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.
All this week I have been in conversation with women from the Shetland Islands and travelled, in my imagination, to the places where they have lived. Two of my conversations have influenced my (virtual) itinerary: Leah (from Shetland Islands with Leah) and Christine De Luca. So, I made my way from Northmavine (where I met Helen Robertson), eastwards to Whalsay, where Leah lived shortly after she was born, and then in a southerly direction, via Lerwick where she was brought up, to Bressay which she knows as an adult, and where Christine also lived when she was a baby.
Whalsay is a small isle, 5 x 2 miles, east of Vidlin. There are even smaller islands between it and the mainland: 3 Holms (Wether, Score and Bruse) and 2 Lingas (Little and West). Fishing is its focus and Symbister harbour its hub. Boasting a Whisky Heritage Centre, golf course and swimming pool, my reason for visiting was the possibility of spotting sea mammals, whether from the ferry (see below) or as I hiked. I set off, anticlockwise, along the road past the Loch of Huxter and made a detour to the Ward of Hevadafield (61 m).
Back on the tarmac, I passed Nuckro Water opposite Vats Vord and once I arrived in Ibister I curved around to Nisthouse and down to the Ness with its rocky coast and view of other outlying islands: East Linga (from ling meaning heather), Ibister Holm (a holm is an islet), Mooa and Nista. The Vikings called it The Island of Whales, so I was hopeful, but my hopes were dashed – not today. I would, however, agree with another of its monikers: Da Bonnie Isle. Poet Christopher Grieve, aka Hugh Macdiarmid lived on Whalsay and I took a leaf out of his book and lay myself down.
‘Nothing has stirred Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago But one bird. ‘
The familiarity of one’s locality and the effect of pacing the land, can contribute to a sense of belonging. Knowing the area, recognising the landmarks and retracing your footsteps can evoke a visceral reponse. Leah said, ‘When we hike, we say, ‘Doesn’t it just smell like a Shetland night?’ It’s the freshness in the air, and then the heather and the sea mixed in there. It’s really unique, because I have been in the hills throughout Scotland and it’s different. There’s an immense sense of calm when you reach your destination. The view is mindblowing and the feeling of contentment is overwhelming. I hope that other people feel that when they come here. I don’t know if it’s just because I am so thoroughbred Shetland, so in love and passionate about where I’ve come from, but I hope that’s the feeling that people who visit here get too.’
The ferry terminal for Whalsay is at Laxo, a 20-mile drive north of Lerwick. The crossing to Symbister takes 25 minutes and the service is frequent, although booking is advised in the peak season. View timetable here.
Leah writes about her happy childhood and told me she was was excited to be going to university in Edinburgh on the Scottish Maninland, aged 17. Her dad saw her and ‘the massive, biggest suitcase we could find in the shop’ off at the boat, and she negotiated the long journey, alone, going straight to the University to enroll and get her ID card. She said, ‘It was an overwhelming day’. Then, at the first class, she had to stand up and speak in front of the group. On hearing her, the tutor asked, ‘Where is your accent from?’ and, she told me, ‘in front of everybody he said, ‘Is that where they still ride about on donkeys?” This rude, even racist, remark was not designed to make Leah feel at home or as if she belonged in her new surroundings. All such ill-informed comments separate, set one apart and, of course, belittle and shame.
Belonging means acceptance as a member or part. Such a simple word for a huge concept. A sense of belonging is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter.
In direct contrast, Leah went on to describe a Shetland community event which does the opposite – welcoming and fostering belonging. ‘Has anybody told you about Sunday Teas?’ she asked me. ‘I think this type of thing originates from the fact that Shetland was the last place in the country to have TV. It wasn’t that long ago, so the only thing you had to do was socialise and Shetlanders do tend to be very social people. Everything revolves around food!
