Unst and Yell

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….

The northernmost bus stop! Photo Isobel Cockburn

Basic facts

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 60 degrees north online magazine.

Welcome to Unst! Photo Liza Green

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

A beautiful picture of a Viking longhouse from Scott Michael Rank at history.net

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.

More Viking history here and here at Shetlandamenity.org

Moorland and gentle hills in Unst. Photo Isobel Cockburn

Walking on Unst

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.

All that space – Uyeasound, Unst. Photo Isobel Cockburn

More Unst sights

  • The Unst Heritage Centre – crofting, quarrying, crafting, wildlife tourism and fish farming including fine lace knitwear
  • Victoria’s Vintage Tearooms
  • 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

Yell

The Shetland Gallery. Photo Lesley

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.

The Shetland Gallery. Photo Lesley

Beaches, buildings and a bounty of geological features

West Sandwick Beach, Yell. Photo Laurie Goodlad, Shetland With Laurie

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.

Flowers, Shetland. Photo Lesley

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.

Shetland Visitor

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 Widden (White) Wife. Photo Lesley

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.


Photograph of Elizabeth Mouat. 1886. Image: Shetland Museum and Archive

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.[1] She drifted for nine days in the North Sea and eventually arrived, alive, in Norway on 7 February.’

[1] 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.

A good Unst blog, Travels with a Kilt

Quoys, Unst a film poem by Roseanne Watt on YouTube

Scottish Field on Unst includes Where to Stay

A Crofter’s Life film by Jenny Brown National Library of Scotland

Whalsay and Bressay

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 from shetland.org

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).

Heather (ling). Photo Sally Freedman

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. ‘

From On a Raised Beach
Whalsay. Photo Lesley

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.’

Whalsay. Photo Lesley

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.

shetland.org
Whalsay. Photo Lesley

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.

Whalsay. Photo Lesley

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. 

Psychology Today
Whalsay. Photo Lesley

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!

Bonhoga (means ‘my spiritual home’) Gallery is in Weisdale Mill, a Shetland Arts venue east of Bixter (see bottom of blog for details)

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.’

Bigton Community Hall from their Facebook page

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, Shetland. Photo Liza Green

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.

Aimee Labourne’s drawings of Plastiglomerates at Speldiburn exhibition space, Bressay. Photo from AL’s website

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.

from AL’s website

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.

Otters from Shetland News. Photo Brydon Thomason

Video of otters in Shetland from Britannica. There is also an old BBC film called On the Tracks of the Wild Otter but it looks as if you have to buy it now – it’s not available on the BBC iplayer.

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.

Noss Nature Reserve is to the east of Bressay, home to fulmar, terns, gannets and puffins. Photo Lesley, taken near Scalloway

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.

Margaret of Denmark whose dowry was Orkney and Shetland in 1468. Photo Wikipedia

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).

Whalsay. Photo Lesley

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.’

Leah and Bressay, Shetland

An introduction to Shetland’s history

Whalsay. Photo Lesley

Bonhoga Gallery link

Walking on Shetland

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.

Setting off on the Blett Road at 11am. Photo Leah

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!

Marram grass

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.

Note: there’s a lovely old photo of a woman carrying a kishie on wovencommunities.org

A typical peat bog, Orkney.

Again, Leah’s blog is here (with permission).

‘…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

Leah

Shetland For Wirds promotes the Shetland dialect – history, poetry, prose, drama and a dictionary, to name just some of what they offer.

A tiny photo of women carrying kishies (baskets usually carrying peat) 1900-1910. Image: Shetland Museum and rchives

Other walking links:

Shetland.org walking page ‘The walker has the rare opportunity to discover ancient historical sites dating back to Neolithic times…’

The light lay over Northland like a shawl from ‘some Landscapes’

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.

Lerwick and Northmavine – days 3 and 4

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.

Life Boy by Helen Robertson

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
The Old Tolbooth from canmore.org.uk

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
Da Lightsome Buoy sculpture. Photo Shetland Arts

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.

Lerwick Port Authority

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.

Lerwick. Photo by Liza Green

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.

Voe, Shetland. Photo Liza Green
Fethaland, the very northernmost tip of Northmavine, Shetland. Photo Liza Green

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.

