An abandoned Shetland croft house on Shetland's west mainland.
Happy New Year! And before anyone says anything – no, I’m not late to the party – in actual fact, the rest of the world turned up too early.
Today (13th January) residents on the remote island of Foula will celebrate New Year. Newerday (New Year's day) celebrations in this remote outpost of the Shetland archipelago will see the bringing in of the 'New Year' in the company of friends and neighbours. The island, home to around 30 people lies about 20 miles (32 km) to the west of Shetland and is arguably the UK's remotest inhabited islands. This tradition is also marked by several communities in the northern isles of Yell and Unst. This custom is not reserved solely for New Year. Those living in Foula also celebrate Yule (or Christmas) later (6th January), so as the rest of us put away our decoration, those living in Foula are just getting going.
Gaada Stack, Foula.
It should also be noted that there are further discrepancies here too (just to confuse the matter more). Throughout Shetland, everyone celebrated these calendar occasions according to the Julian calendar with the majority of mainland Shetland celebrating on the 5th and 12th respectively. Foula lagged behind, holding their celebrations one day later (on the 6th and 13th) – probably adopting these days in a leap year (1800) – if that makes sense – I struggle with it!
So how did this happen? In 45 BC Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar. As the Roman Empire grew, so too did the use of the Roman Julian calendar which became almost universally observed throughout Europe. However, the Solar year - dependent on the moon’s lunar cycle – is slightly longer – only 10 minutes a year but over the course of time this accumulates and by 1582 a 10-day gap arisen. In order to re-align the calendar with the solstices and equinoxes, the Gregorian calendar was established and these 10 days were lost.
A very young version of myself in Foula.
As with everything, the progress of modernity and the implementation of change is slow and the calendar was only formally adopted in Scotland in 1752 (by then the difference was 11 days), however many rural areas, like Shetland chose to ignore it altogether and continued to observe the 2, 000-year-old Julian calendar until much later.
And as the residents of Foula gather together to celebrate we should point out that they are not alone, other areas in the world still adhere to this ancient calendar and the traditions associated with it. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Berber community in North Africa being two examples – so they, along with the 30 strong population of Foula all deserve a mention on this New Year's Eve.
The small inter-island plane which takes people to Foula.
Happy Newerday, Foula and all the best for 2019!
Lang may your lum reek...
(And for the rest of us - an opportunity to reimplement the resolutions which may have fallen by the wayside as January's grip strengthens.)
This was my most liked photo of 2018. An abandoned house in Burra.
This is not the blog post I had planned out in my mind. I had great intentions. I was going to make time, sit and write a meaningful and reflective post about my first year in business; what I’ve learnt and how I mean to progress in 2019. Unfortunately, it’s 5.30 (it's now 10.50) on Hogmanay, there’s a Nerf gun war happening in the living room, Aaron’s trying to make a beef wellington with a running commentary, Lena has been cooped up inside for too long and is bouncing off the walls (literally) and I’ve already poured a glass of wine. Never mind. It actually sums up this whirlwind of a year to a tee. We've never quite stopped and everything has been done at a hundred miles an hour so why change now, at the close of play on Hogmanay?
For me, 2018 has been a fantastic year, super busy and fulfilling, I’ve grabbed chances, been brave and taken risks. As a result, I’ve made several massive decisions and I’m ending the year on a high, feeling happy, positive and proud.
This is a break down of my year — the highlights and important lessons learnt. It's also a chance to share my most popular photos from Instagram (again). An aide-memoire, for my own reference, but also, I hope, for anyone who like me, is at a crossroads and seeking inspiration.
I spent a lot of 2018 talking to people, gathering advice and evidence before I finally took the plunge and made the positive changes I needed to feel fulfilled in my working life again. None of these decisions were taken lightly and hopefully anyone in this position, feeling adrift will find this blog post useful. I certainly found the words of others a great help to me over the year, as I wrangled with my conscience and weighed up various options: A salary, pension, job-security, sick and holiday pay, versus: self-employment, no sick-pay, holiday pay or pension top-ups. Oh, and the lack of security that self-employment can bring. Yet the prospect of freedom and defining my own boundaries eventually proved to be too great a pull. I hope this post helps others make their own brave decisions and take the plunge - I promise, the water's great, you just need to dip in a toe to find out.
First third (January to April):
It was a studious start to the year, a real shock to the post-festive system. The first weekend of the new year was spent (dosed with the cold) attending a (bleary-eyed) guiding workshop. The pace never abated from then on in as I completed the final part of the green badge guide training and worked at the Shetland Museum & Archives. Much of my time during this period was spent chained to the computer, studying, or out in the wind and rain, practising my spiel. The training culminated in three days of exams (orals, coach commentary and walking tour) at the end of April before a nervous wait to find out if I had passed – I did (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post). We then had a two week break in Portugal with the bairns before the tourist season kicked off and I got my first proper taste of guiding. I should also apologise to Aaron here — last Christmas he bought me thermals (my long Jane's) and I sulked. They proved invaluable as I spent hours freezing my ass of at Jarlshof in the worst that Shetland's weather has to offer in these winter months.
