Sail on Swan with Shetland with Laurie in 2020 *NOTE: DUE TO COVID-19 THESE TOURS ARE POSTPONED TILL 2021*
Swan under full sail. Photo courtesy of The Swan Trust.
Shetland’s maritime past holds a big place within my heart. I come from generations of fishermen and, being a woman with no desire to go to the fishing, was probably a disappointment to my father who, although he never said it, would probably have loved to see one of his offspring join the generations who went before him at sea.
That’s why when Swan, Shetland’s traditional sail-training vessel, asked me to collaborate with them and offer tours, I jumped at the chance.
Swan was built and launched in Shetland in 1900 and was one of the finest boats in the Scottish herring fleet. Fishing for many years in the waters around Shetland for the ‘silver darlings’ (herring) she eventually fell into a state of disrepair as more modern steam vessels took over the fishery, able to cover greater distances and transport their catch to markets more efficiently compared to the sail vessels, like Swan, who came before.
Da Hol's o' Scraada, Eshaness. This is a collapsed sea cave.
With more than 1,700 miles of coastline to explore it is no surprise that the shores around Shetland have amongst the most dramatic coastal scenery in Britain. With the second-highest sea cliffs in the UK, more caves than you can shake a stick at and natural arches to rival the Arc de Triomphe, it’s little wonder that Shetland is a bucket-list goal for those in search of a bit of adventure.
This blog post is a bit of an escape from the norm for me as I put the question to you – what would you like to hear about?
So, I’ve collected a few of your responses and will endeavour to answer as many as possible. I will include relevant links that you might find useful while planning your next Shetland adventure. Thank you for your suggestions!
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.
Culswick broch in Shetland's West Mainland.
Walk distance: 3 miles (4.6km)
Time taken: 3 hours
The walk is a total of 3 miles (4.6 km) and we did it earlier this year by bike, but probably only at a walking pace (bearing in mind we had a two and six-year-old in tow). It’s an excellent walk and I would allow an hour each way with an additional hour for exploring the ruined houses of Sotersta, as well as the broch and spectacular coastline along the way – so to enjoy it, allow three hours from start to finish.
The beautiful Culswick Valley.
Victoria Pier, Lerwick. Photo: Alexa Fitzgibbon.
At this time of year, when the days are getting shorter, and I undergo the daily ritual of opening all the blinds and shutters, only to close them again hours later, it makes me think about the place I call home and the town I call home: Lerwick.
Johnson family. Photo courtesy of Larry & Beth Sutherland.
I remember my great-grandmother – Grandmam – well, she was a petite woman who was quiet and kind. She possessed a power so great; a strength of character that carried her family through life with an incredible unity. She was a quietly determined woman with a kind and gentle heart. I remember her at home, occupying a chair in the corner, surrounded by her makkin. Her seat of power and command, to me, it was her throne, and she was the Queen. She was the head of the family but was neither demanding nor harsh, her soft eyes, infectious smile and intuitive ways invited respect, it didn’t demand it.
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.
A little about Laurie
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.