Helen Robertson’s beautiful lace window, Crugga, a derelict croft house on Northmavine. It’s knitted in fine silver and uses the ‘braand iron’ , ‘tree of life’ and ‘candlelight’ patterns

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.

Crugga, looking north. Photo Heen Robertson

a uniquely thoughtful aesthetic which celebrates, commemorates and reflects upon Shetland’s history and heritage 

Kate Davies on Helen Robertson

Chef James Martin visits Helen Robertson’s brother at his Transitions Turriefield in Sandness, Unst which grows healthy, fresh, chemical=free fruit and veg to supply the Isles.

Monolithic rocks and arch off Eshaness, the west of Northmavine, Shetland. Photo Liza Green

Please note that my visit is a virtual one because I was unable to go due to the corona virus lockdown. I cannot, therefore, vouch for any of the trips which I have mentioned or linked to.

Sullom a filmpoem by Roseanne Watt with music by Eamonn Watt

Home, belonging and a sense of identity

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.

The image used by the Audacious Women Festival 2019 Travellers’ Tales

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.

Map of the archipelago of Shetland

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!

My maternal grandmother, Violet Elizabeth, known as Liz who went back and forth to Africa during World War II on the Banana Boats

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. 

Women in the Civil Service

Seeking education

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:

  • Wanderlust – stimulation – inspiration – curiosity
  • 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
  • Illness
  • 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.

St Ninian’s Isle, in the south west of Shetland, connected to the mainland by the largest tombolo or ayre, meaning gravelbank in old Norse. (source: Wikipedia) (not my own photo)

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.

Emigration Records can be found on the Scottish Archive Network website

The building in the title photo is Lerwick’s Textile Museum. Thanks to Isobel Cockburn for her permission to use it.

Leith to Lerwick – days 1 and 2

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.

Custom Lane on the left, looking towards Leith Docks, Edinburgh

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.

I travelled with Northlink Ferries who have great customer service. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Seeing the sun starting to set, seen from the stern.Photo Isobel Cockburn

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.

Spectacular sunset. Photo Isobel Cockburn

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 harbour. Photo from the Northlink Ferries site

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.

Advertising image from D&G Kay, 1900s. Photo Isobel Cockburn

Right now, during lockdown, there is a vast array of archives available at Shetland Museum and Archives at the click of a mouse.

Traditional croft display with baskets and fish, Shetland Museum and Archives. Photo Isobel Cockburn
The Shetland Museum and Archives is right beside the sea at Gutters Gaet. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Textile Museum, Lerwick. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Looms in the Textile Museum, Lerwick. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Admiring the fabric in the Textile Museum, Lerwick. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Available from The Shetland Times. Photo from their website

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.

The broch at Clickimin Loch, west of Lerwick, Shetland. Photo Wikipedia

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.

North Staney Hill

Then I’d climb up Staney Hill and get a good old panormaic view of Lerwick and sourrounding landscape.

A Shetland pony. Photo Isobel Cockburn

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.

Shetland – research and preparation for my first trip

May 2020

On 2nd May, I was supposed to be making my first visit to Shetland – by train and ferry, from capital to capital, via Aberdeen. However, with the restrictions on travel and interpersonal contact imposed as a result of Covid-19 virus still in place in the UK, I cannot go until the lockdown has been lifted. My visit will now be virtual.

The North Sea – coming into Stromness, Orkney – a mere 32 miles from Thurso on the north coast of Scotland

From Leith to Lerwick

During my initial research, I discovered that when, in 1836 the Aberdeen, Leith and Clyde Shipping Company extended a route from Leith Docks to Lerwick, Shetlanders started using it to trade wool, lace and knitted items for the markets down south. I have lived in or very close to Leith for many years and this started me thinking – perhaps I could also make a return trip, but in reverse, and maybe I would find out what it was and is like to cross 216 miles of North Sea. It must have been a real culture shock, coming from a rural crofting community to a noisy city. I remembered how hard the lads from Fife farms had found it when they started dance college in London – many returned within the first term.

The River Medway at Yalding – on which side were you born?