During this time, I was quietly taking stock of what I wanted my life to look like (both at work and home). It had been a turbulent year with the threat of redundancy looming. Ironically, this was the best thing which could have happened to me. I began the guide training ‘in case’ I was made redundant and when I wasn’t (made redundant) I began to seriously question my purpose in that role (as collections assistant to the museum curators). I had been in the same job for 11 years. Six of them were fantastic, and in that time I learnt a lot, both about our islands (which I love), and about myself. Unfortunately, there was no career progression on the horizon and I got itchy feet. The museum, in those early days, provided a positive start to my working life, a fantastic building, well worth a visit. Whilst there I grew, starting as a fresh-faced graduate I was keen and enthusiastic. Over time I learnt that the world of work is not always a happy one and that people are not always as they seem. That has been perhaps the most painful lesson, and one that I’m sure we all, as adults, have to experience. That said, my time there has given me a wealth of knowledge and an appreciation of our heritage and past which has paved the way for the business I’ve started and my new role. I have also met some wonderful people and made some true friends and it will always be a place I hold dear.
As the first third of the year came to a close, I was already planning my next move. 2018 was set to be the busiest season Shetland had seen (to date) for cruise liner visits, and the days I was at the museum felt wasted – I was chasing the buzz of something more. I needed to feel like what I was doing mattered. My website and blog were underway and I hoped they would be an outlet, a way to share our islands with others, something my job at that time lacked.
Second third (May to August):
This was a busy, fun time, filled with sunshine, laughter and new experiences but also a few down days, spent in the office (wishing I was on the pier, or anywhere else). I remember one of my tutors, explaining to me that when she started guiding, she hated having to go back to ‘work’ after the buzz of showing visitors the sites, and I felt that strongly. Going to the office the next day was like dragging my body though porridge after wearing fairy wings for a day. I would spend a day enthusing a bus load of people about Shetland and the next would be spent in stony silence in a claustrophobic office — it was definitely time for a shake-up.
I launched my website, Shetland with Laurie in June - an amazing feeling — for about five minutes, till I realised it’s not quite that simple. Google wants to know that your website is performing, that your content is on point and that what you’re saying matters before they will rank your site anything above page 3,456 in their search engine — and that has been another massive learning experience of the year. Google rules the world and my website is still not ranking as high as I’d like, despite posting daily, promoting and pushing the blog. However, it’s extremely rewarding to see the natural growth and this is reflected in the weekly and monthly stats. When I published my blog post about Geirhildr’s loch it received an incredible 61 shares which I’m extremely proud of and never imagined when I hit ‘publish’. When strangers stop you in the street to tell you that they enjoyed your blog, the sense of achievement is incomprehensible and it’s a real motivator to carry on. So, despite Google’s unfathomable algorithm I am truly grateful to everyone who has supported this launch and my online baby – the blog.
A busy summer and one that left me happily exhausted in the best possible way. I worked hard, played hard and got married (I'll change my name eventually). We went on adventures, camped, enjoyed barbecues and the bairns enjoyed the best summer holiday weather on record since the 1980s. It certainly was the summer of sun.
Final third (September to December):
As September approached, I thought (and hoped) that things would quieten down a little after the summer and that I’d enjoy some down-time to write, finish the (unfinished) website, tour plan and maybe clean the house? This didn’t happen, the tours continued through to mid-November, the enquiries came in thick and fast, the house was (and is) still dusty. I felt (and feel) as snowed under as I did in the summer.
Then in November, an opportunity to make the break came. I applied to become editor of Shetland Life magazine. I was offered the job and handed in my notice at the museum – closing the door on the past decade of work.
January 2019 is my first edition of Shetland Life and today (the 31st) I signed it off to go to print — a great feeling after all the work and planning which has gone into this, my first issue and the first of the new year. The next few months I plan to do lots of writing and organising so that in the summer I can meet and greet more visitors and hopefully enjoy another summer of sun. Another busy few months ahead.
And as we all reflect on the year which has been, these are a few of the important lessons I’ve taken away from 2018:
I am extremely grateful to many people who have made 2018 a good one. As this is the last day of 2018 I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me, joined me on tour, booked for next year (and 2020), liked, shared and followed Shetland with Laurie – your support means the world. As always, I love to hear from you – send me a message and let me know what you want to find out learn more about. I have very much been guided by my followers this year, and those who have joined me on tours.
And as for resolutions? Stop publishing blog posts after a glass of wine (or three).
Happy New Year, and lang may your lum reek!
A winter sunrise in December.
