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
Passage down to the shore can often be dangerous. Photo Terri Leask.
Today I took my second dip of the year in the sea; this time it was the North Atlantic (rather than the North Sea) – and this time it was unscheduled.
Shetland’s eastern seaboard is flanked by the North Sea – a marginal sea of the North Atlantic stretching across to the mainland of northwestern Europe – on the west side, our 'wild' frontier plays host to the full force of the powerful North Atlantic, bringing storms, ravaging waves and an abundance of seabirds and mammals. With nothing between us and North America the waves which assault the western coastal fringes have had thousands of miles at sea to grow before expelling their mighty energy on our shores.
Both the Atlantic and the North Sea meet with a rip-roaring clash of personalities at the southernmost and northernmost tips of Shetland – Sumburgh Head and Muckle Flugga.
The sea has provided so much for the isles over the years with fishing, aquaculture, oil and of course – pleasure. It’s said that Shetlanders have saat in da blood. And this was no exception today as I felt the full force of the cold salt water as it seeped into my knickers.
If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen the videos in my stories (which I will highlight in ‘Stormy Shetland’).
While out taking photos and videos I was swept off my feet by an incoming 'rogue' wave, and I captured the whole sorry episode on my iPhone. I shouldn't have been so close to the edge and I shouldn't have been glued to my phone.
The moment I plunged into the icy Atlantic captured on camera...
Bannamin beach in Burra where I fell in the sea.
So, I am writing this post to act as a reminder – and a warning – to both visitors, and locals alike to take care when out and about in Shetland. As someone who grew up here I should firstly know better, and secondly, I have probably become complacent to the power of nature.
So here are a few pointers (plucked from my boring risk assessment on coastal walking) to bear in mind when you visit:
The stunning cliffs at Eshaness. As tempting as it may seem, please stay back from the edge.
And an additional one (added today!):
Bannamin beach, Burra in stormy weather.
At the start, I said that this was my second dip in the sea this year. The first swim was a planned snorkel in the North Sea, and I had on a wetsuit. I wrote about this for the magazine I edit which will be published in April. The magazine – Shetland Life – can be subscribed to here. Or if you’re interested in only one copy, let me know and we can arrange that.
So please – go and explore – we have no restrictions on where people can go, all that we ask is that you do it safely.
So stay safe and enjoy your trip – your Shetland adventure awaits.
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),
St Ninian's Isle tombolo.
Shetland’s jigsaw coastline has every sort of beach - sandy, stony and everything in between. At this time of year, the sea is a vibrant, turquoise green. It sparkles under the sun. After the cold, long, dark winter, there’s lightness and hope, caught in the smell of spring flapping in the warm breeze like fresh clothes hanging out to dry. I love heading to the coast at this time of year. It makes me feel alive, energised and free.
We have almost 1,700 miles of breathtaking coastline, the most well-known of which includes St Ninian’s. This, the largest active tombolo in the UK is breathtakingly beautiful, there’s no doubt about that – an ‘iconic’, picture-postcard image – but one that you’ll find in every visitor brochure and website (including my own) about Shetland. This 50-metre long expanse of pristine sand is pretty unmissable – so you can find it without my help.
I started off this blog post, intending to pick out my top five beaches, but have actually ended up with six – two of them are on the same island (Burra) so, I’m listing that as one!
A word to the adventurous: I’m not including out-of-the-way remote beaches (this may be a future blog post!). The Lang Ayre in Northmavine for instance – spectacular, but 99 per cent of visitors won’t have the opportunity to visit this secluded beach. Every place I’ve listed is basically just off the main road or a relatively short walk (under 10 minutes), so they are easily found and accessible to most – especially those who are limited by time or mobility.
Off-the-beaten-track beaches not listed.
But the reality is, I can’t choose a favourite. I can’t even come close to choosing. There are so many fantastic places – places I haven’t even mentioned yet – West Sandwick, West Voe, Levenwick, Norby and Skaw, all firm favourites too. And what about those hidden gems that are happened on while out walking or off in a boat exploring the coastline? Little treasures at the head of a geo or along an inaccessible piece of coastline.
The point of Bruna Ness – a hard-to-reach sandy beach – where I swam with friends on a long summer night, friends no longer with us, but never forgotten. The beach on the island of Papa – Granny Tam’s beach. Small and understated, but where my ancestors came from, where the family landed their boats and provisions. The beach which welcomed visitors and was where women watched from as the men went off to sea. The island is now uninhabited – women no longer wait expectantly on the beach for loved ones to come home, boats are no longer shoarded up against the might of Atlantic winter storms. All that remains are the remnants of a pier, and the gentle lull of the sea washing over pebbles as wading birds pick among the waar (seaweed).
These places all hold memories, dear to me, they have moulded my personal connection with this place I call home and continue to do so, every time I set foot on a beach and feel the wind in my hair and the salt on my skin.
