Why I adore the peaty bogs, brutal seas and egalitarianism of the Shetland islands
First published in Conde Nast Traveller, April 2020. Photography with this piece by River Thompson
The lonely Muckle Flugga stack – buffeted by sea-crash, topped by a little lighthouse – is simply there. This is the northernmost point in the British Isles, visible up close only on a little boat or via a two-hour hike across the Hermaness headland – where bleak peat bogs and circling bonxies give way to hulking Middle Earth cliffs; glaikit sheep teetering on precipices, terns springing like boomerangs over waters churning with a steady basso profundo.
There’s an epic beauty to it all – but try the words ‘Muckle Flugga’ on most Brits, and watch the blank expression. There are no postcards of the lighthouse, no cheery guides in branded fleeces. Just a little laminated sign on a wooden post at the edge of the headland, informing you that beyond the stack there’s nothing but grey sea until the North Pole.
This understatement is typical of Shetland, the North Sea archipelago that includes 16 inhabited islands, which largely sits unadorned, unfertilised, unsold, untouristed. It is a lonely walk across a few muddy fields to the Bergmanesque stacks at Silwick, where vertical cliffs are pocked with nests like an avian Hong Kong. Yell’s white-sand Breckon, probably my favourite beach on the planet, usually sits as empty as a Hollywood dream sequence. Shetland’s appeal is less about seeing anything in particular than simply being and feeling: waiting for ferries and otters, watching the shifting light and bobbing seals; surrounded by a capricious and unknowable sea, curiously at peace.
Shetland’s appeal is less about seeing anything in particular than simply being and feeling: waiting for ferries and otters, watching the shifting light and bobbing seals; surrounded by a capricious and unknowable sea, curiously at peace.
I’ve been coming since I was young. My stepmother has family connections with Cullivoe, a fishing and crofting village on the North Isle of Yell, known for its four-day weddings and terrifyingly liquid Hogmanay, which culminates in a New Year’s Day tug o’ war between the Uppies and the Doonies from either end of the village. Her father, a charismatic man who played flanker for Scotland and painted wild seas, grew up in Hawick but would visit as often as he could with his Cullivoe-born mother, amusing the locals and free-roaming sheep by running up and down the peaty hills. His Shetland blood could be discerned in both his gentle egalitarianism and his bone-crushing handshake.
We used to come and stay at New House, the but and ben croft house which had been in the family since the 1850s, and which Papa Adam renovated in the 1990s. We’d drive around in Dad’s Saab convertible, listening to Sade, Meat Loaf and Annie Lennox, shouting ‘Basta!’ at the top of our lungs every time we passed the sign for the little voe where famously plump mussels cling to ropes in the face of roaring tides – still a strictly enforced tradition, and a test of nerve for first-time visitors.
Before Papa Adam died, Dad and Shona’s retirement plan was to move from St Katharine’s Dock to the Languedoc for a life of Grange des Pères, foie gras and watching Narbonne play rugby. But every time my artist stepmother came to clear out New House for sale, something would stop her. On the 90-minute drive back to the airport, she’d find herself weeping. To cut a long story short, they moved in 2010 – leaving Dad staring blankly at his Anderson & Sheppard suits, and Shona wondering if she’d wear her Chanel pumps again.
Before making the final move, they built an extension to New House, with glassy views across the Bluemull Sound to the cliffs of Unst – a hundred feet high but dwarfed by the fiercest winter swells. A few years later, they opened The Shetland Gallery, Britain’s northernmost art space, showing Shona’s free-machine embroidered seascapes alongside other artists and makers drawn to Shetland’s seas and skies. They bought two beautiful Shetland ponies, Fortnum and Mason, who soon had their own little hut, were cuddled daily but couldn’t be induced to cross their field without treats. Up at the pebbledash village hall, where even the most generous round rarely exceeds a tenner, Peerie Brian the ship captain rechristened them Aldi and Lidl. Dad and Shona did their best to be amused.
