While I was there I took a few walks, as is my custom.
The first was in the pouring rain from Central Station to Admiraal de Ruijterweg where I was being kindly hosted by a colleague. I was soaked to the skin by the time I arrived. Somehow the rain had seeped around the wheels and into the suitcase, as well as into my rucksack, wetting the handouts I had prepared for the students. I love walking when I first arrive, though, stretching after sitting for so long, and adjusting to a new place, its people and energy.
Getting through from one side (where the buses stop) to the other can be a challenge. Don’t panic! There are ways through on the bottom level, and if you have a bus ticket, you can tap it on both sides of the ticket barriers too.
Dick Bruna is best known for his Miffy books and although the first one was published in 1955, the famous cardboard, square ones started to come out in 1963, the year of my birth. I was very fond of them as a child. The writer and illustrator was a Dutchman who went to art school in Paris and Amsterdam and the books are instantly recognisable by their bold primary colours (he is said to have been influenced by Matisse).
In the Netherlands, Miffy is known as “nijntje”, which derives from the Dutch word “konijntje”, meaning “little bunny”.
Autumn was in the air – the chestnut leaves were curling under at the edges and turning dry and orange. Pale purple crocus stood on thin stalks, and it was much wetter than I expected it to be. I suggest you pack waterproof leggings as well as a jacket, and beware the wind if you have an umbrella!
I have to admit that I got lost as usual – googlemaps isn’t too sure about foot routes in cities, and I struggled to find tram stops which would take me in the right direction when I was carrying too much to walk. There are a lot of bridges and canals, beautiful ones which look rather similar but are probably all different once you know them well.
My session on grief, Autumn Leaves Fall, was held at the Vondelkerk, a circular former church in the Vondelpark.
I had a book stall and attended workshops in do-in dance and neck and shoulder meridians at the Beurs van Berlage, the old stock exchange. Did you know that the Amsterdam Stock Exchange is considered to be the oldest in the world, established in 1602 by the Dutch East India Company? It was a way of sharing the risk involved in trading overseas for textiles, pepper and yarn (India) and cinnamon, cardamom and gems (Sri Lanka).
Leidseplein (a plein is a square) is very close to the Vondelpark and de Balie is a large pub / restaurant there which serves really excellent food (30 euros for one glass of wine, a main course, shared pudding and fresh mint tea). Max Euweplein (named after a Dutch chess player) is very close by.
The best walk was on the final evening when I discovered the calmer area of Haarlemmerdijk – chic shopping outlets, tattoo parlours, a cinema, eco cafes…
At Haarlemmerbuurt there are water jets which rise and fall
I celebrated the end of the working weekend with a glass of cold white wine by the canals and then wandered through Westerpark, an enormous area of natural beauty with sculptures, eateries, clubs, a Sunday market, festival spaces and cycle paths.
I saw lots of blue herons and several types of geese including a mum with a brood of goslings. (The photos were taken from a distance as I didn’t want to alarm her, so they are rather blurred).
Constructed in 1845, Westerpark was created as an antidote to the then industrially polluted western district. Situated around the Western Canal, it stretches north-south from the centre of Amsterdam to Haarlem.
In 2003, the vision of Kathryn Gustafson, the American landscape architect who was hired to remodel the area, was finally completed: ….with a modern pond where children can play on hot summer days while their parents rest on the concrete beach or nearby sprawling lawn. Trees were planted and alleys drawn along the historical buildings, which artistic, avant-garde momentum of the 90s was respected: the Westergas has become a powerhouse of culture and entertainment, with an easy-going and independent flair.
Sloterdijk was once a separate village but has now been subsumed into Amsterdam city. My final walk was to Sloterdijk station to get the train to Schipol airport (platform 11, 4.8 euros) where I flew back direct to Edinburgh to start my fortnight’s quarantine.
Near the station were disused trains which formed another museum (possibly the street art museum)
There is a great deal to see in this vibrant, busy city. I first went there as a secondary school child on an art trip, excitedly visiting the Rijksmuseum and doing a life drawing class at the Van Gogh Museum. In my twenties, I returned with friends, and later I tried cycling with the kids (not very successful) and discovered I had bought an out of date guide book so most of the vegetarian restaurants didn’t exist anymore. That was all a long time ago.