Through the summer months everybody bakes and they drop it off at the hall and between 2 and 5pm, you go, pay at the door, and there’s an absolute spread of homebakes…you fill your plate, get your cup of tea and sit with whoever. It’s not tables of 4, but of 8, and you all sit together, have a chat. People will drive, for example, from Lerwick to Bigton in the south end, or Bixter out west (Aithling), both 20 minutes or so drive. Every week they are advertised in the local paper and everyone goes: from new born babies to 90 year old women. We don’t have ball pools or private nurseries or bowling, so the community halls are used for toddler groups; Friday night take-aways; anything and everything. It’s all done by volunteering, so you’ll get your pinny on, you’ll serve tea and sandwiches, there’s no airs and graces, everybody is equal in a community hall, mucks in, helps out and has a good time.’
It sounded to me like going to the Sunday Teas would not only situate you in a place and group where you can belong, but by engaging regularly with the others there, it is tantamount to saying, ’Here I am, I am part of this group, I belong, want to be let in and recognised as part of the community’. These halls fulfil a vital role.
Bressay is also on the east side of Shetland, further south than Whlasay. Only very slightly larger, it is a mere 2.8 miles (4.5 kms) from Lerwick, taking 7 minutes on the ferry! Boasting a Heritage Centre, restaurant and post office, it is the Speldiburn cafe which attracted my attention.
Plastiglomerates are, ‘evidence of coastal change. A proposed new kind of ‘human-made’ rock, plastiglomerate consists of a mix of melted plastic debris and natural sediment, and samples have been found on shorelines across the world. These uncannily organic forms are however but a visible part of a terrifying ocean plastic pollution problem.
As well as food and drinks, there is a good-as-new shop, community lending library, a multi court for a kids to kick-about, a bulky waste recycling scheme and upskill and re-use projects. It is run by volunteers from the not-for-profit group who took over the old school premises, and like a lot of similar organisations during this Covid-19 crisis time, it is currently making food for delivery or take-away. There are also art and craft studios here, an exhibition space and Aimee Labourne’s workshop.
Once again, I make a bee-line, on foot, for the coast. With a promise of otters, I could barely contain my enthusiasm to leave the towns behind. Part of the weasal and badger family (Mustelidae), apparently Shetland has the highest density of otters than anywhere in Europe and I understand that Brydon Thomason is the go-to man for a tour and any information about them. His website is here.
A puffin is known as a tammie norrie and an otter as a dratsi on Shetland.
I was ready to run off across the fields and see what was over the hill several years before I left actually home. I went to college in London as soon as school ended, and straight to Edinburgh after that. Although I stayed some years in the Forest of Dean (Gloucestershire), Bristol (England) and Cardiff (Wales), I have now lived for over 30 years in the so-called Athens of the North. I don’t think I knew, when I was 18, that this would mean I would never really belong anywhere again – not English except by birth, not Scottish because I wasn’t born there – that might be why I was so sure about wanting to stay in Europe, somewhere that encompassed both places but gave me an overall identity – and why I feel our leaving the EU so keenly.
Shetland was incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1707, but early in its history it was inhabited by Neolithic farmers (3000BC), invaded by Vikings (around 800AD) and given to Scotland in lieu of a dowry for a Danish princess, (1468 James III and Margaret). Being a fishing community, membership of the EU is a double-edged sword for Shetland. On the one hand, leaving promises ‘unfettered access to some of Europe’s richest waters’ (Peter Geoghegan, 2017 Northern Exposure: Brexit reveals Shetland split accessed online 10.5.20), and on the other, the withdrawal of European funding for projects such as the new fish market in Lerwick which is due to be completed this Spring. In the end Shetland narrowly voted to remain (6907 to 5315 with a 70% turnout Shetland Times).
Leah seems to have two homes now: ‘After university I came home and stayed with dad for a few months, but after you’ve not been in the family home for 4 years it can be a bit tricky, so I rented a little house in Bressay. It took me a while to adapt to it, I didn’t really feel at home for a long time because things had changed so much … on top of that, all the girls who had stayed in Shetland and hadn’t gone to university had settled down, got engaged and started families. I couldn’t just pop along and see all my friends who were still in Edinburgh. I felt quite out of place and it took me a while to find out, discover who I was as an adult. Even though I’m from here I had to put in a lot of effort to feel part of Shetland again.’
