Bob Wallace goes looking for puffin stuff at Britain's northern-most point.
It's hard to imagine a deserted, wind-swept, treeless, cliff-girt island at latitude 60C North being the seat of the holy grail.
No, not the legendary chalice from the Last Supper (go to Valencia in Spain if you want to see that reputed relic), but rather the figure of speech; and in this case with its fascination rooted in family ancestry.
The island is Havera and it sits off the south-western shores of the Shetland Islands mainland. Shetland, of course, is famous for its miniature ponies, North Sea oil terminal, and more recently the eponymous television crime mystery series (most of which has actually been filmed on the Scottish mainland rather than in Shetland itself). Increasingly, however, Shetland is also proving a contemporary mecca for New Zealanders hunting down the origins and locations of their pioneering ancestors.
And that was how we came to be absorbed by the attraction of this uninhabited, almost inaccessible piece of Shetland known as Havera (pronounced Hav-rah).
It took several days of sleuthing and contacts by a kindly, determined cousin on the Shetland mainland to finally find our means of reaching Havera. An equally accommodating sheep-farmer was happy to take an Antipodean couple in his small launch from its East Burra marina berth to the place which lost its last permanent resident nearly 100 years ago. Fortunately, there is one cove, known as Nort Ham, which provides a sheltered anchorage, from which a short dinghy-row will take you to a tiny beach — there is just one other possible access point, Home Ham, but it has hidden shoals and other impediments to a safe landing.
Today, there is nothing at Havera other than some grazing sheep and the ruins of a settlement that once contained the croft houses of several families, including some of my wife's forebears, a line of the ubiquitous Smiths. But, given the ancestry and wider Shetland-New Zealand connections, this otherwise blank landscape had an indefinable aura that bordered on the holy grail-like spiritual. Perhaps not surprising given that ours was apparently the first known New Zealand descendant-visit by a member of this family in many years, if not ever since they left there for the mainland and ultimately New Zealand — and it undoubtedly helped that it was a calm day in a fortunately warm and pleasant mid-summer week in Shetland; albeit 15C max.
Housing 50 people at its peak, with its own small school, the Havera settlement gradually emptied out — long gone are the days when the residents literally tethered their infants so that they did not wander or get blown over the forbidding cliffs below the settlement. Today there is just one small house, re-roofed and restored, that is used briefly at lambing and shearing times by a few workers from the mainland.
It was a week which started with a 75-minute flight in a fast, comfortable tartan-tailed Saab 2000 turbo-prop operated by Scottish airline Loganair from Glasgow to Sumburgh airport, south of Shetland's main town, Lerwick. There are Shetland tours and even a bus service that goes south to north, but a pre-booked hire car from local firm Bolt's proved ideal for our exploration, especially with cousin Alexis providing a marvellous human GPS and information service from the back seat. And as we traversed the nooks and crannies of the main island as well as the northern isles of Yell and Unst, hearing New Zealand accents was not uncommon — part it seems of a gathering wave of interest in Shetland ancestry.
Pushed out by land clearances that deprived tenant farmers, or crofters, of access to land, and attracted to New Zealand by articles in Shetland newspapers, Shetlanders came to New Zealand in relative droves in the 1870s. As many as 1200 came in one short period — a big number from a small population. There is no doubt they would have made good settlers, resourceful people hardened by climate as they tilled the soil and fished often stormy seas, only to have to yield much of the fruit of their labours to mostly uncompromising lairds.
And next time you watch Shetland on TV, check whether you can see trees in the background. If you can, it will almost certainly have been filmed on the Scottish mainland, not Shetland. Our back-seat guide shouted very excitedly at one stage as we drove the main road north through Unst — "Trees! Look, look; trees." There were indeed some trees; a group of three small pines less than 2m high, clustered in part shelter beside a country house.
Earlier, as we drove at a reasonable clip from one car ferry to the next (coordinating ferry departures is one of the essentials when you drive from the Shetland mainland to Yell then Unst), there had been an equally animated exclamation, this time from my front-seat passenger, as we came over a blind rise and experienced an exceptionally close encounter with a young woolly animal. No harm to man, beast or car, fortunately, but a quick reminder that Shetland sheep are not always fenced in.
Nonetheless, touring Shetland's roads is generally easy driving and, ancestry hunting apart, the attractions along the way in this relatively small destination are myriad. Almost wherever you go, there are old Norse influences, often reflected in place names and Viking remains but also well evident in the local vernacular.
Shetland lies virtually midway between Scotland's mainland and Norway — its latitude also coincides with Bergen (as well as St Petersburg) and the Vikings have well and truly left their mark, celebrated particularly in the north of Unst at Haroldswick. There you will find a replica Viking long-house and longship, The Skidbladner, as well as the Unst Boat Haven, an excellent collection of local fishing craft, most of them Norse-influenced in design.
This part of Unst is also where you go in July for the UK's most northerly festival, Unstfest, or to enjoy tea and tiny cakes at the UK's most northerly tea rooms (Victoria's Vintage Tea Rooms), or a drop or two at the UK's most northern distillery, its product aptly named Shetland Reel. Nearby you will also find Britain's northernmost inhabited house and, to the west, the northernmost national nature reserve.
And no visit to Unst should be complete without a photo-op stop near Baltasound at the as-seen-on-TV-news Unst bus shelter, comfortably furnished and decorated with a changing range of accessories. This is pure contemporary Shetland. However, further much more ancient connections can be seen in the far south, on the Shetland mainland at Lerwick and below — probably nowhere better than at Jarlshof, near Sumburgh.
The ruins there, some of them found only after being partly exposed by a storm, date back to the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Picts and then the Vikings. More prominent in the landscape are the original Scottish laird's house ruins, dating back to the 16th century and dubbed Jarlshof, meaning Earl's Mansion, a name actually coined by novelist Walter Scott for his book The Pirate.
Some other not-to-be-missed features in the southern end — apart from puffin-spotting and other bird watching at Sumburgh Head — are the marvellously restored Crofthouse Museum at Boddam, the picturesque tombolo across to St Ninian's Isle and its 12th century chapel ruins, and the castle remains at Scalloway, capital of Shetland until 1708.
Current capital Lerwick, a town of 7500, is now a regular cruise-ship call for liners on their circuits of Scandinavia or the Baltic region, and has its own attractions, including the excellent Shetland Museum. Offering the shelter of buildings, Lerwick also has some trees.
For ancestry hunters, it is also where you will find the Shetland Family History Society premises — be prepared by first going to shetland-fhs.org.uk or another useful Shetland genealogy address, bayanne.co.uk
You never know. You may discover your own, personal holy grail.
GETTING THERE : Emirates flies daily from Auckland, via Dubai, directly to both Glasgow and Edinburgh where it connects with local partner Loganair to Shetland.
ACCOMMODATION : Fort Charlotte Guest House, overlooking Lerwick's main shopping area, Commercial Street, was an excellent location with friendly hosts, Lynne and Jim Manson. Great breakfasts, including the bracing option of their special porridge — blending oats, cream, honey and whisky, or Glayva.
DINING OUT : There are various options for evening dining in Lerwick but probably one of the best is one of the newest: The Dowry cafe-bar, which takes its name from the payment by which Shetland and Orkney were pawned to Scotland by the king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in the 16th century. Otherwise, try Hay's Dock, upstairs at the Shetland Museum, or if you are over fresh fish, Da Steak Hoose (yes, that's how it comes out in the vernacular). In all cases, it is wise to have a reserved booking. For lunch, take a run to Scalloway and eat at The Cornerstone cafe.