Following a pleasant sleep, I awoke in time to get up on deck and catch us pass the Bressay lighthouse and the approach to Lerwick.
The weather looked promising, with the early morning sun starting to break through and I took the opportunity to record a small video clip to camera, in which I made reference to the use of hydrogen fuel cells for ships rather than diesel, referencing the effects of ships in dock at Southampton have on the air pollution there, which is pretty substantial.
At 07:43, I disembarked and was off on the start of the final leg northwards of the trip and oddly, for such a remote part of the UK, back on familiar soil, my brother Paul and family having moved to Shetland in the mid noughties. It’s somewhere I’ve visited four times now in the intervening years and explored reasonably well, though not extensively.
It’s also somewhere my family was on the verge or relocating to in the late 2000s. The plan fitted in nicely with Paul’s plan to move into a new house they were building there, and involved us taking on their existing house without needing to involve estate agents. It was also at a sensible period in our children’s schooling, but that particular opportunity passed when the recession hit and we struggled to sell our house thanks to prospective buyers being unable to get a mortgage.
We weren’t massively upset about not moving, but do occasionally wonder how things might have been. Nevertheless, one needs to be pragmatic about these things and move on. It’s almost certain that I wouldn’t have been doing this trip if we had moved there anyway.
I’ve certainly explored most of the main places of Shetland and some areas of personal interest, notably around the story of the Shetland Bus: an operation which smuggled operatives and resistance fighters into and people at risk out of occupied Norway during World War 2 under the guise of fishing boats.
The ties between Shetland (and indeed Orkney) and Norway are strong historical ones. Shetlanders don’t really consider themselves Scottish, but rather of Nordic stock. You can indeed hear a slightly Scandinavian lilt in the accent and local dialect words from the old Norn language are still in common use.
The bagpipe isn’t a Shetland instrument: Shetland is very much about the fiddle. The SNP doesn’t hold the seat in Westminster, where Shetland (and indeed Orkney) have been held by the Liberals and latterly the Liberal Democrats almost entirely since the mid 19th century, save for a 15 year period of Conservative rule between 1935 and 1950.
And then of course there’s the famous Viking fire festival Up Helly Aa, which takes place in late January every year.
There are even those on Shetland who have called for what would possibly now be dubbed Shexit: an independence movement from Scotland and the UK. It seems that the junior partner in any senior/junior political relationship likes to kick up and the Shetland/Edinburgh dynamic is no exception. The most extreme form I’ve seen of this expression of ‘home rule’ is the defacing of the thistle symbols on the brown Scottish tourist information signs in Shetland.
A certain English immigrant to Shetland, Stuart Hill, or as he is commonly known for his ill-fated sea journeys, “Captain Calamity”, asserts that Shetland does not belong to Scotland or the United Kingdom. He would like to see Shetland as crown dependency, along the same lines as the Isle of Man.
His claim does at first glance have some merit. In 1468, Shetland and Orkney were part of Norway. When King Christian of Norway could not come up with a marriage dowry for his daughter in her marriage to King James III of Scotland, he pawned Shetland and Orkney, but no time limit was set and no legal document incurred the right of ownership of Shetland and Orkney to Scotland, so on a constitutional basis, he does seemingly have a strong case. Nevertheless, what may be true constitutionally-speaking hasn’t de facto been the case for centuries, and although if it ever came to a legal case, he may have a metaphorical leg to stand on, it will, in all likelihood, never come to that, with those in power simply ridiculing him or just ignoring him and thereby leaving him, to continue a bad metaphor, legless.
His view is a minority one. Whenever he stands for elections, he performs badly, and he is widely seen as a reasonably harmless eccentric, although the RNLI may have a slightly different view, his exploits estimated to have cost them tens of thousands of pounds in rescuing him.
From Lerwick, I took the A970, pulling over periodically for a photo of the surroundings and to let the odd faster vehicle pass me. When Paul and family moved up to Shetland over a decade ago, he compared it to the village in West Yorkshire we had grown up in.
“It’s like Oxenhope with sea.”
