 12 hours, and if there is a stop in Kirkwall it adds a couple of extra hours to the journey time.  The two boats that operate the service are the Hjaltland and the Hrossey, each carrying up to 140 cars and 600 passengers.

And, if you don't want a 12 or 14 hour crossing, you can reduce the sailing time a little bit, by crossing first to Orkney before picking up the Northlink boat just outside Kirkwall.  There are two options for getting to Orkney with a car - from Scrabster to Stromness (operated by Northlink Ferries, using the Hamnavoe) or from Gills Bay in to St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay (operated by Pentland Ferries).  The sailing time from Orkney to Shetland is about 7 hours.

What if you want to come from, or from the Shetland perspective go to, somewhere other than mainland Scotland?  In the summer there are occasional Flybe flights from Sumburgh to Bergen in Norway, but other than that you are out of luck.  In recent years there have been direct flights to both London and to the Faroe Islands, operated by Atlantic Airways (the Faroe national airline) but these aren't running at the moment. 

Norrona passing Sumburgh Head
Similarly, there used to be regular ferry services to the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Denmark, but these stopped a few years ago. These were sufficiently important to Shetland that the Council helped buy, and still part owns, the boat that was used on these services. It is slightly frustrating that the Norrona still occasionally passes close enough to Shetland to be seen from the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head.

Now that you know where Shetland is, and how to get here - the Visit Shetland website has lots of suggestions about what you might do once you get here.


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

North Devon, June 2013

When you book a weekend at the seaside in the UK, weather is always going to be a bit of a lottery.

We’ve been to North Devon lots of times in spring and autumn, as well as in the summer months, and we’ve walked bits of the coast path there in rain, fog, hail and even, on occasion, in sunshine, but this time we really got lucky with the weather.

Watersmeet Hotel, Woolacombe
We spent the first few days of June 2013 staying at the Watersmeet Hotel on the North Devon coast just outside Woolacombe.  This hotel was built as a private hotel in 1907 and sits between the Woolacombe to Mortehoe road and the sea, just where the road twists round past Combesgate Valley.  The hotel is a long narrow building making the most of its location, with every room having a sea view, and lots also having balconies looking out on Combesgate Beach.  At one time the hotel had lots of small rooms but over the years these have been merged to leave the hotel with fewer bigger rooms.  The various renovations have also added two swimming pools (one inside and one outside) and a dramatic terraced dining room on the west end of the building looking straight out to sea.  If you get the timing right (and the weather co-operates) you get a wonderful sunset just as your dessert is arriving.

Watersmeet Hotel from Combesgate Beach
We’ve stayed as the Watersmeet several times over the past 10 or 12 years, and it definitely falls into the ‘occasional treat’ category.

The South West Coast Path goes past just behind the hotel, and the obvious thing to do with a two day stay at the Watersmeet is to walk southwards towards Baggy Point one day, and northwards towards Morte Point on the other.

Woolacombe Sand from Putsborough
The southwards walk takes you past Combesgate and Barricane beaches on the way to the two-mile-long Woolacombe Sand.  Once you reach the far end, the beach becomes Putsborough Sand, and from there the path climbs up onto Baggy Point, and if you’re feeling energetic eventually follows round into Croyde Bay and to Saunton Sands.  If you feel the urge to turn the walk into a circular one, you can follow an inland route back from Putsborough to Woolacombe.

Putsborough Sand from Baggy Point
The northward walk to Morte Point is rather shorter.  From the hotel it climbs up around the top of Grunta Beach and out onto Morte Point.  The churning waters just off the Point provide a reminder that these waters aren’t great places to take a boat, and the name rightly indicates that many seafarers over the years haven’t given the Point a wide enough berth.

Combesgate Beach with Baggy Point in the distance as you climb up towards Morte Point
Grunta Beach and Morte Point
And if Morte Point isn't far enough, the path carries on round to Bull Point, and from there onwards and eastwards to Ilfracombe.

Bull Point and Rockham Bay from Morte Point
If you’re looking for somewhere on the Coast Path in North Devon, where you’ll be well-looked after and well-fed the Watersmeet is definitely worth your attention.

And if you get really lucky you’ll get blue skies and warm gentle winds too. These images and others are on my Flickr site.

The Watersmeet Hotel website is at