I have thought a great deal about home and belonging over the years. I am English, born a ‘Kentish Maiden (KM)’ south of London. (It depends which side of the River Medway you were born as to whether you are a KM or a ‘Maid of Kent’). Also referred to as the ‘Garden of England’, Kent is where I am staying at the moment, with my mum. I left home when I was 18 years old, spent some time in Wales in my 20s, and moved to Edinburgh where I have lived for 30 years. In 2016, I began a new phase: six months of each year travelling in Europe, and six at home. I feel comfortable when I am away, I am not homesick and my and others’ relationship to their homeland is something I want to continue to try and understand more through this trip.

Puffin (tammie norrie) Shetland taken by Lesley

Walking and talking with women about home

I was hoping to invite women to walk with me when I was there, and talk about their home on Shetland as well as what it is like to leave, live elsewhere, and then go back. I am interested in what brings about a sense of belonging. The act of walking is one which can ground us, ease the flow of conversation, and connect with what can be called ‘home’, the earth. As I walk where I am and they walk where they are, I hope we can have a fruitful chat about this subject.

Much of Shetland’s business is in fishing. Photo Lesley

While I cannot go in person, I can identify some benefits in making an imaginery journey. As an inveterate walker, I had planned to explore as much of the mainland as possible on foot. I knew I would start in Lerwick for practical reasons, but from there it would depend on invitations received and what turned up, caught my interest. Now that I will be travelling virtually and ‘meeting’ folk on the phone or Zoom, I can zip backwards and forwards from Bressay in the east to Papa Stour in the west, from Unst in the north to Sumburgh on the southern tip without having to worry about ferry or bus connections. Although I would prefer to smell the real scent of the Loch of Spiggie and hear the actual squawks of the skua on the Noss coastal path, it will be quicker to get around!

Here is Christine De Luca speaking in Shetlandic, the dialect of the archipelago, sometimes called auld or broad Shetland / Shaetlan. Recorded by Wikitongues.

‘I wis boarn and bred in Shetland an maist o mi childhood wis spent in Waas….. – it means ‘Inlets o da sea’, an hit hed a fundamental effect on me, bein browt up in a croftin/ fishin community aa mi childhood. Whin I cam awa tae Edinburgh whaar I bide noo, an I’ve bidden for 50 year, hit wis redder awe-inspirin an scary.’

Direct from Christine De Luca recorded by Wikitongues
Leith, Edinburgh taken by Anna Jane

I recently lead a walk in Leith focused on some of the women who lived there in the past (Walking Between Worlds) although I was unable to find much information about women from Shetland. I am on the look-out for stories about women from these far-flung northern Isles, accounts of the sea trip (the route has been discontinued), or people who have passed-down tales from friends and relations.

Photo courtesy of Visit Scotland

Aims

  1. Get a female perspective of the Isles – now and in the past
  2. Look at the topic of ‘home’: leaving home, returning, living and working there and away, in general
  3. Start to understand a particularly female viewpoint of home and belonging, specifically the northernmost islands which have a chequered relationship with Scotland and Scandinavia.
Shetland wildflowers and nets. Photo Lesley

Thanks to Isobel Cockburn for the title photo of a loom in the Textiles Museum, Lerwick

Dalry Cemetery

A photo essay – Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh

Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

It was Autumn, season of the falling away of summer foliage and the start of nature’s melancholy. On the day I happened upon this place, on a walk from Slateford to Tollcross, rays of sunlight lit up corners and features of the deserted graveyard.

Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

There was sadness there, of course, but also a lightness and positivity. I find beauty in every season, and the shift from one to the other, the inevitable transformation, often calls for contemplation on what is passing, and what may be to come.

Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

‘Death dismantled them’ (she was writing about Rumi, Christ, Yogananda). ‘It cannot be undone, it can only be carried’.

Megan Devine
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

 ‘I looked up darkness on the Web…. there is always death. We say death is darkness; and darkness is death’.  

Because of the metaphorical dark, the death dark, we were constantly concerned to banish the natural dark’.

