Highlands and Islands: Episode 3 the Northern Isles.

An eight session (four day) week meant that I had Tuesday off – quite necessary following my baptism by total novelty on day one at Scalloway. I can see twice the number of patients – or more – in Shropshire but know the systems – to the extent I have always, possibly ridiculously in retrospect, avoided crossing the border to locum in Telford and Wrekin, fearing that I would refer inappropriately ….well as luck would have it there is only one hospital on Shetland so all things medical and surgical go to the Gilbert Bain Hospital, Lerwick – unless the patients are sick enough to need more specialised care in which case it’s Aberdeen or Glasgow! It puts the Shropshire patients’ arguments against travelling from Oswestry to Telford or Stoke ( people deeming this far too far) into a different perspective entirely. The roads remain open to Telford and Stoke for the most part – yet there have already been at least two days when the planes did not arrive on Shetland ( no newspapers) since we came – and an urgent palliative care patient transport was delayed by 12 hours overnight due to weather conditions last week. We took the opportunity of traveling north to the top of the Shetlands on our first day off, to the Isle of Unst. This involves passing through Yell, another island. We pottered on and off the ferry at Yell, pulling to one side as we headed across the island to board the next ferry for Unst, wondering why people were in such a hurry. The answer is of course obvious. The Yell-Unst ferry is smaller than the Shetland mainland – Yell ferry and so there was a real risk we might not fit on to the former. I can imagine serious road rage – particularly as the following week saw the start of UnstFest, a week long party of performances and chip dinners and art exhibitions and nature walks. It attracts people from far and wide – but sadly one of the ferries is out of action so they are now down to 1.5 boats. Expectations were of traffic chaos at the ferry terminals and traffic carnage on the roads as the ‘single track with passing places’ arrangement fails to keep up with demand. We found one ferryman sitting in the sun, nay, basking in the sun as he told us he had been called in on his week off to marshall ferrytraffic. A big plus to this, he confided, was that he could not then be required to marshall over UnstFest – ‘not mae! I’m off in the other direction, you wanna faind mae anywhere near hair!’ (Apologies for my best approximation to the local phonetics.) Speech here is remarkably similar to that in New Zealand, particularly South Island NZ. Hardly surprising as many Shetlanders peopled New Zealand on the early boats.

Yell Unst ferry.
Basking ferry man.

There is a strong similarity in the demeanour too -a kind of diffidence that is difficult to describe – but very noticeable.

We asked the ferryman what would make them stop running the ferry at any one time? ‘We need guidelines’ he said. ‘There are times we go out when we shouldna – but whit can ye do? Folks waint to get haim.’ And of course many of those who are wanting to get home have done off shore work for weeks – desperate to get back for a while.

Unst is the most northerly inhabited island of the Shetland archilego and so is home to Briatin’s most northerly bus stop:

This might seem strange, with extra seats to supplement the hard bar intended to support weary souls. In fact, although fancy, it’s not on its own, many bustops having old computer chairs in them. Others have old arm chairs whilst one or two simply have solid wooden boxes.

Briatin’s most northerly tea room sells wonderful cakes – and is the site of KBP’s next Mate meeting – this gentleman is from Unst and lives in Lerwick. The promised excellent day’s weather – possibly the only day this summer, who knows, encouraged him to take the day off his self employed work, get on his motorbike, buy a box of four cream cakes (truly) and roar up to Unst…. His parents moved from Colchester to the island when he was around 18m old. His father worked for the RAF then bought himself out and ran a B & B. All went well until Gas came to the area, prices went up as huge rents could be obtained from the oil workers and their employers, and the long line of birders, and outdoorsy folk, the people who loved Unst for what it was – what it IS again now – stopped coming.

