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.
Varda self-catering, former church for the Herra community, lovingly restored into self-catering accommodation in Yell.
Varda lies at the end of the Herra road in West Yell. A quiet part of Shetland’s second largest island, the Herra is a place often forgotten, with many people, myself included, having never been in the road to explore this beautiful spot of solitude, steeped in history and lore. Arriving in the Herra, the valley’s steep sides dominate the skyline in all directions, and it certainly feels ‘off-the-beaten-track’.
I am guilty of dismissing Yell and rushing through the vast peat moorland that forms the greater part of the island’s interior, hurrying to catch the ferry across to neighbouring Unst. So I was really excited when we were invited to stay at Varda and explore this peaceful haven, tucked away under the hills in a place which promised hours of fun and adventure.
Some of Yell's rich, peat moorland.
Despite being in the centre of Yell, the Herra is a great place to get-away-from-it-all and enjoy a well-earned break. Follow the main A968 through Yell and turn off just before Mid Yell and Windhouse at the road marked the Herra. Follow the single track almost to the end; you can’t miss the distinctive silhouette of the early 20th-century church looming on the skyline.
The road to the Herra and Varda self-catering, Yell.
There has been a place of worship in the Herra since Medieval times, with chapels at both Windhouse and Gremister, and the kirk, now Varda, was built in 1912. Calls for a church were made in 1911 (see photo above) when the population of the Herra stood at 140, and they had nowhere except the schoolhouse (that could only hold 30) to hold services. The old school is currently on the market, and every day when we passed it, I tried to think of ways to raise the money to buy it, and justify why I should have a summer house in Yell. A girl can dream, right?
In this new kirk, each family had their own pew, and these have been beautifully woven back into the fabric of the building at Varda. I was astonished to discover the population change over 100 years; today, the population of the Herra is only 27.
The old Herra school, currently for sale. A girl can dream, surely?
There were very few marriages that took place in the kirk, most couples choosing to marry in Mid Yell, and one pair were forced to marry on the beach, in the ebb-stanes, by an impatient minister keen to get to Fetlar. Information on those that did marry in the kirk can be found in the Old Haa Museum in Burravoe.
Looking across to Grimister in the Herra. Can you spot Varda self-catering on top of the hill?
Approaching the house, the outside gives away no clue to its current use. The austere church exterior masks its present-day function well. The door, original to the building, opens into the porch, a bright and open space with one of the original pews. Pews have been further incorporated back into the fabric of the building in the hand-crafted kitchen which is just off the porch.
Original pews have been worked back into the building at Varda self-catering. A nod towards its ecclesiastical past.
From the kitchen-diner and continuing into the ‘body of the kirk’, so to speak, there are two bedrooms – a twin and a double – and a generously sized family shower room. The spacious hallway leads upstairs through a wide, airy staircase onto another hallway with Velux windows that stop you in your tracks as you reach the top and admire views over the surrounding hills.
Upstairs is a large king-size bedroom and a fantastic living room, tucked away under the eaves – a perfect retreat after a busy day exploring the area. And with floor level windows and another Velux skylight enjoying spectacular views out across Whalefirth which,at night, commands attention as the sun sets in the western sky.
One of the comments in the visitor’s book from a younger guest sums up Varda perfectly. Grace said, “It reminds me of the Tardis from Dr Who – it looks smaller from the outside, but on the inside, it is BIG!”
This comment really is a testament to the careful thought and consideration that has gone into renovating Varda into a comfortable and spacious home. Churches by their nature, are not easy buildings to repurpose; let alone repurpose and get right. The Hunters have achieved this perfectly, and what Varda offers is a spacious, welcoming, well-thought-out home.
Comments from the Visitor's Book at Varda self-catering.
Varda is well-equipped; the kitchen is fully stocked, and there’s a Thermos in the cupboard for picnics! The house has a washing machine, TVs, CD player, high-chair and Z-beds for any extra visitors. The linen cupboard is bursting with fresh bedding all helpfully labelled according to bed size, and there are plenty of leaflets with information on things to do in Yell, including several fantastic circular walks in the area. The whole house was clean and well-presented, and the pulley in the porch was a welcome place to dry out our water-logged clothes on more than one occasion during our stay!
Fantastic views from the Herra and Gremister, out across Whalefirth beyond.
Getting to and from Yell
The holiday begins on the ferry to Yell.
It’s very easy to get to Yell; it’s just a short hop across Yell Sound on the modern inter-island ferry. The crossing takes about 15 minutes, and passengers can stand on the upper deck and enjoy views across the sound, passing the uninhabited islands of Bigga and Samphrey on the way.
It is advisable to book ferries, although not always necessary. Timetables and bookings are available here.
Beautiful scenery in Yell, note the wildflowers that thrive here.
Yell is the largest of Shetland’s northern isles; and at 17 miles long and seven miles wide, there are plenty of places to discover and enjoy.
Yell is also a relatively quiet place to visit. With most visitors passing through and heading on to the neighbouring island of Unst to the north, the hills and beaches are generally free to enjoy at leisure – alone. Yell is also one of the best places to see skuas, red-throated divers and otters.
Great Skua, there are plenty of these impressive (albeit aggresive) birds to see in Yell.
A weekend in Varda self-catering (some ideas for your stay)
Happiness in the wilds o' Yell.
We chose a weekend in mid-May for our break at Varda; arriving on Friday evening on the 18.55 ferry from Toft we had two days to explore the tantalising Herra and beyond.
Driving through the centre of Yell from the ferry at Ulsta, much of the landscape is blanket peat moor, bleak and moody, yet rich in texture and colour.
The road into the Herra, vast peatland which unfolds into the sea at Gremister.
Turning off the main road the peatland gives way to the green coastal fringes, and stunning views down Whalefirth and out to the Stacks of Stuis which sit on the horizon, guarding the approaches to the voe like sentries on watch.
