Morning light in Shetland's west mainland.
I often read Peedie Peebles’ Summer or Winter Book by Mairi Hedderwick to my bairns. They’ve both loved it; and so did I when it was read to me as a child. This illustrated children’s book looks at the antics of mischievous toddler, Peedie Peebles, as he goes through the trials and tribulations of being little, following him through summer and winter. Importantly, it highlights the differences between the seasons – the endless summer light and sunshine masterfully illustrated in watercolour with clear blue skies, and gardens dripping in flowers and light, bursting with life and energy. It then shows the same domestic scene, played out in winter, with its darkness and storms, fraught tempers battling the realities of perpetual light deprivation.
This difference between summer and winter at 60° North is something I’m always asked about, and in fact, was interviewed about and featured on TV discussing with BBC Breakfast just last week. The first question (after "what’s it like living with the light nights") that visitors – and the BBC – ask me is, “how do you cope with it being light at night when you’re trying to get to sleep, and more importantly, trying to get your kids to sleep?” And the truth is; it’s all I know, all they know, all we know.
Early evening light in Fetlar, Shetland.
I was born and brought up in Shetland, which sits closer to the Arctic Circle than it does to London, and enjoys up to 19 hours of daylight at this time of the year, known locally as the Simmer Dim, or midsummer. I grew up with endless days of light, of going to bed with the sun high in the sky and waking with it still there; hung suspended like a continuous portrait of summer. It’s the most normal thing in the world to us who have been born and raised at this most northerly part of the UK.
Summer evenings in Shetland.
Yet, to a researcher in London, or a visitor from closer to the equator, where day and night are more equal, this seems almost surreal, and I guess it is – if you stop and think about it, as I have recently. My childhood memories are split in two; like Peedie Peebles Summer or Winter Book. Split like the two sides of a coin, between the memories of summer holidays that seemed to go on and on forever; of being outside covered in gutter, with bare feet and grubby paws. And then the long dark winters; with peat fires, books and houses filled with laughter and warmth. Hygge isn’t new; we’ve been doing it here in Shetland for generations.
December light at 2pm in Shetland.
That brings me on to the second question from the BBC researcher: “How do you and your children cope with the winter”. Our winter brings six hours of daylight within the 24 hours and is punctuated with winter storms brought in off the Atlantic which can, at times, feel all-consuming. But this is another reality. All my life this has been the reality, and for me, it brings a certain comfort. When I was young, and my dad was at the fishing, I used to lay awake, worrying that he was at sea in a storm and the dangers that can bring. Now, as an adult, I find it soothing to hear the wind rattle down the chimney and the rain lashing at the window; I shut the shutters and cosy down – it’s soothing. Isn’t it ironic that our greatest childhood fears and worries can become a comfort in adulthood.
A day between weathers; a calm, winter morning in Shetland.
Another question I’m always asked is, “What do you do with the long winter nights?” I have no real answer to this as it’s something I never considered until recently. I usually just make a joke out of it – avoiding having to give a sensible response – and answer with, “we have the highest birth rates in the UK, so I’ll let you figure it out.” (Sometimes it gets a laugh; sometimes not!). But, we do what everyone else does in the winter; indulge in hobbies, all washed down with too much cheese, wine and chocolate. For me, I read, write, binge on box sets, redecorate rooms on a whim and discover dusty corners that were neglected in that halcyon haze of summer (who cleans in summer anyway?). Generally just mooching around a bit more, lighting candles, cooking and baking – re-stocking the freezer with quick meals for summer (because who wants to cook in the summer either?).
But, that said, when we do get a fine day in winter, there is no better place to be. I like to get out and fill my lungs with crisp, cool air. The winter light is as breathtaking as summer, and can often be more so as the clarity is so good, allowing you to see for miles – islands appear to 'stand out of the water' and are sharper and more pronounced on a winter day.
Shetland's Simmer Dim; the sun merely dips below the horizon beforing rising again a few hours later. Photo: Dale Smith.