Kathleen Jamie pages 3 and 10 of ‘Findings’
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

There are times when we feel that death is closer than usual, and very often the news is full of it, as it is today. Some block it out because it is too hard to face, others have no choice but to deal with loss and the complicated practicalities it brings. Still others will realise that the proximity of unexpected demise can be a good thing in some ways.

“A close conversing with death … would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us …”

Daniel Dafoe 
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

For five thousand years we have used darkness as the metaphor of our mortality. We are at the mercy of merciless death, which is darkness. When we died, they [neolithic people who built Maes Howe] sent a beam of midwinter light in among our bones. What a tender, potent gesture. In the Christian era, we were laid in our graves to face the rising sun. ‘

Kathleen Jamie, ‘Findings’ p 24
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’.

The Bible, Isaiah

This is not a religious blog, I am not a church goer, but I do notice that when we know sorrow, it means we will also recognise happiness as its opposite when it returns; when we experience grief, then, too, we will recognise love. Living through the death of someone throws the light on these inevitable aspects of life.

Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

English poet and hymnodist, William Cowper, described grief itself as medicine. Grief cleanses the anguish from our souls and sets us back up on the path of life so we can dance. 

Bible Study Tools
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

In these days of Covid-19 (we are still in lockdown in the UK as I write) there are a few more articles about death in the media than normal. The Guardian’s Yuval Noah Harari wrote, ‘Some might well argue that…the crisis should teach us humility. We shouldn’t be so sure of our ability to subdue the forces of nature…..While humanity as a whole becomes ever more powerful, individual people still need to face their fragility…We have to own up to our transience.”

My greatest fear is that my daughters will die, so you can imagine what I felt when I found this grave stone with the eldest’s name on. Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

‘the relentlessness of mortal lives. Even as we spoke the moments were passing.’

Circe, Madeline Miller P. 197
Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

For me, the acknowledgement that I do not know when I will die is something I remind myself of every day. It helps me put things into perspective. I might not live to a ripe old age, so I ask myself, ‘What is the most important thing right now?’

Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh ©TG

Access to the Dalry Cemetery is on Dundee Street near its join with henderson terrace and it backs onto Dalry Road in Edinburgh. See Find A Grave dot com

And on I walk…

This essay was inspiried by reading this:

“In today’s twitter-centred terms, ‘ Exits to Edinburgh’ could be described as a hashtag that walkers used to refer to the type of walk I guided: one which would meet at Edinburgh castle, choose a location at the periphery of the city, and then walk an unplanned route in order to reach that location. A fourth stage might include sharing our creative responses to the walk afterwards.”

Lusa Bhuí

The walks I make have a beginning and an end, but I get lost in-between. I ‘lose myself’ in my thoughts and sensations, I ‘miss’ the signs and ‘find’ myself somewhere else. I start out with an intention, a stone in my hand perhaps, and I end up with a living plan(t) inside.

Having discarded the prompt-stone at a prominent juncture, it has served its purpose, I have turned towards a new East. (Did I take a ‘wrong’ turn?) I ended up who-knows-where in my quest.

What was related, tangentially, to what I started with, has metamorphosised and ‘become’. Appeared. Taken shape. 

I walk

I notice

it reminds me of

that connects with

and before I know it I am in a new here

I feel the thrill, I recognise it has to be done, followed through with, communicated.

Then my task is to ‘find’ my way back to the path and continue until I arrive at a place of safety for the night.

I sleep on it, like a mattress of new endeavours under which is a pea that cannot be ignored. It sprouts while I dream. In the morning, I discover that my subconscious has fertilised that small plant and when I step out again onto the continuation of that route the next day, it leads me somewhere else and the shoot inside continues to grow with the next set of new. 

‘The pathways get stronger with repetition until the behavior is the new normal.‘

Health Transformer

If I go ‘my way’, take the “unplanned route to reach the periphery” (which by its nature is just outside my forward-seeing vision), there I am in an unfamiliar “location”, the sort which contains new possibilities. New neural tracks are trodden and remembered, forging unexpected links which lead me in directions not previously imagined.

‘and like many of them he ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.”

Rebecca Solnit

And on I walk.

Happenstance – a Healthy walk

I took this walk in response to Unlocked walks for Spring ‘20 No 1 ‘for Health’ by Edinburgh Walking Workshop (socially distanced) and posted on Edinburgh Psychogeography. The prompt was to have questions about the links between walking and health in my mind and see what arose.