And that is indeed a reasonable description of the landscape: slightly reminiscent of the moors around the Brontë countryside, but wetter around the edges and often quite a bit windier. Though the Norse gods were apparently on my side this morning.
At 08:43 I boarded the ferry at Toft near the Sullom Voe oil terminal on Shetland Mainland (the largest of the many islands which make up Shetland) for the 15 minute crossing to the island of Yell: the second largest island. By this time, I was really starting to feel pleased at having made it this far without any problems, but, as much as I rationally loathe any form of superstition, we humans are predisposed to it, and the old, instinctive part of my brain responsible for maintaining some semblance of superstition did think that I might be jinxing the last part of the journey.
Nevertheless, 15 minutes later, I was heading off the ferry in Ulsta on the island of Yell and on my way again for the penultimate part of the trip northwards. I have never really explored Yell on previous visits to Shetland and today was to be no different. I had one goal and was fixated on reaching it as soon as I could.
As I neared the top of Yell, the last remnants of the low lying-cloud were clearing and the sky ahead looked positively blue. I reached the final ferry crossing at Gulcher to take the ferry across to Belmont on the UK’s most northerly inhabited island, Unst, at 09:32. As I arrived, I could see that the ferry was still in dock, but I was the only vehicle waiting, so surmised that I had just missed the boarding. However, after a few seconds, the barrier opened and a crew member from the ferry beckoned me on.
The crossing, a mere ten minutes or so, is on a smaller ferry and unlike the crossing from Mainland to Yell, I stayed with the bike.
From the ferry, I took the road (the A968) north to Baltasound, the largest settlement on Unst, to which I would return once I’d reached my target.
I continued on the single-track road past the Valhalla Brewery (whose products I can vouch for) and then past the settlement of rather modernistic looking dwellings which made up the lodgings of the personnel of the former RAF Saxa Vord. During the Cold War, this radar station boasted hundreds of RAF crew at one time. Further north than Saint Petersburg, it kept a watchful, early warning eye out over 750,000 square miles.
It finally closed in 2007, having spent its latter years as a remote unit (controlled from RAF Buchan) and the associated buildings and residencies in Valsgarth were sold off for redevelopment. Some of the buildings house small businesses (and indeed the Valhalla Brewery) and the former personnel quarters have been converted to holiday homes.
In a twist and a sign of political instability, a few days after I completed my trip, it was announced that Saxa Vord would once again be reopened, albeit once again as a remote station. While the initial work will involve tens of people employed in re-establishing the station, it will be manned by a handful of on-site personnel.
It is at this point of the trip where one passes the UK’s most northerly everything: most northerly brewery, bus stop, and church, amongst other most northerly things. It’s pretty safe to say I was riding the UK’s most northerly electric motorbike that day.
Rounding a bend from here, the settlement of Norwick came into view and I was reminded of a previous visit when Paul’s family and my family had spent a very pleasant time on the beach there, but again, this was no time for stopping.
I made the final turn off the road and onto Holsens Road: the last stretch of road towards Skaw and just as I rounded some farm buildings, I saw a couple of road maintenance vehicles ascending the hill in front of me. I cursed them under my breath for visually polluting the last stretch of my trip to my destination, but in the event they soon pulled over to their work at the side of the road and I was able to continue alone.
By this time, I could hardly have asked for nicer weather. With the exception of a slight haze, the sky was a blazing blue and I was delighted that conditions were so nice for the last part of my trip. A short time later, as the land dipped away, the familiar sight of Skaw and its beach came into view. It was picture perfect and I took the moment to record a small video clip and take some photos of the bike overlooking the beach.
The thought occurred to me, with just the descent down to Skaw Beach ahead, that nothing was going to stop me from reaching it now, and again part of me objected. “Well, you could still get a puncture.” It wouldn’t have mattered. I’d have pushed the bike the last half a mile or so and repaired it by the beach. But, in the event, I was fine and, letting the bike’s regenerative braking take the work and dodging the sheep, I savoured the approach down to the UK’s most northerly house: a croft house, which was, and I assume still is, owned by a couple of brothers.