As we approach the end of the year it’s a good time to reflect back and take stock. For me the year has been fast paced, busy - a period of discovery and growth and much in my life has changed immeasurably, for the better. I’ve started a business, got married, made friends, changed career and left behind what made me unhappy. Today (21st December) is the winter solstice, also known as midwinter, or traditionally, in the days of the Julian calendar, Yule. An astrological event, occurring twice a year – once in the northern hemisphere and once in the south – it is when the earth’s pole (in our case, the north pole) is tilted at its furthest reach from the sun giving the fewest daylight hours in any 24 hour period in the year.
What better place to spend the solstice?
Historically it was a significant milestone, marked with feast and fire, the return of the sun and the lengthening of the days celebrated. Meteorologically it's also significant, some say that the solstice marks the beginning of winter, although most meteorologists would concede that this in fact occurs on the 1st of December. Yet, anyone living this far north will know that the coldest days and the hardest frosts are still to come and that these will generally occur some time after the solstice. So perhaps not time to lay-aff the thermals yet.
Under the old Julian calendar the winter solstice occurred on the 25th December – present day Christmas but with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this changed meaning that today, the solstice occurs on the 21st.
The word solstice comes from the Latin, ‘sun stands still’, and today I took heed and also took a moment to stand still, listen and appreciate the wonder and magic of this - the shortest day of the year. It is a time which has been marked, celebrated and revered for millennia and today, I too stopped to take stock and what better place to do that than the ancient and sacred temple at Stanydale in Shetland’s west mainland.
Stanydale temple on the winter solstice.
Now I’m not some mad pagan hippy (yet) but standing among those ancient stones, at sundown - stones laid down by our ancestors, which have seen the trample of many generations of feet – was nothing other than magical. Every sense in my body was on red-alert, willing, in an Outlander-esque manner for something to come through those stones and strike into the 21st century - giving me an insight into a forgotten world. The one of our ancestors. A world of hard work and farming; short, stooped backs, bent to the ground, waiting on light and growth.
But there were more grounded reasons to visit on this day. Archaeologists Simon Clarke and Esther Renwick have noted that the temple may hold significance in regard to equinoxes (in March and September), and the movement of the sun through the sky, noting that from a pair of standing stones nearby, “the temple (when complete and roofed) would have been skylined against the setting sun, which would have been directly behind it at the equinox.” The temples curved facade “may have been the focus for activity taking place outside the doorway… most of the features along the route suggest the focus was the sunset at the equinox, sunrise at the equinox would also illuminate the back wall of the interior (as seen at the winter solstice in the case of Maeshowe in Orkney).” So it made sense really.
A largely empty landscape at Stanydale in all the beautiful shades of Shetland winter.
There is little archaeological evidence to indicate much farming and domestic life here and yet the pull remains present. A deep-seated desire to understand the past, our ancestors and where we come from is within us all. And as I stood in the temple against a darkening winter sky I too wondered about Stanydale's sense of place in our history. Was there a spiritual significance to its location? Or was it a sacred place of worship? Did our pagan ancestors dance around bonfires on these special calendar occasions as folklore would lead us to believe or did it have a much more practical, utilitarian purpose?
These are questions we will never answer and perhaps that is its greatest power. The catalyst which leads people to places like this and prompts us to ask such questions - safe in the knowledge that these age-old questions will remain unanswered for eternity. And in a time of technology, and information at the click of a mouse, this is a novel and comforting reality.
Some local friends made along the way. These ponies were such placid, friendly guys.
And at this time, I would like to extend my thanks and gratitude to all my readers – all over the world. I have been overwhelmed by the support and encouragement this blog has received over recent months and for all the kind comments. I wish each and every one of you a very happy Christmas and every good fortune for 2019, wherever you may be, and whatever it may bring.
Note: I highlighted my trip to Stanydale on my Instagram stories and for those not on the app, please feel free to get in touch and I will be happy to email a short video taken at sundown.
Good evening! If you follow me on Instagram then you will know where this blog post has come from - if not, let me explain.
This morning, I shared a photo of the cliffs at Eshaness (below) and explained that it was a stormy day here in Shetland, and that I was stuck at home with two snotty bairns so I planned on baking the Christmas oatcakes - we are massive cheese fans in this house, and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the bumper annual delivery from pong.com.
My lovely, engaging followers were quick to respond, and to message, asking that I share the recipe on my insta stories (which I did, and saved to my highlights here). As many of my followers are not from the UK, a lot of are unfamiliar with this classic Scottish/Shetland recipe, still a store cupboard staple today.
So, as promised - here it is:
~ Rub the margarine into the dry ingredients (I used my Kitchen Aid because I'm lazy).
~ Add the beaten egg, and a little milk (just a splash) until the mixture binds together into a dryish consistency.
~ Roll the mix out onto a floured surface to about 1/4" which (or however you personally like them).