Growing up here in Shetland, places become ingrained – stamped to memory – like postcards from the past; of long summer holidays as children, of beach bonfires and beer as teenagers, and now, as I raise my own family, of hope that they too can add happy memories to their own life tapestry.
So what I’ve done here – apart from stirring deep memories – is compile five of the best beaches, five that I go back to, year after year, taking my children too, beaches that I also hope you have the opportunity to visit and enjoy too.
Exploring islands. Photo: Stella Winks
Here they are:
Minn beach, Burra.
1. Meal or Minn beach in Burra
I’ve selected two beaches in Burra, the Meal beach and the Minn beach (not Bannaminn, as it’s often incorrectly called).
The beach at Meal is more exposed and is brilliant for building sandcastles and the peerie (small) hidden beach is perfect if you can stake claim to it on a busy day. But, for swimming with children, the undercurrent can be powerful and dangerous, so you need to be a strong swimmer and be aware of the undertow. Meal can also be linked into a circular walk which you can view here.
2. Easting, Sandwick, Unst
This beautiful, wide, sweeping bay is my favourite place to come and soak up our history and archaeology. At the head of the beach are the remains of a Norse longhouse, a nod to our Scandinavian Viking past, and out along the bay the historic graveyard of Framgord which has hogback ‘Viking graves’ dating from the 9th to 11th centuries. In a previous life, I studied this site, and explored how the roots of Shetland’s mainstay industry – fishing – had its roots in the ruins of this longhouse, and other like it, in Unst. Maybe this could be a future blog post?
On that note: Norwick, also in Unst also has very early evidence of Norse settlement and is often thought to be the first point of landing by the Vikings in Shetland (although the jury is still out on this point!).
Easting beach, Unst. Photos: Rachel Laurenson
This beach is stunning – the sucking noise the sea makes as it passes over the stones is mesmerising – and it’s the only stony beach that I’ve included in this list, which is a bit counter-intuitive as I actually much prefer exploring stony beaches. Stone beaches always have much more interesting beachcombing opportunities, and I love scouring the shoreline for treasure. Beaches like this always remind me of fictional character, Timmy Folster, from George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, who whiles away his days beachcombing and slugging back meths. There's a strange appeal about the mystery stony beaches hold.
Photo: Stevie Catlin.
4. Maywick Beach, south mainland
Another reason for choosing this one is because it’s only a couple of miles from St Ninian’s Isle and while everyone is busy soaking up the tombolo, generally Maywick is empty. Total tranquillity, peace and freedom. It’s a real treasure of the south mainland.
Maywick beach. Photo: Ailish Parham
5. Tresta beach, Fetlar
This is the beach, on this list, which is best for getting-away-from-it-all. To get to Fetlar, you need to take two ferries, and a visit must be well-planned as ferries in and out of the aptly named, Garden of Shetland, are limited (if you’re interested, you can read more about Fetlar on my blog, here and here).
Tresta beach, Fetlar.
If you're interested in booking a tour or just want more information drop me an email at email@example.com or come along and follow me on Instagram. And for those of you who have signed up to my monthly newsletter, that'll be winging it's way into your inboxes in the next few days (and if you've not signed up, you can do so here).
Shetland, a rugged and exposed island group – or archipelago – sits about 200 miles north of Aberdeen. Its western seaboard is battered by the unbridled power of the North Atlantic, while, on the east coast, the North Sea challenges the ever-changing coastline. The 1,400 miles of coastline is an ever-changing landscape, at the mercy of the sea. Put simply, Shetland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to the UK's urban powerhouse, London.
Getting to and from Shetland is really quite simple - you can get here by sea or air.
A rail link is out of the question as there are no trains and the biggest risk to travel arrangements will always be the weather. Being the only land-mass in a vast ocean brings its fair share of difficulties with wind and fog being the biggest perpetrators of travel chaos for visitors hoping to arrive and depart from the northern isles.
One of the first questions that I always get (along with where should we stay) is ‘what’s the best way to get to Shetland?’ The next question is, ‘should we take the boat or plane?’ To simplify this for you and to make it easier to make an informed decision, I’ll go through the pros and cons of each, here on the blog so that you can choose the best option to suit your needs, budget and time.
I should also say that:
My Shetland readers may as well tune out now – you know all this inside out!
Photo courtesy of @shetlandadventure
The first option for getting to Shetland is by boat. This service is currently run by Northlink (although it’s up for tender at the moment and we all await the outcome nervously), bookings can be made via their website, here. Two boats operate this life-line service – The Hjaltland and Hrossey – running between Lerwick and Aberdeen daily – each boat passing each other on their respective passages north and south – the journey times vary between 12 and 14 hours (depending on whether or not the boat calls in at our island neighbour, Orkney 50 miles to the south-west).
