In Shetland: walking homewards

by Tom Morton -

This is the last place. There is nowhere else to go.

For we have walked the jewelled beaches

at the feet of the final cliffs

of all Man's wanderings.

This is the last place

There is nowhere else to go.

From The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings by Lew Welch

I am not lost. I know where I am. I am in Shetland.

Not ‘on’ Shetland. This was drummed into me by Rayleen, a former editor of The Shetland Post. Well, bellowed into me, at that time a fumbling know-all soothmoother reporter. A lot of those passed through the paper’s portals.

“You may be ON a boat,” she said, very loudly, on the single, entirely memorable occasion I submitted copy stating that someone was currently on Shetland. Or that the situation on Shetland had deteriorated. Or something. “Or you may be ON holiday. Or for all I know and care ON DRUGS. But as far as I can tell you are neither vacationing nor floating. Nor are you in some kind of pharmacological fugue. But you are currently IN SHETLAND, and don’t you forget it.”

And I never have forgotten. Tonight I am in the part of the Shetland Mainland called Ramnavine. In Quidawick, to be precise.

In Shetland. Need I mention that it is never ‘The Shetlands’? This is a singular place.

The walk, this November night, is from sea to sea, Aest Ayre to West, beach to beach, North Sea to Atlantic. The storm is gathering its forces in the sky, which is moon-blue behind heaving, shifting cloud. The wind is moving round from north west to south east, leaving the big, Atlantic waves crashing onto the West Ayre, over the stile and across 200 metres of field. I am not going there, not after dark. Rocks come hurtling through the shifting air on a night like this. It’s dangerous.

And this is nothing. Mild, compared to the hurricane that deposited a boulder on the roof of the Karaness lightkeeper’s house, on a clifftop 200 feet above the sea. A stone so big it took three men to move it. And that is a mere piece of nature’s tricksy bluster, compared to the tsunami, the ‘200-year-wave’ they say explains the line of sofa-sized rocks in a ragged line along those same cliffs.

Or it could be a 100-year-wave. In which case it’s overdue and might arrive tonight. Oh well. I’m ready. Pretty much,

Need I mention that it is never 'The Shetlands'? This is a singular place

Nothing, a mere breeze. Nevertheless I am wrapped up, be-hatted, Goretex-clad and engloved. For this little wander. You can’t be too careful. It’s cold, the wind reinforcing the chill, but not like the killing temperatures of January. I think of those who have died, overheated from a hall dance, walking in shirtsleeves, feeling the blessed relief, the drying sweat. Wandering too far, stumbling onto the weathered hill, taking a short cut home, or just wandering, waiting for the drink to wear off. Cooling, cooling until they go too far to ever come back, and the cold takes them. Lost.

I walk this route every night, hauled by one small, enthusiastic dog, pulling an old, large dying one. I am not lost. I am in the village which is my home. I know every inch of the track, the road, the path behind one beach, the Aest Ayre, where the waves are simply restless, waiting for the new direction of wind to pile them up in St Olaf’s Bay, into Quida Wick, Quida Bay, and then send great welts of water piling into the semi-circle of houses which includes our own.

I pass the cemetery, built in an exact circle on a promontory of dry land within a tidal marsh. Birds, waders, love this place in autumn and spring. Redshanks, Lapwings, Sandpipers. Tonight, faintly in the sound of wind and wave, I can hear a lone Redwing, one of thousands migrating south at this time of year. They travel by night, seeking companionship in that sad, mournful keening. It’s one of the loneliest sounds in the world.

This is a very old graveyard, no longer used, but maintained carefully, like all Shetland cemeteries, because of its Pictish stones and Commonwealth war graves. Almost all Shetland cemeteries have war graves. The lost-at-sea, found on an island shore. Once, many years, ago, when we first came to Quidawick, I felt nervous walking past the long, close cropped grass pathway. Now, even the unearthly glint of two eyes, belonging to a cat sitting on the one of the gateposts, cannot frighten me. I know the cat. Raymond the fat tortoiseshell scourge of curlews and the rarer whimbrels. A nasty piece of work. I know these graves. There are no ghosts here.

I can hear a lone Redwing. One of the loneliest sounds in the world

But there are stories. And one it’s difficult, this blustery night, not to think of, as Raymond turns his brilliantly fluorescent gaze on us, and Dexter the Staffordshire-sheepdog strains, silently to get at him. Raymond and Dexter are not friends.

Her name was Katherine Jonesdochter (note the Icelandic, female-succession name) was strangled, and then burned in a vat of pitch, the last woman accused of witchcraft to suffer this horrific fate in Scotland. The sentence was carried out on the hill above Scalloway, Shetland’s old capital and now second to Lerwick in status and size. But Katherine was a Ramnavine woman, a poor soul who stood accused of ‘conversing, keeping company and lying with the deil’ over 40 years, regularly, especially ‘at Halloween and Holy Cross Day’, and seeing trowies, the strange, troll-like fairies of the north, dancing in the very kirkyard I walk past each night, and several times a day.

She was executed on 2 October 1616. On the 400th anniversary of her death, just a few weeks ago, I walked past the Quidawick graveyard as usual. On that occasion there wasn’t even a cat’s eyes to check my stride. Raymond had business elsewhere, destroying rare wildlife.

