North to the Shetland Isles
Copyright 2018 by Bill Cox
Photo of Mousa Broch.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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!
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!”
- We take a boat trip around the nearby islands of
Bressay and Noss, the latter now a RSPB (Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds) Reserve. Thousands of Gannets are roosting on the
vertical cliffs of Noss, the wall of rock matched by the walls of sound
and scent that greet the human visitor. Witness a city of Gannets -
Gannet-opolis! This is an assault on the senses, a vision of an alien
society whose rules and mores we are ignorant of.
- Later, during the same trip, the Captain sends a
remotely operated vehicle overboard – his very own Yellow Submarine.
The R.O.V. descends 15 metres into the channel, searching out the wreck
of an old barge, which now acts as a shelter and a home for colourful
marine flora and fauna – a glimpse into yet another alien world. The
barge was a victim of an air-raid in World War Two – “just young men
doing their jobs”, that’s how the captain describes the German bomber
crew, sensitive to the multinational nature of the tourists he ferries
around. Old enemies have become customers and clients, best to let the
wounds of history fade into the past.
- The ferry to the small, uninhabited island of Mousa
(another RSPB Reserve) is captained by the jovial Rodney. A mixture of
nationalities and ages, a veritable mini UN, join us onboard for the
short trip on a misty morning. By the time we land the sun has burned
away the mist to reveal a pleasant late-summer day. We all take a walk
to Mousa Broch, the 2000 year old stone tower perched on a rocky
outcrop at the far end of the island. The broch stands like a stone
sentinel, home now for Storm Petrels, nocturnal birds, who, along with
Shag, Great Skua (the bandits of the avian world) and the occasional
Wheatear or Stonechat, are the rulers of this island now.
- On the return trip back from Mousa the sight of a
pod of Harbour Porpoises causes a moment of excitement on the boat.
Their fins and the humps of their backs disappear under the waves in
the time it takes my camera to focus and shoot, leaving me with
multiple photos of rippled water as a souvenir of the occasion. Yet
again, we get a glimpse of another world, another society.
- We learn a new word – ‘tombolo’ – a thin strip of
sand that links two separate landmasses. There are several in the
Shetlands, where landmasses are connected by slender spits of sand that
the sea can’t quite bring itself to wash away. There’s something
mystical about these islands, linked by narrow sandy wisps, as perhaps
our ephemeral dreams link this reality with another. One particularly
scenic example is at St Ninian’s Isle, where the tide comes in as a
half-moon wave at both sides of the elongated sands, while children lie
flat on their boogie boards, propelled forward up the beach by the
breaking swell of the Atlantic Ocean.
- It’s amazing how Lerwick, on the east coast, can be
smothered in suffocating fog while Scalloway, a mere five miles away on
the west coast, will be basking in sunshine. We comment on this to a
shop assistant in west coast Hamnavoe. Her snappy rejoinder was “Aye,
West is best!” This slogan feels like a nugget that the savvy traveller
can take and turn into a certainty with which to demonstrate their
travelling credentials at a suitable opportunity -
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
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.
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
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.
- Otters! Fate favours us with two unexpected
sightings of these elusive creatures, a wildlife lottery win. One is
seen from distance, but the other crosses a beach in front of us, aware
but unconcerned about our excitable presence.
- We spend an afternoon at Sumburgh Head, another
RSPB reserve - the RSPB has its tentacles everywhere, like the evil
organisation from a James Bond film! Sitting by the imposing cliffs is
an exercise in controlling the nerves, especially as Gulls swoop by,
inducing a lurching vertigo. The view east is out to an immense,
unbroken sea, where the occasional ship drifts by, looking so small and
vulnerable against this epic backdrop.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Story list and biography for Bill
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher