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.
What I can do though is talk from my experience about what I see and how I try to make tiny-ickle changes for the better – ones that you too can make.
We live on an island; a rough, exposed group of over 100 islands in the centre of the North Atlantic. The sea surrounds us, and that’s where I see the problem manifest itself the greatest in the form of plastic pollution.
I’m a baby of the 1980s. I grew up with plastic. I am the plastic generation. And although my mum was a bit of a hippy who wore long floaty dresses, made our clothes and swore by cloth nappies and breastfeeding I still played with plastic toys, bagged up shopping with single-use bags and as I grew older, bought plastic bottles from the shop almost daily.
Yet, when I remember my childhood, I recall playing with old pots and pans (from a nearby dump), scooping up pony manure for mud pies and broths and hunting in the burn (stream) for frogs. I don’t remember the ‘1991 toy of the year’ which was probably plastic and was more than likely tossed aside after a few moments. I do remember the Kinder Surprise Tapsi Turtles – they were amazing, weren’t they? And now, 25-years later, I despair at the trash that comes from those eggs that my bairns insist on buying and almost instantly discard, they’re no longer collected and played with. It’s getting worse, not better.
With almost 1,700 miles of coastline, Shetland is known for its outstanding natural beauty, secluded beaches and wildlife. However, this often harbours a much uglier side and one that anyone living here will know all too well: plastic pollution.
Whenever I go to the beach, I endeavour to ‘pick up 5’. Quite simply, I pick up five pieces of plastic pollution or do a quick two-minute beach clean. I do this with visitors too, and it’s usually met in one of three ways: Some question what I’m doing, some lament at the ‘fuss’ made about plastic these days but most will stop and try to meet their target five items too.
The greatest offenders of our roadsides and beaches in Shetland. Waste from the fishing & aquaculture industries and plastic, single-use bottles.
Of the second group, those who don’t understand the ‘fuss’, I try to thoughtfully educate them and help them see the problem from our local perspective. Earlier this year I had a couple from America, they lived in a land-locked state, in a city where garbage is uplifted by trucks and carted away somewhere out of sight for disposal. They were shocked when I showed them images of entangled animals and took them to Hillswick to speak to Jan Bevington, who runs a wildlife rehabilitation centre. By the end of the day, they too were picking up small pieces of twine, rope and bottle caps for disposal, and that made me feel proud and happy. If we can change attitudes and educate, even on a small, local level, we will ultimately all make a huge difference. We have also to accept that some people will never share this opinion, and that’s fine too, all we can do is try to educate and enlighten and hope that people will listen.
Hillswick Wildlife Centre in Shetland North Mainland.
Another stark reminder from the natural world are found in the impressive gannet colonies across Shetland. Beauty hot spots like Noss and Hermaness feel like you have been transported right into an Attenborough documentary, however, if you look at the nests through binoculars, the sight is shocking: nests constructed from plastic and rope; blue curling where there should be seaweed and straw. The photo below from Brydon Thomason clearly shows the problem of plastic in our breeding seabird colonies.
Gannets nests strewn with rope and plastic at Muckle Flugga, Unst. Photo courtesy of Brydon Thomason, Shetland Nature.
Another example from another beauty spot is the beach at Rerwick in Shetland’s South Mainland where visitors can expect to see dozens of seals on the beach. A closer look with binoculars reveals that several seals are entangled in plastic strapping. Ultimately these animals are on death row, awaiting a long and painful death.
Seals on Rerwick Beach in Shetland's South Mainland. What this photo doesn't show is that several of the seals here have rope around them, which is slowly killing them.
As the climate changes and sea temperatures rise, we also have wetter, windier winters. This has a direct effect on fishermen and farmers who depend on the land and sea. Nature is always the first to adapt in response to these subtle, gradual changes. Seabirds may fail to breed successfully, fish stocks may move into different waters, and land becomes waterlogged and degraded.
What can we do
Plastic is a relatively new phenomenon, and it has some essential uses, in some cases, it is entirely necessary. What we need to do is stop and think a little. Ask our grandmothers how they stored cheese before cling-film. And maybe you could sew that button back on, rather than discarding the shirt?
Climate action doesn’t have to be overwhelming, start small, and here are a few examples:
Some of the things we can do to make a difference: shop with consideration; pick up litter; make or buy wax wraps to store food.
I know that this might seem a bit doom-and-gloom compared to the usual posts I produce, but it’s important to highlight, and I hope that you have read this far and haven’t felt that I am just adding another layer to all the noise out there regarding climate change.
I still have a long way to go personally. Our family still produce too much waste. I still pull plastic wipes from a plastic pack to wipe snotty noses, but I have replaced my disposable face wipes with reusable cotton alternatives, and I buy my loo roll from Who Gives a Crap. I still buy Comfort fabric conditioner because I like the smell, but I have swapped out my washing liquid and shower gels for environmentally friendly alternatives.
We don’t have to turn our lives upside down to make a positive impact, but we can stop and think: Do I need it? Is it reusable? Is there a more environmentally alternative? And most importantly, how can I take care of my own little patch of the world for the future.
"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you." ~ Jane Eyre
When I was about 12 years old, I wrote a poem about a caged bird. It wasn’t that great; nobody really liked it but me – not even my mother. For me, it spoke more about how I felt when I put the words on paper than what the words actually said. I dumped it, although I wish now I’d kept it as it sticks in my memory like that little grains of sand between the toes after a stroll on the beach.
In my day-to-day life I’m often asked what I do for work all year round: ‘Is this [guiding on the buses] all you do’, or ‘what do you do in the quiet season?’. My life used to be clearly defined, my vocation straightforward – I worked in the local museum, I worked 9-5 Monday to Friday. It was a nice simple explanation that people understood. I went to work and then came home to my family. But I felt like that 12-year-old writing about a caged bird – except now I was the bird. My role now is less defined; harder to explain. I wear several hats, and it takes a little longer to unravel it to people. But that said, I have never felt freer. I no longer feel caged.
I tell my guests that I gave it all up and have never looked back. I’m now self-employed doing tours that I love and writing about all the things that make me feel alive. In January I took over as editor of Shetland Life magazine – a monthly lifestyle magazine all about, yes you guessed it, life in Shetland. I feel now like my life is full of opportunites and adventure, every door that creaks opens unlocks another wonderful experience or opportunity. My mind is bursting with ideas and my heart is full.
I’ve always enjoyed playing with words; dabbling in poetry that nobody is allowed to read, fiction that no one will ever want to read, and the dreary academic stuff that leaves your eyes feeling droopy and your brain aching from the weight of words that you don’t even recognise as your own, all written in an attempt to appear more intelligent, or accepted by your peers. These ventures into academia never left me feeling alive; in fact, the opposite was true; they just left me feeling a bit hollow and unfulfilled.
My blog was a turning point; a revelation of sorts. I could write what I wanted, and if people chose to come along and read them, great. If not, I was left with an assortment of musings and some nice photos to act as a reminder of the motivations that caused me to write them in the first place. I began to feel inspired again.
So, if you are dabbling in words, or worse still, if you are feeling caged, then take a pen and some paper and write it out. You never know what doors –or cages – it might open for you too.
This was never supposed to be a blog post about life. I was supposed to just come here and tell you that I also worked in winter. It was just a little memo I wrote to myself in the notes on my phone while I stood outside in the rain musing about life and philosophising about the road that it takes you down. That road might be bumpy – and if I’d written this a year ago, that would certainly have been the case – but if you remain true to yourself and listen to that intuition that burns somewhere deep inside you, then you too can find that little golden key to unlock your own cage and set yourself free.
Now, for anyone that is worried that I have finally lost my marbles – I’m sure that I’ve dropped one or two along the way – then please don’t worry; my next blog post will be back to basics in a few weeks. But for now, here’s the answer to ‘what I do’; I tour, write and muse.
