Ngaire Phillips

I'm an environmental scientist with a passion for exploring.
Living in: Hamilton, New Zealand
  • Day25

    Unst

    August 29, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ 🌬 14 °C

    With so many options of where to spend our second and final day on Shetland, we took our hosts' advice and headed to the island of Unst. Britain's most northerly inhabited island has a diverse landscape, from stupendous coastal cliffs to golden beaches, heather-covered hillsides to peat bogs, and even a unique, sub-arctic stony desert. Our target was the Hermaness National Nature Reserve, whose cliffs and moorlands provide breeding grounds for a huge diversity of seabirds.

    We boarded the ferry to the island of Yell, a first step in our journey to Unst. A fellow ferry traveller turned out to be an ex-pat Kiwi from Tauranga, who'd lived on Shetland since the 1990s (his Shetlander parents had migrated to New Zealand when he was a child and he stayed after a visit to family and friends). Not wanting to waste our precious time, we followed the leader to the next ferry boarding, our impressions of Yell based only a the 25 minute journey between ferry terminals. Following the main Unst road north, we climbed higher and higher before reaching the reserve. The information centre was nestled in a stunning fjord, white paint gleaming in the sunlight (finally we had some sunshine!). After perusing the excellent information available we headed into the park. A mix of gravel paths and boardwallks traversed the moorland. As we neared the cliffs, young great skuas or bonxies as they're known here, soared above us, experimenting with new wings in preparation for further travels. Far below us, waves crashed against rugged shorelines - the views were breathtaking. As we made our way further along the path towards the northern most point, we checked periodically for puffins amongst the avian visitors. Unfortunately my desire to see puffins had been unfufilled to date (and would continue that way), as our visit to Europe had been just a few weeks too late.

    As we neared the end of our path, the island of Muckle Flugga came into view, and beyond it Out Stack, Britain's most northerly point. What better place for a lunch stop! A continuous flow of gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes and the like filled the sky as they made their way to the numerous guano-stained islets that dotted the coastline. What a wonderful way to spend our last day in Scotland.

    With time marching on we re-traced our steps, diverting slightly to take in an alternative viewing point before heading back to the car. Our route back took us past the Unst Boat Haven - a collection of traditional Shetland fishing craft - where we spent a pleasant half hour exploring the history of fishing and boat building with the museum's curator. A brief stop to view a replica Norse longhouse and the Skidbladner, a full-sized replica of the Gokstad ship found in Norway, and then it was onward to Belmont and the ferry to Yell.

    Ensuring our packed bags didn't exceed the Flybe limit of 20kgs we enjoyed a final dinner on Scottish soil.
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  • Day24

    Shetland Islands

    August 28, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ 🌬 16 °C

    Scotland's most northerly domain is a bit more of an effort to visit, with the overnight journey between Kirkwall and the Shetland capital Lerwick taking just over 7 hours. After a solid sleep in our relatively spacious cabin, we collected our hire car and headed south. With only 2 days to explore we wanted to make the most of our time. I read somewhere that while Orcadians are crofters (farmers) who fish, Shetland Islanders are fisherfolk who croft. Nowhere in Shetland is more than 5km from the sea, and fishing and salmon farming are the mainstays of the economy, although revenue from the North Sea oil industry has boosted the economy in recent years.

    As we made our way south we were treated to stunning coastlines and rugged landscapes - Shetland is generally more mountainous than Orkney. Our destination was the Jarlshof historic site, which is located near the ariport. So close in fact that the road crosses the runway! What's most amazing about Jarlshof is that it contains the remains of buildings dating from 2500 BC to the 1600s AD. Evidence suggest that it was continuously occupied during that period before being abandoned. Like many of the archaeological sites we've visited, rising seas and coastal erosion has destroyed much of the site. Uncovered by storms in the late 1890s, it's been excavated on a number of occasions to expose a complex arrangement of buildings. Investigations have revealed layer upon layer of habitation, including late Neolithic houses, a Bronze Age village, an Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, a Norse longhouse, a medieval farmstead and a 16th century laird’s house.

    By now we were feeling pretty experienced when it came to these types of buildings, but we were still pretty amazed with the excellent condition of some of the structures at this site. The most impressed attribute of this site really is its complexity - in fact it was a bit overwhelming. Or perhaps it was the wind and the rain.