But, back to the simmer dim. The Shetland Dictionary defines it as “the twilight of a Shetland summer evening”. It’s a magical time of year here. The sun sets at 10.30pm, merely dipping its head below the horizon before rising again at 3.30am. Everything in nature is alive – it’s the best time to pack up a tent and set off into the hills. Listen to the world outside, it really is transfixing, and it leaves you feeling oh-so-insignificant; a tiny speck in a wide, wide world filled with wonder. The evening light of the simmer dim is an indescribable soft veil that cloaks the land, lingers and clings to it as if it will never give up its warm hold. Everything in nature is accentuated under its heady rays. The moss greener, the lichen more textured and every bird’s call is amplified; the senses are overloaded from the moment you step out the door. The morning light differs; it brings a crisp sharpness, a raw edge as the dew lifts and gives rise to the day. It’s refreshing and rich, bursting forth like a child who has just been given free rein at the park gates. It leaves you feeling rejuvenated and bursting with happiness.
Summer is the perfect time to pack up a tent and head to the hills.
My energy in the summer is always heightened, I can stay out all day and night – overdosing on vitamin D, squirrelling it away some-place deep inside to replay as memories of summer on the deepest darkest of winter days. I don’t mind that the housework gets neglected and meals are generally last-minute, dug from the deepest depths of the freezer, summer is just a fleeting moment. Blink and you might miss something – the light shimmering on a turquoise sea, or the flight of a bumblebee through heather, or the dew on a spider web, tucked under a bank of peat.
Last week we had the Simmer Dim, and with it comes a certain sense of trepidation, a realisation that the days are on the turn again and that the march towards winter and the darkness has begun once more. But for now, for today, there is still a summer to be had. Longer blog posts can wait till winter.
And for anyone who missed our TV appearance, please find a (taken on my iPhone) video of it below. It was aired on BBC Breakfast on Sunday 23rd June.
A summer day at the Hams of Roe (note the hat!).
I’m always reminded of the words of my great-grandmother when thinking about what to wear; her words still echo in my head as clear as though it was yesterday. “Nivir cast a cloot, till da munt o’ May is oot” were the words she – and many before her – said. And it’s true; we still experience cool weather in May.
Wrapped up and layered up against the elements at Eshaness in winter. (Photo: Sea Kayak Shetland)
This is just a short – but hopefully useful – blog post. I’ve been inspired to write it by the weather, the month of June usually brings warmer weather, but not this month, we seem to have been plagued with cold and windy days, reminiscent of October. So, for those who are planning their Shetland wardrobe, here are a few pointers.
Sumburgh Head on a fine spring day.
Shetlanders will often comment that we experience ‘four seasons in one day’, and anyone who has lived in (or visited) Shetland will appreciate this. So my advice is to layer up. You can always remove extra layers if necessary, but you can’t add them if you don’t have them. Our average summer temperature is 15°C and in winter this drops to 5°C (although it usually feels much cooler).
A windproof cardigan on a summer day (and another layered underneath) - the boy still wears shorts!
And don’t let the indicated temperature on weather forecasts fool you, the wind chill is menacing. Even I’m caught out by this on occasion. It reminded me of one bright sunny day last year. I was standing on the pier waiting for my bus and passengers, and I was fooled by the bright, cheerful sky that had greeted me as I pulled open the blinds in the morning – It masked a bitter north wind that gets right to the bone. In my jaw-chattering coldness, I was forced to dash to the LHD shop (across the road) to buy a hat, scarf, and I sent for my husband to fetch my long-janes (thermals). A quick change in the back of the bus and layers added I was good to go.
Wool: nature's warmer. Essential here both summer and winter.
There’s a reason Shetland knitwear has been so popular here for hundreds of years – it’s bloomin’ cosy! Shetland jumpers were worn to conquer Everest in 1953, they have been to the Arctic, the Antarctic and we traded them for gin and tobacco with the Dutch fishermen. Get into one of the local knitwear shops and buy something woolly – it will keep you warm.
I would not be without my Meindl hiking boots for longer walks and Merrell trainers for short walks.
A rough guide of what to wear:
This guy wears shorts, summer or winter!
As for umbrellas – don’t bother, they just blow out. A visitor can always be spotted as they brandish (and battle the wind with) this foreign accessory!
And for heaven’s sake, remember to bring your camera, we have just been voted in the top 10 destinations for Best in Europe by Lonely Planet after all!
But most importantly; enjoy your Shetland adventure.
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