Victoria’s. Britain’s most northerly tea room plus K mate

His evident love of the Island told us of fine places to walk and great places to view. With limited time we headed direct to the bird reserve on the island’s northern tip. Walking through fairy style ( treeless) glens along a good solid boardwalk we were ambushed by one effusive lady gushing that we were heading for ‘puffin heaven’. As indeed we were – and gannet heaven and Great Skua heaven too! The puffins were within a couple of yards of us at the cliff edge, the gannets circled in front of us, attracting attention to nearby white rocks and stacks – the white covering being not lichen but nesting gannets – thousands of them. The Great Skuas ( which I’ve never seen before) were as big as chickens – and sitting just like chickens on the heathland – unless anyone edged too close in which case they buzzed and dive-bombed us in the most alarming manner, a manner only superseded by the arctic tern or tirrick who is agile of flight and terrifying of voice. A stick is useful – it makes one feel less afraid if nothing else!

Three of the many puffins
Note the gannet coated rocks

And to the return journey – boat to Yell, roller coaster ride down to south Yell to catch the next ferry – and one car turned away before us. But the beauty of our Fiat 500 – they squeezed us on – living in hope – but the back flap of the boat would not close so every car moved two inches forward! A tight fit, it got us home an hour sooner than would be the case otherwise – and in a very good humoured way.

KBP mates: 2 ( Cumulative: 4)

Highlands and Islands: a story in pictures and (few) words.

Tunisian Crochet is apparently the ‘thing’ amongst the ladies of Brae, and so I felt I’d joined a George Eliot novel by 11 am on the first day of this trip as I sat in a circle of ladies, equipped with crochet hook and wool and listening to Knit and Knatter, Shetlands Style. TBF they were extremely accommodating and invited me to a further session on a Tuesday – £2 for coffee and any profits go to charity on the island. My entry into the room went unremarked until Marina, our landlady, announced I would be ‘our new wee doctor’ at which point every head turned sharply round. Discovery that this is a short term post only meant they rapidly returned to the work in hand.

Which is supposed, eventually, to turn into this:

And to be worn as shown…. Kbp spent his time with a mate – a boat Pilot (and also husband of Mrs T Crochet) – most interesting. Possibly even more interesting than Tunisian crochet?

And so on to check out the two health centres where I’ll be working over the next fortnight:

One in Brae – large, clean looking, by a residential home and also very close to our house. That’s the spot for the second week as the regular GP has dropped to two days a week to allow private an out of hours work, I understand. Brae is a linear development well on the way to Sullom Voe the gas and oil terminal at the north end of the Shetland ‘mainland’.

The other in Scalloway, the ancient capital of Shetland, is a 35 minute drive from our accommodation but this drive involves a five minute trip along a single track road with passing places along side a lock….. (here’s a sneaky look at my journey home on day 1:)

This practice services the patients who live west of the main road and incorporates the Burra and Tondra islands (now linked by bridges). It was until recently the primary school and as such has beautiful high windows and also has some great views of the harbour. We did a reccy of Scalloway on day 2, finding the route and the practice and then exploring….

Who knew that Scalloway was the home of the Shetland Bus? The Shetland Bus(Norwegian Bokmål: Shetlandsbussene, ) was the nickname of a clandestine special operations group that made a permanent link between Mainland Shetland in Scotland and German occupied Norway from 1941 until the surrender of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shetland_bus). As such there are many memorials and a museum – and lots of Norwegians.

Including work by the local school.

Back to the Norwegian link: This was interesting because my first day of practice, the following day, was marked by being duty doc from the moment I arrived – and within minutes of starting surgery I was advised that a Norwegian fishing boat crew member with chest pain was coming in – and had to be seen soon as his boat was due to leave within a couple of hours. Interesting when it transpires that admissions, ambulances, computer systems – even national health numbers – all work differently here. It was a stressful morning. But things improved.

But to return to Scalloway, it’s a place of fishing and fishing boats, of parks and beauty and some poverty, of rubbish bins covered with fishing nets to keep the scavenging birds out, and ironic notices

(A convenient juxtaposition of assembly places) and huge boats whose sole role is to remove the lice from Salmon.

And to some of the gentlest most lovely people even if they do, as James from Aberdeen told us, spend all their time agossipin and abitching, then still, as he says, nobody bothers and they all get along – it ud be difficult if not, them being on an island and all.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Kbp new mates: 2a

Highlands and Islands. Day 1. Or ….an anticipatory sigh of relief.