~ Bake for 20 minutes in a moderately high oven.
(For AGA ovens: bake on rack in the foot of the top oven with the cooling tray above to prevent burning).
Allow to cool before enjoying with copious amounts of cheese and butter.
I'm going to run a little competition to see how far this recipe can travel. I will send the winner a peerie present from Shetland. To enter just tag your own oatcakes: #shetlandwithlaurie and I will send the winner a prize in the New Year.
You have till the end of the year to get baking and enter!
Ingredients all laid out with Granny Eliza's earthenware mixing bowl.
War had ravaged Europe and to keep up the morale of troops fighting for King and country, women sent parcels to those fighting on the front line. These parcels provided a taste of something from home, away from the endless tins of bully beef, Maconchies stew and dry biscuits - a staple of trench food throughout the war years.
Trench cake, a home-made fruit cake has its roots in the kitchens of the First World War. The recipe, released by the Ministry of Food used ingredients which were readily available.
In order to make a cake, you've got to break eggs... or not, in this case.
I was keen to find out how this cake, baked with love, and sent across the Channel actually tasted and how easy it was to make…
-Rub margarine into the flour.
- Add the dry ingredients.
- Mix well.
- Add the soda, dissolved in vinegar and milk.
- Beat well.
- Turn mixture into a tin.
- Bake in a moderate oven for approximately 2 hours.
(Note: The cake took 1 hour in my oven)
The process was simple enough, the ingredients today, also easy to get – everything it called for was in the cupboard so the whole operation could be done on Saturday morning, in my pyjamas, without having to leave the house - even better.
On doing my homework, I discovered that one complaint was that the cake could be a bit dry, however, I found the mix itself to be very wet – in fact I questioned whether it would ever cook! Yet the cake, once cooled was wonderfully moist and the texture and consistency was good. It was maybe not up to the standards of the Great British Bake Off but I do think that Mary Berry would have given it the seal of approval, and it may have perhaps earned a famous Hollywood handshake (...maybe)!
It is difficult not to become nostalgic when thinking about the past, and how our ancestors lived. Whilst mixing up the ingredients, I wondered whether Granny Eliza had made trench cake in this bowl and whether Grandmam had also licked the spoon clean as my daughter, Lena (2) did. Perhaps they too worked together in their busy kitchen in Voe, mixing up cakes as Lena and I did on that rainy Saturday morning in November.
Lena, scraping the last of the cake mix from her great-great-great grandmother's mixing bowl.
And as I write this, and reflect on the centenary of the First World War, I hope that you, the reader, will also stop for a moment and take a minute out of your busy lives to remember the lives lost, changed and affected by this war, and how our great-grandparents fought in the trenches, and in the kitchens to give us the freedoms we enjoy today.
Lest we forget.
Geographically speaking, the loch at Girlsta is interesting. It is the deepest in Shetland, at about 65ft deep in places. From an ecological perspective it is fascinating. It is the natural habitat of a sub-species of fish unique to Shetland. The Slender Char, found in the loch is a relative of the Arctic Char which was marooned here following the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. The Char, adapted and changed into a distinct sub-species now only found in the loch of Girlsta. Fascinating as both these facts are, for me, the most interesting thing about the loch is the folklore associated with it, and the story of Geirhildr, a young Viking princess.
Geirhildr was the daughter of the famous Viking explorer, Flóki Vilgerðarson, known as Hrafna Flóki (Raven Flóki). Flóki was born in the 9th century, at a time of exploration, discovery and expansion in the Viking world which was pushing West at this time, with Flóki a central character in this expansion. He is the man heralded with the discovery of Iceland. This discovery is documented in the Landnámabók, an Icelandic saga which describes the settlement (landnám) of Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Flóki was preparing to leave Shetland, continuing their journey to the north-west. He went out into the hills in search of young ravens.
For anyone who has ever driven the road between Girlsta and Stromfirth, you will be well aware of the ravens which are still prevalent in the area. Passing through this area always makes me think of Hrafna Flóki, looting the nests for the young birds.
When Flóki returned he found that his daughter, Geirhildr, had fallen through ice in the loch and drowned. Local legend tells that her body was buried on the island in the centre of the loch, Geirhildarvatn (Geirhildr’s lake/water) and that the name Geirhildstaδir is a derivation of her name, Geirhildr and has led to the place-name, Girlsta which is still used today. This norse place-name is not unusual in Shetland, about 95% of the place-names come from the Old Norse language.
The island holm in the centre of Girlsta loch, where Geirhildr is said to be buried.
I’ve always wondered at the truth in this and frustratingly, have never had the opportunity to make it onto the small island holm to find out. However, this summer offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to the island on foot, rather than by boat.
The dry summer meant that the water level in the loch at Girlsta was much lower, allowing access onto the island.
