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This was a travel piece published in the Globe & MailĀ on 24th January, 2009 about the islands far north of Scotland where my uncle and aunt have lived for years.


The Shetlands are a dramatic place: uninhabited isles, wild ponies and the odd Viking boat burning

The Romans called the isles far north of Scotland Ultima Thule, Latin for “furthest north,” and the spare, windswept Shetlands still feel like the ends of the earth. The archipelago of 100, mainly uninhabited islands is an elemental place. No trees mar the sculpted shapes of the land, its grasses kept short — and therefore intensely green — by more than 300,000 sheep. The rolling hills are punctuated only by often dramatic rock formations, and everywhere there are vistas of the moody North Sea. For almost 5,000 years, humans have lived here, until recently subsisting more often than thriving.

I have sometimes found the islands bleak, romanticizing that bleakness as the citified are wont to do. A blanched sheep skeleton on a moor, an abandoned medieval village — such things provoke thoughts of mortality. At other times, I’ve been cheered and impressed by what the inhabitants — 22,000 at present — have been able to get done. To make a garden flourish, to make a business prosper, to make a homestead cosy — these are no small accomplishments.

Throughout Scotland, there’s a feeling made most intense in the Shetlands: of civilization achieved despite it all. In Miss Jean Brodie’s Edinburgh, there’s ample culture — especially during the raucous August festival — but it’s always doing battle with the Philistine proponents of pub culture. In perennially depressed Glasgow, there have nonetheless been occasional economic and artistic flowerings. Although the two, fiercely competitive cities have much to offer, to my mind it’s in places like the Shetlands that the country’s spirit gets distilled.

The bleakest time of year is midwinter, when 18 of the day’s 24 hours are dark. In defiance of the dark and stormy nights, the islanders host a rowdy fire festival every year beginning in January and moving town to town until late March. Up-Helly-Aa recalls the islands’ five centuries of Viking rule, with local men and boys masquerading as helmeted Scandinavian marauders. The main one, in the capital Lerwick (beginning Tuesday), has those in Viking garb (the “guizers”) bearing torches through the cobbled streets, and then burning a longship.

“Anything goes” has often been the code of the event. “The whole town was in an uproar,” a Methodist missionary recorded in his diary in 1824. “From 12 o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifing, drinking, fighting.” Although gunfire is rare these days, Up-Helly-Aa is still a rollicking, all-night affair, with libations, home-baked cakes and potato soup served in village halls.

But we found less raucous things to do when I came with my family as a child in 1977, the summer of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the year my sister was born. Anything that could go right did so on this trip. We stayed with my uncle and aunt in a lovely old Georgian house on an island called Bressay — one of the many place names left over from Viking days. We built sandcastles on beaches; played billiards in a homey cliff-top hotel while a storm raged; learned about rural life, about chickens and silage and sheep. A vivid memory: my baby sister lying on a blanket on a hillside with sheep milling and baaing about her.

The island has a lighthouse once kept by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father. I remember wearing my new Shetland wool sweater — a double-brown striped affair — traipsing up the one big hill, the Ward of Bressay, imagining myself into the intrigues of the quintessential Scottish author’s Kidnapped. The fog helped these fantasies, but interfered with the usually panoramic view from atop the Ward.

From here you can usually see the entire body of water between Bressay and the largest island in the group, the so-called Mainland where Lerwick sits. It is one of the finest natural harbours in the North Atlantic, but it hasn’t always served as a placid haven: the French destroyed a Dutch fleet anchored here in 1703, and, in the 13th century, the then overlord of the islands, Norwegian King Haakon, assembled a Viking convoy in the harbour before invading the Scottish mainland.

From the Ward, you can also generally see the cliff-edged isle of Noss, unoccupied by humans but a paradise for birds. On both visits — the old one and a more recent one — I have made pilgrimages to the 180-metre-high, ledge-filled cliffs to watch seabirds cavort by the thousand. You can hear the din long before you reach them. Here are chubby little black-and-white puffins with their luridly coloured beaks; their orange legs dangling as they fly rather ineptly about; the more slender, tuxedo-wearing guillemots, sitting in solemn state low on the cliffs; the white gannets, which fold up into darts to better penetrate the pounding surf in search of fish; the nasty bonxies — like gulls on steroids — which often dive-bomb humans, sheep and other birds.

The island also features the remains of the Marquess of Londonderry’s pony stables: In the late 19th century, he bred pit ponies here for his mines in Northern England. (Today, wild Shetland ponies can be seen most often on the scattald — the common land — on the northern island of Unst.)

Before the Vikings invaded, in the ninth century, mysterious Picts inhabited these islands. Where they came from and, indeed, where they went remain the subject of academic speculation. They left behind them a series of round stone castles, known as brochs — they look curiously like nuclear silos. The most famous sits in splendid isolation on yet another uninhabited island, Mousa. Built in the first century AD, to a height of almost 14 metres, it’s one of the only extant brochs with an intact inner staircase, allowing you to walk to its top and around its brim, as the fort’s lookouts must once have done.

The cliffs at Noss and the Mousa broch remained unchanged between my two visits. But much else has altered — with the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the 1970s, the islands experienced a black gold rush, with outlanders pouring in to work the fields and construct one of Europe’s largest refineries, at Sullum Voe, just north of Lerwick. (The refinery at night is something to see — like some futuristic set for the film Blade Runner.) Carol Anderson, a Shetlander who came of age when the refinery was being built, recalls the sea change wrought by oil’s discovery. “Without it, we would still be cutting peats, digging tatties [potatoes], fishing, all this stuff that had been going on for generations.”

Tidy, modern houses have popped up on many hillsides, where only old, decrepit stone “haas” — dialect for houses — were found before. And, flush with oil money, the islanders have become adept at rescuing — and marketing — their heritage. An old mill has been transformed into a museum focusing on the wool and knitting trade (Da Warp and Weft — with a tea room annex as well); a formerly derelict Georgian home (circa 1775) in Unst has been rescued and restored, and is reopening to the public this year (Belmont House); a fiddling school teaching the distinctive Shetland style — part Norse, part Scottish, part its own thing — offers an intensive course in the summers (Shetland Fiddle Frenzy).

But still, everywhere and always it’s the sea that dominates here, making all human endeavours seem temporary. You’re never farther than five kilometres from it in the Shetlands, and its moods rapidly become yours during even a brief visit. It has been the sea, the fishing, that has largely supported the islanders over the millennia. And it’s the sea that is giving up the oil, which is funding the latest surge of prosperity. And long after the oil has been tapped out, it will no doubt be the sea that again dictates the fate of these islands at the end of the world.

[Details of recommended accommodations, things to do, where to eat etc. followed.]