North to the Shetland Isles

Bill Cox

© Copyright 2018 by Bill Cox

Photo of Mousa Broch.
Photo of Mousa Broch.

Every country has its centre and its periphery. For most citizens, the periphery is present only in the imagination, a remote place at the edge of the national map, usually conjuring up ideas of wilderness, wildness and perhaps a certain lack of sophistication.

In the United Kingdom, the Shetland Islands very definitely play the role of periphery for the majority of the country’s inhabitants. In the nightly weather reports they sit apart at the top of the map, a remote outpost, separate from the mainland, only accessible by sea or air. It is in fact so far from the mainland that it isn’t shown to scale on most maps, instead occupying a little box of its own, as if in afterthought.

For me, living in Aberdeen, Shetland has always been paradoxically close and far. A little over 200 miles distant as the crow flies, only reachable by air or sea travel, it has always felt distant. And yet the ferry to the isles is only a 15 minute drive from home; indeed, I drive past it 5 days a week on the way to and from work.

At certain points in our lives the wild promise of the periphery calls to us. And so it was that in September of 2019, my partner Hilary and I decided to finally accept this call and take a trip northwards, into Terra Incognita.

The ferry trip between Aberdeen and Lerwick is a 14 hour journey. We have a smooth crossing but our sleep is inevitably broken by the unfamiliar motion and noises of the vessel. It seems only fitting that we should arrive at the periphery in a slightly more dishevelled state than is the norm!

Lerwick, with its 7000 inhabitants (plus 2 new arrivals) seems eerily quiet as the ferry docks on a September Sunday morning. We stay in the town for a week, travelling out each day to find new experiences and fill our senses with new sights, as is the holiday way.

Ultimately there’s no one story here during our week’s stay, no cohesive narrative to tie all these experiences together into one convenient story arc. Instead I’m left with a series of impressions and memories that paint a picture of this place in my mind. They offer no overarching truth about the Shetland Islands, but rather a series of feelings that speak to my subconscious mind in a manner beyond articulation in mere words; a pre-linguistic communion with the natural world that speaks to the innermost folds of my brain.

But words are all I have to offer and I hope that they can conjure up some aspect of those experiences that they might speak to you too!

Oh you’re going to Shetland, are you? Oh no, don’t stay in Lerwick, the weather is diabolical. It’s always foggy there; it just rolls in off the sea. No, you want to stay in Scalloway, it’s always sunnier there – West is best, don’t you know!”
There is no doubt that the natural world feels closer here. The sea has a huge role to play, as an elemental force that forms a constant background to life on these islands; the taste of salt is always on the air, the song of tide against rock and sand a backing track to life here.
But of course there are people here too and the islands are a unique intersection of nature, environment and human society. There’s a Scandinavian feel to these settlements, to these place names. This is no surprise, given the history of these islands and their links to Norway and the Vikings. While Scottish nationalists may dream of Independence, I wonder what separatist fantasies lurk in the dreams of Shetlanders. It is worth bearing in mind that their view of history is not necessarily the Scottish view of history. The absorption of Shetland into the body of Scotland was a protracted, occasionally turbulent affair. Here the Scots were an invading force, committing the sins of invaders everywhere.

To me, the Shetland Islands represent the periphery, the edge of a particular world that I call home. However, it is worth remembering that my periphery is actually the centre of someone else’s world. It’s like this for everyone on this planet, as centres and peripheries are designated through accidents of birth and history.

There are some places you go to where human civilisation dominates – the concrete canyons of New York City spring to mind. There are other places, however, where humanity’s imposition on the natural world is more tenuous, more fragile. In such places you can close the curtains and turn up the central heating, but you can’t quite escape the feeling that elemental forces stalk the land, primal djinn that don’t look upon you or yours with any particular favour. Perhaps that is the reason to seek out the periphery, wherever it may be - to remind ourselves that despite all our civilised trappings, life is still raw and untamed; and within each of us, the savage heart continues to beat.

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