Some tips: Etos is the chemist most like Boots, Albert Heijn are supermarkets, you can buy a 1-day, 2-day or 3-day ticket for the trams and buses but the tickets don’t have details on them so mark with a pen when you buy it so you know which is the one you are using and don’t confuse it with an old one.
Winter photos to wet your appetite for making a windy climb down from the Royal Mile and up Calton Hill for the fabulous views of Salisbury Crags, Arthur’s Seat and more.
I took the Hidden Heroines Tour on International Women’s Day (8.3.2019) of places in the city centre where you can find out about famous Edinburgh women.
Carla Nebulosa was our tour guide and she and her team had researched and prepared the itinerary. Originally from Madrid, she delivered it in a personable, even exuberant manner. She has started to write a book of the same name and is looking for donations from the tours to cover her up-front costs.
St Margaret (1070 – 1093) was an English princess: devout Catholic; charitable; mother of eight; wife to and good influence on King Malcolm; and, most importantly, she established a ferry across to Fife so folk could walk pilgrimage to St Andrews. She is further remembered because the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, part of the Castle, is in her name.
The roots of the summer pilgrimage dates back to June 1250 when the relics of Saint Margaret were translated to a new shrine in Dunfermline Abbey following her canonisation that year by Pope Innocent IV.
The Witches’ Well can be found at the entrance to the Castle Esplanade. It is a memorial to the women who died unnecessarily as a result of the 1563 Scottish Witchcraft Act
The Witches’ Well, a cast iron fountain and plaque, honors the Scottish women who were burned at the stake between the 15th and 18th centuries. It’s an easy site to miss for people only focusing on the castle that looms ahead. During the 16th century, more women were murdered at this site than anywhere else in Scotland. Each victim was denied a proper trial.
We visited sites associated with Catherine Sinclair (novelist 1800 – 1864), Susan Ferrier (novelist 1782 – 1854), and Elsie Inglis (doctor and suffragist 1864 – 1917). Inglis was one of the first women to be educated at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, though later she transferred to Glasgow to complete. I always remember her name as I went to visit my friend Tracy in the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital (1925 – 1988), the day she gave birth to her first daughter, Gemma.
Mary Somerville, featured on the £10 note, was a Scottish scientist (1780 – 1872) and she gave her name to one of the houses at my secondary school in Tonbridge, Kent, so I was pleased to hear her mentioned.
Lady Mary Shepherd was born to the Primrose family (1777 – 1847) just outside Edinburgh. A Scottish philosopher, she wrote two philosophical books (1824 criticising the views of David Hume, and 1827 on the perceptions of an external universe) which were influential in Edinburgh philosophical circles at the time. (thanks Wikipedia)
She finds them (the main tenets of the Scottish school) unable to sustain scientific inquiry, everyday practical reasoning, and belief in an almighty deity.
You can add your signature to a petition here to get a statue erected to her, if you like.
Bessie Watson was the youngest bagpipe playing suffragette! Born in Edinburgh in 1900, she was encouraged to play to strengthen her lungs as prevention against tuberculosis which ran in the family. Look at her little pale face! She joined the WSPU, the Women’s Social and Political Union, with her mother, marching down Prince’s Street in 1909 to celebrate ‘what women have done and can and will do’.
Jane Haining was ‘A farmer’s daughter from Galloway in south-west Scotland, Jane was a Church of Scotland missionary, and went to the Scottish Jewish Mission School in Budapest in 1932, where she worked as a boarding school matron in charge of around 50 orphan girls. The school had 400 pupils, most of them Jewish. Jane was back in the UK on holiday when war broke out in 1939, but she immediately went back to Hungary to do all she could to protect the children at the school. She refused to leave in 1940, and again ignored orders to flee the country in March 1944 when Hungary was invaded by the Nazis. She remained with her pupils, writing ‘if these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness’.” Her brave persistence led to her arrest in by the Gestapo in April 1944, for “offences” that included spying, working with Jews and listening to the BBC. She died in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz just a few months later, at the age of 47.’ There is a fitting memorial to her on Calton Hill. There is a book about her, Jane Haining, A Life of Love and Courage by Mary Miller published by Birlinn.
Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming (1851 – 1911) was a Scottish astronomer active in the United States. During her career, she helped develop a common designation system for stars and cataloged thousands of stars and other astronomical phenomena. ‘One of nine children of a Scottish craftsman and his wife, she already knew the cold reality of family survival. Her father had died when she was seven; at 14, she had become a student teacher to help support her mother and siblings. At 20, she had married a Dundee bank employee and widower, James Orr Fleming, 16 years her senior—who would abandon her and their unborn child shortly after her arrival in the United States. Despite it all, “Mina” Fleming would rise to a key position in Harvard’s astronomy program and be hailed as the nation’s preeminent woman astronomer..(classifying) by far the most extensive star compilation of the era.’
The Hidden Heroines tour took in women of politics, literature, medicine, education, witches and business and I highly recommend it if it is ever held again.
Freiburg October 2017, a friendly, open-minded university town awash with complementary therapists.
The highlight of my visit was the walk on Schauinsland, a mountain in the Black Forest with an elevation of 1,284m (4,213 ft) above sea level. I was lucky with the sunshine and wandered through leafy, cobbled suburbs before starting up the hill on the left.
It was a sweaty start, stony underfoot, but some smiley ladies cheered me up. There were sweet chestnut trees and some fir. Later, a beech and the odd oak, silver birch and sycamore, delicate Michaelmas daisies delighted me, with scarlet berries heralding the winter season a few months away. The higher I got, the more wonderful the views.
The Autumn leaves were falling and there was ample signage in places. A bird squeaked to get my attention – it was black with red under its tail, very smart. Then I heard knock knock – a woodpecker? Hmm, probably a European green if it was, with its red cap. There was the sound of cow bells and blue tits seemed to be playing. I stopped for a rest and a sun bathe, closing my eyes and taking in the peace. To start with I was a little overwhelmed with memories of other walks, but I breathed deeply and let other thoughts float in and out.
There are simply miles of wonderful strolling and one could easily get lost on purpose so that it never ended, although for that, I thought, everything would have to stay the same and inevitably my feet would tire and I would have to stop.
I used my new staff, and my footsteps sounded hollow on the springy earth and piles of pine needles. Sometimes there were shush-dry heaps of fallen leaves, wind in the trees, and the slosh of water in the bottle in my rucksack.
The day had less light in it than I needed and I had to rush to get to the top so I could get back down before dark. In fact, there wasn’t time so I took 11 euros worth of gondola instead which was extremely steep and not for those who suffer from vertigo. It arrived at the official starting point where you can then take a tram into town rather than walk for two hours. I would recommend setting off at 9 am if you come during this beautiful season of the year.
More info: the drinks at the cafe at the summit are also really expensive but there are good, free toilets top and bottom. Find a way to avoid the motor bikes and serious male cyclists in all their gear as they zip past and are almost all unfriendly. You can drive or ride all the way or part of the way up. Tram #2 connects the town to Dorfstrasse. The 21 bus costs 9 euros.
I stayed at the Black Forest hostel in a 20 bed dorm for 17 euros. You need to provide your own pillow case and sleeping bag or pay extra for them. There is a good, small kitchen and friendly communal area with computers to share and board games. It wasn’t too far (20 minutes) from the bus station, but was full of football fans when I arrived. The staff at reception were very helpful.
10 mins from hostel along the pretty River Dreisam under charming cast iron bridges was the supermarket.
From Freiburg you can easily reach Colmar in France on the Alsace wine route and Strasbourg, straddling France and Germany on the River Rhine. I highly recommend them all!
Beware – there are no buses between Basel airport and Fribourg in Switzerland, or at least there weren’t when I tried to get one. If you find one, do double check that it is to the west, into Switzerland and not the east into Germany. Because of the two languages spoken in Switzerland, Fribourg is also known as Freiburg, so you can see the confusion. That was how I got to visit this lovely place and I don’t regret it, but it was quite a big mistake!
This walk was inspired by a prompt from Alisa Oleva and The Resident’s Association which went like this: ‘Go out on a walk, take photos of all the things and surfaces you would like to touch, but don’t touch them.’
I tried, I really did, but I failed at the first and last hurdles (and several in between if I’m honest). Who would have thought it would be so difficult? Although, given I touch for a living it’s not so surprising. I can’t give Shiatsu because of the Covid-19 virus restrictions, so this brief is apposite.
It was my phone I touched at the off – to take photos. Smooth and cool and about the weight of a nice big juicy apple, it quickly heated up in my hand. I was on a walk I have done once before which ended on a road (link) so I wanted to find a better way back.