I ensured I rode right to the very end of this, the UK’s most northerly road. Then I turned the bike around slightly for some photos and to take some video of me having reached my destination.
I’d arrived at 10:21 with 19% capacity of the battery left and had covered 1022 miles (1646 km) since departing Land’s End.
And then, once I’d done the obligatory photos and mocked up a clip of me riding back up and away from Skaw, I took the time to relax and enjoy the surroundings. Completely alone, once again I took it all in, and then, as ridiculous as it sounds, it suddenly hit me.
Of course, I’d known from the outset what I was doing, but what dawned on me at Skaw was that as electric vehicles will be the norm in the not-too-distant future, there will be many people who make the same trip over the coming years, but this was the first time that it had been done, and yes, I was proud of that. Not even so much for me, although it’s a nice thought to carry through life and for my family in future, that one of their own was the first to do the trip on an electric motorbike, but just the fact that the technology had proven itself.
Sure, it would have been easier on a petrol bike, but that wasn’t the point of the journey. The point was to prove that even in these very early days of EV adoption, a trip such as this is possible.
Of course, electric motorbikes, like electric cars, will improve considerably in the next few years as the price of batteries falls and capacities increase. Those undertaking the journey in the future will have a much easier time of it, with much higher capacity batteries and at some point rapid charging will be available. It’s not too ridiculous a notion that the whole journey will be possible without needing to charge en route at all.
For now, I was extremely proud of the bike for not putting a foot (or wheel) wrong the whole trip and for never letting me down.
I spent a few minutes enjoying the fine weather and walked a little way along the beach, filming a little more and taking more pictures. Then, presently, I decided it was time to head back southward.
Before heading off, I had contacted the Pure Energy Centre on Unst. I had passed it on previous visits, but came to know its work rather oddly through a comedy film by musician/actor Graham Fellows, or as he’s more commonly known, his alter ego, John Shuttleworth: “Versatile singer/songwriter from Sheffield South Yorkshire”, as he describes himself; or for even older readers, as Jilted John of the eponymous 1978 hit fame, with its refrain, "Gordon is a moron".
Fellows put together a comedy documentary film in 2006 in his guise as John Shuttleworth, based on his theory that “it’s nice up north”. Essentially, his premise goes that the further north you go, the nicer people get, and he therefore surmised that people in Shetland must be the nicest people in the UK, and set out on a trip there to test this theory.
The film itself is well worth watching. It’s typically gentle and unassuming comedy, with Shuttleworth interacting with locals who have no idea that he is merely a character. Paul introduced me to the film on my first visit to Shetland.
As part of the extras on the DVD, Fellows, now out of character, visited the Pure Energy Centre on Unst to see the UK’s first and then only road-licensed hydrogen powered car, powered by hydrogen produced at the centre from an electrolyser powered by their wind turbines, and was shown around by the late Sandy Macauley.
When I was planning the trip, I thought immediately of the Pure Energy Centre, because there was a natural tie-in to what I was doing in terms of green technologies. I thought that they would like to see the bike and I hoped they would be happy for me to charge the bike and find out a little more about them at the same time. I had a friendly response from Ross Gazey there, who said he’d be happy for me to pop in and charge there.
So, having headed off from Skaw, it was back to Baltasound and to the Pure Energy Centre to charge and catch up with Ross. I was on an emotional high as I turned up and, after being initially unsure of the best way in, I came face to face with Ross and introduced myself. He was busily packing up items into crates. It transpired that these were wind turbine blades. Ross invited me in and put the kettle on. We then plugged the bike in to start it charging from the centre’s wind turbines, or as Ross put it “from bottled Unst weather” and then he told me about the work they do, which typically involves installing and maintaining wind turbines, solar arrays, and any other renewable technologies all over the world.
Not only did Pure have the first road licensed hydrogen car in the UK, but they were also the first community wind to hydrogen system in the world. A big part of their work is its international dimension and from the outset, they were passionate about the geopolitical reasons for transitioning away from fossil fuels to community-based energy independence as far as possible, and this has seen them work across the world, including in some of the poorest regions. A very worthwhile endeavour indeed.