The boat can be booked via Northlink's website.
Photo courtesy of Ronda Hill.
Now this is where I must try not to be negative as flying does have its benefits…
Flights in and out of Shetland are fairly easy from all the main Scottish airports. There are daily flights, operated by Loganair, to and from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Orkney, Manchester and in the summer we have a weekly service to Bergen.
Undoubtedly, this is the quickest option (if all goes to plan), flights are between an hour and an hour and a half (compared to the 12-14 on the boat). However, this it’s not always the most reliable way to get here (or away) and as any islander will probably confirm, if you want to avoid the risk of lengthy delays and cancellations – take the boat (and bang, there goes any chance of sponsorship from Loganair).
Flights can be booked via the Loganair website.www.loganair.co.uk
Benefits of flying:
This next point has absolutely no bearing on getting here or away, it’s just interesting. The east-west runway spans the entire width of that part of of the island so one end is flanked with the North Sea and the other by the North Atlantic, and in order to get to the airport, vehicles must drive over the runway – so remember to look both ways!
A few points to consider:
One thing I personally always take into consideration is the time of year which I’m travelling. In the winter the boat is more likely to be cancelled or delayed due to weather and in the summer the fog can bring the airport to a halt. It really is a gamble and the savvy islander will make sure that they have a backup ferry booking (just in case!).
One amusing anecdote I always tell people about is ‘Brussels Sprout Gate’. A few years ago we had some particularly stormy weather in the lead up to Christmas. This meant that the boat – which also brings in our food and fresh goods (turkeys and sprouts) - couldn’t get in for some days. People began panic-buying – a frustrating reaction to cancelled sailings – fearing that Christmas would be a lean one if the boat didn’t make it in time. And as the shelves emptied, tensions soared. What ensued was probably one of the most amusing headlines of the year. Two women in Tesco actually began to argue in the aisle over the last solitary bag of sprouts on the shelf. So, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they almost caused a riot in our leading supermarket (one other supermarket is available). And, in order to stop the escalating crime spree, Tesco chartered a military Hercules plane to bring in the much needed fresh supplies the islands craved.
Photo courtesy of Ronda Hill.
So, there you have it! Two sides to every coin and two options – both with pros and cons – on how to get to Shetland.
I hope that this has maybe given you some answers – I still don’t know the best way to get here and I’ve been coming and going from my island home for 32 years now.
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.)
This was my most liked photo of 2018. An abandoned house in Burra.
This is not the blog post I had planned out in my mind. I had great intentions. I was going to make time, sit and write a meaningful and reflective post about my first year in business; what I’ve learnt and how I mean to progress in 2019. Unfortunately, it’s 5.30 (it's now 10.50) on Hogmanay, there’s a Nerf gun war happening in the living room, Aaron’s trying to make a beef wellington with a running commentary, Lena has been cooped up inside for too long and is bouncing off the walls (literally) and I’ve already poured a glass of wine. Never mind. It actually sums up this whirlwind of a year to a tee. We've never quite stopped and everything has been done at a hundred miles an hour so why change now, at the close of play on Hogmanay?
For me, 2018 has been a fantastic year, super busy and fulfilling, I’ve grabbed chances, been brave and taken risks. As a result, I’ve made several massive decisions and I’m ending the year on a high, feeling happy, positive and proud.
This is a break down of my year — the highlights and important lessons learnt. It's also a chance to share my most popular photos from Instagram (again). An aide-memoire, for my own reference, but also, I hope, for anyone who like me, is at a crossroads and seeking inspiration.
I spent a lot of 2018 talking to people, gathering advice and evidence before I finally took the plunge and made the positive changes I needed to feel fulfilled in my working life again. None of these decisions were taken lightly and hopefully anyone in this position, feeling adrift will find this blog post useful. I certainly found the words of others a great help to me over the year, as I wrangled with my conscience and weighed up various options: A salary, pension, job-security, sick and holiday pay, versus: self-employment, no sick-pay, holiday pay or pension top-ups. Oh, and the lack of security that self-employment can bring. Yet the prospect of freedom and defining my own boundaries eventually proved to be too great a pull. I hope this post helps others make their own brave decisions and take the plunge - I promise, the water's great, you just need to dip in a toe to find out.
First third (January to April):
It was a studious start to the year, a real shock to the post-festive system. The first weekend of the new year was spent (dosed with the cold) attending a (bleary-eyed) guiding workshop. The pace never abated from then on in as I completed the final part of the green badge guide training and worked at the Shetland Museum & Archives. Much of my time during this period was spent chained to the computer, studying, or out in the wind and rain, practising my spiel. The training culminated in three days of exams (orals, coach commentary and walking tour) at the end of April before a nervous wait to find out if I had passed – I did (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post). We then had a two week break in Portugal with the bairns before the tourist season kicked off and I got my first proper taste of guiding. I should also apologise to Aaron here — last Christmas he bought me thermals (my long Jane's) and I sulked. They proved invaluable as I spent hours freezing my ass of at Jarlshof in the worst that Shetland's weather has to offer in these winter months.