With only an hour before tea, we took the bikes and headed down to the beach where the Burn of Bouster terminates into the sea. With Arctic terns calling overhead, trout jumping in the burn and dunlins darting around the tide line, it was a special place to while away a little time – that is until Lena decided to wade through the burn without boots on. So with soggy tights, and full hearts, we made our way back up the steep incline to the road to bed down for the night in Varda.
As we cosied in for the evening, the sunset from the upstairs living room took our breath away, no photo could ever do justice to the colours in that May sky with all the accompanying sounds of the night.
A beautiful sunset from Varda self-catering, Yell.
The Herra is a beautiful little community which unfolds from the valley like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon. Consisting of the settlements of Grimister, Efstigarth, Raga and Bouster, these Old Norse names are an echo from the past. And there’s a fascinating history here; the Herra is an ancient community, Laurence Tulloch of Mid Yell describes the people of the Herra, he says:
“The Herra, in Yell, is one of the districts in Shetland most worthy of careful study by anyone truly interested in Shetland matters in their wide range. Among its inhabitants the unusual prevalence of dark eyes and dark hair infer that their fathers dwelt here long before the colonisation of the islands by the Northmen.”
The steep-sided approaches of Whalefirth certainly make it feel like the land that time forgot.
As well as being cloaked in history, the Herra boasts the smallest community hall in Yell – now disused – once famous for its celebrations of Old New Year (January 12th) it sits next door to Varda and was built in 1931. Exciting plans are now in motion to give the hall a new lease of life. A committee of local men are hoping to establish a ‘Men’s Shed’ in this former community hall. On the Sunday that we were staying, a meeting was taking place to move the project forward with the aim of gaining charitable status for the proposal. You can find out more about men’s sheds here.
The former community hall which is set to get a new lease of life as a 'Men's Shed'.
Saturday morning arrived with a fresher, colder wind and grey skies promising rain. Despite being well-equipped Varda had few toys to entertain the three and almost-seven-year old on a rainy Saturday morning, so the first thing on the agenda was a trip to the Aywick shop – an Aladdin’s cave, with everything from electrician’s wire to hair dye and hosiery. As we approached the shop, I was reminded that I was to buy essentials only. Eighty-seven pound later we left with the picnic we had gone in for, a few things to keep the bairns amused, and a few other things that we probably didn’t need, including a trout wand and a book on graveyards in Shetland.
Aywick Shop, Yell, an Aladdin's cave of goods.
Exploring Grommond & Graveland
The planned walk for Saturday morning was to the Stuis of Graveland; which is a coastal walk nearby, skirting the coast of Whalefirth exploring some of the abandoned settlements along the way. I wanted to get to the Ern Stack; believed to be one of the last places that the sea eagle nested at in Shetland in 1910. The Old Norse word for an eagle is ern, hence the name, Ern Stack.
Abandoned houses of Grommond, Yell.
We made our way down the steep track to the beach before walking up to the ruined houses at Grommond. Once a populus place, this area is now characterised by the ruins of those who once made the unforgiving slopes their home. The derelict houses, reminders of the lives once lived here, and evidence of spade and plough can still be seen as scars on the land that you can read like a palm.
Laurence Williamson of Mid Yell said that:
Remains of ruined houses in Grommond, Yell.
Hansi was desperate to try his new trout wand from the Aywick shop, so we stopped and tried for a bite. One thing I do know is that trouts scare easily and silence is key to successful trouting. So with our little herd of elephants, no trout were caught. There were plenty of birds to be seen though – and the three rain gus (red-throated divers) on the loch seemed entirely unaware of our peace-shattering presence in their quiet corner of West Yell. The tirricks (Arctic terns) provided a shrieking and noisy cacophony overhead, while the bonxies (skuas) swooped silently above, circling us like vultures around prey.
(A fishing permit for the lochs in Shetland can be purchased from the Anglers Association for £30 annually, here.)
As we left trow country and headed back to the coast the rain eased, and by the time we got back to the beach there was a great spoot ebb to explore – spoots are razor clams that can be caught on sandy beaches in low tide. Attracted to vibrations in the sand, I was sure the herd of elephants would bring home the supper this time. Unfortunately not. We can add that to the list of unsuccessful foraging attempts. Nevermind, there was still the patch of nettles at the foot of the road.
While at the beach, I watched a raft of dunters (eider ducks) floating in the bay, the distinctive males stood out in their bold colours against the grey sky and steely sea, their sarcastic call echoing across the bay. These always remind me of my dad; for some reason, he is obsessed with these birds, and the sight of them never fails to excite him. Perhaps his love has brushed off on me, although we won't tell him that.
Eider ducks on the water.
We never made it to the Stuis of Graveland, but Elizabeth Atia did, and she documented her walk, and fell in love with Yell here. And I believe that I too have fallen in love.
Afterwards we went to LJs Diner & Pizzeria in Mid Yell. A friendly family restaurant in the old school. The menu is extensive, offering something for everyone, all served with a smile from the bubbly waitress.
Windhouse, Yell. Shetland's most haunted house.
Saturday night was a full moon, so it seemed inevitable that we would end up at Windhouse – arguably the most haunted house in Shetland, if you believe in that kind of thing. So with the ghost stories ringing in our ears, and clammy paws clinging to tired legs, we made our way up the short track to the ruined house which sits on the crest of the hill on the approach into Mid Yell. Its foreboding silhouette, dominating the skyline.
Windhouse, commanding views in all directions, is the site of an ancient settlement. The house itself has its foundations in an Iron Age broch, and recent excavations have revealed a burial site within the gardens of the house. Steeped in mystery and legend, Windhouse attracts both historian and ghost-hunter, keen to unpick the magic of this iconic house.
The list of ghosts alone is impressive – if not a little spine-tinglingly scary. In no particular order, there is the: Lady in Silk – thought to be the skeleton of a woman with a broken neck discovered under the floorboards at the foot of the staircase. A tall, cloaked man who passes through the wall in the kitchen. A child – a baby’s skeleton was found in the walls during alterations at one stage. A black dog who prowls the bedrooms – although the first floor and roof have now fallen in, so there is no telling where the dog may now roam. There’s the taxman – obviously – and finally, a pedlar who was found under flagstones at the door. I’m sure this list is not exhaustive, but it does make for bone-chilling reading.