Ross had to pop out for a while but recommended that I headed over to the neighbouring and aptly-named shop/café, “The Final Checkout”, which, yes, you’ve guessed it, is the UK’s most northerly shop. It seemed to stock a wealth of products and the café was very welcoming, so I enjoyed a browse and then had a bite to eat and something to drink, before returning to Ross at Pure.
As we talked some more, I learnt about wind turbines something which I had not considered: namely, that the blades over time can and indeed do become affected by the environment in which they are situated. One of the aspects of turbines near or on the sea is that they are subjected to salt, which, while obviously an issue generally from a corrosion perspective, also affects the efficacy of turbine blades themselves, the salt acting as a blasting agent on the surface of the blades and this roughening of the blade surface and edges decreasing their efficiency over time, and so, at some point, the blades have to be replaced.
I asked about the status of renewables projects in Shetland and explained what I had encountered in Orkney. Ross was, of course, fully up-to-speed on what is happening in Orkney, and explained that the landscape of Orkney lends itself better to wind resources, because the nature of the landscape is rolling hills and of course flatter areas, whereas Shetland is more rocky than hilly. Wind of course has an easier path crossing smooth land than it does rocky surfaces.
There is of course a heritage, closeness and a natural rivalry between Shetland and Orkney and when I asked about the biggest differences in the culture of the two islands, Ross summed it up nicely by saying.
“Orcadians are farmers with boats and Shetlanders are sailors with crofts.”
We also discussed vehicle power. As a hydrogen pioneer, I was wary of pushing too much on the battery electric vehicle / hydrogen fuel cell debate. I tend to think, as many others do, that the battle for the mass-market car (and indeed motorbike) will be won, and in fact is being won, by the battery electric vehicle, but that hydrogen fuel cells are ideally suited to larger forms of transport, such as buses, lorries, trains, boats, and ships.
The reality is, however, that it’s not an either/or. There is indeed room for both in the electric vehicle market. A hydrogen-powered vehicle is still, after all, an electric vehicle and does still use a battery to drive its motor. Anything which serves to transition transport away from reliance on fossil fuels is to be welcomed. Ultimately, the market and practicalities of ownership of both will determine the outcome as to which of battery electric vehicle (BEV) or hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) vehicle comes to dominate the mass market.
The cloud started to close in a little and Ross suggested that rain was on its way, pointing out that you could feel the moisture in the air. I helped to load some turbine blades into the van, unplugged the bike, and put the charging cables away.
Then, at 15:18, having taken some photos in front of the turbines with Ross behind the bike and then me behind the bike in front of the Pure logo, I thanked him and headed off again, pausing briefly at the nearby landmark that is “Bobby’s Bus Shelter”: an initiative born out of a letter written by the son of Pure’s late Sandy Macauley, Bobby, to the Shetland Times in which he asked that the recently removed (and supposedly unsafe) bus shelter be replaced.
The Shetland Islands Council obliged and then over time several items started to mysteriously appear in the bus shelter: a table, chair, microwave, and sundry decorations. This tradition has continued and the shelter is now often themed.
From there, it was a straightforward journey back to the ferry across from Unst to Yell and then from Yell to Shetland Mainland. I was pleased to see a rapid car charge point at Ulsta while I waited for the ferry. I was less pleased to see the onset of rain.
Once back on the Shetland Mainland, I didn’t hang about and rode the bike at proper full road speeds, confident that I wouldn’t have any problem getting to my destination for the night: Paul’s house, around ten miles south of Lerwick.
As it transpired, I gauged the power/distance pretty well and arrived at his house at 17:32 with 5% battery remaining. Coincidentally, a couple of minutes later, he pulled into the driveway in his car, having just returned from work.
“That’s perfect timing!” he said.
“That’s bizarre!” was my response. “You heard the revving.”
“The revving, yeah.”
“How the devil are you, anyway?”
“Very good. So, how’s it been as an experience?”
“It’s been very good. It’s been good meeting people.”
“Going on a lap of honour?”
“No. No fear!” was the immediate reply which sprang to mind.
Of course, time, work, and finances permitting, I’d have loved to have carried on.