Sunday, 10 April 2011

The ship was a cockle shell floating in a pool of water.

   We have been across the waves in the land of wind, fog, and trows.  We've been up hill and down hill, around the many long and narrow glacier-carved bays, big packs on our backs, all through Shetland in every kind of weather except calm.

When we left home we brought our tent, thinking we would spend some time out with the land.  But when we crawled ashore, we quickly understood that our little tent would be no match for a wind that we could lean on as we walked.  Instead we spent our days blowing around the islands, and our nights safely tucked away into böds, which were originally little stone buildings set up for fishermen to sleep in on the nights when they were able to come ashore.  Nowadays böds are generally heritage buildings with bunks inside, sometimes with running water and electricity, sometimes without.

A home the size of daffodils.

We slept one night in the house of Betty Mouat, a woman who was accidentally swept away to Norway in the hold of a boat one day in the 1800s.  Another night we stayed in an old farmhouse surrounded by sheep, beside a long finger of the ocean.  We also slept on a pier in an old fish-salting / boat storage building / knitting factory.  But the most lovely böd of all was the former home of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, an old stone house sitting halfway up a hill with a pony and horse looking in at us through the windows as we read out poems and stories by the light of peat fire and candles.  We had the pleasure of the creaking old places all to ourselves, since no one else seemed to be interested in holiday making in early April.

Old family boats become roofs when they have finished their days on the sea.

Everywhere we went people told us stories, showed us around, brought us in for cups of tea.  We went over there expecting only to be with the hills and the coast, the seabirds, otters and seals, and we did experience that as well, but also so much more...

 A bus driver stopped us as we were getting off the bus at the end of the line, to kindly and skillfully tell us a story.  The tiny house you see floating on the sea above is a tiny boat-building workshop, and home of a friendly craftsman of astounding skill, who rowed us out for a visit one morning.  Every day was full of miracles and coincidences.

We hiked to the hill tops and found lakes up there, floating next to the sky.  The wind howled and made our eyes water constantly, shook us so that it was hard even to take a photograph.

And that is why it was a dismay to return and look through all the photos we had taken.  Out on the hill tops and down in the glens, the land was speaking, and the sky was rushing past us.  It's disappointing enough to find that a photo has not managed to reproduce the colours of a place, that the land looks flatter and duller, but such a stark loss of vitality was disturbing.  It is perhaps a landscape that should not be photographed but instead played on a fiddle, or said in a poem, or maybe danced.

And so I guess this will have to be a post of failed attempts, because I do want to share this wondrous place with you, even in an imperfect way.  So please at least imagine that these photos are howling and soaring at you, that your clothes are whipping out past you, that you are standing leaning forward past the point of balance but not falling. 

A woman who had moved to Shetland a few years earlier told me that since her arrival she had tried everything to plant some trees there, but all their leaves were shredded, their needles stripped bear, their roots torn out of the ground by the wind.  And everywhere in the fields you find mysterious-looking little rings of stone walls called plantiecrubs that people have built to plant cabbages and things inside.

One nice thing about all that biting wind is that if you get drenched walking about in a downpour, your clothes are likely to be completely dry again by the time you reach the end of your walk.

  And it does seem like just maybe all that wind can blow away dusty, wintry, old thoughts, too, giving a sort of clarity, an expansive feeling.

A fine thing when in every nook and cranny there are stories unfolding full of spring happenings...

And there was also the island of a saint, connected to the mainland by a narrow passage of sand, as if the ocean had parted just enough for those willing to plunge their feet and legs into the cold waves to cross over.

 And there were underground houses to wander through too... old, fantastic things that were revealed one night long ago, when a storm blew away all the sand that had been covering them.

The first day we arrived was a Sunday and everything was closed.  We sat on a beach in the cold eating a dinner of almonds and sharing a piece of fudge, since that was what we had.  A seal danced past.

Other evenings, mists and rains wrapped around the land, and we wrapped ourselves around stoves full of peat and driftwood, heating water for tea over the fire.  The doors shuddered, rattled, banged in their frames.  Perhaps out in the dark, trows walked in the footsteps we left in the boggy hilltops by day. 

 We spent the last day in town, tired and sad to be leaving. 

The wind was force seven when we set out from the harbour that evening, and it increased as the night went on.  Waves slammed against the windows on the top floor of the ship, everything rocked fearfully all night.  And when we reached Aberdeen in the morning, we were told there had been calm weather the whole time we were away, as if the drunken boat had been only a dream.

*   *   *

   And today I think the whole city has been out in the sun and warmth, strolling the promenade by the seaside, riding the ferris wheel, lining up for ice cream cones.  There are flowers and tiny leaves on the trees here, like a paradise has fallen on us.  We even saw dolphins jumping out of the water by the pier this morning.  The city seems to have completely transformed itself in our absence, but maybe we too have changed, ever so slightly?


  1. Jodi - goodness! I don't think this is a failed attempt at all! I was immediately drawn into the scenery... the cattle's blowing hair told me stories of the wind, and I caught my breath at the misty lavender sky! Beautiful! Sounds like a wonderful adventure. I have experienced wind as a profound healer, most especially near the ocean....

  2. Why am i not living here! what a gorgeous place. this is going straight on my to do list, thanks so much for sharing.

  3. There are so many many stories blowing through your story in this post only. It tells me what a neverending amount of drawings and paintings and etchings still need to be made, and stories told, and songs and poems and dances that need to emerge urgently !! to tell the world about all these worlds :-)

  4. M'dear, you may not have caught what you saw, but you have brought a lovely little piece of it to us. I feel like for a moment I too was leaning into the wild wind of these Isles. Someday I want to take my husband there. Thank you for this lovely introduction to your log,

  5. Valerianna,

    Oh but it was infinitely better in real life -- you'll have to go and see one day! The wind... it felt as if the whole world blew through my head and then out again... it was very good.


    Glad that is on your list! I think this is the prefect sort of place to move to. You could live in a city for years and never meet as many people as you would come to know in this relatively uninhabited place, I think. Even after a couple of days we shy people were running into people we'd met before and waving hello to our little acquaintances. Crazy!


    You are absolutely right. Though you know, my 'urgently' is probably slower than yours!


    Welcome! I'm very glad I could bring a bit of this place back to you... especially if you could catch a breath of that wind! Yay!

  6. Oh!My! I feel windswept and wonderful after reading this! What an amazing place. It seems as though you found some little hidden doorway into Middle Earth, and I cannot help wondering if some other person had taken the trip would they have found such wonder and magic?

    "It is perhaps a landscape that should not be photographed but instead played on a fiddle, or said in a poem, or maybe danced."

    A joy to read, Jodi! Thank you. :-)

  7. Oh, I hope they would find that magic! And I'm very glad if you could see a bit of it here, too.

  8. It is true, Shetland changes you. I have just discovered your blog and this post in the few minutes I have before leaving for work, but I'll carry your Shetland with me through the day. I've only been twice, in September at the time of the equinox, with a return ferry journey that was a rite of passage, and in July, when the islands were carpeted in wildflowers. How I long to go back!
    If you click on the 'Shetland' tag in my word cloud you'll see some of my Shetland.

  9. Lovely Shetland photos Linda!

    And I completely understand what you mean about the ferry trip... but it does say a lot that even considering all that we would both go back in a heartbeat!