Danger! Pedestrians walking on the road

Moving away from the familiar and safe

Out of the house, I turned right instead of the usual left. I was heading towards a certain place and hoping to deviate – deviation, on occasion, being the source of imaginative instigation. 

Ahead, on the single lane bridge, was a man on the non-pavement side where there’s a ‘>’ in the wall, a ‘more than’ nick out of the road. There is more, because when you stand there and look over, you can see the river. I was prepared to walk on the pavement, to keep my distance, but he crossed back. He had a stick. I said ‘good morning’ and he seemed surprised. I crossed to the nick and leaned over to look at the water. I live by the sea in Edinburgh, but here in Kent with my mother during the Covid-19 lockdown period, I am landlocked. It is different. It has an effect on me.

A lone swan with plenty of water all to herself

I took a left at the post office. Another gentleman and I dodged right-left-right until we wordlessly worked out who would go in the road – me. We smiled, maybe murmured, I can’t remember now.

Does this shifting onto the highway to keep our distance, endanger our health?

Flood protection sandbags

My route is chosen 

I passed where the sandbags are still piled up outside ‘the pretty cottages’ from the flooding,. Further on, there were words carved in chunks of stone at the top of 2 brick gate posts – Lyngs Close. I typed it into my notes for memory’s sake, and google changed it to ‘lungs’. For once, clever google – Lyngs does mean lungs! It denotes ‘an open space in a town or city, where people can breathe fresher air’ (which I didn’t know at the time). That set off a chain reaction in my mind. 

Lyngs Close

Theme

I am a health practitioner, and when I refer to the Lungs in my work (Chinese Medicine), I spell it with a capital letter because the term encompasses both the respiratory organs and the things we practitioners have all noticed over the years that are repeatedly connected with them. For example, clients I see with asthma and other pulmonary issues, will often tell me, ‘I can’t breathe in this relationship’, or, ‘Although there is space at my work, I can’t take a deep breath when I’m there – I think it’s because my boss watches over me all the time’. These phrases link the physical lungs and the ability to breathe easily, with the psychological feelings around having enough space and freedom. 

The lyng at Lyngs Close (and Beech tree #1)

This week, the Daily Mail reported concerns that ‘political appointees are breathing down the necks of scientists’, implying that they are being pressurised to make a vaccine quickly. In ancient Chinese texts you will find references to regulations, and the setting of borders (including those between what is right and wrong) linked to the Lungs. As it is their job to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide across membranes (the borders between the alveoli, the air sacs) in order to maintain our vitality, the aspects of our lives related to rules, space and air are also connected.  We are living in a time when the government might ‘push strict lockdown rules to their limit’ and that affects each of us in different ways. I tend to rebel if the boundary is too restricted, if my freedom to create is curtailed.1

A walk theme emerged by happenstance (which I always think must be about happily coming across something). Chance is about things happening unexpectedly and about providing for the possibility of… 

Beech # 2

The Scottish charity Greenspace Scotland (2011) defines green spaces as: ‘the green lungs of our towns and cities which contribute to improving peoples’ physical and mental health…and ‘breathing spaces’ to take time out from the stresses of modern life. ‘

Gayle Souter-Brown ‘Landscape and Urban Design for Health and Wellbeing: Using healing, sensory and therapeutic gardens

You may like Alice Vincent’s Rootbound – Rewilding A Life (biography, memoir, botanical history) which examines how the heartbroken can be saved by nurturing plants.

Claustrophobia and open space

Allowing walkers a strip of land

As I made my way down the narrow close, I remembered a walk I took a few weeks ago – I was directed along a foot-width path between two fences, by a farmer who did not want ramblers on his land. This expression of limitation was in the middle of a great, grassy field. I was unable to stray in any way. I recalled the signs I had photographed the previous evening – ‘Strictly Private’ and ‘Keep Out’. In Scotland we have the ‘Freedom to Roam’, not so here in England, my original home.