This year, having enjoyed the driest summer on record since 1984 meant that the water levels in the lochs reached an all time low, including that in the loch of Girlsta. What was revealed by this drop in water level was the perfect causeway, linking the island holm to the shore.
A causeway revealed, leading to the island on the Girlsta loch.
How could I not pack a picnic and drag the bairns across for a look? Once we got onto the island, I was surprised to find that it was quite a lot bigger than it appears from the road. I’ve driven past it hundreds of times, and it has always appeared quite small, yet finding ourselves marooned there, knee-deep in heather, it’s scale became more apparent - this was a substantial island!
The size of the island soon became clear when we set foot on it!
Having had no grazing from sheep, it was difficult walking but we soon reached the north-west end of the holm and came to what i’m calling a ‘boat-shaped depression’. After carrying the bairns across the holm and lacking the motivation to scour the rest of the holm, it was unanimously decided that this had to be Geirhildr’s final resting place.
The 'boat-shaped depression' which I have declared to be Geirhildr's final resting place.
In this afternoon, I was able to answer a childhood question, and give my own children a window into Shetland’s history. Was this Geirhildr’s final resting place? Absolutely!
*Disclaimer - I am not an archaeologist and this conclusion is based entirely on speculation and imagination. I hope that you too, have the opportunity to pay homage to Geirhildr if the summer drought is to reveal the causeway again.
Lena, our Viking Princess.
Until next time! And remember, let your imagination rule, as ‘those who are curious always find interesting things to do’. ~ Walt Disney.
When guiding, I always begin by explaining that Shetland has only been part of Scotland for about 550 years so there's no haggis, kilts or bagpipes to be seen. For guests, particularly those from the 'New World' our inability to embrace Scottish culture and tradition after 'only' 550 years usually gets a laugh in itself!
Unfortunately, King Christian couldn't afford to pay the wedding dowry so instead he pawned the islands of Orkney and Shetland. The King planned on redeeming the islands at a later date but this never happened and Shetland and Orkney have remained part of Scotland since this date.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the landscape, Shetland is characterised by a distinct lack of trees (this also marks it out as different to many parts of Scandinavia too, but let's not go there). This is one of the first things the discerning visitor will spot. Thin soils, a salt-laden environment, grazing animals and strong-winds all contribute to this tree-less landscape but what we lack in trees, we make up for in blanket peat bog!
This leads onto the second difference, Scotland enjoys far more growing days than Shetland, resulting in far more large-scale farming throughout Scotland, rather than crofting, which still dominates much of the Shetland landscape. A crofter in Shetland can expect about 100 good growing days, compared to about 250 in Aberdeenshire - it's no wonder my tomatoes failed to ripen this year! Furthermore, the thin soils and harsh climate mean that it's harder to grow and establish crops. Limestone valleys such as Weisdale and Tingwall provide fertile soils, as does the South Mainland, sitting on its bed of old red sandstone, however 50% of the islands remain covered in acidic, blanket peat moor which proves challenging for growers.
My third observation relating to the landscape lies in the topography. In Scotland, visitors find great pleasure, and challenge, in munro bagging (conquering one of the 282 hills that exceed 3,000 ft (915m). In Shetland, there are none of these, but what is lacking in height is made up for in style. Shetland boasts no less than 19 marilyns, shorter than munros, these are hills in excess of 500ft (150m) which can be readily bagged by the enthusiastic hiker. More information about walking in Shetland can be accessed here.
Perhaps the greatest differences can be found in the cultures of Shetland and Scotland, although sharing many similarities in folklore, tradition and belief, there are also some striking differences. To save being too wordy, I've outlined a few of these in the table below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, it's simply a few that quickly came to mind and may be most obvious to a visitor.
Shetland and Scotland also boast different flags. In 1969 Shetland developed a unique flag to mark the 500 year anniversary of the islands becoming part of Scotland. The flag was designed to represent, and celebrate the Scandinavian and Scottish past and the 500 year relationship with each respective nation. The Shetland flag, for those who are familiar with it, carries the same colours as the Scottish saltire along with the design of the Nordic cross.
It's a curious thing, and something that I was always aware of growing up in Shetland. Certainly taking the boat south, to the mainland (Scotland) was a real novelty, and arriving in Aberdeen as a bairn certainly felt like you were landing in a foreign and unfamiliar land. None of these points offer anything groundbreaking, they are simply a collection of observances which I make to people who visit, in an attempt to demonstrate, and explain why Shetland and Scotland are, the same, but different.
See you all next time, thanks for reading.
Welcome back to everyone who has returned to my blog and thanks for all the encouraging words and messages. Also, just a 'hello' to any new followers, it’s so good to have you here.