Today, I am focusing on the natural landscape and walking in Shetland, together with some more about the local dialect. Once I have walked off the busyness of my mind, my body starts to relax and I start to be filled up again with the scent of the hawthorn and the surround-sound of the birds. Nature is my inspiration, endlessly fascinating whatever the season, especially in out of the way places. And now, as I walk, I can hear the lilt of Shetland women speaking to me about home and a sense of belonging to their Islands, and find there is something reassuring and soft about it.
I am pleased to be sharing Shetland with Leah’s blog on the Clift Hills. This range runs north / south on the west edge of the Mainland beside the Clift Sound which divides them from the islands of East Burra and Houss Ness.
You will see that the snow is on the ground in this photo, but in fact today in Shetland we have 11 degrees and it’s really quite sunny – no white to be seen! Although not munros, the hills she climbs afford magnificent views: from Scroo (248m) and Holm Field (290) she could see the islands of Mousa, Bressay, Whalsay and Skerries to the east, while South Havra, Foula, Burra, Trondra, Scalloway, Tingwall (inland), Westerwick (near Skeld) and Ronas Hill on Northmavine are on the west. What sights!
Here’s a pointer towards some of the vocabulary she uses:
paet – peat, the springy turf-plus-earth which Shetland women traditionally carried on their backs in a…
kishie – a straw basket or creel which can be made from marram (photo above) or oats, which Ewen Balfour (wovencommunities.org) uses to make them nowadays
ganzies (or ganseys) – jerseys or jumpers
a guttery mess, a purt – anything metaphorically messy. It can be used to describe gossip: purt o clash, for example
toorie – a woollen cap
cairn – there’s a photo in Leah’s blog! it means a pile of stanes – stones as a memorial or landmark. Often we will pick one up at the start of our jouney and carry it to the top to add to the little tower that’s already there
bux – I am not sure, but I am guessing from the context that it means something like walk or make ‘our way down’ the hill. If you know, please do leave the correct meaning in a comment below.
‘…when you are stood 953 feet above the world and the islands are literally shining with pride all around you; the clean, beautiful air so pure and unspoiled;….It is then that Shetland reminds you JUST how lucky you are to be stood on its incomparable land
Shetland For Wirds promotes the Shetland dialect – history, poetry, prose, drama and a dictionary, to name just some of what they offer.
Other walking links:
Shetland.org walking page ‘The walker has the rare opportunity to discover ancient historical sites dating back to Neolithic times…’
The incomparable Walk Highlands website on Shetland. ‘Although the highest point is only 450m, Shetland is magnificent terrain for walkers, especially those who wish to explore away from the beaten track. The islands offer much of the best UK coastal walking…’
Shetland Amenity.org ‘There has been a traditional freedom of access across the isles with many places suitable to walk’, but I have read that there is so much protected wildlife on the isles that you are recommended to follow marked paths or even consult a guide, so that you don’t disturb the birds.
Tuesday was my final day in Lerwick and I returned to the Textile Museum which was originally the Shetland Textile Working Museum established by the Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers. It was Bess Jamieson of Pointataing, Walls, who first collected historic Shetland textiles and commissioned faithfully produced replicas of certain styles and garments, caring and preserving them. I particularly wanted to see @maverick_knitter, Helen Robertson’s piece, Life Boy as I knew I would me ‘meeting’ her later.
The following day, when Robertson and I walked and talked together, she told me that the project was inspired by the Press Gangs who, from 1800, took men forcibly away to sea. This left the women to manage family and land without them. Sometimes, they were unable to say goodbye, did not know where they would be going, and understood that the chances of death by disease were higher in the navy than when they were home.
Impressment was the enforced seizure by government of men to work in the army or navy which was carried out by press gangs who were paid to bring in men. It was detested by everyone and was popularly considered to be an unjust system.