I’d love to hear from you – what unexpected journey has your life taken, how has it shaped you, and how did you set yourself free?
The Lang Ayre, Northmavine. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
If a Munro is a small mountain, then a Marilyn is a small Munro. And a small-small mountain is exactly what we climbed (and some) a few weeks ago. I was invited to join a lovely group of folk on a hike to the Lang Ayre in Northmavine in Shetland’s North Mainland. The Lang Ayre was a bucket list goal of mine, the long walk which takes in the small-small mountain, Ronas Hill – the highest in Shetland – is one that I have been meaning to do for years.
The stunning Lang Ayre in Shetland's North Mainland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
It was a beautiful summer day, the kind that remains etched in memory for long after it has passed. And as the group assembled in dribs and drabs at the old NATO station on top of Collafirth Hill, the sun hung high, throwing warm rays over us from a sky that promised nothing but pure unadulterated sunshine. Leaving our convoy of cars and 4G signal behind us, we finally set off into the hill at about midday.
Walking up Ronas Hill, Shetland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The walk is in Northmavine, a landscape characterised by the red granite stone intrusion – or batholith (as I was told) – that makes up this fascinating corner of north-west Shetland. The area is dominated by Ronas Hill (our small-small mountain) that stands proud at 450 metres and often lies cloaked in low cloud and hill fog. But not on the day we visited, the sun shone off the red granite, illuminating the steep slopes and bathing all the miniature Arctic Alpines in light, making them stand from the rough rock like tiny beacons.
On top of the world; summit of Ronas Hill, Shetland. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
Ronas Hill is home to several varieties of Arctic Alpines that have survived here, presumably from before the last Ice Age retreated about 10,000 years ago. Of these miniature marvels, there is Mountain azalea, alpine lady’s mantle and spiked woodrush. These hardy little miniatures are usually only found on high mountains, or in the Arctic, but they thrive here, and as we ascended to the upper heights we spotted all three clinging to the unforgiving slopes of the rocky tundra.
Mountain azalea (left); Alpine lady's mantle (right).
Ronas Hill rocky tundra. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The day was hot, and the walk was steep, but it didn’t take long to reach the top, at our leisurely rate we made it to the chambered cairn on the summit in an hour. From the peak, the views are breathtaking. To the north, we could see the dome on top of Saxa Vord Hill (on the most northerly part of Unst) and to the south, Fitful Head (the southern point of Shetland) that stood out on the horizon like a great sleeping dragon, snoozing in the summer sun. Every corner of the isles laid bare in front of us; the vista was spellbinding. We spent a bit of time at the top, catching our breath, eating homemade scotch eggs (thanks Shaun) and flying drones to get even more spectacular photos and video footage (for images and footage from the top, check out Southspear Media and Shetland by Drone on Facebook or Instagram, here and here).
Rona's Hill chambered cairn.
Two features on top of Ronas are notable (other than the alpines), the geocache and the chambered cairn.
Geocaching in Shetland is a popular pastime, and they are found all over the landscape – basically, small Tupperware boxes containing trinkets and a visitor’s book are hidden and using GPS, people seek them out, leave a signature and something they may have in their pocket or rucksack.
The chambered cairn is an older structure, made from the weathered granite the structure dates to the Neolithic – about 5,000 years ago – and contains a large chamber inside. It has been added to over the years by climbers who place a rock to mark their achievement of reaching the summit of Shetland.
Views across Shetland from the top of Ronas Hill.
Hunger satisfied and photos snapped we set off on the climb down to the Lang Ayre (Long Beach) on the other side of the hill. The downward climb was a lot easier on the legs, but you know what they say; everything that goes down, must come back up!
