Today I leave Shetland. It has been a beautiful two weeks. Every long day has been different. Yesterday, for instance, was one of the most curiously misty I have ever experienced. It started very thick out here on the west and so we went east. There it was not only patchy but swirly; creeping down over the hills like woolly-gloved fingers and rising up from the lochs and voes (sea lochs) like smoke from a thousand tiny peat fires. Then it would come rolling in from the sea like a huge, huge breaker, enveloping everything in the interstices of its blanket. And then, as if some great giant were making a bed, the blanket was withdrawn, and we would blink with astonishment at the extent of the view and the fresh vividness of the colours. Green of grass, orange of lichen, purple of peat bog, watery blue of sky, dark slate of sea over seaweed, bright, bright turquoise where it is over sand.
Two days we went on expeditions to see coastal bird colonies – at Noss on the east and Hermanness in the north west corner of Unst. Both involved two ferry journeys and some serious cross-country walking. At Noss the wind was strong and the thousands of Gannets soared around the cliff tops noisily. We also spotted a tiny Brambling in a dry stone wall, blown here while en route somewhere else, but still looking confident and purposeful.
On Noss we saw the ruins of the ‘pony pund’ established by the Marquis of Londonderry to breed ponies for the pits of County Durham – for which purpose he leased the whole island from 1870-1900. Ponies were needed to do the dragging work that had been done by children until their use was made illegal. He stipulated that he wanted their legs to be as short as possible and as stocky as possible. One little stallion called ‘Jack’ ended up being the progenitor of very many pit ponies indeed. Little did he know that his offspring were destined for a life of relentless winter and thick air after the unrivalled freshness of the air here – this being such a tiny and underpopulated archipelago in the vastness of the ocean.
At Hermanness it was outrageously warm and still and the colonies were relatively calm. There are more Arctic Skuas (known locally as Bonxies because of their tendency to dive-bomb anyone who comes too close to their nest) here there than anywhere else and they were sorting themselves out into breeding couples. Every now and then there was some frantic and flagrant mating among the Bonxies, which involved a lot of noise and flapping of male wings. Another Bonxie noise was more poetic – the whistle of air though their wings as they passed just a few feet overhead.
I have always been thwarted in my otter-watching but this week I saw two. Both on the same day but in different areas. The first was happily fishing and eating, just a few metres off shore, so that it was not only possible to see the poor fish’s blood dribble down the otter’s chin but also to hear the smack-smack of the otter’s chomping jaws. It looked quite difficult to eat a live and reluctant fish while swimming – but the otter managed it very well. I saw the second on an evening walk as the light was fading – about 10.30 or so, having just seen a porpoise a little further out to sea. It was a beautiful evening – good enough to get a reasonable photo with an Ipad from just outside the lovely ‘Fisher’s Croft’ where I am staying.
We have been here at the best time of year. The days are long and getting longer. There is of course a shadow side to this: the December days when it is not light until about 9.30 and dark again by 3.30. There is a very high incidence of Multiple Sclerosis here – attributed by many to the lack of Vitamin D caused by the long wiinters. A fish and chip supper in the local village hall to raise money for M.S. attracted several hundred people one Saturday evening, overwhelming the poor organisers who had to send out in all directions for more fish and potatoes.
Other Shetland memories include harvesting mint to use for tea from a roadside ditch, and scavenging rhubarb from the garden of an abandoned and ruined croft. Nothing else remained of the decades of labour – but the delicious rhubarb was flourishing abundantly.