As soon as I started I wanted to reach out and feel the difference between the nettles and the dead nettles, even if one sort would surely sting me. It didn’t take long for my toddler instinct to kick in – ‘But I want to touch!’ I resisted.
When a wall reared up in front of me, my protesting teenager was taunted – ‘Just cos you say I shouldn’t touch, doesn’t mean I can’t!’ Though I was grown up and I didn’t.
As I passed the buttercups I could imagine the smooth, silky petals. I’m a tactile person. I have honed my sense of touch to a very sensitive degree over tens of years. The mere sight stimulated the part of my brain which remembered the feel from before (as it does with most people) – my brain’s sensory cortex.
“When asked to imagine the difference between touching a cold, slick piece of metal and the warm fur of a kitten, most people admit that they can literally ‘feel’ the two sensations in their ‘mind’s touch,’” said Kaspar Meyer, the lead author of a study into touch.
“The same happened to our subjects when we showed them video clips of hands touching varied objects,” he said. “Our results show that ‘feeling with the mind’s touch’ activates the same parts of the brain that would respond to actual touch.”
I saw stalk ends which I was convinced would be dry and rough. The torn-off strands might feel like threads, but I couldn’t be sure. The gnarled tree, all crooked and twisted, must feel just as dessicated, I conjectured, but harder. I was pretty sure I could lean into it and it wouldn’t fall over whereas the stem would have, of course. Colder than the trunk, the Hedera helix (a better monica than ‘common ivy’ in this case) would feel the least substantial, but the shiniest. Isn’t it fascinating that we use visually descriptive words like ‘shiny’ to describe the feel of something?
While it is customary to assert that we see with our eyes, touch with our hands, and hear with our ears, we live in a simultaneous universe where sensory events and their constituent elements have a natural tendency to overlap.
The undergrowth to my right was still opaque with dew, its wetness indistinguishable from its colour. But I didn’t touch; my eyes just feasted. (There’s another of those sensory comminglings). As I wandered on, I wondered, can you feel a colour? Would that pale grey-green feel the same as the vibrant gloss-green of that ivy I had just passed? It would be impossible to subtract the wetness from one in order to compare I reckoned.
In this part of the countryside, the cascades of hawthorn are over now, their slightly feathery, petally droplets have fallen. Black crows were feeding, sharp-beak first, in the field. I would certainly like to touch their glossy feathers – I have been collecting feathers every day on my walks. If I hold the white tubular calamus, or hollow shaft of a long corvid’s plumage and twiddle it, the vane catches the light and gleams. There was a matching black horse lying down nearby and she observed me, haughtily. I might not have been brave enough to touch her.
The wet grass touched my boots – I could see, but not feel. My legs brushed past the seedheads and they tickled my shins. They touched me, I didn’t touch them. In the same patch, I was alive to the contrast between the sorrel, which I knew would be bitty like toast crumbs between a thumb and forefinger, and the emery board, might-cut-you blades of grass. I remembered how I like to slide up the sheath of the softer Yorkshire Fog, just turning to seed now, gathering a mini bouquet before spilling the seeds up in a fountain and spraying them all around. I could just ‘feel’ the imprint of it on my fingertips.
I crossed the first stile which I’ve been not hand-touching for weeks anyway, so I am practiced at that. I had to steady myself for a moment or two at the top before ‘jumping’ down off the second. Then at the next hurdle, I had to slip around behind the tree because the gate was shut. It was, I admit, impossible not to touch the trunk with the edges of myself, but I lifted my arms up as I squeezed through.
There was the familiar parp of the train as it approached the first of a ring of level crossings, making its announcement. I couldn’t touch that train even if I wanted to. I spotted the first chamomile and stooped to collect a feathery stem and have a sniff, transported back to my allotment where I grew swathes of it for medicinal purposes. It was not until the end of the walk when I scanned back that I realised that that had been a touch I didn’t even think to forgo.
I feared to reach out to the wild roses in case I dislodged their fragile petals, so that was no problem. Before I knew it, I scratched my nose because it felt like a fly was crawling there. Damn! Turns out that I’m not great at this game.
I took a detour and there were the goslings, much more grown up, motionless on mirrored water. So still were they, that I assumed they were asleep, but then a parent dipped her beak and very slowly rotated to face her brood. The sun was behind, low, and I saw a drop dripping off. Mid way, it sparkled as the light shone through it, refracting into a star as it fell. Without actively moving she sailed closer to them, the space narrowing, and then she nudged the nearest chick.