From an article by Kim Burns (as part of her dissertation), University of the Highlands and Islands
Earlier that morning, I passed by the 18th century Old Tolbooth (32 Commerical Street) which used to be where they locked the men up while they were waiting for the boats to come. Although Robertson didn’t consciously remember it, this building, which was the head quarters for the Red Cross when she was young, is now the Royal National Lifeboats Institute station and she later discovered that she had a photo of it in a research book with a life belt hanging outside!
From deconstructed sails I made big pieces of yarn and knitted a life belt. I did short rows in the round – a big piece of work, the size of a proper life belt. With Shetland oo (wool) and an old handline (a rope used for fishing without a rod), I knitted an infinity knot. It was the time that the European migrants were coming and there were lifebelts washing up. For me, it was all about the imbalance of power, the life and death thing, still touching wis every day.
Helen Robertson, from our chat
The Old Tolbooth is seconds away from the Esplanade and the harbour (where the Seabird Tour boats around Noss leave). The Jo Chapman sculpture Da Lightsome Buoy (2016) is nearby. Commissioned by the Pelagic Sculpture Partnership comprising of Shetland Catch, Shetland Fish Producers’ Organisation, Lerwick Port Authority and LHD in association with Shetland Arts, it celebrates Shetland’s long association with the pelagic (midwater trawls that have a cone-shaped body and a closed ‘cod-end’ that hold their catch) fishing industry.
The design ideas were influenced by a series of workshops, meetings, events, and the sharing of stories, photos and memories by the many people Jo met during her stay here.
Heavy and solid-looking with a hole at one end, it is made of cast bronze and so has that dusky-turquoise look. The illustrations are of the female fish gutters and the fishermen, two gender divided groups, the historical and the new ways of processing the herring, withquotes and poetry in the dialect from local people. It honours those who have died and who still labour in the industry today. The women who gutted the fish would sail around the British Isles and gut the fish in harbours such as Lowestoft and Edinburgh’s Newhaven. It was hard, mucky work and their hands were raw from the cold and the waters. There is more information on my blog about the herring gutters and the songs they sang.
The Böd at Gremista, where the Textile Museum is located, is at the edge of the town. I imagined myself walking on from there, northwards, via the Point of Scatland and Green Head.
The sewage works are close, so it wasn’t always a sweetly scented wander, but the seals on the rocks at Scottie Holm and the Rova Head lighthouse (UK Lighthose tour blog here) on Easter Rova Head made up for it, their pathetic eyes and cats-whiskers so at odds with their on-land bulk. I watched them slip slide into the sea and glide away so smoothly into the Bressay Sound, raising their heads like little periscopes to see what was going on back at shore.
The next day I was set to visit Northmavine (say Nortmayven with an emphasis on the ‘Nor’ and ‘ay’) in the north west where Helen Robertson lives with her family on a croft on the west coast of Sullom Voe (small bay or creek). 45 minutes by road, I took the number 21 bus to Brae. It’s a scenic route which skirts the Hill of Skurron (143m), travels along the Loch of Voe and through the town of the same name, where there used to be a whaling station operated by the Norwegian Whaling Company from 1904 until 1924. Then it branches by the side of the Olna Firth to Brae. Brae means slope or brow of a hill, and is just over an hour and half’s walk (according to google maps) to Sullom.
Near Sullom is a ruined house where Robertson placed her fine silver lace curtain. It was part of her Hentilagets Project. The name of the project comes from the scraps of oo (or fleece) from sheep’s necks and backs that would snag on dykes and fences. In the past, these were gathered and spun to make beautiful lace garments. We walked and then sat on a grassy knoll, a girsie broo, and looked at the windmill while she told me about her work.
a uniquely thoughtful aesthetic which celebrates, commemorates and reflects upon Shetland’s history and heritage
As I have walked around Europe in the past three years, being away from home half of the time, I have been much concerned with notions of home, what makes for a sense of belonging, and what constitutes a sense of national and community identity. Language has been a key topic as I have sought to understand and be understood. Coming at a time of great change, as the UK first voted to, and then has left, the European Union, and when countries have either become considerably more or less right- or left-leaning, I have had many exchanges and considerable dialogue around these issues.