Restricted parking sign
Leaves cleaning our air on our behalf

It’s like the world’s northern forests become a giant vacuum cleaner, scouring the air, sucking down the CO2 till around November

Robert Krulwich, National Geographic

Nature breathes, we all breathe. Or not

The way then opened up and there was a huge beech tree, one of earth’s 3.1 trillion ‘lungs’, with lobe-shaped leaves. (See the link in the box above for the source of that statistic). By the tree, at the edge of this oval patch of green for everyone to share, was a sign telling me that parking was for residents and their visitors only. I manoeuvred between the cars and came upon an even bigger Green, surrounded by houses and vehicles of varying shapes and sizes. I don’t have one, haven’t had for years, but I remember shutting myself in mine, in a secluded spot, to cry or scream, sleep or read when the children were at school and it all got too much. Here, it was momentarily clear, no exhaust fumes clogging up the air. I wondered if more cars were ‘at home’ than usual – that our new rules were going some way to liberating the planet from exhaust fumes.

There was a murmur of voices, slamming of doors and then a thrumming as an engine started up. It couldn’t, it tried again – the machine was coughing. 

Dry tracery of tracks and mud

I had already strayed from my path, wandered off the tarmac onto grass and the crunch of dry sticks breaking. I took a big deep breath and blew at a dandelion clock. Under my boots, a dry tracery of tracks and mud; above, birds warbled. Avian creatures are the only species with a syrinx, the air passing across these thin membranes to produce their songs. Sometimes, like the Song Thrush, there are 2 windpipes and so 2 tunes can be sung simultaneously. It’s known as ‘duetting’. (How Do Birds Sing, CelebrateUrbanBirds.com)

If they stay there long, the grass will die

I noticed two bins on the grass which I knew would starve it of light if left there for very long. Without light, as every school child is taught, it would be unable to photosynthesise, to process carbon dioxide and water and convert it into oxygen and glucose to be able to thrive.

Dandelion clock

I mused on a Facebook story: A friend living in Peru reported, ‘Six weeks of no physical exercise, except for 2 minute walks to take the rubbish out, or check the mailbox, or walk from the car park to the pharmacy…’ Another, from Scotland, wrote, ‘I have felt a bit up and down emotionally this week, wondering….when I shall see my children and grandchildren again.’ Starved of light and sunshine, of physical contact and face-to-face time with friends and family, the health of we and our environment is threatened.

Outside the Village Hall, a man and a woman in a stationary car were smoking with the windows open and the engine running.

There seemed to be cars in every shot, stealing the focus from the lilac

Alone and together

Now I was back on the main road by the bus stop. A cyclist sped past, the dynamo humming. Four-by-fours raced, causing a wind to ripple my trousers. For a moment it was me and the birdsong before the next one. As it pulled away my nostrils filled with toxic vapours. A child stamped so he could hear himself, questioned his parents. He sang a snippet of the tune in his head, aloud. It was boiling (April) – I was ‘warming’.

Sweet chestnut blooms (plus a speed restriction sign and a car)

There were the wings of a pigeon, whirring; there, the straining neck of a blackbird dashing; and there, the candelabra of the chestnut tree. I remembered that they give some people hayfever.

People have trodden an illegal path

On my right was a track, and a gate with just enough space to squeeze around. ‘How do I know where I am not allowed to walk if there are no signs?’ I caught myself wondering. I went anyway. It took my fancy. 

The pheasant hotfooting it away

There was one single crow high up in the clear blue sky; further on a solitary cat in the forage; a pesky pheasant in the stubble, its red head and plumed tail quite evident. Until it spotted me, that was. Then it ducked. If I had been a hungry buzzard at that moment, that pheasant would have seemed to be a clod of earth – cunning. A buzzing insect intercepted me and my camera. I ignored it because of the game and my thoughts. It was me and them. It smelled of hot, cut grass and faintly acrid chemicals.

8, 12, 4 birds flew around in ellipses, making a 3d spirograph of smooth circling, their wings catching the sun and glinting like morse code. I watched some more. No, the signalling came from their white bellies being exposed between wing flaps – hidden, shown, hidden, shown – around 3 x per second 2, 70-95 mph3 Notably, they choose to expend extra energy in order to fly together, adding an extra wingbeat per second in order to have compatriots to home with.4 I have brought Sara Baume’s book ‘handiwork’ for a walk with me. She writes that birds migrate with other species sometimes, if they share feeding habits. I didn’t know that. I like to think I could join a flock of others who have the same needs as me for company on the long journey. 

