‘Aye, there’s people in the country. But I’ve never been there’. – George, Lerwick.
I’ve gone off the map…
There’s been a gradual imperceptible transition from what felt like normality – retail parks, major supermarkets, traffic lights, dual carriageways, petrol stations, Greggs’ the bakers, mass unemployment and a depressing concentration of abysmal overpriced housing – into a smoother stream of forests, fields of heather, and great gliding spaces of well … nothing I’ve ever been prepared for.
The name of this beautiful wildflower scattered across these fields where red deer cross, untroubled by cars? The origins of these great rising bens, touching the skies like the vertebrae of fallen giants? Or the geological explanation for these eye-boggling gorges and glens that tear through the terrain like a hyperactive seismograph?
To a person familiar only with the largest of cities, all this is disturbing me, seizing me up, shaking my imagination, a violent ventriloquism. At times it’s too bleak to be pleasant, but the mind is twisted and transformed by it. Beauty becomes a kind of normality.
So I awake at 6.30 in a contortionist’s caricature of a sleeping posture on the ferry to Lerwick, Shetlands. A tannoy voice wakes us few passengers up in the cinema with a drawl of safety warnings. By some divine inspiration, ‘Something in the air’ by Thunderclap Newman comes on, and gives musical form to the sleep-deprived hopes fomenting in my head. We’ve got to get it together now…
There’s a huge buffet breakfast available on the ferry, and I go in like Adam Richman, Man Vs. Food, scoffing bowls of crunchy nut cornflakes, piles of toast and cheesy croissants, washed down with black coffee and orange juice. My bag is packed with a hefty lunch for later. Out on the deck, the morning sun is delightfully bright and chirpy. In the distance we pass the cheery southern settlement of Sumburgh Head, tall grey houses scattered gracefully along the shore of a harbour, with the spacious well-tempered organisation of a small Scandinavian town.
The ferry passes steep green hills flanking us to the left, and the abyss of the North Sea to radiant and jolly as the light reflects from it, casting shades of silver and white gold at whoever dares stare at it. We dock into the small port at Lerwick, a small harbour flanked by a power station and fishing warehouses to the right and, to the left, a larger town of the same chunky and disparate grey style.
I cycle in, passing bus stops with sleepy fishermen and young people waiting for work. Beyond is a Co-op supermarket, and a small store claiming to be the island’s number one department store. Lerwick is ugly on arrival. It’s not here to entertain guests and count the bills with a wee dram in the evening. Instead one passes a smattering of small shops, Asian restaurants and a couple of local bars besides a bus station and job centre. I detour into the backstreets of Lerwick, along streets with names like St Olaf and King Erik streets. The buildings look Scottish: large grey brick, dignified, thick-walled, sober, but the feeling is something quite different. It’s kinda Norse…
Nearby, the dust blows in the remains of a small fort and a once-bustling Market street, now filled with scrubby council and voluntary service buildings.
I get back to the main drag and follow a road down to a larger harbour, where a ferry and large zebra-striped vessel is docked. I ask one man in dirty blue overalls about the place.
‘Aye it’s quiet. You looking for work?’
It’ll be a common offer here. He tells me a new gas station has opened up, employing 5 000 people, most outsiders. After some detail, he heads to work and I drift into the cramped main street behind the old harbour.
It’s too early for anything to be open, so I ask another workman in high-vis clobber about life in this odd little townlet. Magnus tells me it’s a very quiet place. ‘There’s work here, you needn’t be unemployed if ye wanna job, though there isn’t much to do. People come out for a drink aye, there’s a few pubs’, which he gestures to. ‘One up the lane does music tonight, fiddles, you know. That one there, that’s for the younger folk. And Thule’s bar is pretty rough.’ He smiles.
His accent is quite different to the Orcadians: quick, flat, with vowel filler sounds between words which make them to follow. I ask if he can speak any other languages, curious to see if many here have a Scandinavian tongue. ‘Och no!’, but he tells me that the island was settled by Norwegians around the 9th century, and given to Scotland in the 15th century by the Norwegian king to pay for his daughter’s dowry. Magnus laughs as he regales the local history with accuracy, and introduces himself and his, admittedly, ‘very Viking’ name.
That said, the island can ‘drive you mad’, and he tries to leave whenever he can. He’s waiting to be picked up, but his mate has slept in and won’t make it. He’s patient and good-natured about something that might cause a coronary in bigger cities, and starts calling friends as I leave him. The morning is still fresh and Lerwick is starting to awake. Already I have a good feeling about the place.