It was the second hour and others were waking up and walking their dogs: a puppy scampered towards me and jumped up, so there was a wet-tongue touch without a by-your-leave. The owner and I forgot to move to opposite sides of the path two metres apart. Not so the woman with the stick – she avoided me like the plague as we have been instructed to do.
The birds were busy weeding in the arable fields, their heads bobbing. No doubt some seeds hadn’t yet germinated. A bramble scraped my upper arm leaving a long, bloody slash. Grasses caressed me and wind swept my sweaty brow – I felt it.
I stood under an unknown tree admiring its flowers. I flipped through my mental filing system, took a photo, and then the tree seemed to go ‘here you are’ and one white trumpet floated to the ground. There it lay amongst 10s of others! I picked one up (again, I didn’t even notice this touch until I started writing this) and carried it uphill. After some time I relegated it to my pocket for later perusal and it was, ooh, 5 minutes before I worked out what had caused the stickiness in my palm.
I did find an alternative route towards the end and as I squelched through the mud (there has been no rain for weeks but was some sort of stream running down the bridle path) and surveyed the broken branches from recent winds, I instinctively stroked the burl (a knotty growth) of a nearby tree, I caught myself at it and withdrew my hand sharpish, but it was too late.
The whole thing was pretty tricky. I wanted to know if the bracket fungus was hard or squashy. I wanted to warm my hand on the wall. I was curious whether the temperature of the inside of the log was different from the outside. I would have liked to swish through the Quaking grass. However, I particularly enjoyed the newfound awareness of how much my senses interact. And I had a beautiful walk.
If you ever see something in one of my blogs that is wrongly named, please do let me know. I do a lot of research but it isn’t always easy to get it right and I would be very grateful to learn.
I have been talking to Shetland women about home and belonging. My initial idea was to meet up in person when I visited, but it has been impossible to go due to the corona virus, so my trip is a virtual one and my meetings had to take a different form. We chat on the phone, and while we do that, we both walk – I in Kent, England, and they in Edinburgh or on Shetland. Walking is part of the experience. We are connected in time and spirit, if not in space, and we are prepared for the ‘meeting’, so, as well as the information, thoughts and ideas we discuss, it’s interesting to take the walk itself into account.
When I spoke with one woman, she had just fallen over and cracked her knee and tooth. I was negotiating road works while she told me about what happened – six men were working in close proximity with loud machines, and members of the public were trying to work out where was safe to walk. A second woman was walking in snow on Shetland, while I was in a T shirt because it was so sunny. A third is unable to walk far at any one time due to a physical condition. We kept getting cut off, the signal breaking down, and between us we had to work out what was best: I had to be out in the open, rather than under trees; she to sit still and survey her surrounding area while we spoke.
When Ann Marie Anderson phoned me from Whalsay, a jamon-shaped island in the east of Shetland, I wasn’t far from the river. Taking a right over the bridge, I passed 3 cyclists who were standing sort-of-200m apart on a path which was 1.5 metres wide, with cars parked beside them, on a very busy road. I crossed to the dangerous, non-pavement side. When I got to the Lees and climbed over a metal gate (no mean feat when you’re on the phone!) I found myself in an unfamiliar field, full to heart-height with sweeping grasses, gleaming yellow buttercups and dandelion clocks, many of which had discharged their fluff into downy piles on the hard-baked, cracked clay. I was totally alone and walked around the perimeter where someone/thing had crushed the undergrowth before me. I took occassional wee detours out and back through the bushes to where I knew the edge of the land met the river bank and found little patches of sand where the fishermen sat in days gone by. Back in the field, I deposited my anorak – an incongrous scarlet island amongst the gentle, complementary hues of nature – and traced figures of eight, winding pathways of my own in one corner as we conversed.
