Just over a week ago I began a sabbatical. It was always going to be an odd one – involving some travel and some writing, and attending a couple of weddings and honouring some existing diary commitments. Some while ago it became clear that the sabbatical-holiday boundary was getting very blurred as some holiday time in August developed a very positive programme of engaging with Mennonites in Virginia.
But since it became clear that I would be moving to a new post in September the sabbatical thing has become even more complicated – though I hope not hopelessly compromised. I believe in sabbaticals, and one of the nicest duties within the job I am leaving has been to help clergy plan them and make the most of the opportunity not for productivity, but for a deeper sort of renewal. Big things can happen on sabbaticals, especially if they are not over-planned and if there is an element of exploration and an intentional stepping outside of the personal comfort-zone.
This sabbatical begins in Shetland. I haven’t been here before and put it into the mix as a way of getting a good change of air at the outset. I have never knowingly been this far north. Shetland is twice as close to the North Pole as it is the equator and at this time of year the days are very long: sunset about 10pm and sunrise about 4am. There aren’t many hours in the day when you couldn’t read a book outdoors. On the other hand, there aren’t many days when you could hold a book open in the prevailing wind. No, that’s not fair – its been relatively peaceful since I have been here and I have been able to enjoy precisely the kind of long, slow, remote walks that I had hoped would open up my contemplative pores.
Staring at the sea, the passing clouds, the hills, the sandy beaches and wonderful rock formations – today I was in an area of red granite – is a wonderful pass-time and would be more than adequate; but then there are the birds. So many of them and so aerobatic and showy at this time of year.
And so pretty! Plumage is at its best as they pair up for the breeding season. Few have settled down yet and so I haven’t been attacked by the more protective species. But the Terns are back, so too the Puffins, and the predatory birds are hanging around, awaiting the inevitable arrival of eggs and chicks.
Someone told me today that yesterday they saw a Great Skua swoop down, catch a Puffin in flight and drown it. Skuas are pirates of the air, robbing anything else of its prey by any means. They are thriving these days, as are the amazingly aerobatic Fulmars, whereas the decline of Kittiwakes has been extraordinary – almost vertical on the graph. Guillemots are struggling too, having to fly up to two hundred miles to find food.
Starlings, which are having a hard time further south, are doing very well here, and were cited in 99% of gardens in the recent RSPB survey. They are great opportunists, nesting in any little space they can find. This includes under the bonnet of a car. Three car fires have been started in this way on Shetland recently, and owners are recommended to check under the bonnet for a nest before setting off. You just can’t be too careful.
I have been reading too. I read Rachel Mann’s remarkable ‘Dazzling Darkness’ last week – which deserves a blog of its own sometime. And Donna Tartt’s novel ‘The Secret History’ which is a cross between ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Crime and Punishment’ and excellent in very many ways.
Other exploits have been a visit in the company of the Rector of Shetland to the northernmost anglican Church in Britain – St Colman’s on the island of Yell – for Sunday communion. And earlier today a session with some good people planning a day on ‘forgiveness’ in the autumn. They have already held a day on ‘apology’ which tells me that while this place seems remote, it is also very connected and, from what I have heard of its restorative justice work, both serious and creative.