We're now entering September, the time of year when the big jumpers are broken out, along with winter boots, and the hats and scarves which were hastily stuffed away in drawers and cupboards at the first whiff of Spring. At this time, Instagram is filled with beautiful, seasonal pictures of crisp, autumnal leaves and steaming mugs of tea. Autumn is a time of reflection (and at the risk of sounding like the minister again, I'll continue), the summer is winding down, the harvest is complete and the nights are drawing in as people begin to reflect on the year that's been and think forward to the year ahead (already filling in my 2019 diary and taking bookings I wonder where the year went, and I'm sure many of you feel the same).
Having recently launched the blog, I've done a lot of research into the kind of business I’d like to grow. It has also raised many questions about how others will perceive this and ultimately, me. This critique and soul-searching has been an invaluable (if painful) process. It has given me a clear purpose and has helped highlight the direction I'd like to take and the message I want to send out, and why.
Much of what has inspired me recently has come from the work of Kayte Ferris, a Creative Business Coach and Marketing Mentor over @simpleandseason. Her ethos of slow-living, sustainability and 'seeking simplicity' is incredibly refreshing. In a world filled with mass-marketing and quite frankly, bollocks, her approach is soulful, honest and real. This is what I aspire towards. I want Shetland with Laurie to be authentic, to be real, rather than batch-processed and impersonal.
Simplicity in nature.
In today’s fast paced society, we are bombarded with information, news, opinions, gossip and mindless nonsense. It’s a constant attack on the body’s emotional response system and it can leave us feeling jaded and frustrated with the world around us. Recently I've been trying to re-evaluate my own life and knock out what doesn't work or makes me unhappy and focus on the aspects which are true and bring joy. Everyone should do this, it should be mandatory, kinda like a Spring clean of the mind.
In order to avoid becoming totally caught up in the guff of everyday life I decided to make changes so that I could appreciate what was around me, to see clearly, to view the world through the eyes of a child again (or try to) and yes, I still spend 90% of my free time scrolling through Instagram but it’s creative, right? For me it’s about taking a moment to stop, and appreciate the now. It’s the bird call in summer, the seasonal changes in spring and autumn, the mackerel skies and most importantly, it's watching your children grow. It's about enjoying all of those things without work pressures playing on the mind and the mundane 9-5 invading your private thoughts, those things don't matter in the grand scheme of things. They shouldn't dictate our lives or govern how we live.
Taking a moment to enjoy the moment!
So we did, we had picnics, and they didn't have to take all day or involve much planning. A perfectly good picnic can be enjoyed in most places, even in your own back garden. All that matters is that you've made the time for the adventure, you don't have to trek for miles to find something amazing, it can be on your doorstep all along. And for parents, who face the nightly witching hour (that dreaded hour before bed) this is the perfect time to set off on an adventure because if they fall asleep on the way home then you've saved yourself another job! Other than a few boxsets and the odd '24 hours in A&E' (yup, sucker for a medical documentary), watched in the last hour before bed, we don't watch much tv, meaning that I get a good three hours extra time to work in the evening, when the house is (usually) quiet. This helps get a lot more work done. Oh, and I gave up Facebook in January which is something I haven't for one moment regretted (sorry Zuckerberg), in some ways that was the most positive change I made.
All these things have been really useful in making time management more manageable and in helping ensure that the work-life balance feels more, 'balanced'. The most important thing I've learnt in 'seeking simplicity' is that no matter how daunting, you have to be true to yourself, always and just take a moment to stop, and let your senses guide you.
Finding beauty in nature.
A still evening at Aith skimming stones in the water.
We recently spent a few nights in Fetlar, endearingly known as 'the Garden of Shetland'. In anticipation of the schools going back, and trying to make the most of the time we had left of the holidays we booked the Aithbank Camping Böd, former home of storyteller Jeemsie Laurenson. The weather was glorious and Fetlar shone, like a glistening jewel in the North Sea, giving us the best it had to offer.
In this, the second (belated) part of this blog, I will outline a few of the things we found on our travels through the 'Garden of Shetland' and what we discovered along the way, and if you missed the first Blog entry you can look back and catch up!
Walk 2 - Aith beach and the Viking Boat burial coastal walk (to shake down the dinner)
Views from Aith beach.
From the beach we headed west along the impressive coastline, through golden fields which shone against the low, setting August sun. The bairns ran free, bare legs jumping from knowe to knowe with hair shining in the sun and echoing the colours of the landscape. It all felt very 'earth-motherish' until they started fighting and shergin' through over-tiredness.
Lena enjoying the sunshine and the freedom.
We then followed the coast, in search of the Viking boat burial. Reputed to be the final resting place of a Viking man who had washed ashore during a storm, the crew were all washed away and this one remaining man asked that upon his death, he be buried with his boat and treasure. When he died, his wishes were honoured and he was given a Viking boat burial. Time Team excavated the site (often referred to as the Giant's Grave) in 2002 and they discovered a great number of iron nails but no skeletal remains were uncovered.