Whatever the truth, this once majestic building with the armorial crest of the Neven family above the door, was once a grand home – however oppressive the Nevens’ may have been – and whatever the truth, it makes for an eerie and thought-provoking walk.
Sunday was a bit of a washout, the rain was pretty heavy, the kind that gets right to the skin. But it fell vertically, from a silent sky – no accompanying wind – so that was a novelty to be marvelled at alone.
Easy like Sunday morning.
We managed to have a relaxing morning puttering about Varda until the cries from the three and almost-seven-year-old drove us out the door in waterproofs. Hansi was desperate to try for a trout in the burn down at the beach, so we all trooped back down in the pouring rain. Lena made sandcastles that disintegrated faster than her peerie hands could build, and Hansi persevered, despite catching no fish.
It was such a quiet, reflective air on the beach compared to Friday night when the horizons stretched further and the night air was punctuated with the thrum of a lawnmower, and the tirricks (Arctic terns) called noisily overhead. The quiet Sunday morning felt more encompassing, the birds closer, darting the shoreline in a frenzy, and there was no definition between sea and sky, the hills shrouded in low mist, cloaked the valley and all within it.
Peerie Willie Johnson
At the Peerie Willie Memorial.
In the road to the Herra, and forking left towards Efstigarth, is the memorial to guitar legend Peerie Willie Johnson. Born in Bouster, Peerie Willie is one of Shetland’s best-loved musical exports. Since 2005, an annual guitar festival – The Peerie Willie Guitar Festival dedicated to his work, and now his memory has taken place. The memorial sits alone, with breathtaking views across the moors and north-west down Whalefirth.
(*note: peerie is the Shetland dialect word for small.)
Sands of Breckon
After drying off (again) in the busy cafe at Gutcher, we went to the northernmost point of Yell to explore the Sands of Breckon. The rain was on, and we got soaked (again).
Sands of Breckon, Yell.
Sands of Breckon are fascinating. Not only does it boast an expanse of white sand and almost guaranteed solitude, but it also has an exciting and rich archaeological past that is still visible today.
Despite being soaked through, there was plenty to inspire the mind at Breckon.
Gloup Memorial to fishermen lost in the fishing diasaster of 1881.
We stopped at the Gloup Memorial which is a reminder of harder times when men fished from small open boats called sixerns in offshore waters. The memorial commemorates the lives of 58 fishermen who were lost to a storm in 1881. They left 34 widows and 85 orphans behind; in this small community, an unimaginable loss.
Old Haa Museum, Burravoe
The Old Haa Museum, Burravoe Yell has fantastic displays documenting life in Yell over the years.
Eventually, the lure of the Old Haa Museum in Burravoe was too much, the cakes were calling. For anyone who does not know about Yell’s best kept culinary secret, get along to the Old Haa Museum and sample some, or all, of their cakes. Between the four of us, we got through most of the selection on the menu that afternoon.
And almost as quickly as we had arrived, it was time to wave goodbye and make our way back to the mainland, back to reality, leaving the mysteries of the Herra behind for another day.
Lost in the rabbit-holes of history
I found in reviewing Varda that I would end up distracted; falling down rabbit-holes of history. The school opened in 1896 and educated pupils until 1954 when they were then bussed three miles up the road to Mid Yell. Think of how the community felt when the school closed. Then there was the couple who were married on the beach by a reluctant minister. This event inspired a poem at his expense that I would love to share, but that’s another rabbit hole. And there’s the folklore; tales of dogs that haunt the derelict houses, of ghosts and visions, all of these stories that were once part of the very fabric of the community.
The Herra seems a faraway place, not in terms of getting there, that’s easy enough, but in terms of its very deep-rooted history. It feels like a place on the periphery, almost as though one facet of it is buried in another world altogether. Maybe I’ve read too many stories. I’ll let you decide. But it has certainly got under my skin; I want to go back, to trace the walls of the derelict houses, chase the stories and imagine what life in the Herra was like in days gone by. Some places do that to you, and I felt a real connection here.
Mortimer Manson writing in 1942 said that Yell had been “sadly neglected by writers”, despite being “an island possessed by several beauty spots.” The Herra is undoubtedly one of these neglected beauty-spots. It feels set apart, on the fringes of society, along an empty road, off the fast main artery that passes between Ulsta and Gutcher. A route I always meant to ‘take a run down’, but never had, and one that I’m now immensely glad I have.
And with 83 square-miles to explore, we will certainly be back in Yell soon.
And as for Varda, I can't wait to go back, what a perfect place to escape to.
The world is yours to explore. Go discover!
I would like to add a special thank you to Charlie Inkster from Yell for his help in finding me the information I craved as I fell down all the rabbit holes the Herra could throw at me, thank you.
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.
Note to Adults:
The following is a little historical background to this tale...
This story, like most of its time, begins with a king. And like most kings of this time, he was obsessed with power and religion. This king, Philip II of Spain, was intent on overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Queen, who had once refused to marry King Philip was a Protestant. This was seen as a threat to the Catholic Philip who decided the only way to solve the problem was to invade England.
Now, in order to defeat Queen Elizabeth, King Philip needed more ships. He had a great army which he was proud of, and his ‘Blackbeards’ were good soldiers, but his naval prowess was lacking. So, he and his well-groomed military men commandeered the nation’s merchant ships, including the El Gran Grifón. This 650-ton merchantman was fitted with 38 guns and brought into military service.
Philip II of Spain & Elizabeth I of England.