    Feeling that we'd "done" Jarlshof we popped into the nearby Sumburgh Hotel for a rather ordinary lunch, before making our way north to our self-catering B and B just out of Scalloway. After settling in, it was off for a spot of grocery shopping and a wander around this quiet fishing port. Prettily coloured houses line the quiet, narrow streets. We came upon a memorial to the Shetland Bus (Shetlandsbussene), a wartime resistance movement taking wireless operators, armaments and combatants into Nazi occupied Norway and returning with refugees and resistance operatives during World War II between 1941 and 1945. After Norway was invaded in 1940, as resistance was waning and an Allied response was not fast enough in coming, some 300 vessels departed Norwegian shores with refugees escaping Nazi tyranny by heading west. Some landed in parts as wide-ranging as Iceland and England, but the majority headed for the friendly shores of Shetland. It was apparent that if these small fishing vessels could escape from Norway then the same vessels could return. This was the beginning of the Shetland Bus and more than 20 vessels were chosen to begin these operations, with no shortage of volunteers to undertake the arduous journey. The most favourable conditions for entering occupied Norwegian territory were the darkest, stormiest nights, setting the weather against the small fishing vessels as much as, if not more than, the German forces.There were almost 100 missions in total from Shetland to Norway using these small fishing vessels, which incurred the loss of 10 boats and 44 men through winter weather and German surveillance. It soon became apparent that bigger faster boats would need to be found and these came in the shape of three American sub-chasers, donated to the operation by the American Navy, which undertook a further 115 missions without loss due to their greater speed, size and armament.

    Another major feature of Scalloway is its castle - it dominates the view as you come into the village. Access is by obtaining a key from the local museum, so we figured at 6.30pm we were too late. As it happens another couple turned up with the key, evidently using the castle as a backdrop for fashion photographs, so we were able to wander around. Turns out it was built by the Earl who had also built Earl's Palace in Kirkwall. He had an equally cruel reputation on Shetland as he had on Orkney.

    Heading back to our cottage we came across of group of very friendly Shetland ponies, including one with a bit of an obsession with an old tyre. There's a certain satisfaction is meeting Shetland ponies on the Shetland Islands!
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  • Day23

    The Westness Mile

    August 27, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    Described as the most important archaeological mile in Scotland, the Westness Mile on Rousay spans settlements from the first Stone Age settlers, the Pictish Iron Age, the Viking invaders, the period of the Earls and the troubled crofting times.

    We started this history walk with the oldest structure - the Midhowe Cairn. The cairn itself is housed within a large modern semi-circular brick building to protect the delicate structures within. Unfortunately the building was closed but we were able to peer through the windows. What an amazing structure! At around 23m in length, the cairn is divided into 12 chambers, each capable of housing numerous burials. Tombs like this were the collective burial places of communities of Neolithic farmers, dating as far back as 3000BC.

    The nearby Midhowe Broch is more recent, built during the Iron Age as a fortified residence during the Iron Age, and occupied from around 200 BC to 200 AD. Located on a cliff overlooking Eynhallow Sound, it's one of at least nine brochs that stand along the banks of the sound. As with the Broch of Gurness and at Skara Brae, internal fittings such as fireplaces and bed chambers were evident. It's incredible to think such structures could stand for so long in what is a very exposed site. What impressed us the most was the huge external buttressing that had been constructed to support the heavy stone walls (which are apparently more than 4m thick).

    Following the path along the coastline we moved forward in time, passing Brough Farm (once one of the most valuable estates in Orkney, dating back to the 1700s, but uninhabited since 1845), the Wirk, a ceremonial hall thought to date from the 1200s and the ruins of St. Mary's Church (1600s) which is built on the site of a medieval church. By this stage we were tiring (time travel is tiring), so we retraced our steps and continued our road trip. A little further on were remnants of crofting communities, victims of the clearances that we had observed in the Scottish Highlands.

    Rousay is more mountainous than its Mainland neighbour and the remainder of our circumnavigation took us along stunning clifftops with spectacular views. With time to spare for an Orkney ice cream, we boarded our Roro ferry once more before heading into Kirkwall for a quick dinner ahead of our 11.00pm Shetland ferry boarding.
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  • Day23