Weeks, nay, MONTHS of preparation – and finally the day has arrived. Since that first night in February when H., unusually without book was forced to read a BMJ as K slept following his sister in law’s green funeral, and found an intriguing advert appealing to those ‘wanting one last challenge ((in their dotage) (why stop at one??) there has been an almost Olympian course of regulatory hurdles to leap. Simply to join the Scottish Performers List, a pre requisite of working as a GP in Scottish general practice, I had to provide an almost 40 years of detailed employment history and repeat a DRB check. In addition a 20 hour course on PreHospital Emergency Care, so-called BASICS course, with associated practical and written examination and a detailed occupational health questionnaire requiring a battery of blood tests including an HIV assessment …. but finally the day has arrived. We’re in Brae, home of Britain’s most northerly fish and chip shop (all responsibly sourced of course) and place of employment for me in nine days time.

Contact with the Shetlands Hub health board has been excellent throughout this process of selection for the ‘GP Joy’ scheme, a project linking the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides), the Orkneys, the Shetlands and north west Scottish Highlands in their quest to recruit a group of experienced GPs to provide locum holiday and sick cover, and in some cases to provide substantive cover for 18 weeks a year. The original two day interview in Strathpeffer was followed up with a postcard from the recruiting panel, wishing the successful candidates well in the next stages of selection (essentially the BASICS course). Always available to give advice they have booked accommodation and arranged transport for us. They recommended I bought my doctor’s bag with me so of course I obliged.

This bag is a typical Gladstone bag – heavy, leather, serious – which I bought to accompany me in my role of GP on the TranSiberian Express (luxury version) in 2014. Filled with guidelines, the old school ophthalmoscope I bought in 1986, six (yes!!! But only two came) stethoscopes, speculum, torches, gloves and other sundry items this in itself weighed almost 7kg and took an awful lots of suitcase space, a volume issue resolved by packing it with other items: bird book, socks, binoculars and the like. The entire suitcase weighed a chunky 22.5kg ultimately. It included vital items: the anti nudge headwear and Avon Skin So Soft inadvertent midge deterrent, and two packets of Welsh cakes, of which more later.

And for those who aren’t part of the close family, this next picture may come as a surprise, but we (well, a couple of us….mainly me) always lay our travelling gear out the night before (as much to check we’ve not packed all our undies as anything else)…

Staying for such a short time in Shetland we opted for the 90 minute flight over the 10 hour drive to Aberdeen by overnight crossing to Lerwick. Strangely our ticket gave us access to the executive lounge in Manchester. What a frost! More crowded than the public areas downstairs we were limited in seating opportunities as some people, incredibly, not satisfied with having an exclusive executive lounge with free breakfast and unlimited alcohol further feel the need to reserve a prime window seat if their choice! And the toilets were smelly.

Keith looked comfy in the seat we did find though:

Approach to landing was interestingly choppy but soon we were through into arrivals which bore a remarkable similarity to New Zealand South Island – Christchurch airport- where there was a preponderance of people in outdoor walking gear and Viking coloration.

Our car: a green fiat 500. Thank god I’m not 2m tall like some of our close friends!

And our first stop: the old harbour Lerwick, because here they have ocean going yachts, because here bewhiskered Shetlanders stop and talk, because here a cruise liner will pause tomorrow but also because here they have the Peerie shop and, most importantly, cafe. A cafe with homemade soup and bread – and great coffee. And great art. And silly art.

and ultimately via Tesco Lerwick (which sells loose veg, not in plastic bags) to our three bedroomed home for the next two weeks.

A stroll in the evening saw the people of Brae packing up after their fun filled activity day – sailing, bouncy castle, bbq and so forth. We saw curlews, oyster catchers, Arctic terms (or Tirricks as they’re known here) and hooded crows.

Great views of evening sunlight in hills across the water to Muckle Roe (bad photo though) and panic as I realised…..

I had packed no knickers.

Panic indeed, Shetland not being the obvious purveyor of underwear to the picky.