With the heat beating down on us, I stopped to fill my water bottle from the crystal clear burn, fed from springs deep inside the heart of the hill. The water was icy cold and refreshing, forced up through layers of granite before meeting the earth in a gurgling babble before winding its way through deep ravines down to the sea. ( A note of caution: take care when drinking from burns or streams, and only drink from a clean water source, make sure there are no dead sheep upstream!).
A long way down to the other side and the Lang Ayre.
As we descended the hill, the bonxies (great skuas) began to circle above us, swooping stealthily in great circles overhead before landing again – scoping us out; a warning to us that we were in their territory.
Surveying remains in the landscape; trying to read the stones for clues about the past, Ronas Hill.
Sweating less, I was able to reflect on the landscape around us. The area is barren and wild, yet there is evidence of people from the past all around. Just over the hill, at Grutwells, a Neolithic axe factory that produced highly polished felsite axes and knives that were exported all over Shetland by a prehistoric people. Halfway down the hill, built structures and field systems indicating lives lived here long, long ago – but the OS map and Canmore could offer up no indication of what these structures may have been, or who may have used them, and why.
Thinking about the people who inhabited these wild northern reaches, exposed to the elements and eking out a living in thin, unforgiving soils, I could only imagine what they may have thought about their Neolithic counterparts in Shetland’s lush and fertile South Mainland. They must have appeared to have had a very easy life in comparison to these northern people.
The route to the Lang Ayre, following the course of a burn down a steep ravine. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
As the coast comes close, follow the deep ravine that terminates on to the red stones of the Red Ayre – this is the only way down on to the beach, and at the top of the cliff, there is a rope to aid your passage on to the beach below. This is a walk that would probably be inadvisable – if not unachievable – during the winter months.
Getting down on the Lang Ayre is made easier by a helpful rope to assist down the steep slopes.
The beautiful Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
The Lang Ayre itself is a veritable palette of colour; reds, oranges, greys and blues, all thrown together, rocks polished and smoothed in nature’s very own rock-tumbler. Each one placed and formed by the violent North Atlantic that ravages this impressive and imposing coastline. On the day we visited, it was calm, shimmering and still. A creel boat puttered around the stacks, hauling in creels; glistening jewels of water falling from burrop and buoy into the turquoise ocean below. Sitting, for a moment, by the water’s edge I listened as the sea washed over the stones, rushing in at haste before slowly making its retreat, water noisily finding its way around every pebble – sucking and gurgling as the power of the ocean pulls it back to sea. It was transfixing, the way it comes rushing in with such velocity, and pulled out again, almost reluctantly, clinging to every rock on its retreat.
The sea rushing up the beach; a transfixing sound on the Lang Ayre.
The rugged coastline on Shetland's Atlantic seaboard.
We lounged on the beach for a while, scoffing the rest of our picnics (and scotch eggs), marvelling over the beauty of the place. Words like, ‘Jurassic’ and ‘out-of-this-world’ banded around as we all struggled to absorb the sensory overload that fell before our sun-blinded eyes.
Our beachside views out to sea were spectacular at the Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
I was fascinated by the drone that Nick from Southspear Media was flying overhead (and I thank him for taking the time to give me the ‘idiots guide to drone flying’ lesson). We were able to see every inch of this remote and vast coastal landscape, fly between stacks and look back at our beachside seats from way out at sea. The whole experience was mesmerising, a reminder that technology can sometimes allow us to see a world in much more detail and clarity. It feels like a bit of an oxymoron to say that, as we often criticise technology for not allowing us to be ‘present’ in a moment; but to see the Lang Ayre from the vista of the fulmars and gannets that soared around us, felt to me, an incredible privilege. Although we all know someone who has lost a drone, right?
Incredible drone footage captured by Nick of the coastline at the Lang Ayre. Photo courtesy of Southspear Media.
And then, just like that, it was time to leave and make our way back up the hill, back to our waiting cars on top of Collafirth Hill – just a 450-metre hike back. And as weary legs pulled us back up the way we had bounded down an hour or so before, we skirted the summit, avoiding the peak, before heading back down to our endpoint – back to the real world, away from the solitude and drama of Ronas Hill and the Lang Ayre.
