Granny Tam's beach with the ruins of their house behind it, on the now-uninhabited island of Papa.
We are our ancestors; we are here because they lived. We are here because they nurtured our parents and generations of grandparents before us. Some of our relations we have the privilege of knowing. Some, like George Arthur Fullerton, we know because we hear about them, we’re shown grainy photographs and told that they left this world before we arrived.
For me, they are the solemn faces which look back at me from the gallery of black and white photos at Granny’s. They are names on an unfamiliar and distant branch of the family tree. Names I’ve heard woven into conversation for as long as I can remember, but have no real knowledge of. I know that we are connected. When we speak of our family, we speak with pride, even for those we never knew or met.
Up Helly Aa galley burning following the Viking procession. Photo: Jon Pulley.
Up Helly Aa is almost upon us and you can feel excitement levels in the town growing as people make ready for, what is to some, the social event of the year. Up Helly Aa, despite what is often believed, is not an ancient festival passed down from Norse times, but it is a festival with its roots in Shetland’s Victorian era. And like any proper Victorian soiree, theatrical pomp and ceremony were allowed unbridled power to shine.
Up Helly Aa’s roots can be found in the 19th-century tradition of ‘tar-barrelling’, a practice which saw the town’s young men rolling burning barrels of tar through the narrow streets of Lerwick. This was banned in 1874 as it was dangerous and caused damage to local properties and humiliated the law-enforcers who were often tricked by the rowdy youths and locked into an endless game of ‘cat-and-mouse’. It has been argued that following the Napoleonic Wars, the men returning had developed a taste for firearms and so began the tradition. In the past, Shetland followed the Julian calendar long after the rest of the world adopted the Gregorian calendar. Christmas was held on the 5th January, New Year on the 12th and Up Helly Aa (or Uphellia) was held 24 days after Aald Yule, on the 29th January. However, the act of tar-barrelling might occur on any of these occasions.
Scalloway Fire Festival galley burning 2017.
The differences between Shetland and the rest of Scotland can be quite striking. Many visitors arrive here expecting the full Scottish treatment – the haggis, the kilts and the bagpipes – and I find myself quickly explaining to them that much of the culture and tradition in Shetland stems from the close ties that we had with Scandinavia in the past and that actually, we have only been part of Scotland for some 550 years.
To understand this unusual relationship, we must travel back in time to about 850 AD and the arrival of the Vikings in Shetland. Their arrival and subsequent settlement has become known as the Norse period. This era of Scandinavian rule brought significant changes, much of which is still evident, and celebrated, here today. Today marks the first of the season’s Fire Festivals which kicks off in Scalloway and includes a Viking parade and burning of a replica Viking longship in the picturesque harbour. Throughout Shetland, there are ten Up Helly Aa/Fire Festival celebrations between January and March.
Jarlshof Prehistoric & Norse Settlement. Photo: Sophie Whitehead.
As you read this, I will (hopefully) be sunning my weary legs on a beach in the Adriatic, or exploring a medieval town’s backstreets. The reality is, I’ll probably be trying to rub sun cream into sandy skin, stickied with ice-cream while wondering if it’s an acceptable time to order a large glass of sauvignon blanc. As I was planning the holiday, I found myself ‘googling’ “best things to do in Croatia” and realised that this is what many Shetland visitors will also be furiously googling before any trip to our islands. So, I have put together this guide to the ‘Top 7 in Shetland’ for visitors. These are all outdoor activities for varying abilities (and most can be tailored into a shorter or longer experience depending on interest and/or ability). I should also say that this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather it gives an idea for ‘something to do’ for every day of a week-long break.
Private Karl Manson in full Seaforth Highlander uniform before departing for France, 1916.
“If we think only on his life, and count, like the sun-dial, only the sunshine hours, we shall not let the gloom and daily fear which has so long overcast the sky for us at home, spread the dullness and dread of our last few months over our former remembrance of those who have died for us”.
Haunting words, written in memory of Karl Manson, offered as comfort to his mother following his untimely death.
Looking down Whalefirth, Yell.
Shetland is peppered with beautiful old buildings, and none are more evocative and thought-provoking than some of our old church buildings that are found dotted around the islands. Once seats of spiritual worship and ecclesiastical power, many are now privately owned and have undergone refurbishment. Varda self-catering, situated on the island of Yell, is one of these.
El Gran Grifon wrecked on Fair Isle, Shetland.
Welcome back to my blog. This is a real break from my norm. What I'm giving you today – with a certain amount of trepidation – is a children's book I wrote when I was on maternity leave a few years ago and it's based on the wreck of the El Gran Grifon. There are very few illustrations (because I can't draw!) so you'll have to use your imaginations until I can persuade someone to do the pictures. I'm posting here because I would really love your feedback on it. Please feel free to comment or click on the following link and send me a email.
Welcoming the Spring Equinox at the Stanydale Temple.
Today I stepped back in time 4,000 years to the heart of Neolithic Shetland, to that moment as dawn arrives and the world stops, where just for a moment everything falls silent. The birds stop singing, the sheep grow quiet, the wind lulls and life is suspended while that first ray of sunlight makes contact with the earth.
The moment where the dawn met the day and came through the door at Stanydale temple.
Cannon from the Queen of Sweden shipwreck, off the Knab, Lerwick. Photo: Donald Jefferies.
Time stood still for me today, as I paused and listened to the wind howl down the chimney. In that moment, I was reminded of something someone told me once, a marine archaeologist, who said that one of the most moving things he had discovered on a shipwreck was a stopped clock, stopped at the precise time of loss. In a world governed by time, a stopped clock holds such profound meaning. This idea, of time standing still forever, is something I think about whenever I consider the wrecks lost at sea here in Shetland.
The Knab; a rocky headland at the entrance to Lerwick Harbour.
The night was dark and the wind whistled around, screaming like a banshee as it forced an icy draft through every crack and crevice in the stonework of the small thatch clad house… This is the home of the storyteller.
Stories can evoke memories of childhood, of times past, and bring together people who have a sense of shared experience.
Have you ever become lost in the pages of a book and the threads of a story? I love this escape from the world. I need and crave it in equal measures, and lately I’ve been finding myself lost in old Shetland folk stories, enchanted by their magic, dipping in and out of their pages and wondering at their meanings. I keep returning to them and thinking about the storytellers behind the lore, the folk tales they tell us and the place of the storyteller in society today. It’s sad to think that so many of these stories - the very fabric of our society, the cloth that we are cut from - risk being lost to history forever. Should we grieve that the seasonal patterns of life that went hand-in-hand with the storyteller are under threat in our modern world. In a culture where everything is found at the click of a mouse, are we more disengaged than ever?
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.