The Galleon Girls of the El Gran Grifón
This is the story of how two hens, after four months at sea, found solace in the most unlikely of places – somewhere in the middle of the North Sea, lying between Shetland and Orkney, in a small byre on the remote island of Fair Isle. The tale unfolded onboard the wide-bellied, clumsy hulk, El Gran Grifón in the year of 1588. El Gran Grifón was a merchantman in the ill-fated Spanish Armada fleet.
Fair Isle from the air. Photo: Ronda Hill.
These hens, sisters by birth, could not have been more different. One was mischievous and full-of-fun, and the other, well, she was prim, proper and toffee-nosed – to the point of almost cantankerous! Not your average sea-goers, these girls were often teased and called landlubbers. Nevertheless, small and plump, their beady hen-eyes missed nothing.
A traditional Shetland hen. Photo: Mary Isbister.
These two feathered beauties had been taken onboard as Captain Juan Gómez de Medina’s prized layers for he just loved a soft-boiled egg with his morning helping of wine and grog. Now, you might think it unusual to be drinking wine for breakfast? Well, on board this great 16th century ship, it was far safer to drink the wine than dare drink the water which would almost certainly have sent you running for the chamber-pots!
Wine, gin or grog?
When they were taken aboard, Captain Gómez had stowed his ‘ladies’ away in the hold. Tucked up in nest boxes, between crates of musket balls and teetering towers of cannonballs, he spoke to the two perplexed chickens, Carlota and Anna, and waving a bony finger, said, “You two must continue to lay eggs for me as this may be the only fresh food I get on this godforsaken voyage.”
Carlota and Anna looked at each other, eyes blinking in the darkness, gunpowder rising in clouds of dust around them.
“Well, this is an adventure,” Carlota said excitedly, puffing her feathers. Anna, who was prim and sensible scowled at her courageous sister.
“Settle down in your nest box, let’s see what tomorrow brings.” And under a setting Spanish sun, the two hens bedded down for the night, lulled to sleep by the hustle and bustle of sailors loading the ship for departure.
Next morning, Carlota and Anna were awoken with the warm fat hand of the cook, reaching in under their feathers to remove the perfectly formed porcelain-like green eggs which they had dutifully laid for their Captain. Out on deck there was a hush of excitement as the final checks were made and the great ship released the mooring ropes, groaning as she left the quay to join the assembled Armada who lay-in-waiting for the signal to depart.
The route the Spanish Armada took in 1588.
“Where do you think we’re going?” Carlota asked, her voice filled with anticipation. “I don’t know, but look at all those ships! We’re bound to have a collision if they don’t watch where they’re going,” tutted Anna in response. Carlota rose from her warm bed of straw, and fluttered onto a large bronze cannon gazed out the gun-port, and what a spectacle she saw!
Stretching across the horizon, as far as the eye could see, were the 130 ships which made up the great Armada. With sails billowing in the wind, they appeared majestic and graceful. The ornate carvings and figureheads of architectural wonder took Carlota’s breath away. The gold gilding shimmered in the sun, sending reflections across the bay. It truly was a sight to behold. Carlota stood, spellbound, watching as they left the safety of Lisbon harbour and ventured north towards the English Channel.
The Spanish Armada depart, 1588.
“Carlota will you get down!” came the shrill voice of her over-cautious sister. “You’re going to have me egg-bound at this rate! Come away before you fall, you can’t swim. Do you think you’re a duck?”
“Oh stop your fussing and flapping. I’m coming” she said petulantly, as she stumbled in a flurry of feathers down from her cannon-perch. “Let’s explore!” she said, rushing past Anna, gracelessly attempting to make her way up the ladder and on to the deck. Anna hurried after, scorning her sister’s careless attitude and thirst for adventure.
As they made their way along the decks, weaving in and out between sailors’ feet, they spotted their Captain, standing proud on the quarterdeck, gazing over his crew who were busy setting the sails. Carlota, unfazed by the hush of activity around her continued, fluttered onto the deck beside Captain Gómez, where she called for Anna to join her. Unamused, Anna followed her sister, who was now perched on a stanchion watching the fleet as they gathered speed under a favourable wind.
A 16th century ship.
Hearing a door creaking, the sisters turned, to see the chef carrying a silver platter and disappearing into the Captain’s cabin. From the open door, came a great sound of laughter and a plume of acrid tobacco-smoke almost knocked them off their perches. Before Anna had time to stop her, Carlota had disappeared, tail feathers and all, after the chef and into the Captain’s dimly-lit cabin.
Carlota entered, her eyes adjusting as a slither of light cut through the smoke, illuminating the great table. Draped in finery, the officers who ate here enjoyed the best linen, pewter and enough food to satisfy even the greediest among them. A little man, with piggy features, sat, hunched over a great platter, gnawing on a succulent chicken leg. Carlota took one look at this grotesque little man and froze. She turned on her spurs and left as quickly as she had arrived. Anna chastised her, “You know what they say - curiosity killed the chicken!” Carlota, flicking her comb to one side made her way back onto the quarterdeck and into the bright sunshine, ignoring her sister’s warnings.
A few days passed and they familiarised themselves with the ship, the crew, the smells and the constant rolling and pitching of the Grifón as they made their way North. Living conditions for the sailors were grim, the men cramped together below decks, packed like sardines and given only meagre rations to eat. Despite this, morale was good and the two hens enjoyed listening to the men singing and playing dice games on top of barrels of gunpowder and casks of wine.
16th century sailors.
A few days into the journey the fleet ran into bad weather. This hampered progress and the hens and crew alike, grew miserable. The smell of the sick and dying wafted through the decks, reminding everyone of their own mortality. Fresh supplies were dwindling and they still hadn’t reached England. Those who made up the great Armada simply had to ride out the storm, and wait.
Finally, two months after leaving Lisbon, and after an unscheduled month-long stopover to carry out repairs, the fleet were once again underway. They departed from Corunna and sailed out into the open waters of the Bay of Biscay. But, as they approached the English Channel, the mood on board changed again. The crew became graver, more serious and the singing and games stopped. Carlota appeared oblivious to this as she continued on her single-handed, one-hen crusade to explore every nook, crevice and cranny of the great ship. But Anna didn’t like it. The constant mutterings from the crew, that the English were laying-in-waiting, did nothing to calm her nerves or settle her feathers.