Colours on the Lang Ayre.
I think that on this sunny summer day I fell a little bit more in love with Shetland; a place that I feel coursing through my veins so deeply. There really is no better place in the world than home.
Finally, a massive thanks to Sophie and the gang for letting me join the walk and for the great company and laughs. And a special thanks to Nick from Southspear Media for letting me use the drone footage, and of course, Shaun for the homemade scotch eggs!
Morning light in Shetland's west mainland.
I often read Peedie Peebles’ Summer or Winter Book by Mairi Hedderwick to my bairns. They’ve both loved it; and so did I when it was read to me as a child. This illustrated children’s book looks at the antics of mischievous toddler, Peedie Peebles, as he goes through the trials and tribulations of being little, following him through summer and winter. Importantly, it highlights the differences between the seasons – the endless summer light and sunshine masterfully illustrated in watercolour with clear blue skies, and gardens dripping in flowers and light, bursting with life and energy. It then shows the same domestic scene, played out in winter, with its darkness and storms, fraught tempers battling the realities of perpetual light deprivation.
This difference between summer and winter at 60° North is something I’m always asked about, and in fact, was interviewed about and featured on TV discussing with BBC Breakfast just last week. The first question (after "what’s it like living with the light nights") that visitors – and the BBC – ask me is, “how do you cope with it being light at night when you’re trying to get to sleep, and more importantly, trying to get your kids to sleep?” And the truth is; it’s all I know, all they know, all we know.
Early evening light in Fetlar, Shetland.
I was born and brought up in Shetland, which sits closer to the Arctic Circle than it does to London, and enjoys up to 19 hours of daylight at this time of the year, known locally as the Simmer Dim, or midsummer. I grew up with endless days of light, of going to bed with the sun high in the sky and waking with it still there; hung suspended like a continuous portrait of summer. It’s the most normal thing in the world to us who have been born and raised at this most northerly part of the UK.
Summer evenings in Shetland.
Yet, to a researcher in London, or a visitor from closer to the equator, where day and night are more equal, this seems almost surreal, and I guess it is – if you stop and think about it, as I have recently. My childhood memories are split in two; like Peedie Peebles Summer or Winter Book. Split like the two sides of a coin, between the memories of summer holidays that seemed to go on and on forever; of being outside covered in gutter, with bare feet and grubby paws. And then the long dark winters; with peat fires, books and houses filled with laughter and warmth. Hygge isn’t new; we’ve been doing it here in Shetland for generations.
December light at 2pm in Shetland.
That brings me on to the second question from the BBC researcher: “How do you and your children cope with the winter”. Our winter brings six hours of daylight within the 24 hours and is punctuated with winter storms brought in off the Atlantic which can, at times, feel all-consuming. But this is another reality. All my life this has been the reality, and for me, it brings a certain comfort. When I was young, and my dad was at the fishing, I used to lay awake, worrying that he was at sea in a storm and the dangers that can bring. Now, as an adult, I find it soothing to hear the wind rattle down the chimney and the rain lashing at the window; I shut the shutters and cosy down – it’s soothing. Isn’t it ironic that our greatest childhood fears and worries can become a comfort in adulthood.
A day between weathers; a calm, winter morning in Shetland.
Another question I’m always asked is, “What do you do with the long winter nights?” I have no real answer to this as it’s something I never considered until recently. I usually just make a joke out of it – avoiding having to give a sensible response – and answer with, “we have the highest birth rates in the UK, so I’ll let you figure it out.” (Sometimes it gets a laugh; sometimes not!). But, we do what everyone else does in the winter; indulge in hobbies, all washed down with too much cheese, wine and chocolate. For me, I read, write, binge on box sets, redecorate rooms on a whim and discover dusty corners that were neglected in that halcyon haze of summer (who cleans in summer anyway?). Generally just mooching around a bit more, lighting candles, cooking and baking – re-stocking the freezer with quick meals for summer (because who wants to cook in the summer either?).