I follow the harbour path along down more knotted narrow lanes, taking me up past a secondary school with a typically crass mix of Victorian discipline and 1960s jerry-built expediency, and up to a steep bit of headland called the Knab. I meet George on the way, a retired old fellow missing most of his bottom teeth. As he speaks, he sucks and licks his two remaining lower molars, checking they’re still there. He used to work in fish processing, a big employer here, and doesn’t seem to have ever ventured beyond Lerwick.
It’s fascinating how in these smaller communities I visit, personal senses of geographic scale increase tenfold. Most people in Orkney or the Highlands haven’t visited Shetland, and it’s true to a degree the other way. Often when I ask people in a place about a destination I’m thinking of seeing that’s say, two days a way by bicycle, they’ll often smile after telling me it’s nice, a stock phrase of friendliness, when I ask if they’ve been there. ‘Oh no!’
George also tells me that ‘if ye gat a trade, ye can get work’. He asks me about my trade. I struggle. Bar work? Teaching? Neither I’ve done much of, but helping organise a charity or voluntary service doesn’t have the ring of plumbing or dentistry. ‘Ah, teaching, well there’s a high school over there you can ask. If I were you I’d write to the educational board.’
It’s a productive morning. I now know where to get a job and a good drink, but what about the islands here?
I head back into the town and sit by the harbour, watching the boats being gently rocked by the waves. I write a card home to my partner, and seek out the post office. Alwin points me the right way, a young man carrying a toddler on his shoulders. As the child pokes his fingers in Alwin’s ears, he tells me that ‘it’s really quiet here’, with a heavy-hearted laugh. He’s come from Orkney, but has family and feels a little reluctantly tethered. While many work in oil, gas, fishing and farming, he’s a roofer. ‘See you about later’, he says. So that’s a drinking buddy to go with the job and pub…
The town’s tourism office is full, but there’s a pile of curious local publications to peruse. Shetlands has its own dialect, a descendant of the Norn language they once spoke here, a blend of Scots and Norse. In Unkans, the newsletter of Shetland Heritage and Culture Community, I read this. See if you can make sense of this (remember, we’re still in the UK…):
‘Der been mony a fun fae we launched da Year o Shetland Dialect 2014 in January. Wir been hameaboot, maist recently we da Shetland version o Alice in Wonderland at da Shetland Jazz festival, but wir been ta da Suddard anaa, takkin dialect ta da Glasgow Film Festival.’
Pronunciation in Shetland is quite distinct, and dictionaries are filled with odd entries. ‘Th’ becomes either a ‘d’ or a ‘t’ – father is faader, think is tink, and you becomes du. Have becomes a, ‘he could a come’, and who, which or that become at. I’m pretty dwaam at all this and in quite a joob, so I ask Robin to help me. He’s from Unst in the north-east. Apparently each part of Shetland has its own distinct accent, reflecting the real distances between each small settlement, and perhaps, I wonder, the different kinds of geological rock that vary across the island. Even the car signals are different: a gesture to pass is not a raised hand but a point of finger with gentle flick, as if tracing a dash.
So how do the Shetlanders see their identity? Scots, Norwegian, or something else?
Like the dialects, there’s no one single identification.
Shetland makes a strong point of its Norse heritage. The evening before in the ferry terminal, BBC News reported from Lerwick where the Commonwealth games baton had landed. By Lerwick harbour was an oldish man in Viking get-up representing the land. Indeed on the last Tuesday of every January Up Helly Aa takes place. It’s an over-formalised longboat burning ceremony where a ‘jarl’ (chief) is appointed, who then leads twelve squads of men to organise and entertain the boat-burning. The original festivities were, like the fireworks of the Sussex town of Lewes, a little more hardcore, with great barrels of burning tar doing the rounds, setting fire to all and sundry, til the Victorians came as civilised it with rules and regulations.
Robin is quite a mine of information. Though the Norn language has died out some time ago, the Shetlanders still have their dialect. He can understand Norwegian when spoken just based on this, but there’s not been a move to either re-join Norway, re-affirm ties with Scotland, or become independent. I’m surprised.
‘We’re against independence here [Scots]. The SNP are too focused on centralising power in the south. It would harm us here, and Orkney, and the Western Islands.’