Carlota and Anna awoke one morning to an unfamiliar smell which was coming in through the gun-ports! With beaks sniffing the air, they hurried up on deck to investigate. Peering over the port-side they saw, all along the coast and on every headland, smoke pouring from beacons which had been lit to warn people of the Armada’s imminent arrival. They had reached England. And as the Channel narrowed, the Armada got into formation, a tight crescent-shape, with strong-hulls bearing down on the outnumbered English ships.
And then, the deafening cannon-fire assault began. The English, with their superior guns started the bombardment on the seven-mile-long line of Armada vessels. Carlota and Anna hunkered down below, heads tucked under their wings, deafened by the crashing and banging, wondering what on earth was going on. For days, no hand came to rummage under their feathers to collect their daily eggs, no sailors’ songs were heard, no laughter from the galley. Just the constant boom and the deafening cry of those wounded and dying.
The English were not going to give in easily and the Spaniards retreated to Calais. The English pursued, and this is where the El Gran Grifón took a hit, at Gravelines, that almost certainly sealed her fate. Just when all on board thought they had heard the last cannon fire – BANG –a gun-fire which shook the boat till even her stern-post shuddered. The explosion was felt throughout the ship and the hens heard the cry of “man the bilge-pumps!” echoing down from the deck.
Suddenly, a rush of sailor’s feet went flying past the hens, still hunkering in their nest boxes. The sound of water pouring in could be heard from the deck below. The sailors worked the pumps tirelessly, packing holes with hessian sacks and wooden plugs. Carlota felt her bed of straw turning cold and wet, and to her horror discovered a small hole, from a musket ball in the hull below her. “Anna,” she gasped, “we’re going to sink!” and suddenly, the fearless, brave Carlota, began to panic. Anna, stoic as ever, was quick to act. She flew from her nest, rolling a green egg before her, and plugged the hole, before settling back down.
The English had won the battle at Gravelines. Anna and Carlota only needed to look at the drawn expressions on the sailors’ faces to know this. The El Gran Grifón, with the remaining Armada, scattered, heading north into the open water of the North Sea – away from the confines of the English Channel where the enemy waited. The two hens listened as the crew discussed plans. It was said that they were going to head north around Scotland, passing the west coast of Ireland, back to Spain. The two hens were relieved at this news, they had endured quite enough of the seven-seas for one lifetime!
Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The El Gran Grifón faced storm, after storm, and was forced to sail back and forth between Shetland and the coast of Norway. And now, many hands came to rummage for eggs and with supplies dwindling, these two hens became the most important creatures onboard. Captain Gómez even made them nest boxes in his own cabin, just to ensure the hungry sailors in the decks below didn’t steal the eggs, or worse still, eat his prize hens! Things were becoming desperate. One evening the two hens were awoken by a group of men bursting into the cabin, waking them from sleep they said, “Captain, you must come immediately. The Barca de Amburgo has gone down. The Trinidad Valencera have taken half the crew but they need assistance!”
“Very well,” replied a groggy Gómez, “Turn her around and go fetch the men. I can’t think how we’re going to feed them though, we haven’t enough to eat as it is.” Carlota and Anna looked at each other nervously, they had heard the crew calling them “chicken broth” already and they hoped to avoid the cook’s cauldron!
With almost 300 men now, the Grifón lumbered along laboriously, still trapped in the North Sea. And three weeks after they rescued the men from the other ship they ran into trouble again off Fair Isle. Whilst trying to make repairs, anchored in Swartz Geo, the cumbersome vessel was driven ashore and wrecked on the rocks at Stroms Hellier. Carlota and Anna watched, dumbstruck, as the desperate men clambered the rigging in order to reach land. The wind whistled through the damaged rigging and the once great ship, lay broken and beat.
Shipwrecked. By Jean Baptiste Pillement.
“What on earth do we do now?” Carlota asked nervously.
“Well, we can’t go down with the ship! And the Captain has just left us here, after all we’ve done for that man,” tutted Anna.
“We’re going to have to fly!” Carlota said, her eyes sparkling into life again.
“What have I told you about flying,” Anna scorned “With that clipped wing, you’ll just go in circles!”
“Do you have a better idea?” asked Carlota, as she made her way to the porthole in the stern aftercastle.
The two hens could see the men gathered on the edge of the cliff, gazing down at the broken crang of their wrecked ship, the land beyond, desolate and empty. Anna and Carlota, glancing at each other, plucked up the courage and flew onto the cliff to join the others.
And as they took to the sky – flight for the very first time – they gazed at the world beneath their wings. A world of chaos and anger, of suffering and plight. The crashing waves below, tearing at the cliffs, removing great chunks of earth – earth which had been there for millenia. The churning seas, foaming and angry, ripping great chunks from the once strong and proud ship they had called home. The island, a storm-blasted, barren landscape, a few small houses tucked into the hillsides, braced against the prevailing wind.
The men, anxious and disoriented took no notice of the two hens who had landed and were picking at their feet, happy to be on terra firma once more.
A traditional Shetland "galleon hen". Photo: Mary Isbister.
And this, according to folk legends, is said to be how the ‘Galleon Hen’, with her distinctive ‘tappit’ head and porcelain-like green eggs, came to be in Shetland.
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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.
March brings with it an urgency, an expectation of spring. I feel it coursing through my body like a raw energy which needs to be expended – somewhere, anywhere. The mornings are easier, I feel lighter and bursting with an all-consuming desire to get out and explore. The light is returning – a welcome sight after a long winter at 60 degrees north, and like me, the earth is awakening from its winter slumber.
As well as the bulbs and the lambs we have the spring equinox, and today, the equinox, there’s a full moon; the third and final supermoon of 2019.