Walking the coast of Whalsay
Ann Marie told me about where she has lived for 18 years: how you must cross the estuary from the mainland to get there, managing the ferry terminal and traffic; how the island has around 1000 inhabitants; and that she stays in Symbister, the main conurbation, her home. ‘Whalsay is on the east coast’, she told me, ‘there’s nothing really in the middle of the island and I usually go around in a car. Recently, though, I’ve been walking around the coast, seeing it from a different angle. It’s really interesting.’ She decided to join the challenge of gathering bruck (rubbish) which has been dumped or floated in from abroad, particpating in a Shetland-wide project to pick up litter called Da Voar Redd Up. ‘There’s not a coastal path as such’, she said, ‘but little blue pointers say Access Shetland. I diverted into geos (long, narrow, steep-sided rock clefts formed by erosion in coastal cliffs) and onto beaches where I could.’ So far she is 3/4 of the way round and has picked up 80 bags. Some of the pieces she has lifted have come from as far away as Massachusetts!
How Shetland dialect contributes to a sense of identity
I am interested in how people construct a sense of their own identity, whether that’s by land, accent, or commonality of other sorts. One of the most impressive things about speaking to women from Shetland has been their use of dialect and the variations on English they employed when they spoke to me, the modulations they make for most folk, in fact, who are not Shaetlan speakers. Christine De Luca writes: ‘Shetland dialect – or “Shetlandic” – is a lively mother tongue, still vibrant and enjoyed both for its onomatopoeic quality and its classlessness.’
Christine told me a story about her aunt who died some years ago, but who never left Shetland very much. ‘She had been to the Women’s Guild, the church group for women, and a visiting minister’s wife had come. A woman who was in the Guild spoke to this lady in broad Shetland dialect. My aunt was very annoyed when she got back home – she thought it was so rude – it was a way of making the woman feel awkward, an example of the power of language to exclude or include.’
I have used some Shetland vocabulary for the landscape, birds and animals in previous blogs in this series, and in Research and Planning, you can read some of Christine De Luca’s words, written in the way she spoke them, and find links to recordings.
Ann Marie explained that she writes peerie bairns’ (little children’s) books in Shetland dialect, also working with them in school because, ‘Through my work I can see that the Shetland dialect is a dying one. A study has shown that in the next 25 to 30 years it’ll be gone. People are changing their tongue so that they are understood better and I do think that the TV has had a huge impact on that. There are still areas where it is strong, and I like to think that I’m doing my peerie bit to keep it alive so that hopefully it’ll be there in the future.’ Before the lockdown she was working alongside Shetland Arts delivering ‘Arts in Care’ workshops with elderly people in care homes. She told me, ‘It’s interesting, seeing how the children and the elderly respond differently. ‘
‘I read the elderly certain poems and it’s amazing the different directions the people from the different care homes take. For example, I read them Christian Tait’s Da Magic Stane (about a stone which is sent skimming and visits some of Shetland’s Isles). One group wanted more information on the origin of the name Papa Stour which is one of the islands the stone visits; where others started speaking about where they were born and what was going on at the time they were born, how they were delivered in the house and there not being any hospitals; how life has moved forwards.’ You can listen to Tait’s poem here.
Christine writes in English and in Shetland dialect which is a blend of Old Scots with much Norse influence. She said, ‘The way people identify through language and the relative status of ways of speaking is quite a complex thing. For example, my cousin phoned me yesterday. Now, she’s in Edinburgh and she was brought up in Shetland, but her father’s people were from the south…. so their home wasn’t as Shetland as mine was. She thoroughly understands it, half speaks it, you might say, so when she phoned me I felt quite comfortable speaking in my normal Shetland dialect and she would just speak back in her kind of half-Shetland accent…it comes naturally. My sister, of course we were brought up the same, we just naturally speak in our Shetland tongue. My two brothers are slightly different – my elder brother went away at seventeen, into the Royal Navy officer class where you have to speak as they might expect you to do. He is very English spoken, but when he has been with us for a bit then he speaks in dialect again.’ I asked her if it was with an English accent. ‘No, he can do it quite perfectly!’ she replied. ‘My younger brother went to Canada and married a Canadian and he speaks with a slight roll, but when he’s on his own he reverts. We are chameleons really.’
Christine: ‘We have a verb for adjusting your accent, knappin, to speak in, let’s say, an English accent when there’s no need to. Nowadays folk seem to use the verb only meaning just speaking English, the meaning has perhaps changed a bit, but it used to mean an unnecessarily English accent and it certainly had a very pejorative edge about it.’
