"Rhubarb is a word which rolls on the tongue with relish. It sounds both rude and absurd, and the imagination has found all sorts of uses for it."
~ Mary Prior, Rhubarbaria
I am an absolute rhubarb fanatic, I just love the stuff, and this is the best time of year to indulge in it. The sweet, fresh shoots are just bursting with tang and spring flavour as we move towards June. This is always the first dish I cook with rhubarb every year and I make sure that I freeze a few for winter too.
Shetland is a great place for rhubarb - it grows prolifically here. You often find abundant patches of it growing among the ruins of old houses. I'm not sure why it grows so well, but it certainly thrives. It is neither a native plant to Shetland, nor one which has been around for a long time. It has only graced tables in Britain for about 200 years and originates from the East (somewhere). Originally used as a medicine, it became a popular food-source in the 19th century and would have certainly brought an exotic flavour to the traditional Shetland diet.
St Ninian's Isle beach in Shetland's South Mainland.
Whether it’s hidden coves, sweeping sands or stony strands, Shetland has it all and, among the many beaches that make up Shetland’s breathtaking coastline, there are five that have been included in the national Beach Awards, part of the Keep Scotland Beautiful charity.
These awards “are the benchmark for quality, celebrating clean, well managed and sustainable beaches.” Those selected “demonstrate excellent beach management and environmental best practice, and maintaining high standards.”
As 2020 is the Year of Coast and Waters I thought I would bring you a list of Shetland’s award-winning beaches. As many people are spending this time planning their next holiday, why not start with some top-rated beaches to get your next holiday off to a flying start.
‘Whiskers’, a favourite grey seal at Shetland Catch. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wills.
With more and more of us looking to literature to get our daily break away from the news, I thought that in this blog, I would share a book review I wrote for The New Shetlander. The New Shetlander is a magazine founded in 1947 – the oldest literary and community journal in Scotland. It comes out every quarter, and the editors welcome contributions about Shetland and the world. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, you can do so here.
The New Shetlander is Scotland's oldest literary and community journal.
The book that I reviewed is very fitting to an audience of would-be Shetland visitors. Recently published, it was written by Jonathan Wills who operated guided boat tours around Lerwick and Noss for over 20 years. He shares his knowledge and recollections from his time as a tour guide in this lavishly illustrated paperback.
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.
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.