During this time, I was quietly taking stock of what I wanted my life to look like (both at work and home). It had been a turbulent year with the threat of redundancy looming. Ironically, this was the best thing which could have happened to me. I began the guide training ‘in case’ I was made redundant and when I wasn’t (made redundant) I began to seriously question my purpose in that role (as collections assistant to the museum curators). I had been in the same job for 11 years. Six of them were fantastic, and in that time I learnt a lot, both about our islands (which I love), and about myself. Unfortunately, there was no career progression on the horizon and I got itchy feet. The museum, in those early days, provided a positive start to my working life, a fantastic building, well worth a visit. Whilst there I grew, starting as a fresh-faced graduate I was keen and enthusiastic. Over time I learnt that the world of work is not always a happy one and that people are not always as they seem. That has been perhaps the most painful lesson, and one that I’m sure we all, as adults, have to experience. That said, my time there has given me a wealth of knowledge and an appreciation of our heritage and past which has paved the way for the business I’ve started and my new role. I have also met some wonderful people and made some true friends and it will always be a place I hold dear.
As the first third of the year came to a close, I was already planning my next move. 2018 was set to be the busiest season Shetland had seen (to date) for cruise liner visits, and the days I was at the museum felt wasted – I was chasing the buzz of something more. I needed to feel like what I was doing mattered. My website and blog were underway and I hoped they would be an outlet, a way to share our islands with others, something my job at that time lacked.
Second third (May to August):
This was a busy, fun time, filled with sunshine, laughter and new experiences but also a few down days, spent in the office (wishing I was on the pier, or anywhere else). I remember one of my tutors, explaining to me that when she started guiding, she hated having to go back to ‘work’ after the buzz of showing visitors the sites, and I felt that strongly. Going to the office the next day was like dragging my body though porridge after wearing fairy wings for a day. I would spend a day enthusing a bus load of people about Shetland and the next would be spent in stony silence in a claustrophobic office — it was definitely time for a shake-up.
I launched my website, Shetland with Laurie in June - an amazing feeling — for about five minutes, till I realised it’s not quite that simple. Google wants to know that your website is performing, that your content is on point and that what you’re saying matters before they will rank your site anything above page 3,456 in their search engine — and that has been another massive learning experience of the year. Google rules the world and my website is still not ranking as high as I’d like, despite posting daily, promoting and pushing the blog. However, it’s extremely rewarding to see the natural growth and this is reflected in the weekly and monthly stats. When I published my blog post about Geirhildr’s loch it received an incredible 61 shares which I’m extremely proud of and never imagined when I hit ‘publish’. When strangers stop you in the street to tell you that they enjoyed your blog, the sense of achievement is incomprehensible and it’s a real motivator to carry on. So, despite Google’s unfathomable algorithm I am truly grateful to everyone who has supported this launch and my online baby – the blog.
A busy summer and one that left me happily exhausted in the best possible way. I worked hard, played hard and got married (I'll change my name eventually). We went on adventures, camped, enjoyed barbecues and the bairns enjoyed the best summer holiday weather on record since the 1980s. It certainly was the summer of sun.
Final third (September to December):
As September approached, I thought (and hoped) that things would quieten down a little after the summer and that I’d enjoy some down-time to write, finish the (unfinished) website, tour plan and maybe clean the house? This didn’t happen, the tours continued through to mid-November, the enquiries came in thick and fast, the house was (and is) still dusty. I felt (and feel) as snowed under as I did in the summer.
Then in November, an opportunity to make the break came. I applied to become editor of Shetland Life magazine. I was offered the job and handed in my notice at the museum – closing the door on the past decade of work.
January 2019 is my first edition of Shetland Life and today (the 31st) I signed it off to go to print — a great feeling after all the work and planning which has gone into this, my first issue and the first of the new year. The next few months I plan to do lots of writing and organising so that in the summer I can meet and greet more visitors and hopefully enjoy another summer of sun. Another busy few months ahead.
And as we all reflect on the year which has been, these are a few of the important lessons I’ve taken away from 2018:
I am extremely grateful to many people who have made 2018 a good one. As this is the last day of 2018 I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me, joined me on tour, booked for next year (and 2020), liked, shared and followed Shetland with Laurie – your support means the world. As always, I love to hear from you – send me a message and let me know what you want to find out learn more about. I have very much been guided by my followers this year, and those who have joined me on tours.
And as for resolutions? Stop publishing blog posts after a glass of wine (or three).
Happy New Year, and lang may your lum reek!
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!
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.