    Rousay - Egypt of the North

    August 27, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    With so many options on where to spend our final day on Orkney, we opted for a visit to the nearby island of Rousay. Due to its archaeological diversity and importance it's received the nickname of "Egypt of the North". With a population of 205, it's home to more than 160 archaeological sites - almost 1 per person! As we'd only decided the night before, we had no idea whether there would be space on the small car ferry for our lumbering beast, so we figured we'd just wing it and turn up at the Tingwall jetty. Before long we were making the short journey across the Eynhallow Sound, Richard having expertly backed the Citroen onto the tiny Ro-Ro ferry. After a quick orientation and a browse in the local craft shop, we started along the ring road. Several well-preserved burial cairns are found along this route. Taversoe Tuick is a rare two-storied cairn and is structurally quite complex. The level of preservation was truly impressive. Blackhammer Cairn is thought to date from around 3000 BC. The structure is a stalled cairn, with an interior divided into compartments (stalls) by pairs of upright stone slabs. It has a modern roof and is exposed to light, so algal growth was quite extensive. Further along, the Knowe of Yarso Cairn is situated on a hill overlooking the Eynhallow Sound and must have provided impressive views for mourners. It was another chambered cairn. Apparently when it was excavated in the 1930s they found, along with human bones, remains of red deer, which are longer found on Orkney.

    Lunch beckoned and luckily the Taversoe Tavern was open. With fabulous views over the Eynhallow Sound my Fisherman's Lunch (marine version of a Ploughman's Lunch) proved a fitting meal for such a location.

    Replenished, we headed off in the direction of Midhowe Broch, which we'd seen from the Broch of Gurness only the day before. We were almost starting to feel like locals!
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  • Day22

    A touch more modern

    August 26, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    With a couple of hours to spare we decided to wander the streets of Kirkwall. By day a thriving metropolis, after 9pm the streets are pretty much deserted. The town is first mentioned in Orkneyinga saga in the year 1046 when it is recorded as the residence of Rögnvald Brusason the Earl of Orkney, who was killed by his uncle Thorfinn the Mighty. Just love those names!

    We'd bought an Orkney Explorer Pass which gave us access to 7 of the main attractions on Orkney and Shetland Islands. In Kirkwall this included the St Magnus Cathedral and the Bishop and Earl Palaces. The Bishop's Palace is a 12th-century palace built at the same time as the adjacent St Magnus Cathedral. It housed the cathedral's first bishop, William the Old of the Norwegian Catholic church. It looked a lot like a castle.

    The Earl's Palace is a ruined Renaissance-style palace and was built by Patrick, Earl of Orkney, with construction beginning around 1607 and being largely undertaken via forced labour. The palace was built after he decided that the nearby Bishop's Palace didn't suit his needs. He's considered one of the most tyrannical noblemen in Scotland's history. and was eventually executed for treason (along with his son).
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  • Day22

    Brochs and Broughs

    August 26, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    Through our very helpful B and B hosts we had managed to secure another hire vehicle - a lumbering Citroen Relay van which would do us until our late night ship to Shetland Islands the next day. Prior to pick up however we had a morning to fill and so decided to explore the Broch of Gurness. Brochs are unique to Scotland. There are over 500 of these towers throughout northern and western Scotland and the islands.

    The Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age settlement, one of 6 on the mainland, which faces 5 on the shores of the nearby island of Rousay. Between them lies the shores of Eynhallow Sound, an important navigational route and food source. Before excavation in 1929, Gurness was simply a large, grass-covered mound. Indeed there are yet-to-be-discovered settlements lurking amongst the mounds on Orkney - Orcadians have a bit of a thing about mounds.

    We found that the best way to really get a feel for this site was to walk down what would have been the entrance way (this is more effectively captured by video than photograph). Partially eroded by the sea, the layout of the village is still very evident and if you close you're eyes it's almost possible to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of this productive village.

    Further north lay the Brough of Birsay. Both Brough and Birsay derive from the Norse word borg, meaning fortified place and it's easy to see how this fortified island village would have been an effective barrier to invasion. Accessible only for a couple of hours either side of low tide, this island village shows evidence of Pictish, Norse and medieval occupation. Picts (meaning Painted People) lived in northern Scotland between 300 and 800 AD and were probably descendants of the Iron Age population. They left no written records so little is known about them. We found it difficult to differentiate between buildings from the different periods, which were sometimes built on top of earlier occupations. Either that or perhaps we'd saturation point on the historic front. A long walk to a spectacular lighthouse overlooking an equally spectacular coast line revived our enthusiasm. Sufficient at least for us to head out for a night of traditional Orcadian music at a local pub.
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  • Day21

    Skara Brae and Maeshowe

    August 25, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ 🌫 13 °C

    Orkneys' prehistoric sites provide a remarkable insight to ancient civilisations. Amongst the most impressive for us was Skara Brae. Considered by many to be the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe, this amazing collection of still-furnished ancient buildings was uncovered by a storm in 1850. Long before Stonehenge or even the Egyptian pyramids were built, Skara Brae was a thriving village.