In 2019 I was part of the Audacious Women Festival’s Travellers Tales. A small panel of us debated, discussed and presented with each other and an audience of perhaps 40 women, the reasons why women may travel, how they settle, establish friendship and support structures and negotiate language and cultural differences. It was an unexpectedly lively and moving event with women of all ages taking the stage to speak about their experiences in moving and travelling around the world.
At the time of writing, I am on a virtual visit to Shetland, north of the mainland of Scotland. I am having a series of fascinating chats with women who live there, or who were born there and now live elsewhere, on these topics. I have also been stimulated to reflect on my own and my family’s stories around identity. Women travel for many reasons:
To obtain work
The start of the oil boom saw families moving to Shetland, or young couples settling who then had children there. This was good for the community in many ways, enabling integration and expanding the community. Even when the adults moved away again, some of their grown-up children stayed and continued to build lives on the Islands. Nowadays this happens far less, partly because the trend is for individual workers to come for a spell of weeks before returning to their families, and partly because the oil industry is in decline. Many local people who have worked at Sullem Voe, for example, lost their jobs just before the Corona virus hit, and job hunting has of course, been hard during this time. Will there be an exodus as a result?
Some join the armed forces and the Merchant Navy and travel across the globe. Often they return to Shetland, but others do not, settling in other countries and establishing families and support structures there, their accents and habits changing over the years. In the past, men were Press Ganged (1755 – 1845), which had a considerable impact on the way of life, not least that at one time there was a ratio of 3:1 women to men on the Isles.
When I travel, I am usually asked where I am from. Scotland, where I have lived for 30 years, and our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, are popular on the continent so there are smiles when I answer. However, there is usually a pause after that. With a puzzled expression, they say, ‘but you don’t sound Scottish’. My parents and grandparents were very keen that I spoke ‘good’, or ‘Queen’s, English’ and it hasn’t rubbed off after all these years, much to my disappointment. It betrays my origins!
Marriage and relationships
The Marriage Bar was still in place when my grandmother married just before World War II. She had trained at college to be a PE teacher and secured a position at Benendon College, a school for girls, but on marrying my grandfather, she was required to give it up and travel with him to Africa where he worked. The expectation that she should be at his side extended to the children. She travelled back by ship to have each of her daughters, but had to leave them behind in the UK (in 1937 and 1941) in order to return to him.
The main problem was undoubtedly the attitude of senior officials, but the Marriage Bar also deterred ambitious women from entering the civil service and/or ensured that, once recruited, they were forced to leave.
Young Shetland girls / women (15 years and over) attend boarding school or stay in a hostel, Monday to Friday, if they want to continue their education past Standard Grade level. There are two high schools: Brae in the north west Mainland and the other in Lerwick, further south on the east coast. After that, although many now choose to stay on the Islands and attend the Highland and Islands University (which has 13 colleges and research centres, over 70 local learning centres, as well as online tutoring), like many other young people they also choose to leave home and go to Aberdeen, other Scottish cities or further afield.
Other reasons for leaving home and returning that I am going to be looking into are:
Seeking asylum or otherwise escaping injustice or abuse
Looking to provide one’s children with a particular environment to grow up in which is often linked to happy childhood memories
To be with family
The landscape and community
I will be examining the challenges to stability and identity that are involved in travel
Language: The Shetland dialect is distinctive and a strong part of people’s identity. There are variations which are closer or further away from Scots and English, and modulations are naturally made depending on who is talking. I will be writing much more about this soon.
Winning independence in another culture
Facing the cultural assumptions you grew up with
Settling and belonging
Making a home
Never quite settling down
I have already discovered, personally and through speaking with other women, that a sense of a new identity can emerge from moving to another country, and be liberating. This may surprise both the woman and her family, even disrupt relationships as parts of oneself changes in response, either being emphasised or stymied. A set of different religious or cultural values may feel liberating or constricting; a change of temperature, climate and daylight (or lack of it) may have a positive or negative effect; opportunities may be greater or fewer, leading to enrichment or a blocking of possibilities. Crossing oceans and borders sometimes requires courage and daring, and other times is easy and natural because of a sense of coming home.
