Beyond the beyond: the Shetland Islands

The Shetland Islands, northernmost part of the United Kingdom, seem utterly remote on the map. But Nicholas Laughlin finds they have a busy history as a crossroads of the North Atlantic

The green cliffs of Hermaness are home to sheep and seabirds. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinHardy wildflowers and lichens thrive on the Shetlands’ sea-blasted shores. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe colony of puffins at Sumburgh Head is one of the most easily accessible to birders anywhere in the world. Photograph by Mark Caunt/shutterstock.comLooking towards the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head, southernmost point of the island of Mainland. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe archaeological site at Jarlshof. Photograph © Crown Copyright reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland. www.historicscotlandimages.gov.ukThe white sand tombolo and brilliant blue water of St Ninian’s Isle. Photograph © moorefam/istock.comShetland Islands map

At the gate to the path leading up to Hermaness, there was a helpful sign explaining how to fend off a skua attack.

The massive seabirds — with a wingspan of nearly five feet — breed on the Hermaness moors overlooking the sea, building nests among the tufts of heather. Understandably, while their fledglings are vulnerable, skuas are wary of visitors. Dive-bombing incidents are not uncommon — or at least that’s what the sign suggested.

“Remain upright and wave an object like a walking stick in the air,” I read. “In the absence of a walking stick, wave your arms.”

“We don’t have a walking stick,” my companion reminded me.

“At least they’re not as bad as terns,” I replied. I’d done my research into seabird attack habits. “Terns will attack en masse, and aim for your eyes.”

Reassured that we knew the defensive drill, we started up the path, a track of stones and sandy soil cutting steeply up the slope. Soon we were at the top of the headland, and the moorland rolled away to north and south, a treeless landscape smudged bracken green, heather purple, peat brown. To the east was the deep water of narrow Burra Firth, and the twin peninsula of Saxa Vord.

The path turned inland, following the course of a small stream, running clear and whisky-coloured. We could see sheep dotting the slopes in every direction, munching half-heartedly, but so far no diving skuas.

Then in the distance a sleek head with suspicious eyes popped up above the low herbage. One large wing went up tentatively, then disappeared.

“Skua!”

“Get ready to wave.”

“Careful, you might compose a soca hit by mistake.”

But mother skua remained on her nest, and our waving skills were untested. It was late in the nesting season, these two innocuous hikers clearly posed no threat, and though we saw more of the birds as we tramped along — soaring over the top of the ridge, or reposing on invisible nests — the Great Skua Attack of 2014 was not to happen today.

Then the path ended abruptly, and we were at the edge of a sheer cliff overlooking the North Atlantic. Bright green turf gave way to a two-hundred-foot drop, and far below us waves crashed into slick black rocks. And now the air was full of birds: fulmars, gannets, and our new friends, the skuas. Further along the cliffs, in the distance, was a colony of puffins, ducking in and out of their nesting burrows.

A nature reserve since 1955, Hermaness is one of the United Kingdom’s most important seabird nesting sites, and on day like this — breezy, cloudy, but bright — I expected to find at least a few serious birders crouched on the cliff edge, eyes glued to binoculars or cameras. But although we wandered for three hours across the moors and along the cliffs, we saw not a single other human person — only sheep and birds.

And this was my favourite kind of terrain: open highland, where the sky is enormous, the horizon seems impossibly far away, and air feels like an element as heavy as earth, as quick as water. As we turned back, with thoughts of dinner, the sun was still high in the sky, and I felt this landscape and this day could continue forever.

 

That evening, I realised our hike on Hermaness had taken me further north than I’d ever set foot before. No surprise: at sixty-and-some degrees latitude, the peninsula is the northernmost tip of Unst, which in turn is almost the northernmost fragment of land (save a handful of rocks) in the Shetland Islands — themselves the northernmost part of the British Isles. Looking straight out from Unst, there is nothing but open ocean between you and the pack ice of the Arctic. On the map, the Shetlands — more than a hundred miles off the coast of Scotland — look like the edge of the world. And to a visitor from a distant island in the tropics, Unst (forty-six square miles; population six-hundred-odd) felt like going beyond the beyond.