The equinox is quite simply that time when the day and night are of equal length; there’s a balance in these days, but also a sense of polarisation. It feels as if we are hanging on a pendulum, in free-fall, suspended as the world is about to be set into motion. Like a rollercoaster, suspended just before the drop. The days and nights are equal; but the tides give their most extreme versions of themselves with the high ones licking the tops of piers and the low ones revealing all kinds of mysteries from the murky depths.
This year I chose to welcome the spring. I wanted to experience it and give thanks for its return.
I chose the Neolithic temple at Stanydale to view the equinox (or vernal) sunrise (If you are a regular reader of my blog then you may remember that I spent the winter solstice here too. You can read about that here). Stanydale is believed to have symbolic meaning, and as the sun lifts its head above the eastern horizon, it rises in almost perfect alignment with the temple’s narrow doorway and two carefully placed standing stones set a short distance from the door.
I wanted to see this for myself. I wanted to soak in the first rays of spring sunshine, I wanted to feel them kiss my cheeks, I wanted to smell the earthy dew rise from the cold moor and witness this incredible prehistoric alignment of man, stone and sun.
Morning coffee awaiting the sun at Stanydale on the Spring Equinox.
Our ancestors were carefully tuned into the cycles of the earth and land, carefully labouring, tilling and ploughing. Sowing the seeds and watching them grow. One eye skyward watching the weather, the other embedded in the soil willing growth. Hands ingrained with dirt. Sweat exchanged for growth. Just as our bodies, particularly us women, are governed by cycles, so too is the earth and the way we interact with it. Farmers are still tuned into this cyclical way of life but for the vast majority of us it bears little relevance to our day-to-day lives which are governed by the demands of 9-5 jobs.
Setting the alarm for 4.45am on a cold March morning might be a bit mad – and a few questioned my sanity – but I decided to step-off the merry-go-round and walk into the past with my eyes and senses open to the world around me. I wanted to stand – just for a moment – in the land of our ancestors 4,000 years ago. I wanted to hear the bird call in that suspended moment of quiet as the dawn meets the day.
Morning light at Stanydale.
Approaching the parking place for Stanydale at 5.30am the sky was still dark, except for a dim glow in the eastern sky. The drive west wasn’t looking promising for the mind-dazzling sunrise that I craved, with a squally shower reducing visibility to next to nothing. But, making the ascent up to the mysterious temple of our Neolithic fathers, and with boots sucking into the mossy bog, the clouds lifted and the sky cleared.
And as the magical moment approached and my senses deepened, I wondered what they were thinking – those hands that laid the stones – what filled their thoughts as they laid each stone in place? What did their lives look like? Did they wonder about the past too? Or even the future?
As I stood there awaiting the light, in the centre of that neolithic temple, and as the first rays flexed their golden arms above the hill, throwing light onto the cold earth that surrounded me I was mesmerised. For now – where fifteen minutes earlier it had been dark and unforgiving, allowing shadows to play in the corner of my eyes, amplifying my senses – it was dappled in that first soft light of fairy tales, tracing through my veins like a drug. And in a moment of purity, just as the earth gives way to the sea – the sun broke through the door, darkness gave way to light – penetrating the temple like a sword.
The sun passing through the door of the temple on the morning of the spring equinox.
As I went through the door, sun dazzled my eyes which were still tuned to the dark – my senses felt sharper. I made my way, feeling, around the temple. Using my hands to trace its shape, its curves, its alignments; touching every stone as I made my way around this megalithic marvel. Every feature accentuated. The grasses and floss danced golden and bright in the early morning, each blade standing tall and proud against the burning orange sky above me. The lichen that punctuated every stone shone in colours and patterns I had never seen before. Maybe it was the low morning light, or maybe I had simply opened my eyes to the world. Yet there was something in that morning. Something in even the call of the birds that was different; the whaaps expectant call more piercing, the shalder’s tone more urgent.
And as I drove back to Lerwick in the rush hour traffic, it was as if I had been violently thrust forward 4,000 years into a surreal parallel universe. The cars and the bustle of this spring morning were so far removed from where I had come from. As I rejoined the world and followed the road back to Lerwick – back to my time – where I had to put bairns to school, empty the dishwasher and get to work. A cruise liner was expected; how very 21st-century.
And as quickly as I had stepped out, I was brought back thousands of year with a jolt – the 8 o’clock news reporting on more Brexit and more bombings.
To write about the experience and how it felt to be stood there as the dawn met the day has been harder than I imagined – I think because the experience moved me in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. Something in that moment of calm reflection, as the sun rose, resonated deep inside me like a burning fire. I felt like the only person alive in that moment.
How do you put that into words? How do you describe the indescribable? How do you give thought and feeling to something that is so much greater than you are? How can I give words to the noise of the wind passing overhead, as the chamber of the temple remained still and suspended, or how the earth smelled as the sun warmed it, how its earthy tones rose like nectar around me. All I know is that I felt motionless – caught in the tides of time – somewhere between the here-and-now and the neolithic.
Welcoming the sun at Stanydale.
Who am I to say why those stones were placed in alignment to meet the sun of the spring equinox. Who am I to paint that picture? That picture of sunrises, and low morning sunlight kissing the walls of the temple’s passage. Of lichen, floss, birds and growth. I feel humbled to have borne witness, as those walls accepted the light and welcomed the spring. I am just one of many who have stood in that spot and soaked in the dawn of four-millennia, while the passage of time marches on regardless. One day my life will be history and I too will be a 4,000-year-old mystery.
To read more about Stanydale from an archaeological perspective check out this helpful and informative essay by Dr Esther Renwick from Archaeology Shetland here.
Dialect words meaning:
Whaap - curlew
Shalder - oystercatcher
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.