    Little is known of the early exploration of the site, as records were not kept, though artefacts were collected by the landowner of the nearby Skaill House. Subsequent investigations have yielded considerable information, and the site continues to be a source of new knowledge on the early history of these islands.

    Visitation of this site is normally limited to peering from above into the various houses that have been partially excavated. We were fortunate to happen upon a twightlight tour, which meant we could enter rooms just as it's inhabitants would have done 4500 years ago. Our informative guide wove a story of life during those times, highlighting artefacts and markings that supported current theories. The individual houses, linked by passages, cluster together, forming a close-knit community. Small doorways open to larger spaces, an effective means for keeping heat in. The same basic layout could be seen in many of the houses - a central hearth, a large "dresser", bed enclosures and limpet boxes (watertight stone boxes sunken into the floor and thought to have been used to soak limpets for fish bait). Being on the coast, seafood would have been an important food source and is well-represented in the numerous middens on site.

    A full size replica house, complete with roof, gave us a very good impression of what it must have been like living in these houses. An equally impressive exhibition provided further insight. This site is so important that Indiana Jones lectured about it (according to our guidebook)!

    Another remarkable site is that of Maeshowe. Considered to be the finest Neolithic building in north-west Europe, this chambered tomb is ingeniously aligned so that its interior is illuminated by the setting of the mid-winter sun. Built around 5000 years ago, humongous stones (upto 3 tonnes) line the walls. It must have required significant community involvement to construct such a sophisticated and complex building in an age before machinery or even metal tools. Abandoned for many centuries, it was rediscovered in the 1100s by the Vikings, who left their mark in the form of graffiti! Indeed, Maeshowe is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga (the historical narrative of the history of the Orkney Islands written in the 1200s).
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  • Day21

    Heart of Neolithic Orkney

    August 25, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    Not only mainland Scotland but its northernmost isles have been on my list of places to visit. Being only an hour and a half by ferry from Scrabster (on the mainland), the Orkney Islands are readily accessible, even for a day trip. Comprised of around 70 islands, less than a third are occupied by Orkney's 21,500 inhabitants. Our rather grand ferry took us past the Old Man of Hoy, a 137m vertical stack of the west coast of the island of Hoy, apparently popular with rock climbers (presumably when the weathers a bit finer!).

    With only 2 and a half days to explore, we deferred exploration of the pretty town of Stromness, instead heading straight to Orkney's capital Kirkwall, where we would pick up our hire car and settle into our B and B. In contrast to our previous few days amongst the beautiful Scottish Highlands, Orkney's agricultural expanses were somewhat of a culture shock. However, we weren't there for the scenery. The Orkney archipelago boasts the densest concentration of archaeological sites in Britain, and this would be the focus of our exploration.

    After settling in to our B and B, we easily navigated our way to the car hire venue, only to be met by a rather dour Scottish woman. Having exhausted all other car hire options, I had booked with this company, knowing that we'd only have the car for just over a day. "We're not open on Sunday" she reiterated and "No you can't drop the vehicle and keys off - I have to check the vehicle myself when you return it". Deciding against paying an extra £40 for 4 hours, we opted to return the car 24 hours later, hoping to locate another vehicle for the remainder of our trip.

    What this meant was that we then spent the next 10 hours trying to squeeze in as many of the neolithic attractions as we could. Luckily many are a relatively short distance from Kirkwall and before long we'd come across Cunween Hill Chambered cairn. Perched well above the surrounding farms, this 5000 year old communal burial chamber was used for generations and then seemingly abandoned. Feeling as if we were in the Great Race, we dashed to the hugely impressive Standing Stones of Stenness, giant monoliths that tower above their surroundings, their circular arrangement perplexing generations of archaeologists. A nearby pre-historic Barnhouse Village gave us a prelude to the Stone Age village of Skara Brae (which we would visit later that evening). The equally impressive Ring of Brodgar rose hauntingly in the setting sun. Along with the Maeshowe burial mound, these Neolithic remains comprise the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, declared a World Heritage site in 1999. While this collective name is a modern idea, the area was clearly an important place in the past.

    Driving further north and coastward, the single lane roads were largely devoid of traffic. The local horses offered a short respite, as did a walk along the beach at Marwick Head, Kitchener's Memorial reminding us of the loss of the HMS Hampshire (and Minister of War Lord Kitchener) to a mine off the coast in 1916.

