Right now under lockdown as every country tries to cope with the impact of COVID-19 I can’t make my planned trip to my beloved Northern Isles. But that can’t stop me remembering my first ‘proper’ trip, when I well and truly fell for the place.
Grey shards of rain moved across the distant little grey town and I held onto the deck railing. I had awoken early on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, and eager to catch my first glimpse of Shetland had gulped down a fried breakfast before heading out on deck, but this was not the most auspicious of arrivals. Lerwick looked positively dowdy compared to the colourful little towns of Ireland that had been my regular destination for the last few years.
The ship sailed on past the centre of the town, northwards to its outskirts, where it docked sandwiched between a floating dry dock and a rust-streaked cargo ship. A slab-sided modern hotel faced the port, with an assortment of industrial units and a power station belching smoke completing the scene. Certainly, not the most inspiring start to my trip, but I made my way back inside to retrieve my luggage from my cabin.
My fellow passengers from the ship – an assortment of locals, oil workers, a handful of loud American golfers intent on ticking off the ‘furthest north’ courses, and a very few other tourists – quickly dispersed. I stood alone in the ferry terminal, unsure what to do. It was only half-past eight and I didn’t expect the town would be waking up yet, so I took my time inspecting the tourist leaflets and bus schedules before heading out.
Thankfully the rain had stopped, leaving grey skies which seemed to complement the grey housing estate which the road skirted. After a mile or so the road reached the town centre proper. Most of the shops still weren’t open yet apart from the post office and a newsagent. It took me just ten minutes to walk the length of the street; a few other people were now around, hurrying purposefully against the wind which had quickly started to pick up, and I wondered what place I had chosen for a two-week break.
Things were looking better an hour later, ensconced with in a snug cafe along the little street, reading a ream of leaflets from the friendly tourist office a few doors away. (There was no point in picking up a morning paper; they had travelled on the same overnight ship as me and were a day old). The coffee was welcome but the huge slab of cake even better. The locals around me were engaged in their good-natured chatter, the Shetland accent a beautiful lilt that to my ears sounded a mix between highlands and Scandinavian, some talking in a dialect that was completely foreign to me. “My, are you just off today’s boat?” the waitress asked, catching sight of my rucksack. “Are you waiting for da bus?” I replied in the negative, naming my guest-house for the night in Lerwick. Her hand flew to her mouth almost as if in horror. “But they’ll be wondering where you’ve got to. They’ll probably be checking with da ferry to see if you missed it!” And for good measure to spur me to action, she flapped the menu at me.
With three days gone I had grown used to life in Lerwick. People I barely recognised seemed to remember me and passed their hand in greeting as I passed by, and I never tired of ambling along the lanes. My first impression had been right; it wasn’t the largest of places but I never tired of exploring; whether it was walking up and down the hidden lanes, delving into the little shops on Commercial Street, or ambling along the waterfront, where there was a constant procession of vessels.
On my first evening there, as suggested by my host, I took a walk past the lodberries and around The Knab; a rocky promontory circled by a footpath, where seals occasionally slumbered on the rocks below. I watched the ferry leave on its way back to the British Mainland. It was quite strange to think that was the link to the rest of the world sailing out.
When some of the frequent showers swept in, the weather would drive me into the Shetland Museum, one of the cafes, the friendly little bookshop, or for another chat with the amiable staff at the tourist information centre. But it was time to get out of the capital and explore beyond.
Beaches and hills.
The wind was increasing as I made my way up the winding lane towards where the land ran out, and the local bus grumbled slowly away on the main road behind me. I kept an eye on the skies; it would be three hours until there was a bus back, and there was little shelter around. Actually, correct that; in the exposed treeless landscape there was no shelter to be had!
The road ended by a weather-beaten lighthouse in an old scratchy car park. The sea was already picking up an ominous swell, white-caps and an unpleasant grey colour, a small trawler rolling awkwardly around as it headed further out. But just on the shoulder of the cliff was what I had come to see. Just as had been predicted, there was a large cluster of puffins covering the whole area as far as I could see; making their way in and out of their burrows, plunging into the sea for sand-eels, or landing back on the cliffs… although to be honest, puffins don’t so much land as crash. As tame as you like, any number of them landed within a few feet of me.
I could have watched the loveable little birds – clowns of the sea – for ages, but the increasing cloud spurred me to retreat down the hill. There may not have been a bus due for ages, but there was a general store a few miles away, where I could probably grab a coffee while I waited. I hadn’t been walking for a few minutes, rain starting to spatter, when a car pulled up beside me. I vaguely recognised one of the staff from a shop in Lerwick. “Need a lift?” That became a familiar litany throughout my trip; I’m not trying to suggest that you could or should rely on hitch-hiking to get around (some roads you can go a long time without seeing a car!) but it was certainly welcome at the time.