Special thanks to Geraldine Wooley who initiated a meeting between the different presenters, prompted us to think about the topic in alternative ways, summarised the discussion and then chaired the live session.
2 – 3 May 2020. A virtual tour informed by friends and relations, online resources and other kind people who agreed to speak with me or shared their photos and experiences via social media. Please see the Research and Planning post for more details.
My virtual visit to Shetland began at Leith Docks in Edinburgh. The Aberdeen, Leith and Clyde Shipping Company extended a route from here to Lerwick 83 years ago, enabling Shetlanders to trade their lace and knitted products. Approved of by Queen Victoria herself, it was women who toiled to make these fine stockings and shawls, who were the mainstay of the economy.
“Women were culturally, economically and demographically predominant in this period,…hundreds of unmarried women … were only able to support themselves through knitting.“
Isobel Cockburn, ‘Fingers as clever as can be yet’: Shetland Lace and Women’s Craft in Victorian Britain.
Nowadays, it is not possible to sail from Leith, so I took a train (approx. 2.5 hours) to Aberdeen which was also the first leg of my 2018 journey to Orkney to walk the St Magnus Way. It was an easy 10 minute walk from the railway station to Jamieson’s Quay, and I had almost an hour before the ferry left at 5pm.
It was only 10 degrees when we left and the temperature was dropping steadily during the four hours before sunset, but it was well worth being up on the chilly deck for the spectacle.
The wind was a light northerly (5.5 miles an hour) and the journey on the Northlink Ferries‘ ship, the MV Hjaltland, took 12 hours, stopping half way at Hatston in Orkney, docking at 11pm and leaving again 45 minutes later. I had elected for a seat rather than one of the cabins (the cheapest) and wiggled in and out of my sleeping bag at 1.30am when it was totally dark (3 degrees – brrr) and again at 6 when it was already quite light an hour after sunrise. Sadly, I saw no cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) although many do during the early hours at the end of this journey.
Lerwick is almost equidistant from Aberdeen on the mainland of Scotland, Bergen in Norway, and Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. Its name comes from the Norse ‘Leirvik’ meaning muddy or clay bay. It’s a major fishing centre where more fish are landed than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, despite the, relatively, small population.
As I had had breakfast on the boat, I was ready to explore. Fifteen minutes walk north of Holmsgarth terminal is The Shetland Textile Museum (opens 12noon). Located at the Böd of Gremista, it is only £3 to enter. Fifteen minutes in the other direction is the Shetland Museum and Archives (10am – 4pm) where there are exhibitions, events and the Emma-Louise coffee shop. Remember that, in real life, both are open Tuesday to Saturday. As this was an imaginery trip, I was able to enter on a Sunday! (note: The Co-op food store, if you ned to stock up, is on the Holmsgarth Road 6 minutes from the terminal towards the latter.) If you arrive on a Sunday like I was meant to, you will have to either go somewhere else and come back a few days later, or spend a minimum of 3 days in the town. There is so much to see and do that I can see this would be a delight.
There’s a brewery, a town hall, a fort and the bookshop is part of The Shetland Times where you can buy Heirloom Knitting, A Shetland Lace Pattern and Work Book by Sharon Miller, as well as maps and gifts.
What would a hiker do? Why, take a walk along the Knab Road and then right into Hillhead which becomes Scalloway and then South Road, until I meet the roundabout. From there I would drop down onto the track which skirts the Loch of Clickimin almost all the way excepting for Westerloch drive. I would admire the wildfowl and explore the broch, a Pictish fort, which was occupied circa 700BC until about the 6th century. I would camp somewhere if it’s warm enough at night (you can wild camp in Scotland) where I could leave my rucksack so I could climb.
Then I’d climb up Staney Hill and get a good old panormaic view of Lerwick and sourrounding landscape.
Shetland Wildlife offer tours from Lerwick around the Noss coast to see the birds and sea mammals.
All photos are copyright Tamsin Grainger unless otherwise stated.