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Guide to Shetland Etiquette

by Tom Morton -

Etiquette for visitors, Volume 1: Wood and beachcombing

Shetland is generally a very welcoming place, and Shetlanders open-hearted, generous and kind to strangers.

However, there are one or two hints and tips that travellers may find helpful, and which could make life a little easier, with less, well, shouting and possibly the occasionally rude gesture.

The first relates to wood. Wood is traditionally a scarce resource in the Northern Isles, and collecting timber that has been washed ashore remains an activity that occupies a great deal of time and effort for some islanders, and indeed can become a bit of an obsession. I include myself in this category.

So when you’re walking along the beach, perhaps with your tent pitched on the grassland behind it and with the possibility of a campfire very much in mind, you may see some wood lying on the sand or shingle, freshly gifted by the sea. Fine, that’s yours, use it as you see fit. There may be a little wailing and gnashing of teeth from someone who considers that particular beach their own scranning (foraging, beachcombing) territory, but legally (or at least according to ancient Udal Law,or custom, or habit), below high tide mark belongs to all. You can have that valuable mahogany or pitch pine.

Legally (or at least according to ancient Udal Law,or custom, or habit), below high tide mark belongs to all

As long as it’s below high tide mark. Which is to say, recently washed up.

On the other hand, above high tide mark, on the grass, heather or sand (‘laid up on da banks’) you may find single logs, planks, or piles of wood small and large, including pallets, fence posts, lumps of tree.

There may be plastic fishboxes as well, blue barrels and other items brought by wave and tide. Such as entire boats, satellites, weather balloons and the like.

I cannot stress enough that these are spoken for. Everything above high tide mark belongs to someone. Someone, incidentally, who is very possibly watching your every move through a pair of binoculars, as there is a set of these useful instruments on every windowsill in every Shetland house.

Particularly infuriating is the setting aflame of an entire collection of wood, set aside for the winter’s Rayburn, usually by a group of younger tourists looking to enjoy a sing-song, a touch of cavorting and the consumption of fine ales while gazing romantically at the sea through roaring flame. As happened last year in Unst, to the considerable outrage of a local family who had spent months collecting, sorting and piling up wood, only to arrive with a trailer in order to bring it all home, and find nothing but a blackened patch of grass.

So, come to Shetland, enjoy the walking, beachcomb with impunity...

...below the line denoting high tide. Do not remove wood that has been ‘laid up’. Do not set fire to it. You will be breaking thousands of years of Shetland tradition. And a few hearts.

Oh, and this applies to Shetlanders, too. Particularly those who removed and burnt the little pile of branches I’d gathered over the winter at a certain spot on the coast...

Some things are difficult to forgive.

This applies to Shetlanders too...
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