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Riding The Shetland Post Bus

For Up-Close And Personal Touring, You Can't Beat The Local "Postie."

BY WILL HIDE

At just 70 pence, the guided tour services of Bob Leaper are a bargain. Just stick your hand out and he will pick you up in his red Peugeot estate. He will give you a longer tour if you want, too: 3 for about two hours. You can hear all about the island he has lived on for nearly 30 years, meet some of the local characters and spot some of Britain's rarest birds. But there's just one thing. You don't mind stopping every few hundred yards, do you? Because Bob is a postman.

In the U.K. there are more than 230 Royal Mail "postbus" routes on which the postman or postwoman delivers letters and parcels, but accepts fare-paying passengers as well.

They have been operating since 1967, providing regular mail service as well as public transport for locals and tourists in vehicles ranging from four-passenger Land Rovers to 14-seater minibuses. If you don't have a car, or just want a weekend away from the wheel, they are a great way to see the countryside while someone else drives...or to get a lift to a remote spot before hiking back. And Fetlar in the Shetland Islands, where Bob lives, is just about as remote as it gets in the U.K.

Getting there is half the fun. The first part of the journey involves either the 12-hour ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick on the "mainland," as Shetland, the biggest island in the group, is referred to. Or a flight to Sumburgh, at its southern tip. Then, picking up a hire car or using the efficient bus system, you pass settlements with names that sound like the inspiration for the Harry Potter novels. Heading north via Fladdabister and Quarff, around Lerwick and away from Twall, you arrive at Toft for the 20-minute ferry crossing to the island of Yell.

Continuing across the moors of Yell, stopping short of the northernmost point at Gloup, you will probably have to spend the night in Mrs. Tulloch's B&B at Gutcher, which is no bad thing, judging by the friendly welcome and filling meal I received. Gail Thomas, a teacher from North London, was also there with her husband Stephen.

"You have a feeling here of getting off the edge of the world," said Gail. "We were sitting on a beach today, eating sandwiches, watching a seal watch us. It was lovely."

You're almost at Fetlar but not quite. One more crossing to go -- the Bluemull Sound ferry. There's one at 7:20 a.m. which takes half an hour to reach the new ferry terminus at Hamars Ness. I took it on a muggy summer day. Once on the other side, there to greet me and hand over the outgoing mail to the ferry captain was postman Bob and his pillar-box-red Peugeot.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2007 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Ancient, Enduring Traquair House by Richenda Miers.

Photo top left: © Will Hide. Photos bottom left, spread and upper right: Charles Tait Photographic Ltd.