In many respects, I chose the wrong time of year to visit the Shetland Islands. Going in November means that the sun rises at around 0800 and sets at about 1545. So not too many daylight hours to see the landscape. Then there’s the weather – if you’re going to remote northerly islands in November, you know that there are a few risks that come with it. Finally, if you are going to visit the Shetland Islands in the depths of winter (OK, it’s been mild this winter thus far), then you might as well choose the last Tuesday of January and take in the spectacle of Up Helly Aa – the fire festival celebrating the islands’ Viking heritage. Indeed I’d been wanting to visit this for ages, and while I could go in January, a return visit so soon now seems a bit previous.
I visited to see a bit of the landscape and to attend Shetland Noir, the “borrowed” Icelandic crime fiction event which was taking place over the weekend in the Mareel, Lerwick’s rather wonderful arts centre.
Actually getting to the Shetland Islands is part of the fun of a visit. The islands lie some 50 miles north of the Orkney Islands, and 300 miles north of Edinburgh. It’s only 200 miles to reach the Norwegian coast, and the Faroe Islands are also around 200 miles away to the northwest. So they’re remote.
That means that you either fly in, as I did, or take an overnight ferry from Aberdeen. For someone who lives in the south of England, flying seemed the preferable option since getting to Aberdeen would be quite an adventure in itself – 7 hours on the train to begin with.
So I flew from Stansted on an Easyjet flight to Edinburgh. I spent a few hours in Edinburgh itself, getting the bus into town, and new tram back (I could swear the bus was actually faster), before catching an evening FlyBe flight to Sumburgh airport on the southern tip of the mainland. Aircraft that fly into Sumburgh are necessarily smaller than your usual planes, with a twin engined Saab delivering me in relative comfort. It’s worth noting that I needn’t have paid extra for the emergency exit since the seats are well spaced to begin with on those flights.
One thing you do need to take into account in weight. Bags are carefully weighed when loading the smaller plane, and you’re only permitted a measily 6kg of handbaggage in the cabin. Then again, the small overhead lockers wouldn’t take much more.
I arrived in the evening and had decided to get the bus from Sumburgh to Lerwick. Although this is only 25 miles, the bus takes an hour since it pulls into some of the smaller towns along the route. The bus I caught was the last of the evening, and I seemed to be the only passenger catching it. Everybody else had taxis, hire cars or family picking them up. I mostly rejected the taxi because I knew the cost was pretty high – especially if you’re travelling solo without anyone to share it with. On the other hand £2.70 for the hour long ride was a bargain, and the friendly driver dropped me right outside the B&B that I was staying at.
As I checked in, the first thing my landlady said to me was, “Have you heard about the storm?”
This is the first winter that the Met Office is naming storms in the UK, and the very first of them – Storm Abigail – was due to be hitting much of northern Scotland in the next 24 hours or so. It was already breezy, and I’d felt the plane being buffeted as it landed earlier.
I headed out to pick up some food, and I could already feel that the wind was rising.
The next morning I was a little apprehensive. Although the storm wasn’t due to hit until around 4pm, I know that the weather can change quickly in places like this. The good news was that it was actually going to be worse a bit further south of the Shetland Islands, so it couldn’t be that bad could it?
Either way, I was going to use today to take photographs around the island, and to facilitate that, I was picking up a hire car to get me around. Once I’d established that I needed to engage both the clutch and brakes to start my Kia, I was off and running.
There are around 300 islands in the entire Shetland archipeligo, of which 16 are inhabited. These are connected via ferry and for some, plane services. Perhaps the remotest of all is Fair Isle, home of the knitwear, and sitting about equidistant between the Orkneys and rest of the Shetland Islands.
But I wasn’t attempting to leave the large Mainland, and headed northwest to the Eshaness lighthouse and cliffs on Northmavine. Overall the roads are good throughout the islands, with oil and gas money clearly having been brought to bear. As you get further off the beaten path, single lane roads are more usual, but I didn’t find anywhere that wasn’t properly tarmacked.
The clifftop car park at Eshaness was nearly completely deserted, with just one other car. The views are spectacular but the drops are steep, and the cliffs overhang in places. In a high wind, you’d want to watch your step, but there are some spectacular walks along the cliff edge.
From Eshaness I headed east stopping along the route in various places that looked interesting.
At one point I had my first encounter with Shetland ponies. The islands are, of course, famous for these diminutive animals. I came across a group of three of them blocking the road in front me. I hopped out to take some photos, and they immediately approached me – probably expecting some treats from the tourist.
They really are quite short animals, standing perhaps a metre tall. Their hair is shaggy, to protect them from the mercilous winds, and they’re stout animals that you know could cause some damage. They let me stroke them, and once I’d taken a wealth of photos, I got back in my car, at which point the boldest started to lick or chew the door handle: “You’ve stroked me, so now give me an apple!” Then he went around the other side of the car, and proceeded to do the same to the passenger-side door!
I had to gingerly drive off to escape their loveable clutches.
I did stop a bit further down the road, however, just to check that they’d done the car no more damage than covering it in saliva!
When I return to Shetland, I will spend more time at some of the numerous archaelogical sites scattered across the islands. I did stop at Stanydale Temple near the village of Gruting. You reach it from the road by walking half a mile across the hillside, the route marked with poles. Recent rainfall meant that the ground was soggy, and you had to be careful, but it was well worth the trip. The site is neolithic in origin with the first buildings dating from perhaps 1000 BC. They’re remarkably well preserved – perhaps because they’ve not really been re-used in recent times since they sit well away from the sea and other populated areas.