It got me thinking about men at sea in the past, before modern GPS, and the trepidation they must have felt as a strengthening wind took hold and ripped through the rigging, and the mounting fear as the ship began to roll and pitch. And for the ships sailing on our watery highways, the difficulty navigating these unfamiliar waters must have been a tremendous burden. Despite our apparent remoteness, Shetland sits in the centre of a great nautical crossroads; which opens up the world. It’s little wonder that over the years we have seen our fair share of notable shipwrecks around our rugged coastline.
Renowned for extreme weather and heavy unpredictable seas, many ships have been lost in and around our exposed coastal waters. Of these, only a small handful pre-date 1800. Many ‘ancient wrecks’ simply don’t survive. They are broken up and carried away by the sea, great rafts of flotsam ready to be washed up on the beach, a gift from the sea to the opportunistic beachcomber.
A diver surfacing with a pewter plate from the wreck of the Queen of Sweden. Photo courtesy of Sara Joffre.
Whatever their fates, those vessels which do survive are of even greater importance to our understanding of life at sea and the societies who took to the oceans. These rare, historic wreck sites are precious time-capsules – snapshots capturing every aspect of life at the exact time of loss – the moment that, for those on board, time stopped. They provide valuable information to archaeologists, historians, storytellers or curious individuals like me about the ship; including fittings and armaments, the cargo and the personal possessions of the crew on board. They tell us how they lived, and fought, how they worked and what they ate.
Alex Hildred, a diver on the famous Mary Rose, sums up historic wreck sites very well, she says that they offer a unique form of archaeological site: ‘It is a home, it is a community, it is a workplace, and it is a fighting machine’. What this gives us is every aspect of life, a beautifully encapsulated snapshot of time. A window into the past.
Lost to the elements. Shipwrecks are time-capsules of the moment of loss. This is an anchor from the Queen of Sweden. Photo courtesy of Sara Joffre.
Today we are still hobby beachcombers here in Shetland, our inner treasure-hunters scouring the tideline in the hope that something more dazzling than a discarded boot will have found its way onto our beach and into our expectant hands. In the past, these wrecks provided islanders with vital supplies – wood for roofing, for furniture, for agricultural tools and children’s toys. Or, wrecks were targeted by divers salvaging finds – treasure hunting and looking to make a quick buck. My great-great-grandfather, one of the many islanders whose fate was surrendered to the sea, lost to the waves while gathering wood from a wreck.
This simple map gives an idea of the route these East Indie ships were taking.
And to give a little context, Shetland has (perhaps surprisingly been) a major trade route all over the world from North America and Scandinavia to the East Indies and Australia and every conceivable place in between – and it has been so since the first explorers (in our case, the Vikings, who plied the oceans from the 9th century) arrived. During the 17th & 18th centuries ships often chose the northern route around Shetland to avoid conflict (or full-scale war) in the English Channel – meaning that more and more vessels found their journeys taking them into Shetland waters.
Navigating around unfamiliar Shetland waters was a challenge in the 18th century. This chart and navigation tools demonstrate what would have been available to the crew on the Queen of Sweden as she approached Shetland waters. Note the outline of hills on the chart - this was done so that the crew could recognise which part of the land they might be approaching from the shape of the hills. These items are all held in Shetland Museum & Archives. Photo: Davy Cooper.
Shetland & the Queen of Sweden
The point of the Knab, Lerwick, in blizzard conditions in January.
One of these incredible historic vessels, the flagship of the Swedish East India Company, was the Drottningen af Swerige (translated as Queen of Sweden). Under the command of Captain Carl Johan Treutiger, the Queen, a 147ft, 950-ton merchantman, carried 130 men and 32 guns. Built in Stockholm in 1741 for the princely sum of £12,500 she was the largest vessel in the company’s fleet. A trading vessel to China for the Swedish East India Company she was a ship to admire and marvel over – and one they were rightly proud of. She was partially loaded, en route to Cadiz (Spain) for more supplies before continuing to Canton (China) when she floundered here.
Ship of the Swedish East India Company.
Sailing with the Stockholm, both ships left Gothenburg, on Sweden’s western seaboard, on 9th January 1745, on ‘a day of chill easterly wind and white driving sea fog’. After making good headway, the weather deteriorated as they neared Shetland. With high winds, blizzard conditions and poor visibility, the ships struggled to maintain course. The Stockholm floundered and was lost off Braefield, Dunrossness (in Shetland’s south mainland) on 12th January at 5pm. The Queen continued, her Captain deciding to run for the safety of Bressay Sound (Lerwick). As she came into sight of the harbour entrance and safety, the weather closed in and visibility was again lost to a wintery shower. At around 9pm she struck a rock at the Knab (pictured) and was lost in only 10 fathoms of water. The crew from both ships survived, but the vessels were lost to the sea forever.
Chinese porcelain from the Queen of Sweden. A popular trade item which was taken back for Europe's influential upper and middle class societies. This plate is part of Shetland Museum & Archives collection.
An unlikely trade with the East
Although this trade to the east seems an unlikely one to have influenced Shetland, it was common and in fact, necessary! The English Channel during the 18th century was not a good place to be – privateers lay-in-waiting, ready to attack unsuspecting ships, plundering cargoes. These cumbersome merchantmen, such as the Queen, were difficult to navigate – especially within the tight and crowded confines of the busy Channel. So, that is why so many of them found themselves taking the longer, ‘safer’ northern route, around Shetland – risking both ship and men in our northern waters. And in fact, around 25 of these great ships were lost here, and this, I find incredible. That these elegant trading ships with billowing sails and ornately decorated hulls would find themselves in our waters – a corner of the UK forgotten and ‘boxed-off’ by geographers – is testament to the strategic importance of our island archipelago which sits on this nautical crossroads where the North Sea and North Atlantic meet in a dramatic clash of power and motion. A braver me would pull on a wetsuit and head down to the murky depths exploring. But I’m not a braver me so I’ll tell this story from dry-land.
Just as today we are a nation, and world obsessed with travel, so too were the men of the 18th century. People wanted to stand out in society and the pull of the east was great. Middle and upper-class social circles craved ‘exotic’ items brought back, and porcelain such as this photographed, from the Queen, was highly sought after. Extensively excavated, the finds from the Queen can tell us a wealth of stories about society at the time.