But, that said, when we do get a fine day in winter, there is no better place to be. I like to get out and fill my lungs with crisp, cool air. The winter light is as breathtaking as summer, and can often be more so as the clarity is so good, allowing you to see for miles – islands appear to 'stand out of the water' and are sharper and more pronounced on a winter day.
Shetland's Simmer Dim; the sun merely dips below the horizon beforing rising again a few hours later. Photo: Dale Smith.
But, back to the simmer dim. The Shetland Dictionary defines it as “the twilight of a Shetland summer evening”. It’s a magical time of year here. The sun sets at 10.30pm, merely dipping its head below the horizon before rising again at 3.30am. Everything in nature is alive – it’s the best time to pack up a tent and set off into the hills. Listen to the world outside, it really is transfixing, and it leaves you feeling oh-so-insignificant; a tiny speck in a wide, wide world filled with wonder. The evening light of the simmer dim is an indescribable soft veil that cloaks the land, lingers and clings to it as if it will never give up its warm hold. Everything in nature is accentuated under its heady rays. The moss greener, the lichen more textured and every bird’s call is amplified; the senses are overloaded from the moment you step out the door. The morning light differs; it brings a crisp sharpness, a raw edge as the dew lifts and gives rise to the day. It’s refreshing and rich, bursting forth like a child who has just been given free rein at the park gates. It leaves you feeling rejuvenated and bursting with happiness.
Summer is the perfect time to pack up a tent and head to the hills.
My energy in the summer is always heightened, I can stay out all day and night – overdosing on vitamin D, squirrelling it away some-place deep inside to replay as memories of summer on the deepest darkest of winter days. I don’t mind that the housework gets neglected and meals are generally last-minute, dug from the deepest depths of the freezer, summer is just a fleeting moment. Blink and you might miss something – the light shimmering on a turquoise sea, or the flight of a bumblebee through heather, or the dew on a spider web, tucked under a bank of peat.
Last week we had the Simmer Dim, and with it comes a certain sense of trepidation, a realisation that the days are on the turn again and that the march towards winter and the darkness has begun once more. But for now, for today, there is still a summer to be had. Longer blog posts can wait till winter.
And for anyone who missed our TV appearance, please find a (taken on my iPhone) video of it below. It was aired on BBC Breakfast on Sunday 23rd June.
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.
I really hope you enjoyed my tale...
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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
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
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.
Good evening! If you follow me on Instagram then you will know where this blog post has come from - if not, let me explain.
This morning, I shared a photo of the cliffs at Eshaness (below) and explained that it was a stormy day here in Shetland, and that I was stuck at home with two snotty bairns so I planned on baking the Christmas oatcakes - we are massive cheese fans in this house, and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the bumper annual delivery from pong.com.
My lovely, engaging followers were quick to respond, and to message, asking that I share the recipe on my insta stories (which I did, and saved to my highlights here). As many of my followers are not from the UK, a lot of are unfamiliar with this classic Scottish/Shetland recipe, still a store cupboard staple today.
So, as promised - here it is:
~ Rub the margarine into the dry ingredients (I used my Kitchen Aid because I'm lazy).
~ Add the beaten egg, and a little milk (just a splash) until the mixture binds together into a dryish consistency.
~ Roll the mix out onto a floured surface to about 1/4" which (or however you personally like them).
~ Bake for 20 minutes in a moderately high oven.
(For AGA ovens: bake on rack in the foot of the top oven with the cooling tray above to prevent burning).
Allow to cool before enjoying with copious amounts of cheese and butter.
I'm going to run a little competition to see how far this recipe can travel. I will send the winner a peerie present from Shetland. To enter just tag your own oatcakes: #shetlandwithlaurie and I will send the winner a prize in the New Year.
You have till the end of the year to get baking and enter!
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.
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.