You can listen to a recording here of the word ‘knappin’ being used in a sentence in dialect. If you’re interested, like me, in the origins and examples of ‘knap’, here is another page about it. It’s interesting that to to knap can also mean to walk in a particular way: ‘To strike (the heels) on the ground in walking (Ork. 1960); intr. to walk with short active steps, to patter, to move about smartly’, which was something I did as I passed those road works while I trying to hear the voice on the phone, but not something I could do in the field where I was talking with Ann Marie.
Christine De Luca’s website is here. Christine was born and brought up in Shetland, spending her formative years in Waas (Walls, see above) on the west side of the mainland, 15 minutes drive from Sandness (above). She now lives in Edinburgh. Her main interest is poetry, but she is also active in promoting work with Shetland children and has written dialect stories for a range of age-groups. In addition to this, her first novel, And then forever was published in 2011. She was appointed Edinburgh’s poet laureate (Makar) for a three year period, between 2014 and 2017. She has been published and recognised widely in the UK and internationally, wining prizes and having her work translated into countless other languages.
Christian S. Tait was born and brought up in Lerwick, where she now lives. After teaching music (Primary and Secondary) for twenty years, she was a primary teacher until her retirement in 1995. Christian writes in both English and dialect. Her first poetry collection, Spindrift, was published in 1989. Stones in the Millpond (2001) is part history and part a collection of poems inspired by and based on the experiences of members of her own family in the First World War. Her work appears in the New Shetlander and other local and national publications. Christian’s novel And Darkness Fell, set in and immediately after the First World War, was published by Shetland Library in 2018. You can find examples of her work here.
All photos are copyright Tamsin Grainger unless otherwise specified
Unst and Yell are the two most northerly islands of the Shetland archipelago, known as Zetland until 1974. It is north of the north, and full of everyday places which have the ‘northernmost’ label attached to them – cafe, post office, art gallery….
Living this close to the Arctic Circle (400 miles, 640 kms) it’s not surprising that the winds can get up and the trees are sparse. However, the climate is mild because of the North Atlantic Current, and extension of the Gulf Stream system (Britannica). Unst measures 12 miles x 5, has between 650-700 inhabitants (the population seems to be falling). It is perhaps the first chunk of land the Vikings reached after leaving Norway, and in the summer there is almost no night – the simmer dim. ‘They say that if you climbed the highest hill on Shetland on midsummer’s night, the sun barely dips below the horizon’. From 60degrees north online magazine.
What does that word mean?
A wick is a place where goods are traded
Vik is the old Scandinavian word for cove or bay
A broch is an Iron Age, drystone, hollow-walled structure
A voe is a small bay or narrow creek
A holm is an islet (especially in a river or near a mainland) and a piece of flat ground by a river which is submerged in times of flooding
A böd was a building used to house fishermen and their gear during the fishing season
What to see – Vikings
There are plenty of fascinating places to visit on Unst, in fact I would have to scout round without seeing any of them properly if I wanted to fit them all in one day: a ruined castle at Muness with a tower house from around 1500, 3km east of Uyeasound; three excavated Viking longhouses at Belmont, Hamar and Underhoull; a longboat called The Skidbladner (good name) at Haroldswick; and brochs galore, such as the one at Underhoull within 15 minutes walk from Belmont. The Unst Boat Haven tells of the history of boats and fishing and, together with the Viking Unst Project, is near Haroldswick on Harold’s Wick.
There are more than 100 miles of coastal paths, trails (including special Viking ones) and moorland walks. The Hermaness National Nature Reserve, north of Burrafirth is spectacular, and look out for the rare arctic-alpine plants an hour’s walk south on the Keen of Hamar. You can pretty much guarantee to see orcas in August, and look out, too, for basking sharks.
More Unst sights
The Unst Heritage Centre – crofting, quarrying, crafting, wildlife tourism and fish farming including fine lace knitwear
There are three shops in Baltasound: The Final Checkout, Henderson’s Stores (known as Ethel’s) and Skibhoul Stores, next to Britain’s most northerly Post Office and sporting an acclaimed bakery
The Shetland Gallery is in Sellafirth, in the north of Yell. Allow yourself time to visit on your way from one ferry terminal to the other (see below) as it is well worth it, showing contemporary art and ‘high-end’ craft work. There’s a wide range of work, from the moody landscapes of Anne Bain to the bold linocuts of Keira Jem Thomson.
The Yell Museum, The Old Haa, is also well worth a visit.
