Lerwick to Sumburgh

The Mousa broch

We slept well in our cabin, I woke at 23:00 conscious that the slight movement had ceased and realised it was the Orkney call. We were woken at 06:00 and prepared to disembark into the cool damp island air. We called in on the large Co-op to stock up on food for our two nights at the southern tip then rode into the centre of town for breakfast at the Peerie shop cafe. Also there were a Swiss family on a Josie Dew style exploration of the Scottish islands with two pre-school children, camping gear and trailer.

After the leisurely breakfast it was hard to get going with our well laden bikes against the headwind and the steep climb out of Lerwick. We were worried we’d miss the 11:30 Mousa ferry but arrived at 11:15 with just enough time to lock our bikes and take the essentials of clothing, food, boots and camera. You can’t book in advance and we were lucky to squeeze in as the boat was full when it left.

The early cloud cover had cleared to a beautiful sunny day, quite warm out of the breeze. Visitors to Mousa are asked to keep to the perimeter path to avoid disturbing the nesting storm petrels, skuas and terns. This passes the remarkably well preserved broch. The interior staircase still stands but great care is needed to ascend the very narrow steps, it’s necessary to plant your feet sideways. The only sounds as we continued round were of the wind, the sea and the birds.

Back on mainland Shetland we resumed our battle with the wind, taking a more interesting detour through Spiggie to avoid the dull main road. We were tired by the time we reached Betty Mouat’s Böd. Her house has been modernised with showers and inside toilets since she lived here in the 19th century. On the 30th of January 1886 she boarded a ship for Lerwick to sell knitwear, the sea being a better option than the poor quality winding tracks. The three-man crew and their sole passenger set off on a three hour, twenty-four mile voyage, Betty having a small cabin for the journey.

Just thirty minutes later the Columbine ran into trouble in high winds and heavy seas. A rowing boat carried two crew back ashore, bringing news that skipper Jamieson has been accidentally thrown overboard and drowned, leaving Betty Mouat alone with a broken mainsheet, drifting in darkness.

Betty clung to a rope fastened to the roof of the cabin in order to stay seated. At no point in her ordeal could she contemplate sleep, rest or even lying down. Her only sustenance was a quart bottle of milk and two half-penny biscuits which she rationed carefully. Wrapping herself in the skipper’s jacket, she took comfort from his ticking watch, the closest thing to company.

Betty was at the mercy of the sea and the weather for nine days and eight nights before her luck changed. The Columbine ran aground on the Norwegian island of Lepsøy, twelve miles from Ålesund. The boat miraculously arrived at the island’s only beach, avoiding collision with dangerous rocks. Betty was carried ashore by locals and taken to a fisherman’s house to recover. News of her rescue was telegrammed to Lerwick and Betty’s four hundred mile ordeal was over. News of her adventure was reported worldwide and Betty became quite a celebrity.

Also staying were a French cyclist and a party of three French people travelling by car.

28 miles

Sumburgh Head