Small finds from the Queen of Sweden. These are now held in Shetland Museum & Archives. Photo: Davy Cooper.
The Queen beneath the waves
The personal finds, carefully excavated and brought back to the surface, particularly moved me, collected from the seabed hundreds of years after they were lost to time in a moment of panic, fear and confusion. A small signet ring. A trade item perhaps? We don’t know. It could have as easily been a marriage band, an heirloom a gift. If we think about our personal possessions and how we come to cherish them, then the bone comb could just have easily been a birthday present from a dearly-departed loved one, it may have been the only memory for a sailor of a wife back at home. We don’t know. All we know is that there were buttons and buckles, accessories and shoes. All these personal finds, belonging to a member of the ship’s crew on that fateful day and each with a story to tell.
Much of the ship's fittings were sold at auction at the time of wreckage but some have made it into the collections at Shetland Museum & Archives.
We know a lot about the finds from the Queen – some of the cargo was salvaged at the time of wrecking and sold at auction. The finds were listed and the auction catalogue is now held in the Shetland Archives. These salvaged parts included; ropes, sails, oak planking, muskets, pistols and bayonets, tar barrels, candles, linseed oil, vinegar, soap and lead, as well as the ship’s rudder and wheel.
The wreck was re-discovered in October 1979 and excavated by marine salvor, Jean-Claude Joffre. The collection, containing almost 500 individual items offer a tantalising insight into the life and workings of an 18th-century trading vessel.
Boy Jan off the Knab with divers excavating the wreck of the Queen of Sweden under the leadership of Jean Claude Joffre. Photo courtesy of Sara Joffre.
One reason for highlighting the Queen in this blog post (other than the fact I love shipwrecks) is because a consultation has recently been launched by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) to recognise and protect this important site which is thought to be the best example of a Swedish East Indie merchant ship in Scottish waters. HES, who advise Scottish government on the designation of historic Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), has recommended the Scottish government recognise and protect this important part of Scotland’s marine heritage with HMPA status.
Historic wreck sites such as these are protected and safeguarded through various legislative acts – Protection of Wrecks Act (1973); Zetland County Council Act (1974) and the Marine (Scotland) Act (2010) to ensure that they are safeguarded against ‘inadvertent or deliberate damage’. Diving on a site protected by this act is prohibited unless a license through HES is sought.
Evidence of the Queen can still be viewed on the seabed, including her impressive cannons, the crew all made it back home to their families safely, and for those of us who dive today - we're asked to take only photographs, and leave only bubbles.
With love (and bubbles),
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?
Locking people into their magic for millennia, folk tales were at one time an integral part of the lives of our ancestors here in Shetland (and beyond), passed down through generations from one-to-another, woven into the very heart of our culture with family lore, love and legend. It was cosy and intimate, warm and reassuring. It involved the meeting of eyes and the exchange of words. It was not an email trail, or a flurry of messages, likes and emojis on social media. It was real. It was tangible.
Shetland, as anyone who has been here between November and January will appreciate, endures a very long dark winter. In its slow and wintery depths, the sun will merely lift its head above the horizon, nod an acknowledgement - a reminder that it’s still here, still present - before sinking once more below the horizon, plunging the islands into a shadowy darkness. And it’s in this shadowy darkness that the tales of time are spun, stories webbed and mapped out as the storyteller nestles into his easy chair for the evening.
Hands at work, making horse hair fishing lines.
Winter here was characterised by hard work, but a different kind to that of summer, it was a time of preparation, of planning and making ready for the coming year. Of hope and anticipation, of waiting on weather and light. Yet, it was a sociable time, the bitter cold and incessant wind was softened, the sharp edges dulled by time spent in the company of friends and neighbours. So, as the fishing lines were made, the yarn spun, and the kishies formed, people chatted, whiling away the long dark hours in the company of friends.
And as legs tired, and the lamp dimmed, stories - the telling of a good yarn - was invariably the end result of these friendly nocturnal gatherings. It’s not surprising that many a good storyteller has come out of Shetland, equipped with tales able to challenge even the most highly acclaimed Booker prize winner. Stories which have been passed down through the generations and told around a glowing peat fire.
Lawrence Tulloch, one of Shetland’s most loved storytellers, wrote that “good stories did not have to be epic folk tales, it might be no more than someone telling of a trip to the shop.” But it was the way in which they could tell a story, spin-a-yarn and captivate the imagination of the audience, no matter how insignificant the event or topic might be.
I’m no storyteller. I’m happy writing, but I’m not sure I can tell a story, weave magic and drama, mystery and suspense, the way a storyteller might. My stories lack the drama, the mystery and the suspense that a storyteller might evoke. So, in this digital age, what and who are the new storytellers? Are they bloggers, social media users or writers, or are we on a path to losing this part of our heritage altogether?
When I began writing this (a while ago…) I was stuck on the freight boat (of all places!) outside Aberdeen thinking about this blog. I began talking to one of the other passengers, a lady, who told me she had been in Shetland researching storytelling. I turned my laptop around to show her what I was writing ‘What’s in a Story’.
Through the window. Shetland Crofthouse Museum.
And in that serendipitous moment, against the humming drone of the crippled engine, and under a fractured mackerel sky I realised that actually, as long as we still love a good story, as long as we still enjoy getting lost in the magic of the unreal – there will always be a place for the storyteller in whatever form that may take.
For anyone who would like to find out more about our storytellers, there are a few whose books and work I can recommend:
Lawrence Tulloch from Yell
Andrew Williamson from Mid Yell
Jessie M Saxby, originally from Unst
Jeemsie Laurenson from Fetlar
And for general folklore information and inspiration:
James R, Nicolson’s Shetland Folklore
John Spence’s Shetland Folklore
Ernest Marwick’s The Folklore of Orkney & Shetland
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.)
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.
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.
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.