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A Yomp in Yell and Historic Tragedy at Sea

In July this year, we finally managed do a walk I've been wanting to do for a long time, so on a beautiful day we headed to Gloup in Yell.

Gloup is most famous for a tragic fishing disaster in 1881 and there is a beautiful memorial to the men lost from the community. Start the walk at the memorial and consider the lives of the fishermen and the impact their loss had on remote communities in the area you are about to visit. 58 men from 10 boats were lost on 20th July when a sudden northerly gale caught the fishing fleet 40 miles north west of Shetland. The men in the open boats (known as sixareens) way out at sea stood little chance.

The sixareens were engaged in the Haaf (or deep sea) fishing. At its height in the early 1800s, nearly 500 sixareens and 3000 men were working in the Haaf fishing in Shetland. Relying on the superb seagoing qualities of the sixareen, the crews fished in deep water, often out of sight land up to 40 or more miles out, using five to seven miles of line to hook cod, ling and halibut. Navigation relied on the skills of the skipper. A glimpse of the sun or the flight of seabirds often gave him the clues needed to navigate home. The most common navigational aid was the use of landmarks — hilltops, kirk spires, the openings between islets. In the era before weather forecasting, they relied on experience and their reading of the sea and sky to help predict advancing weather, but inevitably disasters happened. Despite this, the Haaf provided employment because there was little alternative.

Sixareens at Fetherland Haaf station, Northmavine.

Gloup was the second largest Haaf station in Shetland at one time. The Haaf station was an essential component of the fishery - where the fish were salted and dried for export on a sheltered pebbly beach. Old men and young boys could find employment at the stations as fish dryers and bait catchers. The boats generally made two trips a week between Monday and Saturday with the men staying in stone built huts during the summer, returning home at the weekend if home was within reasonable travelling distance. Life on the boats and at the station was hard with few comforts and little time to spare.

While the sixareen was an excellent sea boat, over the years many fishermen and boats were lost. Fishing disasters were devastating for small communities - the 58 men lost in the 1881 disaster left 34 widows and 85 children – at a time when there was no welfare state and the general population was struggling to make ends meet. The Gloup disaster was the last sixareen tragedy. From then on, sixareen numbers dwindled as safer and larger decked boats became more common.

After visiting the very sad, but beautiful spot at the memorial, follow the sign and head south, down the east side of Gloup Voe to Mare’s Pool. At this point, there is a reasonably well made track - probably a sheep track - easy to follow and quite good under foot, all the way to the head of the Pool, where up to your left there is a narrow gorge with a lovely small waterfall on the Burn of Hildigill. Shetland does not have rivers – with nowhere more than 3 miles from the sea; the best we can manage is a large stream, so we only have small waterfalls. However, we'd had a reasonable amount of rain before our walk and the waterfall was therefore quite impressive (on the scale of waterfalls in Shetland). After the slight detour to the waterfall, you need to cross the main stream to head west. At the start of our walk, the tide was in and crossing was not easy because of the amount of rain we had had, but at the end of the walk when we crossed the stream again, the tide was out and it was easy because you could walk across the small beach. You may wish therefore to time your walk with a low tide or after a period of little rain, otherwise you might get your feet wet.

From here we chose to go anti-clockwise around the headland, but you could of course choose to walk the opposite direction. From Mare’s Pool there is what looks like a sheep track following the coast on the hillside, which is marked on OS maps but I wouldn't recommend it. It's very narrow and quite precipitous in places, so we climbed up the Hill of Bakkanalee onto the easier higher ground to follow the coast up the west side of the Voe. After a little while, the land flattens out and descends where several ruined buildings of the abandoned settlements of West-a-Firth are visible on the hillside. In the mid-1800s there had been about 16 families – some 120 people or so - living in West-a-Firth. However most of them were abandoned during the Clearances of the 1860s, when the landowners evicted tenants to replace their small subsistence farms with large sheep farms.

Follow the Burn of Laekadale to rejoin the coastline, then simply follow it for the next few miles. There are a couple of beautiful inlets around Tonga and The Smeid - great places to stop for a cup of coffee and we were lucky enough at one of the inlets to watch an otter in the water for a couple of minutes. Carry on further round the headland, by now getting fantastic views of the west coast of Unst and Muckle Flugga lighthouse - the most northerly lighthouse in the UK. Closer to shore is the island of Gloup Holm, which may have been an early monastic community site. Just continue around the coastal area of North Neaps where there are several more beautiful picnic spots. Most of the walking at this point is easy going and good under underfoot.

After you've rounded the far north western corner of the headland you start heading south down the west coast of Yell where the views change completely. You’re now looking out across Northmavine – the north part of Shetland mainland. Visibility was good when we walked, so we got great views of Ronas Hill (highest peak in Shetland at 450m) and the Ramna Stacks sea-stacks off the northern-most point of the Shetland mainland. Further over to the west were good views of the Island of Uyea. There is a small modern navigation light and all around this part of the coast are wonderful views of the cliffs, with natural arches and sea stacks. A little further on is an interesting geological feature at Vigon. We found some very thin sheets of mica, compressed together very tightly, with pieces scattered over the ground by violent and stormy seas. All around here are signs of habitation – many ruined houses – most abandoned during the Clearances or after the Gloup disaster.

Continuing down the coast you'll come to a headland at Burgi Geos, with prehistoric structures on it – thought to be the site of an ancient Iron Age Fort. I know that people have recently crossed over to the exposed small headland, but as the drops are precipitous on 3 sides we didn’t cross. Upright stones set into the ground guide visitors to the entrance and a ditch with a defensive wall. Beyond, some potential Iron Age round hut sites have been identified and some fragments of pottery were found there. After exploring the Iron Age Fort as closely as you dare, continue to head south until the coastline is at sea level. From there look east – the valley of the Burn of Midge Glen shows the natural route back home, so following that small valley, head approximately east up and over the Hill of Vigon and the Knowe of Houllanginaga. The going over the top is less easy under foot as you cross the heathery, peaty moorland. Make your way over to a narrow valley carrying the Burn of Rulesgill. Follow the stream down, crossing and re-crossing several times and it will take you back down to Mare’s Pool. Then retrace your steps up the east side and back to Gloup.

This is a wonderful walk in a very remote part of Shetland. Remember to take everything that you may need and have appropriate clothing, equipment and supplies for all possible conditions. We chose a very benign day, but it would be very exposed with wind and rain. Navigation is generally very easy, as for most of the way you are following the coast. However, you must be able to navigate the section between the coast and Mare’s Pool over the open moorland – please consider this if the weather or visibility is poor. Total distance about 9.2 miles.

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Unfortunately the 1881 Gloup disaster, when my gg uncle Gilbert drowned, wasn't the last such sixern disaster.

In 1900 the Delting disaster claimed another 21 fishermen's lives including Gilbert's brothers Thomas (my gg grandfather) and Laurence.

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