Walk 3 - Airstrip to Haltadans stone circle (this took a moment as we stopped for a picnic but the walk itself was short and could be achieved there and back within an hour).
For this walk we headed inland, leaving the coast behind us, into the hills and the land of the mythical trows and njuggels. We parked at the now disused airstrip, built in 1972 the gravel runway is now only used for emergencies and training purposes.
Haltadans, believed to date to the Bronze Age, is a circle of thirty-eight stones with two positioned upright in the centre of the ring. This was our mission, to find it, and making our way north from the airstrip beyond Skutes water, across the boggy moorland we saw a number of Skootie Alans (Arctic Skuas) with their distinctive pointed tail feathers. I wondered if the loch took its name from these birds or was it some other obscure etymological explanation? Haltadans, or the Fairy Ring, wasn't that easy to find, with heather covering many of the stones it was difficult to pick them out in the blanket moor landscape. The OS map was handy to have on hand and thankfully Skootie Alans are much less aggressive than their larger cousin, the Bonxie (Great Skua) which made our passage easier. Despite this, we found the circle (eventually) and after some head-scratching, agreed that this was the spot of the famous 'fairy ring'.
Haltadans stone circle dating to the Bronze Age, often referred to as the Fairy Ring.
This unassuming stone circle has a number of folklore stories associated with it. One suggestion is that the circle represents a fiddler and his wife (the central stones) and the surrounding stones are trows (trolls) who, whilst dancing, were startled and turned to stone with the rising sun. Trows, popular in Shetland folklore were said to be a cheerful and mischievous race who had a great love of fiddle music. The name Haltadans, according to etymologist Jakob Jakobsen referred to the fact that in Shetland folklore and tradition, trows and fairies were often said to limp when they danced and the expression "to had (hold) a haltadans" or "to rush about noisily" was still an expression used in Fetlar and Yell, noted, by Jakobsen when he published his place-names book (1936). Further evidence of this fiddling idea can be found on the OS map of the area which notes the Fiddler's Crus cairn just a short distance NW of the circle.
Quite possibly the perfect picnic spot? A plantiecrub in the hills.
A few other points of interest:
There are many more fantastic walks to take on Fetlar, and certainly plenty for the walker without young children. The coastline offers an ever-changing panorama and more information can be found in Peter Guy's, 'Walking the Coastline of Shetland: The Island of Fetlar (No. 3)'.
Houses and Haa's
One thing that struck me immediately was that there are many grand historic houses in Fetlar. Once supporting a large population, the fertile island boasted some of Shetland's grandest homes, and some remarkable characters too! In Part One of this blog I looked at Smithfield Haa and the round-house at Gruting, and below a few more are outlined, although this is not an exhaustive list.
Brough Lodge, home of Sir Arthur Nicolson.
Brough Lodge is a very unusual house, and unlike anything else built in Shetland. It was built in 1820 by landowner Sir Arthur Nicolson of Lochend (who we heard about in Part One). This striking building was designed and built in a Georgian Gothic style, in stark contrast to the Haa of Smithfield for example (Part One) which was built at a similar time (1815). Brough Lodge had everything a grand house of that time 'should'. It boasted, among others, a drawing room, library, butler's pantry and a counting room (where the landlord dealt with the rents from the island), and it also had an astronomical observatory (obviously). The house was last inhabited in the 1970s. Sir Arthur was an eccentric man, who also built the round house 'his folly' at Gruting (again, discussed in Part One).
Leagarth House, built in 1901 by Sir William Watson Cheyne. Photo: © Fetlar Interpretive Centre
The young William Watson Cheyne, at Edinburgh University, an enthusiastic student to Lord Lister's became his House Surgeon, helping to develop an antiseptic solution to keep bacteria out of wounds. This really was pioneering work at the time and research which we are still grateful for today. The Fetlar Interpretive Centre has excellent displays on Sir William Watson Cheyne and opening hours are available on their website here.
Tresta is a place to note for its beauty and is situated in the heart of the island. The area is dominated by the spectacular beach with Papil water behind. When we went initially, the beach was narrow and rocky, but arriving in the early evening, a few hours later the beautiful sandy shores were revealed, offering a large expanse of beach with the spectacular cliffs of Lamb Hoga to the west. Nearby is the Kirk which was built in 1790 and has memorials to both the Nicolson's and Cheynes as well as several graves from the Second World War.
The Fetlar flit-boat at Ugasta.
One of the saddest sights for me, was the old Fetlar flit-boat at the Ugasta pier, just a stone's throw away from Brough Lodge. It lay in its noost above the high-water mark, still tied to the winch, as it was when it was hauled up for the last time.
The old Fetlar flit-boat at Ugasta pier.
Flit-boats were common in Shetland before the extensive road system was introduced, and sixerns (six-oared) like this were a common sight around Shetland shores, ferrying people, passengers and mail throughout the islands.