Some day’s later, I sat with my toes in the sand of a pristine beach, the sun blazing high overhead, a strong wind in my hair and the sound of gentle waves all around. Perhaps that should be two beaches? I was perched halfway across a tombola, a broad ridge of sand connecting an offshore island to the mainland in all but the highest of tides. Before me was a north-facing bay; or I could walk a few hundred yards across the loose dry sand to watch the sea in a south-facing bay. A few cars arrived on the distant small car park and some local families piled out with their young children, but soon they were all but lost in the vastness of the landscape. A short while later and a Leask’s coach drew up and disgorged a full complement of day-trippers, fresh off a cruise ship. But even these were barely noticed, most taking photos from the grey of the car park and a few gamely trudging over the beach for a more detailed view. Tourists were not exactly a large quantity in the isles. Getting bored with sitting still, I trudged down to the waterline and followed the feet chilling swash along, over to the little island.
One evening both the grey clouds and wind had lifted, leaving a dry sunny evening ahead, with sunset not due till 11. Following advice from my host at the hostelry I was staying at, I followed the track up to the top of the range of hills that formed the spine of the South Mainland. Now, islands are always hard-working places, and Shetland is no exception; the summit of the hill I stood on was marred by a huge transmitter mast and supporting infrastructure behind a wired compound, the neighbouring hill by what I later learned was the ruins of a form RAF ‘listening’ mast. Neither of those things could detract from the view. Looking east and I was facing across the North Sea, the sky turning a deep purple with a creeping speckle of distant stars, and occasional flashes of lights from cars on the main north-south road; looking West the sun was starting to set in a molten pool of gold into the Atlantic, vague shadows on the Horizon formed by the offshore islands, nearer to hand arcs of white carved by the sporadic beaches. There were no towns within sight; a scatter of remote houses, sometimes clustered around a local school or post office to form dispersed villages.
But I was not alone for long; soon one of the inquisitive greedy little Shetland ponies joined me, hoping that I had brought some treats. I hadn’t, but that didn’t stop a compatriot joining it; and then ten more, who insisted on following me the entire way back down the hill. Fortunately, they stopped at the gate and didn’t try to join me into the hotel bar!
People and place
I criss-crossed my way across the Isles, up the long spine that makes up the ‘mainland’, onto some of the outlying islands, including enterprising Unst, home of everything ‘furthest North, and beautiful and almost empty Fetlar, and then back again. I used the sparse bus services, rented a bike, and managed to cadge lifts here and there.
I stayed in B&B’s, a few hostels or camping barns (Bods) and some of the small hotels that somehow eked out an existence, and wondered what Shetland was for. To be sure, some people worked in jobs connected with the oil industry, money from which had been wisely invested in infrastructure, evidence of which I could see everywhere I went, with the good quality of the island roads, the well-equipped schools and network of leisure centres. But beyond that? (This was before the Internet started to bring more opportunities.) There were certainly plenty of people working in fishing, but Shetland felt far more vibrant than the Outer Hebrides where that was also true. Tourists certainly weren’t an essential part of the mix (still being quite a rarity), unlike on Skye which even then was something of a touirsm hotspot, nor were other industries and farming as present like on Orkney, which was so close to the rest of the UK it was easy enough to trade (not being a 14-hour ferry crossing away).
I asked my hosts the question one evening, over a pint of locally-brewed Simmer Dim ale; “what is a Shetlander these days”. He scratched his head; “I’ve heard it said while an Orcadian is a farmer who happens to have da boat, a Shetlander is a fisherman who has da bit of land.” He looked at his wife. “Or did I get that da wrong way round again? Either way, we’re all a bit of this and that; you don’t just do da one thing.”
I ended up in Scalloway for the last few nights, a beautiful little town on the west coast far smaller than Lerwick, but the original capital, boasting a hotel, ruined castle, fisheries college and a busy port, with a lovely sheltered waterfront at the end of an inlet. One evening by one of the slipways I fell into conversation with a girl I had seen a few times at the bar of an evening, who was busy tinkering with an outboard engine. I hadn’t yet started University myself and asked whether it was difficult going there from so far away. I received the pitiful look my comment rightly deserved.
“Been there, done that. BSc and MSc in Environmental Studies down in England.” After that, I hardly wanted to ask why she was poking around in a Honda that looked like it had seen its best days, but she took it on herself to continue. “There’s probably more overeducated people in Shetland than anywhere. I could get a better job elsewhere, and that’s for sure. But why would I want anything that took me away from this?” A sweep of her oil-streaked yellow jacket’s arm took in the sweep of the town, the hills and patchwork of islands beyond.
Leaving, but not leaving
The ferry carved a white swathe across the calm waters as we left, with Lerwick on one side and the sheltering isle of Bressay on the other; all familiar sights that I had now explored on foot.
I had been talking to the ship’s purser, but I couldn’t resist breaking off the conversation for a last look at the landscape. The skies were grey, the wind and the ship’s speed crackling the P&O house flag at the mast, but the conditions didn’t lessen the beauty of the scene in my eyes. He just chuckled, gave an open wave to a passing fishing boat, duly returned from a tiny wheelhouse. “So. Da place has well and truly bitten you, hasn’t it?”
And I had to admit, it most certainly had.
I may not be able to travel to Shetland for the moment, to finish off the books I am writing that are set there – but as soon as I can and it is sensible I will do so. In the meantime, be kind to each other; better times will be ahead.
Post created 06/06/20