Robin relates this back to the islands’ distinctive history, but I only half-follow the argument, particularly with the Hebrides having a distinctively Gaelic pro-Scots identity. Both Orkney and Shetlands are geographically separate, and Shetlands certainly culturally, but how does this affect the vote? For Shetlands at least, a place as much Scottish, as Norse, as … whatever British is, the independence of Edinburgh and Glasgow doesn’t seem quite so proximate or relevant. Well, why not just go the whole way? ‘No, we’re too lazy! Our local government meetings ate just brutal, but nothing gets done. We’d rather someone else did it!’
Looking about the harbour and wee town, it appears that Shetland is enjoying a boom. Every kind of fishing seems to be happening here, benefitting from the richer fish stocks north, as well as huge fish farms about the place. Oil and gas are bringing in money. Employment is abundance. How you entertain these workers on their nights off will become another curious story…
I leave Lerwick and explore. On the way I meet Jeanette, a lady from an eastern island whose name I don’t catch whose accent is totally unlike that of Magnus, Robin or George. By Gremista, to the north, is a large industrial estate and randomly placed textiles museum. The smell of dead fish is ripe and seagulls howl into the late morning wind. An ignominious-looking wooden hut houses the local tea and sandwich kiosk for the workers here. I queue up for a cup of tea-flavoured milk and talk to the ladies behind the counter about the place, and Shetland, and acquire further evidence of its good name and character, and its peculiar self-reliance. Like Jeanette and George, when I ask for directions their minds go completely blank. There’s a more practical reason for this.
A steep hill pulls the road up from Lerwick and leads to… a long series of steep hills and drops. The landscape is unusually harsh, like some lunar colony with an atmosphere recently installed. There are no trees, few birds, and a mean old wind that seeks to blow me back into the sea. This is perhaps the worst place to play golf, but being a stubborn and stoical lot, the road to Tingwall is littered with the most piss-poor of golf courses. I realise the difficulty in explaining how to travel from A to B. There’s just nothing in between. A road, a rough-hewn one at that, and great sweeping hills. It’s easy to get lost.
I reach Tingwall, a little towards the centre of Shetland, and catch my breath. This is the ‘field of the parliament’, where once the men of Shetlands would meet and discuss their affairs. Shetland and Orkney still enjoy a semi-independent legal status, being crown dependencies like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Udal law holds sway here, a legal system based on medieval Norse prescriptions. Whilst Shetland is still not officially part of the UK, as I understand, there is no people’s assembly here in Tingwall, or much else for that matter.
Nearby is a small and very wonderful church. The graveyard is full of extraordinary stones where lichen thrive. In a vault I find a pile of much older stones with a peculiar skull-shaped memento mori motif. The church, like the surrounding area, is entirely deserted, and the small place of worship imbues one with a sense of slowing, inner tranquillity.
Further to the west is Scalloway, which with two shops, a pub, and a pharmacy-cum-post-office, holds a claim to being Shetland’s second town! Next to a ruined castle of some hated English earl, and a large salmon processing factory, is Scalloway’s little museum. I pop in to find out more about the place, local people and pubs being something of a rarity. The museum was opened by Norway’s premier, another Norse detail to the place, and inside are a number of curious exhibits about this little harbour town and its history. Seafaring, oil and war.
‘The sea is the proper element of Shetland men; they are bred to it from their infancy, and acquire a hardiness and dexterity in the management of boats that cannot where be excelled.’
Those are the words of reverend John Kemp from Observations on the islands of Shetland and their inhabitants, 1801. Men from Shetland have often been recruited into seafaring, whaling and shipping, and many were press-ganged (enlisted by force) into the Navy during the Napoleonic wars, unless they had a good hiding place.
During the Second World War, relief missions to rescue Norwegians and aid their resistance launched from Scalloway, and were known as the Shetland Bus. Most missions over the North Sea were done in little more than fishing boats and were ridiculously dangerous. It’s another Norwegian link that is again celebrated, a feeling reciprocated in turn. Kapstein Arstad remembers that
‘No one can realise our feelings when we saw the Shetland Islands on the horizon, islands which were not only the land of freedom, but of kinsmen.’
In the Lerwick post office, a cashier joked to me that in should ‘enjoy the sun’, adding under her breath, ‘while it lasts’. As I leave the museum, I spy grey clouds looking full to bursting. The wind plays havoc with my attempt to cycle to the isle of Burra, so I turn round and take the road back to Lerwick. I am now on the right side of this fierce gale, and it blows me right up a great hill, imprinting itself on my back like the hand of some Viking wind deity.