    Despite our best efforts, we failed to find dinner in the sparsely populated north. Arriving back in the "metropolis" of Kirkwall after 9pm proved equally challenging! Luckily a friendly "local" (ex-South African Enzo) guided us to a passable curry house. Satiated, we finally collapsed into our bed, wondering what the morrow would bring.
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  • Day20

    Heading north (again)

    August 24, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    A short drive to Inverness, a brief farewell to our trusty Fiat 500 and before long we were settled into our train seats and looking forward to our northerly travels. With every mile that passed the mountains receded and gave way to vast open fields. A succession of prettily painted railway stations passed in a blurr. Arriving at Thurso after our 4 hour journey, a quick taxi ride took us to the Scrabster Ferry Inn, where we would spend the night before boarding our ship to the Orkney Islands.

    With no expectation of anything more than a pub meal and a stroll around the port, we were pleasantly surprised to find that this tiny fishing village offered hillside walks, spectacular scenery, an unusual lighthouse, a rich fishing history on display and a fabulous sustainablity-oriented restaurant. Of course there was also a pub (it's called the Frerry Inn for a reason). On top of that, it was a gloriously sunny afternoon - a real bonus in what had been an otherwise mixed weather bag for us in Scotland.

    After settling in to our more-than-adequate room, we ventured out, chancing upon an impressive old Dutch sailing vessel, which just happened to be in port. Colourful fishing boats filled the marina, their bright colours reflected in the still, clear waters. Eider ducks glided silently, dipping occasionally to feed amongst the seaweed and kelp that clung to the near-shore rocks.

    A brisk walk took us past Holborn Lighthouse- an interesting design with the assistant Lighthouse keeper's house incorporated into the lighthouse design (the Lighthouse Keeper having the fancier abode next door). Up and over the hill, through sheep paddocks till it seemed like we'd reach the tip of Scotland, where craggy cliffs provided homes to fulmars, their perky Puffin mates having departed only a few weeks earlier. The dramatic coastline offered a glimpse of the not-too-far-off Orkney Islands.

    Our final night on the Scottish mainland deserved a celebratory dinner and the Captain's Table offered exactly that. Housed in a restored ice house, their slow food philosophy suited our frame of mind. Coupled with amazing food and a delightful hostess, we wobbled home after a 3 course meal (with wine matches) and slept soundly till our alarm announced the arrival of the next phase in our adventure.
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  • Day19

    Isle of Skye

    August 23, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ☀️ 12 °C

    The largest of the Inner Hebrides, Skye is easily reached via a bridge linking Kyle of Lochailsh and Kyleakin. Rugged coastlines and soaring mountain ranges provide for varied and dramatic scenery. While mostly a driving tour, we squeezed in several thought-provoking experiences that provided insight into the harsh realities that folk faced in the 18th century.

    First up however was a brief coastal walk and coffee stop (nice cafe view bit terrible scones) in the "metropolis" of Portree. Prettilly coloured shops and residences lined the small wharf, matched by equally colourful fishing boats.

    Heading north the ruins of abandoned crofts (farm houses) dotted the landscape, vestiges of the "Clearances" of the 18th century. From at least the 12th Century, Highland society was divided into tribal groups led by autocratic chiefs, with clan membership signified by the wearing of chequered cloth (tartan). All clan members bore the name of their chief but were not necessarily related by blood. The chiefs role was to protect the land for all clan members i.e. he didn't actually own it. After the Battle of Culloden (1746), all clan lands were forfeited to the Crown and the wearing of tartan was banned for almost a century (and punishable by death). During the hey-day of the Clan system, tenants paid their land-holding chieftains rent in the form of military service. With the destruction of the Clan system, landowners demanded a financial rent, which their tenants couldn't afford. Many became destitute. The land was gradually bought up by Sottish lowland and English farmers. In what became known as "the year of the sheep" (1792), thousands of tenants were evicted to make way for sheep. Many emigrated to Australia, Canada and America (and no doubt New Zealand). We would also see the results of these Clearances on the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

    An excellent record of crofting life on the Isle of Skye can be found in the Skye Museum of Island Life. A group of enthusiastic islanders created this impressive collection of 19th buildings and other artefacts to ensure that the stories and experiences that have contributed to modern society are not lost. Every facet of island life at the time is captured and presented in an informative and creative way.

    Our circuit continued along stunning coastlines, almost bereft of human occupation. Heading inland was equally awe-inspiring, with the Old Man of Storr rising above us to a height of 49m. A brief photo stop at Kilt Rock and the beautiful nearby waterfall (along with a multitude of others) and it was time to head home.
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