I found it quite poignant to see the knot, still holding the boat in place to the winch, secured against weather and tide, and I wondered whether the hands tying her up that last time knew that this would be her final resting place?
And on that note of reflection (it is a Sunday after all), I think I've said enough. Fetlar was a real treat and there is so much more to see, do and discover. I hope that this has given you a taste of the island and a reason to visit.
We recently spent a few nights in Fetlar, endearingly known as 'the Garden of Shetland'. In anticipation of the schools going back, and trying to make the most of the time we had left of the holidays we booked the Aithbank Camping Böd, former home of storyteller Jeemsie Laurenson. The weather was glorious and Fetlar shone, like a glistening jewel in the North Sea, giving us the best it had to offer.
In this blog I will attempt to give you a 'blow-by-blow' account of our travels through the 'Garden of Shetland', and what we discovered along the way, and you're in luck as this one's a two-parter!
Getting to Fetlar is relatively easy, although booking ferries is recommended. We made the short journey across Yell Sound, from Toft before heading north through Yell to catch the ferry from Gutcher to Hammersness, briefly touching base at Belmont (Unst) en route. I sat out on deck (mainly to avoid the boredom induced WW3 which was brewing in the car) and watched the seabirds as they dived and the tysties (black guillemots) bobbing around on the glistening sea as a distant yacht, made steady progress around Urie Ness, catching the wind coming off the hill. It was all very peaceful and the experience of being in this area on the open water reminded me of when I was young and went to the fishing with dad. I remember towing (for scallops) in a spot called (I think) the 'trink', not far from Fetlar, on the East coast and listening to the traffic report on Radio 2. I remember thinking at the time, just how far removed we were from the 'rat race' and the stresses and strains of the ever congested M25, and in that moment 'civilisation' seemed to me, a faraway world, yet to dad, a fisherman, this was his 'everyday', this was his '9-5'. Isn't it funny how a moment can transport you back in time and shake out old memories?
Upon arrival in the 'Garden of Shetland' we made our way to the camping Böd for lunch. Böd's, located throughout Shetland, were traditionally buildings used to house fishermen and their gear during the fishing season. Today they form a network of basic accommodation, operated by Shetland Amenity Trust for those who want a simple, no-frills holiday on a budget. The Böd, despite being sparsely furnished was clean and sited in a beautiful location, overlooking the Aith beach and across the bay to Lambhoga.
Aithbank, Camping Böd and former home of Storyteller, Jeemsie Laurenson.
Walk 1 - Everland to Gruting circular (3 hours inc. picnic & short legs)
The sandy beach at Honga Ness.
From the beach there are views across to the house at Smithfield, a grand home, now roofless. It was formerly the home of the Smith family until they emigrated to Australia in the 1860s and the house became uninhabited. The roof was later removed and it is now a cat C listed building which is designated as 'at risk', the house, built in 1815 is described as:
'unusually grand for this type of building in Shetland, and its formal relationship with the booth (nearby, by the shore) serves as a reminder of the importance of the sea in trade and communication during the 19th century'.
From here we made our way to arguably the most unusual building on the island, the round-house at Gruting. Not a neolithic or iron age round-house but the 'bolt hole' of an 19th century eccentric!
The round-house at Gruting, built by Sir Arthur Nicolson of Brough Lodge.
The round-house has a very curious story attached to it, which I'll share, and any brave campers or 'would be ghost-hunters' can go there, stay, and report back with their findings. Does that sound like a good deal?
The house was built after the fertile valley at Gruting was cleared during the 1840s. Fetlar was badly hit by the clearances which affected much of the Highlands and Islands throughout the 19th century when landowners decided that large-scale sheep farming was more profitable than tenant farmers who were in turn forcibly removed from their homes in favour of sheep.
Landowner, Sir Arthur Nicolson who stayed in the sprawling estate at Brough Lodge in the north-west of the isle decided to build a summer house in the now quiet valley, secluded from his family home at Brough. He designed his summer house in a French fashion, the lower part being made of stone and the upper floor constructed of wood. Once complete Sir Arthur, on his horse Jolly made their way to the newly constructed bolt-hole to spend the night, in solitude, away from the family demands at home. The evening went well until Sir Arthur went to bed where he was then kept awake, and afraid by an incessant banging and knocking which echoed through the darkness outside. Nobody was there and eventually the noise became too much for him to bear and he abandoned his bed and with Jolly, galloped back to Brough Lodge, much the wearier of his 'staycation' in the summer house.
An explanation, provided by the minister, said that the noise could be the spirits of the crofters whom he had evicted from the surrounding area coming back to haunt him. That was the only time anyone tried to stay in the round-house, and as I said, if you are brave enough, then please do, and report back your findings!
Lucky Minnie's Oo (Bog Cotton) at Gruting, Fetlar.
To be continued in Part Two so stay tuned for more forays in Fetlar...
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