Tonight I pass Da Noost, the ancient Hanseatic trading post and former pub that is now a wildlife sanctuary, home to abandoned seals and otters. The great wooden pile of the St Rognvald Hotel, its windows pulsating with light and sound from the disco within. Steve Earle, Lynryd Skynyrd, Status Quo. There’s shouting and I can smell the fag-reek from the eternally exiled smokers.

Down past the shop, closed of course. The Quidawick Stores. I am in there every day, or nearly. Bread, milk, wellington boots, buckets, salt fish, reestit mutton, fruit, soft vegetables. We are very far away here. I remember one friend, bought up on the northernmost island of Shetland, Unst, telling me how, until he was 14, he thought bananas were black. Another acquaintance reminiscing about how she could only get olive oil on prescription from the chemist in Lerwick. Now our shop has sun-dried tomatoes, and ‘Lifestyle’ brand cash-and-carry hummus. Though you can buy chickpeas, some extra virgin oil, tahini, lemon and garlic and make your own.

She stood accused of 'conversing, keeping company and lying with the deil' over 40 years

The beach is rattling and whispering, its small stones allegedly dumped here back in the 19th century to provide a suitable place for the drying of herring. We stick to the grass behind the rock armouring, the coastal protection put in place in the 1970s after a major flood which saw seawater in our house up to the top of the kitchen Rayburn; we pass a giant iron anchor, more than eight feet tall and five wide, salvaged by Ernest the blacksmith from a sunken cruiser out in the bay. He is a man of awesome skills, Ernest, who has built boats, traction engines and whose specialised forged tools are exported all over the world.

Ernest and a team of fellow blacksmiths hand-forged an anchor as big as this enormous First World War one just a decade ago, when they were old enough to know better. It was the last anchor to be hand-forged in Britain in the 20th Century. Next to the anchor is an iron sculpture of flowers, strange and beautiful, made by his daughter Ariadne. I know it is there, but I cannot see it. It is lost in the shadows.

Our house is almost in the sea, a mere one metre above high tide mark and perhaps five from where the sea peaks. On the beach, really. With the right combination of tide and wind, the waves will slop over the armouring and cover the cars, some times foaming right up to the front door.

You should never buy a second-hand car from Shetland, not if you care about rust. And we all care about it, we should care. Rust never sleeps, as the great Neil Young says. Shetland is where rust never even takes the shortest of naps. This is where salt-accelerated corrosion can savage a Toyota Hi Lux to death in a few short years. I remember selling a boat to a fellow who reversed his two-year old pickup down a slipway to haul the old Shetland Model onto its trailer. Deeper and deeper he went, until the water was lapping at the truck’s windows. Wasn’t he worried about the salt water’s effect on his vehicle?

“Nah, nah boy,” he replied. “It’s leased and it’s going back next week.”

And that time, not long after arriving, when I bought a Fiat Panda 4X4 from a local man. It never worked properly, failing to start on demand, cutting out for no apparent reason, smelling peculiar and rusting at a ferocious rate, even for a Fiat. Though its aroma wasn’t as spectacularly awful as the decrepit Mistubishi Colt bought from a fishermen, held together with bungee cords and, after a desperate inspection hiding three mummified mackerel underneath the back seat.

I stuttered into the Hogganfield garage in Lerwick with the Panda for petrol one day, and was paying when the cashier shook her head and said: “I never thought I’d see that car again.” There was a long pause. “Not after they pulled it out of the harbour.” I made the garage I’d bought it from take the horrible thing back and refund all our cash.

"I never thought I'd see that car again...not after they pulled it out of the harbour..."

Now I carefully cross the cattle grid, Dexter pulling as usual and old Rug the nearly-dead St Bernard tottering, if a St Bernard can totter, across the planks laid just for her ageing feet to find. The lights of the house are yellow, welcoming. Inside, I know there is good whisky and I can smell the acrid fumes of peat burning in the downstairs stove. The smell of burning peat is a potent madeleine of memory, loaded with images of my years in Shetland. The peat-ash, cabbage and stewed tea aroma of a Ronas Voe cottage. The mid winter bubbling of water in a back boiler. The staggering around Quidawick, many years ago, before I ever thought of living here, a bottle of Bushmills in hand as the Northern Lights, Da Mirrie Dancers, shimmered and rippled across the winter sky above, the pungency of peatsmoke marking the memory forever.

This place. This place I’ve found. I’m heart-lost in love for it. I hear the sign creaking, whining as it swings on its hinges. It catches the ochre illumination from the kitchen window as it swings, but it’s hard to read. I know what it says, anyway. I painted it myself. Last Books. Furthest north, lurking to catch the bibliophile unawares, here at the Edge of the World: Ultima Thule.

And I open the door to my house, my business, my way of life, my being. I go inside, shutting the storm out, unleashing the dogs, shrugging off my coat.

I know where I am.

I’m home.

Exclusive extract From the forthcoming book In Shetland: Tales from the Last Bookshop. Visit thebeatcroft.co.uk

Da Mirrie Dancers shimmered and rippled across the winter sky above