The islanders themselves encourage that notion of remoteness. Not only is Unst the northernmost inhabited island in Britain, but signs everywhere announce the UK’s northernmost post office, northernmost village, northernmost castle. The northernmost lighthouse is on a precipitous rock called Muckle Flugga. Saxa Vord was once home to the Royal Air Force’s northernmost base. Closed in 2006, it’s now being redeveloped as Britain’s northernmost holiday resort, where you can stay in the former officers’ quarters, eat in the northernmost restaurant, and drink in the northernmost pub. The former base is also home to Britain’s northernmost chocolate factory — though sadly none of their cocoa is locally grown.

Britain’s northernmost house overlooks a beach called the Wick of Scaw. The owners seemed ambivalent about having their dwelling named as such on maps and in guidebooks — or so the prominent “NO TRESPASSING” sign suggested. And the day we visited, no one appeared to be home. Disappointed not to be offered a northernmost cup of tea or homemade northernmost biscuit, we walked instead along the nearby headland, where a concrete bunker is all that remains of a Second World War radar outpost.

The water in the little bay of Scaw was a deceptively tropical blue, and clear enough that I could see a bed of kelp below the choppy surface. As I stared, a dark flippered shape emerged. A turtle? No, a turtle doesn’t have a whiskered head like a dog. A seal! Coming to the surface, he noticed a gawking human on the cliff above, and he turned to me with a curious gaze. For two minutes we stared at each other until the seal grew bored and returned to pressing business among the kelp.

 

South of Unst is the island of Yell, and south of Yell is Mainland, the largest of the Shetland Islands and location of Lerwick the capital and main town. Along the drive (which included two ferry rides), I reflected that the landscape of treeless, turf-covered hills, scattered with numberless ponds and small lochs, may look wild, but is actually the result of thousands of years of human habitation. And the stone ruins of hundreds of small crofters’ cottages on the hillsides are a reminder that a few generations ago the population was more evenly spread across the islands.

A visit to the Shetland Museum in Lerwick — in a modern building of polished wood and glass, very Scandinavian, on the edge of a wharf — dispelled any idea of the islands as remote outposts. The earliest human settlements here date back six thousand years, and during the many centuries when long-distance travel happened by boat, the Shetlands — conveniently positioned between Britain, Norway, the Faeroe Islands, and Iceland — were a busy crossroads, centre of communications and trade. The Viking colonisation of the islands in the eighth and ninth centuries brought the Shetlands into the Norse sphere of influence, which stretched from the Mediterranean to the shores of North America. Only in 1471 did Shetland pass from Norway to Scotland, as part of a royal marriage dowry, and even after that the main trade links were with the German ports of the Baltic. Twentieth-century oil discoveries in the North Sea brought another wave of revenue and cosmopolitan influence to the islands, as hundred of oilfield workers from across Europe and further afield use Shetland as a base.

This long history of successive cultures is thoughtfully documented at the Shetland Museum, where the displays range from Stone Age tools to the latest oilfield technology. But to truly feel the depth of Shetland history below our feet, we drove down to Mainland’s southernmost tip, past the airport, to the archaeological site known as Jarlshof.

Here, on a bluff overlooking the sea, stands the Old House of Sumburgh, the shell of a sixteenth-century nobleman’s fortified residence. For many decades, as far as the local landowners knew, this was the only “antiquity” in the vicinity. Then in the late nineteenth century a great storm blew in, and overnight eroded a stretch of shore, revealing stone ruins which had lain buried for centuries. Gradual excavation showed that successive settlements had occupied this single site since 2500 BC, with new structures built atop unsuspected older ones.

Today the Jarlshof site has been carefully stabilised and laid out with a spiral path that allows you to trace four thousand years of history in a stroll. At the lowest level are the remains of a Stone Age house and kitchen midden, where traces of a hearth are still visible. Nearby are three Bronze Age houses, one of them used as a smithy, and just above is an Iron Age settlement, including a subterranean larder. Closer to the shoreline is a first-century AD broch — a double-walled stone tower, which may once have been forty feet tall. Half the structure has disappeared, because of sea erosion, but two nearby second- and third-century wheelhouses survive in better shape. Internal stone piers like the spokes of a wheel give the buildings their distinctive layout of open centre and semi-private niches along the walls. Even today, the solid stone walls keep out the relentless wind and roar of the sea — crawling into the wheelhouses, you enter a calm silence.