Beaches, buildings and a bounty of geological features
Yell offers particularly clean and beautiful sandy beaches at West Sandwick, Brecon, Gossabrough and Hamnavoe, and there are dunes and machair where you might find the semi-precious stone, garnet, and mineral, mica. St Magnus gives his name to the church at Hamnavoe dating from 1838. You can find out more about him here. Birrier has an Iron Age fort as well as a bonnie bay. The Moine Rocks on the Lembister coast have striking white veins of granite-pegmatite, and there are countless other geological features to feast your eyes on. Thanks to Shetland Visitor for lots of this information.
Burra Ness where there is cairn, ancient boat ‘noosts’ and the remains of a broch on the northeast promontory. Gloup Holm has a large seabird colony and Ladies Hol is a good place for seals and sea birds and is a well-known cliff for puffin burrows.
If you visit too, look out for arctic terns (tirricks) and merlin, just two of the birds found on Yell. And, it is famous for its flora, including two carniverous plants: butterwort and sundew. Will the peat continue to nurture old plants and pollen after so much of it has been dug up to make way for massive wind turbines? There has been intense local feeling against the proposals of the business Viking Energy and it looks like it will go ahead even though the local people will get none of the electricity or the profits. There is no doubt that it’s going to take x amount of years to recover the damage done to the environment. You can see lovely shots of birds here spotted on Unst (despite the title of the blog – East Sussex, England)
The White Wife (Widden Wife) is at Otterswick (ON Óttarsvík – from the man’s name Óttar). She is the figurehead from the German training ship Bohus, wrecked in 1924. Four lives were lost from a crew of 38 plus a stowaway. A black marble commemoration slab, set in stone from nearby Hascosay, is in Mid Yell kirkyard. I have, sadly, come across many of these memorials to those who have died in fishing accidents and the women and children who were left behind, as of course, Shetland is predominantly a fishing community.
A happier story comes to us down the ages – what a survivor!
‘In 1886 Elizabeth Mouat, a sixty-year-old Shetland lace knitter, was in a boat named the Columbine, travelling from one end of Shetland’s mainland to the other alongside a small crew. A storm threw the boat off its course and the crew jumped ship, swimming to the shore and leaving Betty Mouat, and the forty lace shawls she was transporting, alone on the boat. She drifted for nine days in the North Sea and eventually arrived, alive, in Norway on 7 February.’
 Davies, K., ‘Born Survivor: Betty Mouat’, 60 North No. 3, Autumn 2012, p. 4. From ‘Fingers as clever as can be yet’: Shetland Lace and Women’s Craft in Victorian Britain by Isobel Cockburn
Music in Shetland
Music is popular throughout Shetland, especially that of the fiddle (traditional violin) and Margaret Robertson is a local fiddler, pianist, music teacher and composer. Her website tells us that she ‘grew up in Yell in a house where an evening without music, live or recorded, was a rare occurrence’ and I know from my conversation with Helen Robertson on Northmavine, that the network of community halls around the islands serves as an incredibly popular circuit for the smaller bands and solo artists who play at the annual Shetland Folk Festival and the Accordion and Fiddle Festival in Lerwick. Fiddler extraordinaire Aly Bain, and rock musician and songwriter Astrid Williamson were both born on Shetland and have achieved fame outside their home country. More about Astrid. The Mareel in Lerwick is the main music venue and here is some more general information from Shetland Arts about the scene.
How to get there
To get to Unst you have to go via Yell. Here are the stages: Toft on the Mainland across Yell Sound to Unsta on Yell, then transfer to Gutcher (also on Yell), then across the Bluemull Sound on a second boat to Belmont on Unst. (Note: Some of the boats go to Fetlar (denoted with ‘H’ for Hamars Ness on the timetables).) There are frequent, daily ferries to Yell from the Mainland. Here are the ferry timetables. A morning bus service leaves from Lerwick at 7.50am, going past the ferry terminal. There is an afternoon bus as well, leaving at 2pm at weekends and 2.30pm on weekdays (timetables can be found here).
Official tourist websites: Unst.org (includes videos about Wool Week, The Reel Festival, and Unst whisky) and shetland.org
The force of the wind is difficult to resist, the screeching of several thousand seabirds is a repetitive din in the background and the drama of the ocean surrounding me is all-consuming. I’ve spent the last couple of hours strolling between sheep, gawking at the vast spectacle of the Isle of Unst’s coastline.