Back in this homely old harbour town, I head into Emma-Louise’s coffee shop, where a large bowl of lentil soup replenishes me. The local paper has an odd array of heroin busts, drunken passengers on ferries, people attacking others with walking sticks, and pieces about planning permissions. It’s the first café to ever offer a jug of cold water to make my black coffee drinkable, and a very good sign.
Emma works here, and I get talking to here about independence and identity. She’s unsure how to vote in the upcoming referendum, but thinks that there’s a generational divide. ‘The younger ones are going for yes.’ Despite a lot of positivity about the place (‘you can’t just spend a day in Shetlands!’, she says aghast), there’s some ambivalence about the smallness and insularity of the place.
‘It’s slow here, too slow. Everyone knows each other, you’re trapped in a way. In London, you can escape that, but I couldn’t live there.’
It’s easier being an outsider looking in, we agree.
I’m pointed to a couple of museum café-bars for my final nip on Shetland, but I ignore local advice and head back towards Lerwick. I find the Lounge Bar, where Magnus pointed me earlier, and get in a pint of Younger’s tartan special, a bland and heavy Scots ale.
It’s quiet inside but at the bar I get talking to the landlady and a local man.
‘You on the pushbike up from Scalloway?’
Aye! Who else would be foolish enough to chance those hills and winds…?
He buys me a pint and tells me about caring for his father with Alzheimer’s, and conversation threads from caring and degenerative illnesses into local boozing and industries. A few more locals arrive around the bar and each has something warm to say about the community on the islands. ‘I ken everyone on ma street!’ says the landlady, and others agree. ‘That’s what we like here’, says the man.
People seem to be looking out for each other, based on what I hear and see. The late afternoon pub is a mix of fishermen, hoteliers and waif and strays, but it’s a nice place to pass the time. There’s still some glee in discussing the fourteen oil workers recently arrested after some hefty dipsomaniac debauchery in the town centre recently. Lerwick’s boozers have become like wild western saloon bars.
I’m sorry to leave, but I head out and cycle back to the ferry to Orkney. It’s a long journey, and lads from across northern England and southern Scotland knock back beers in the bar, no doubt these oil workers unsettling Shetland. There’s no fighting, brawling or copulating however, contrary to what the papers promised. The closest thing to any decadence is one chap quite off his nut, wearing headphones in his ears and sipping a Smirnoff ice. He spends much of the ferry smiling whilst lying back in a strange posture against a wall, occasionally varied with being cramped over the bar, grinning to himself.
I remember a university anthropologist being quoted after getting embroiled in one boozed-up embroglio. He described the plastered pipe-men as ‘ignoramuses’. I’m wondering whether, with my new social habits, strings of conversations and weathered skin, I’d be sweepingly dismissed to. I sit back and write, aided by Orcadian Dimmer Sim beer and Glenmorangie whisky.
Out on the deck, the seas trail behind with nothing in the distance at any side. What did those ancient sailors think about when they travelled? Their vulnerable and slow craft, and fleeting knowledge of the world, haunted by stories of those boats that never returned home, kin of theirs, and fears of distant sea gods. On a huge passenger ferry, mobile phone and digital camera in hand, I’m nowhere closer to understanding that elation that overcomes such fear.
The vessel arrives into Kirkwall harbour, Orkney, at around 11pm. I have no plans except to find a pub, wait for dark to settle, and locate somewhere to camp. I skitter about the small town here, nothing on the scale of Lerwick in either size or character, but pretty enough in its own way, particularly by the harbour.
Few people are about, but one young Co-op employee points me to the Auld Motor Hoose bar (‘that’s where I’d drink, if I wasn’t going teetotal this month!’), and I have a pint in there, talking to the locals about death and sorcery. This will make more sense the following day…
Darkness falls, and to the north of Kirkwall is Carness Bay winds a little road I follow to its end. There are no trees here, and nowhere convenient to rough camp. Rain returns, and I jump a couple of fences and camp behind the generator of one of Orkney’s many wind turbines. It’s a pretty exposed place. The noise is gently hypnotic, til rain and a heavy storm kick in. It’s a cold and unforgiving night. That, and the wet, and the uncertainty of tomorrow, might well be as close to those Vikings as I get.