If I am not allowed to go there, I can’t help them

Over and over again, as I walk, I am faced with limitations and the knock-on effect of them. As I turned a corner, cars were relegated to the distance, birds and other unidentifiable noises took precedence, but I could not investigate because of the fence. On Saturday morning it was the same – I think it was a distressed duck I was hearing (perhaps because of my concern over the mother of the 2 dead ducklings the cats brought in the day before), but I couldn’t satisfy my curiosity because of the wire and wooden posts. Nor could I help, even if that had been possible. (This is another topic – the crossing over the road to avoid contact, thereby missing the opportunity to be close to another, strike up a conversation, smile into their eyes and help if need be; the secluding which precludes neighbourly chats and offers / receiving of support; the ‘Keep Out’ signs which stop me reaching the scene of the problem – none of it healthy). I realised I was walking the outside perimeter of someone’s garden. They were on one side, me the other.

Hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata

The wood pigeon gurgled her underwater sounds; the sweet smell of hawthorn was like incense in a mosque. Two rabbits ran out onto the path and turned towards me. I realised they don’t know I was there. One turned off close by, the other froze. She seemed to be unsure. A pigeon errupted from above my head, and I startled. That scared the bunny away.

Lush hedgerows and official footpath sign

Nearing the end

This was the front of the sign I got stung to see …

A woman’s voice I couldn’t quite hear, interrupted my peace. I saw the phone ringing and I didn’t answer. Before I knew it I recognised where I was and glanced at the time – it was getting on. 

I was on the official footpath, but it was the back of a sign that was towards me. I got stung by nettles trying to read it, and, although I generally think that homeopathically that does me good because I respond well to the properties of Urtica dioica, drink it every day (it’s good for the health of my joints and blood), nevertheless this is another danger inherent in rural walking!

Wilding

Raspberries gone wild

Before the cherry orchard, I came across raspberries which have been allowed to go wild. Not over excited, although maybe they are because they have grown in exuberant, prickly arches, more monumental than the brambles. (Do they compete? I wonder). They have been left, free to go their own way. Kids who ‘go wild’ are said to be having fun, they squeal and scream, their voices filling the air with their freedom of expression. I go a bit wild when I walk: I dismiss pretence and constraint. Not quite feral, not ‘gone mad’, but I have wilded. 

The voices behind me were getting louder. Closer therefore. ‘You don’t want to do it on a day like today’, he said with a forbidding tone. I stood to the side to let them pass.

I wanted to stay out until I wanted to go back. I knew, now, where I was and how long it would take to get home and guaged it was perfect timing to speak to the kids on Zoom. (Actually I was late and the youngest messaged, ‘Where are you all? I am here on my own. I could be outside.’)

Offstage, a child screamed. A fatherly voice said, ‘Calm down, don’t panic, if there’s a problem, tell me’. Then I was back on a road. They cycled past. 

So, be careful, you have been warned
You can’t do this, or that, nor the other

As I crossed the Lees, there was a procession of us, socially distanced. We were strung out, hopefully not ‘strung out’ – nervous or tense – after our walk. One woman wore headphones, cut off; a couple were knee deep in the undergrowth; a what-I-call ‘proper hiker’ was focused forwards with his baton jauntily over his shoulder like Dick Whittington (I said hello, but got no response); a friendly woman with a walking stick smiled and nodded. 

Most of us were well spaced out – these 2 must have been living together

I did go where I had intended to, but I got there an unfamiliar way. I came across a lot of warnings, but survived. My health was all the better for the open air and the Spring green.

1 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8256435/Brits-emerge-lockdown-new-figures-rise-people-outdoors.html accessed 26.4.20

2 https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v064n04/p0619-p0620.pdf

3 http://blogs.bu.edu/biolocomotion/2011/11/14/pigeon-power-dynamic-wings-improves-capabilities/

4 https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190618140201.htm