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.
I’ve not planted my garlic yet. To most, this isn’t very meaningful, but to me, it’s a really big deal. I’ve been self-sufficient in garlic for at least six years, and this is the first year that those hopeful little bulbs have not been carefully placed into the cold November earth. I’ve also not planted my spring tulips – another source of frustration and anguish – another stick to beat myself with over the dark months.
Dolphin made from beach-found plastics at Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary.
We are in a climate crisis, and it seems that everywhere we look, we are reminded of this grim reality. It can feel overwhelming, but there are things we can all do on a small, local level to abate this. This morning, before breakfast, I consumed two climate change articles and signed a petition calling for our council to declare a ‘climate crisis’.
Shetland is often at the raw end of climate change, and this is something that I’ve wanted to touch on for a while but have never felt equipped to do so. Where do you start? Where does it end? Which facts can I pick out as truths, and which ones are just scaremongering and political propaganda? These are all questions that have haunted my thoughts when I start to consider writing about this topic. It’s a huge subject. It’s greater than you or I, and it’s snowballing, faster and faster towards … towards what? Another question I can’t answer.
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.
The Lodge in Fetlar; the perfect rural retreat in Shetland.
In early August we stayed in an award-winning self-catering cottage in Fetlar. The Lodge sits tucked above the shore, overlooking Lambhoga, and won the 2019 Lux Life’s most Tranquil Accommodation award. And wow, what a spot. As you drive into Houbie, the heart of the island, The Lodge comes into view. Nestled in the shadow of the impressive, if imposing, Leagarth House to which the Lodge was built to serve; originally as a gardener’s cottage for the early-20th-century mansion. The Lodge was built in 1900 for then-owner Sir Watson Cheyne, a pioneering surgeon who grew up in Fetlar.
Fetlar; the perfect place to get-away-from-it-all.
Commercial Street, Lerwick on a busy summer day.
A beginners guide to Shetland
You’ve read the travel guide? Great. You’ve seen the Shetland TV series, even better; now read a real guide from a local. Delve a little deeper into the fascinating culture of the place I call home: Shetland.
Our island’s culture and tradition is unique and distinctively ‘not Scottish’ – if that’s a thing? We’ve only been part of Scotland for 550 years so don’t expect to find any haggis, kilts or bagpipes here.
So, for those arriving here for the first time, I’ve compiled this little Survival Guide – a beginner's guide to Shetland, if you will. It’s by no means comprehensive and should be taken a little tongue-in-cheek, but here you go:
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.
A sheep at Hermaness, Unst.
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to stand on the edge of the world? When I was little, I had big dreams. Dreams of sailing away to far-flung places in the world, but as I grew older, my career advisor told me that that wasn’t possible. “You can’t sail around the world,” she said. Despite this dream-shattering moment, I often find myself thinking about the vastness of the world, and our place in it, as I gaze out over the rolling North Atlantic. We are but one small cluster of islands – a rock – rising proudly from the sea. Standing on the point of Hermaness looking across to Muckle Flugga gives an incredible sense of place. With the Arctic to the north and Newfoundland to the west – it feels so much more.
Muckle Flugga lighthouse. The most northerly point in the UK.
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.