But, thank goodness – they were eventually located in the Gladstone bag. So glad I found them tonight and not as I went to examine the first patient on Monday morning!

And so to a well earned rest with the promise of a community coffee morning and teaching of Tunisian crochet the next morning. I could barely sleep with the excitement!

Jour 13

Our final day of walking – Massip to Conques. Only 22km with less rain, and lighter bags as we have dispensed with some items along the way – toothpaste and soap and (a little) sun protection cream.

‘Only’ 22km???!!!! We struggled to manage 15 on day one and two. Incredible that our precious trip and time together has come towards its end so soon, yet pleased to be reaching our destination, we determined to make the most of every minute, the call of the cuckoo and willow warbler, the incredible array of flowers, now including trees of wisteria and clumps of escholzia as well as red valerian and white campions in the hedge rows.

But it rained.

And around 20 pilgrims ate a picnic lunch in a cafe.

We climbed to the crest of the hill, and limped through typical Aveyron villages:

Until finally, after a long difficult rocky and muddy descent, we arrived at Conques:

Two Parisian ladies we had coincided with throughout our trip arrived simultaneously.

And what a fairytale end to a wonderful trip: Conques is a beautiful and enchanting medieval town:

With a wonderful abbey that is warm and welcoming, and that was our final nights stay, in our own room, with en suite.

Pilgrims’ cloaks and sticks.

Accommodation. Ours on third floor, sadly.

Dinner hosted by the monks.

And so to bed:

Distance :22km total 221 including distance to start of route in Le Puy.

Items lost: 14. The contents of H’s knickers drawer.

Tantrums: nil

Taxi: nil

Jour 12

Espalion to Massip

Well god had thrown snow, blizzard, burning hot sun, closed bakeries and more at us. Today he went for rain. An uncompromising 100% chance of rain. He did not disappoint.

Knowing we had 26.5 km to do, including lengths of red (challenging, normally steep uphill ) walk we opted to miss breakfast, hit a (hopefully open) baker early and get on our way. So at 7.10, our pockets stuffed with pains aux raisins (and a sneaky extra croissant aux amandes in my jacket) we set off, waterproofs on, head down.

Megg is tough but fair. All wide eyed pleas for clemency, or at least breakfast, unheard we continued up, and up, and up…..until finally…..

And boy, did that taste good!

Note Megg’s rain skirt made out of hot air balloon material? Very effective – keeps one dry without overheating. And it folds into its own pocket.

Note Susan’s lack of waterproof trousers – that’s one of the items, along with hat and gloves, she would take next time.

Note Keith’s yellow jacket? Well yes, who could fail to.

Believing we had got through the terrible weather early we then relaxed a little although S was hampered by a walking cane that disintegrated, and H by legs that refused to walk without great pain. Still we made steady if slow progress.

And we’re rewarded by an enchanting coffee stop, with still warm apple and almond cake:

Passed via Estaing, no need to stop as already replenished:

And adorable dogs:

The dog appeared much happier than this photo portrays, thankfully.

Then: the rain, the rain, the thunder and the lightening. An incredible storm, but thankfully we had stopped by one of the not infrequent ‘WC PELERIN’ – a long drop toilet which one of our group had availed themselves of. At one point eight of us were huddled in there, breaking through our mouths and watching the river created by the storm carrying flows of twigs and leaves down the hillside.

See separate posting : odiferous in France!

These images do not begin to convey the ferocity of the storm.

Still another 5.5km to go.

The auberges are largely converted ancient buildings in tiny remote villages, literally miles from anywhere, often with no mobile signal and frequently no WiFi.

The path passes through remote valleys and we could go for hours without seeing anyone other than another pilgrim. Sometimes not even that.

So – no choice, despite our sodden clothes, weighty packs and various significant aches and pains, than to go on.

To go on to THE BEST GITE WE HAVE VISITED!

Susan was quietly exhausted. Me less so (less quiet).

The family who run the Gite at Massip clearly love their role. It is warm, clean, welcoming, well organised – and the food is to die for!

The son, Stephan, explains each course. We started with herb fritters with a great bowl of salad.