On the other side of the bluff are a series of Viking longhouses, remains of a settlement that developed from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. Artifacts uncovered here show how the Shetlands were connected to far-flung trade routes: finely carved pins, combs, and glass beads probably came from Norway, Scotland, and Ireland. A medieval farmhouse is next, and finally at the top of the bluff is the roofless Old House, once called the New Hall, built in the 1590s by the infamous Earl Patrick, Lord of Shetland. A modern iron staircase allows you to climb to the upper floor of the laird’s house, for a sweeping view over the whole site, with the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head in the far distance.

I looked out at my shadow stretching over the patchwork of ancient ruins, and noticed half a dozen tiny birds fluttering below. They were wrens, whose scientific name (troglodytes) means “cave-dweller,” because of their habit of disappearing into crevices while hunting for food. As I watched the wrens hop in and out of the wheelhouse ruins, I recalled that the long-ago Celts thought them capable of disappearing into solid walls, travelling back and forth to the spirit world — and it didn’t surprise me that the nervy little birds would be drawn to Jarlshof, a place with more than its share of ghosts.

There was one more place in the Shetlands I needed to visit. On the south-west coast of the Mainland lies St Ninian’s Isle, named for the Shetlands’ patron saint. Once an actual island, St Ninian’s is now connected to Mainland by a large tombolo — a permanent bar of gleaming white sand. The isle boasts its own famous archaeological site: the ruins of a chapel where in 1958 an extraordinary hoard of eighth-century silver was dug up by an enterprising schoolboy.

But the treasure now reposes in high security in an Edinburgh museum, and I wasn’t here to see what was left of the chapel. A month before this trip, I’d stumbled on a magazine article declaring the beach at St Ninian’s one of the best swimming spots in the world. The photos I’d seen of a sheltered bay, shimmering blue, had provoked a resolution. “I’m packing my swimming trunks,” I’d told my travelling companion, and today I was wearing them under several layers of waterproof and wool.

And it was indeed a glorious day, by the standards of Shetland weather, as we drove through the village of Bigton down the unpaved track to the beach. A holidaying family and a couple with a dog were already on the sands, enjoying the bright sunshine and fresh breeze, but strangely none of them were approaching the water.

We climbed down to the beach and I took off my shoes and socks, preparing to reveal my swimwear. The gleaming white sand was unexpectedly chilly between my toes, and I felt the first twinge of doubt.

My companion stood smirking, with camera at the ready. “Go ahead, I’ll record your swim for posterity.” The sea breeze seemed to blow a little stiffer, but the sea in the bay glowed an incandescent and beckoning blue.

Thinking it prudent to investigate conditions before plunging in, I rolled up my trousers, stepped into the crystal water — and leapt out again, my feet already going numb. At sixty degrees north latitude, apparently, it’s quite normal for the summer sea temperature to be three degrees above freezing. If I’d read that magazine article more carefully, I might have noticed mention of a crucial piece of swimming gear I hadn’t thought to bring: a thermal wetsuit.

A long ramble over St Ninian’s Isle itself was some consolation. Though no one has lived here since 1796, the island with its slopes of thick turf is still used to graze sheep, though visitors are free to wander at will. (As is the case with much of the farmland in Shetland, once you close gates behind you so livestock can’t escape.) The expanse of soft green, crisscrossed by narrow paths, spread up the hill and down to sheer cliff edges, with views along the rugged coast.

At the tip of the island a series of jagged rock stacks like giant teeth disappeared into the sea, and the evening sun lit up the clouds for miles. I thought of the storybook maps of Narnia and Earthsea, and my companion began to whistle the theme from Game of Thrones.

It wasn’t the very end of the earth, but today it was close enough — or far enough, depending on your point of view.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates direct flights from Piarco International Airport in Trinidad and Norman Manley International Airport in Jamaica to London Gatwick, with frequent connections to Sumburgh Airport in Shetland