But – aside from Dad’s ill-fated run for a council seat, and a few minor spats conducted via the pages of The Shetland Times – they have been welcomed like family, as have we all. Shona is actually related to half the village, but on one Famously Groused Hogmanay, my sister had a de facto marriage to Lee the bus driver, about which his actual fiancee seemed only faintly unamused. Netta, the late twinkling, mischievously formidable Queen of Cullivoe, became a surrogate granny. The charming, funny Lawson children could very soon remember not just our names, but how we took our gin and tonics, and who was best at the cereal-box game.
Over time, I’ve become soaked in a place which is really British only in name. Closer to Bergen than Inverness, the islands were Viking-conquered and Norwegian until the 15th-century. Shetlanders have voted Liberal Democrat at every election since 1950, and oil-driven public funds have helped deliver folk and wool festivals, shiny roads and remote leisure centres. It feels more Scandi-socialist than two-party British.
Place names reflect the Norse mash-up: Cunnister, Wadbister, Huxter, Cuppa Water, Twatt. The local dialect, virtually impossible to imitate, can sound almost Icelandic – long-vowelled, with ‘o’ drifting towards ‘au’ and ‘i’ turning to ‘u’ (‘Dunna chuck bruck’, reads the anti-littering signs). But Shetlanders are no insular separatists. A history of seafaring has fostered an outward-looking perspective, a resourcefulness, a gentle humility and a broad-church tolerance. It’s just that the islands haven’t much needed the rest of the world. Unlike the Western Isles or the more manicured Orkney islands, Shetland’s healthy economy relies much more on fishing and oil than tourism.
Hence, there are smart stays, but also grotty hotels that were built in the 1970s for oilmen who wanted little beyond a bunk and a Tennent’s tap; a slowly growing number of places to sample Shetland’s wonderful seafood, if not as many as there might be given that more fish is landed here than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Flights remain expensive, though passengers are rewarded with Tunnock’s wafers and tea, and thrilling views as the tiny propeller plane swoops over the lighthouse and Jarlshof Viking settlement at Sumburgh, on the Mainland’s southern tip.
Adding to the sometime assertion that this is a Marmite destination, Shetland’s rolling, largely treeless interior doesn’t fit some Romantic ideals of beauty. Yet I adore its peaty bleakness – a landscape of sinking bogs, ancient bones and ferocious winds; a great moss-green canvas for the sky. The sense of space leaves room for imagination, which helps explain all the artists and poets; makers of fiddles, fine tweeds, and impossibly delicate lace shawls. Why so many gatherings tend to end with impromptu jams, a tradition that dates beyond Peerie Willie Johnson, the ‘dum chuck’ guitarist who combined wild Django Rheinhardt licks with traditional Shetland folk.
I adore its peaty bleakness – a landscape of sinking bogs, ancient bones and ferocious winds; a great moss-green canvas for the sky.
The ultimate creative space is the sea, which is like a god, albeit one you’re never more than four miles from. It crashes and caresses, and shapes everything: the stacks at Eshaness, one of which looks like a giant horse supping the North Sea; or the hourglass-shaped white-sand tombolo leading to St Ninian’s Isle, which disappears with a beautiful whimper at high tide. Up at Hermaness, great Arctic swells rip into the cliffs, before dementedly swirling down the Bluemull Sound.
The sea also provides Muckle Flugga’s mythology. The story goes that the giants Herma and Saxa fell in love with the same mermaid, hurling rocks at one another, one of which became the stack. Eventually, the mermaid called a truce by offering to marry whichever lovestruck giant could follow her to the North Pole. Neither could swim, so both drowned in pursuit. I often think, too, of the poor young couple who died at Hermaness on New Year’s Day in 1992, caught by a 200mph storm that shattered the lonely bird hide they were sheltering in. Nature at its most ruthless.
Nothing and no one will tell you these stories as you stand at the northern edge of the British Isles. Hermaness, like much of Shetland, isn’t a place for explanations, let alone soupy endings. It is a place to watch the blues and whites of waves that growl like thunder, or the brief, flickering glide of a gannet before it swoops and kills. It is what it is. A place to wonder.