Then a pork and chestnut casserole with pasta for the carnivores, and Swiss chard with bechamel for both the vegetarians.

And finally a family recipe apple tart with soft cheese and apricot conserve:

Then tisanes aux choix.

After dinner we all pay and our Credenciale is stamped.

Most gites will only let you stay one night and one has to be a pilgrim.

Typical cost for half board is around 35€. This frequently includes wine.

Distance : 26

Taxis: Nil

Items lost: 13

Tantrums: nil. Don’t mention the WC PELERIN. …..

Jour 11

L’Estrade to Lespalion

A beautiful day. Sunshine. A shortish walk (< 20k). Opportunity to try bakers:

Get a good lunch and share will fellow Australian walkers Annie and Peter.

They’re not on this pic, possibly because they tried to introduce the BR word… the first we have come across in the whole trip.

We are now in the Aveyron area, an absolutely enchanting area of France Profonde, an area of which I had absolutely no knowledge although k came here on a Lambretta 125 from London in 1965, on his way to Perpignan. It is absolutely gorgeous! Verdant pasture with occasional goats and cattle, lovely dogs, smiley people, good food.

The hills are steep though! Very steep. Not helped by the fact that we may have inadvertently chosen a ‘steeper’ option up a quarry face to see a Virgin Mary state above Espalion.

The town is an ancient tannery town.

The Gite ‘La Halte’ adequate and friendly. Unfortunately we were ‘assaulted’ by a lady from Versailles who wanted to discuss Br£&@t. And wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Simple but good food.

Distance:

Items lost: 11

Taxi: nil

Tantrum; nil

Jour 10

Nasbinols to Estrade

Today we reached the highest point of the trip at 1300+m. It had snowed overnight and once again we set off early, well fed with a great breakfast from the Centre d’Equestre. This time we all put on all our clothes at the outset. Much more sensible.

2500km2 of elevated plateau the Aubrec is home to herds of local cattle who are moved up there after the snow has melted by the end of May. This process, called the ‘transhumance’ is a great spectacle with the cows decorated with flowers and bells, some beasts travelling 40 km to reach the Aubrac. No other animals, pet or otherwise, on or off the lead, is allowed on the plateau whilst the cattle are there.

We reached the highest point:

We met a man allegedly doing a reportage on those who walk that section. The 17km from Nasbinols to St Chély-d’Aubrac is a UNESCO recognised cultural site. It was stunningly empty, beautiful and cold.

Mr Reportage. Transpired he has a family in Hawks Bay, NZ, much to Megg’s delight. He also had a lovely dog.

Some typical Aubrec plateau views.

Today was Naomi’s birthday. We started by video recording a birthday song. I’ll spare you the details of that. A late lunch in St Chély-d’Aubrac was delicious. We celebrated on her behalf.

And then the weather improved, Megg’s jokes restarted (they’re terrible and hilariously funny) and we forgot the miseries of the previous two days. Once again beautiful lowland flowers bloomed, (greater spotted orchids, Stitchwort, violets, Wood anemone, campion, ladysmock and cowslip) and a cuckoo and chiff chaff sang (if either could be called a song) almost constantly. .

Distance: 25km cumulative 146

Items lost: 11

Tantrums: nil, of course.

taxi: nil.

Jour 9 (iv)

Quatre Vents to Nasbinols

The pictures say it all:

It was truly a hypothermia day. Made me review all my recent learning on the subject as Megg, our worthy leader and NZ tramper of some 45 years, risk assessed the walk and we searched our pockets to pool any nutrition. It amounted to a third of a mars bar, some chocolate and a bag of fruit and nuts.

Early on in the day we were joined by Nadia, a French woman in her early sixties who asked to join us, concerned about the risk of walking alone on such a day. The wind was bitter and the snow was a blizzard and drifting. Those without gloves wore socks on their hands. Our bags felt light as we wore everything we could.

But! Good news! A café!! Open all hours, seven days a week.

But not today. The door was closed. Nadia our new found fairy godmother persuaded the proprietress to wake her husband to see if he would allow her to offer us a hot drink……

Sleepy headed husband then emerged and offered hot chocolate or soup – SO LONG AS WE DIDN’T GO INSIDE.