As with Iceland, you become very aware that Shetland has a dearth of trees. The harsh winds that rattle across the landscape mean that they simply don’t survive. And yet wood has been necessary in buildings for thousands of years, so it was traded with Nordic visitors.
The sun set, and the wind started to arrive. As I parked up and began to explore the shops along the windy Commercial Street in the town centre, the rain arrived. I retired first to a pub, and then to an Indian restaurant (Food options, it must be said, are pretty scarce in Lerwick aside from fish and chips, Indian and Chinese restaurants).
As I returned to my lodgings later that evening, even the protected harbour was seeing the water swell up, and in places it was crashing over the side of the harbour walls.
That night I was woken by the storm at around 3am when it was probably at its peak. With gusting at around 70mph I suspect that it was not that unusual an occurrence in these parts in winter. That said, the schools were shut down on Friday, leading to someone in a pub saying, “If I didn’t turn up to work because it was windy, I know what’d happen to me.”
The islands are heavily reliant on connections with the outside world – ferries and planes. That Friday I wasn’t able to buy a paper because planes weren’t landing and the Aberdeen ferry had been stopped in Kirkwall in the Orkneys. No Guardian Friday review section for me.
The Shetland Noir event I was attending was held in Mareel, a fairly new entertainment complex on the harbourside in Lerwick. I knew of it a little because Mark Kermode talks about it when he’s in Shetland each year for the Shetland Film Festival. As well as a sizeable main auditorium that can used for hosting a variety of events (including a crime fiction festival), there are two well equipped cinema screens, as well as a range of other rooms to support Shetland arts in general. And of course there’s a fairly busy bar.
I saw a couple of films while I was in Lerwick. Steve Jobs, the new Danny Boyle film, with a script from Aaron Sorkin, was well worth seeing. I loved the three act structure and the punchiness of the film. It does however paint Steve Jobs as an utterly despicable character. He really does have hardly any redeeming features if this film is anything to go by. But Michael Fassbender is really excellent playing him, as is Kate Winslet as his long suffering marketing executive Joanna Hoffman.
The festival also showed Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil which somehow I’d never seen previously. But it was terrific seeing it on the big screen with the famous continuous take that the film opens with (Spectre recently did a very similar thing with a very similar outcome).
Alongside Mareel, also on the harbour front is the Shetland Museum. This is well worth a visit, with a great collection of exhibits that tells the story of the islands throughout its history. There’s also a very decent restaurant attached to the museum that makes a good lunch spot.
Shetland Noir was a really interesting event, with a range of authors talking mostly on panels about a range of subjects related to crime fiction. The event is effectively “borrowed” from Iceland Noir which returns next year, and as such features Icelandic and Scandinavian writers as well as “Tartan Noir” authors.
I came away with an enormous list of books I want to read, and it was nice to chat with some of the folk who were there. I did get the feeling that I’d come an unduly long way compared to many of the attendees who were local!
While I was visiting, the local leisure centre was hosting a big craft festival, so I ducked out of a couple of sessions to see what they had for sale. Fair Isle is famous for its knitwear, and it quickly becomes clear that the work required to make these garments mean that prices are a bit more than Primark would charge for a sweater. The craft fair made clear that the islands are full of people making things, from artworks made from material washed up on the shoreline, to photography, leather work and of course, knitwear.
So, no, I didn’t come away with a sweater, or even a scarf.
Not that I saw many locals wearing the clothing their islands are famous for. Indeed the most common clothing I saw was heavily waterproofed clothing in high-vis colours! It seems that everyone goes about their business in high-vis. Perhaps to help be found in an emergency. My Barbour jacket saw me through OK.
I should probably say a word about local media. The Shetland Times is the main paper for the islands, coming out weekly each Friday. The big news while I was there was surrounding a special election court looking into interviews given my the local MP prior just prior to the General Election in May.
In radio terms, you’ve got one commercial station – the Shetland Islands Broadcasting Company or SIBC. It’s a decent station, although it sounds like it’s automated for much of the day, with a fairly hits-heavy playlist. The BBC has BBC Shetland, but that’s really only an opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland with just a few hours of local programming a week. I found FM signals for both services strong wherever I went. But there is also DAB – with the BBC’s multiplex available in Lerwick (But obviously no BBC Scotland or SIBC on DAB, nor any other commercial services). With something a population around 25,000, there are clearly only going to be limited services locally.
Some of the population is quite transient. When you first arrive in Lerwick harbour, you can’t miss the Sans Vitesse, an accommodation barge (essentially a ferry), painted in black and white zebra print, and housing workers on the Shetland gas project. Further down the harbour there are more vessels with more temporary accommodation.
As the time to fly home got closer, I became a little obsessed with weather apps on my phone. It’s worth noting that Shetland has very poor mobile phone coverage, but you do find WiFi in most built up areas with many communal areas offering free access. I was checking to see what the weather would be like for the day I left, concerned that high winds might delay my return. I had a “connecting” flight to catch in Edinburgh – except that it wasn’t really an actual connection. In the event, the flight was a little bumpy taking off, and a lot more landing, but it was all on time.
Overall I enjoyed my time in the islands. Next time I visit, I would like to spend more time and have more sunlight to explore the island. Obviously I didn’t get a chance to visit any of the smaller islands like Fair Isle which would have been interesting. And I’d have liked to have visited more of the archaeological sites around the islands. So a return visit is very much in order. Perhaps I’ll take a bike!