A WAIT IN THE SNOW. Then an elderly man, caped, struggled with a bag across from a rambling stone house by the church and slithered across the path with a large shopping bag. The soup had arrived. It was Brueghel – esque.

But the soup was good.

No possibility of a toilet break here though so we had to use the traditional French hole in the ground in a small stone building down the road, observing the stalactites formed on the roof whilst waiting our turn.

This would have been the perfect time to try the SheWee, a device that allows a woman to pass urine in a standing position, and therefore not having to bear the butt. I didn’t. But here is a picture of one, which caused much merriment along our travels. Sometimes there are malfunctions.

And so to bed at the Centre d’Equestre at Nasbinols. We arrived safe and sound two hours early, apologising. We were not the first and were welcomed with open arms, warm rooms and hot showers.

My first experience of hanging out…. was great. Four of us in the room for almost five hours.

Communal dinner again. We come across the same people time and again as we all cover more or less the same distance.

Marie collecting fees and stamping the Credenciale.

Aligod for dinner again:

Distance: 16 Cumulative: 121

Items lost: 10

Tantrums: none. We knew it was a tough day and had to be very careful.

Taxis: nil.

Jours 6 – 9 (ii)

La Clauze towards Nasbinols

Continuing with the story of the vegetarian food ….. K had reminded Michel about the two vegetarians, and Michel replied ‘no problem – if there isn’t anything we’ll put them out with the goats and cows’.

This is the vegetarian main course.

Yes. Those are sausages. We ate the but in the middle… Aligod. A local delicacy of potatoes onions and cheese. Truly delicious.

Michel used to run this Gite with his wife who is no longer there. He does a wonderful job himself:

Homemade apple flan:

And jam:

An incredibly cosy place – almost like a sauna with widespread wood panelling, a huge wood burning stove – and all our washing carefully folded and ready in the morning….

Thankyou Michel for a wonderful stay.

In the village was a Refuge: a small building with a fireplace, chair and table for pilgrims to take shelter in.

The structure in front of it, now incomplete, is for shoeing cows….presumably for the ‘transhumance’ or transfer of cattle from the valleys to the higher slopes of the Massif. It’s a complicated structure, with leather straps to lift the cow, and a variable length structure to adjust to cow size.

We have now left lentil country and are into ‘milk country’. The geology is totally different : flatter, greener. Unsurprisingly more cows

We stopped early on our trip from la Clauze to Rouget at a farm – the only place all day to obtain lunch. For a simple cheese and salad sandwich to take away, 6€ seemed quite high. Little did we know it was a woman eating sandwich…..

Ye

But as the day went on it became wild again, more forested ‘as if going back to an ancient country’ says the guide.

A lot of effort is placed on maintaining sustainability. This is an FSC Forest.

The last remaining French stronghold of bisons is close to the area which is also reputedly plentiful in raspberries, strawberries and bilberries in the summer.

A cosy lunch stop albeit ultimately very cold. K hiding, surprisingly well considering his gilet Jaune behind a tree.

And so, after many km, to La Ferme du Plot Du Clô, a Gite we had to access by entering a huge barn. HUUUUGGGEEE. And climb the steps to a slightly old fashioned arrangement of rooms at the end.

The whole arrangement was heated, or not really, by a single wood burning stove. There was one blanket each so it was necessary to get up to put on socks, shirt etc. Then the rustling began…. transpires Susan is not keen on mice either…..

But before that, Megg, our resident therapist, helped sort out Helen’s leg and Keith’s knee. K seemed to really enjoy it.

Marie our host:

Dinner:

Views from the room:

We really are tramping across until miles of really empty countryside, sparsely populated villages and the occasional small town.

I forgot to mention Saugues a couple of days ago – an oasis but not articulately special. However the way in was improved by some wonderful carvings:

Items lost: 1 cumulative

Distance: 22 cumulative 76

Items lost: 7

Taxi: nil

Tantrums: giggled our way through the day.