January 2010 Newsletter
Here is our newsletter from January 2010. We hope you find it of interest. If you're considering a move to Shetland, please don't hesitate to contact us for more advice using either the contact details at the end of this Newsletter or via the contact page on the website. To receive our monthly newsletters by email, please sign-up using the form in the left column.
Photo by David Gifford
The winter nights are inevitably a bit longer at sixty degrees north than they are farther south. Visitors from Scotland don't notice a huge difference; in midwinter, Glasgow or Edinburgh have only about twenty minutes more sunlight at each end of the day. However, Londoners find that the sun rises about an hour later in Shetland and sets about an hour earlier.
Not surprisingly, the lengthening of the day in the new year, with the ending of the period called Yule (or "the Yules"), is marked in Shetland by celebrations. These invariably involve fire. The Lerwick Up Helly Aa, always held on the last Tuesday in January, is the most spectacular. It involves more than 800 torch-bearing guizers who, having paraded at night around the town and set fire to a Viking galley, party the night away as they circulate between a dozen or more halls. At each venue, they stage some kind of performance, often a satire on some local event.
Proceedings don't come to an end until about eight o'clock the following morning.
Without exception, all of these events are rooted very firmly in the community rather than being created for visitors; that said, the Lerwick event draws many to the islands from all over the world, adding to the thousands of local people who turn out to see the procession. Smaller fire festivals or Up Helly Aa celebrations, similar in style to Lerwick's, have traditionally been held in eight other districts in Shetland; from 2010, there will be a ninth, as an Up Helly Aa is to be held for the first time in the South Mainland. There's more information about the Lerwick Up Helly Aa on this website.
Once the days begin to lengthen, people in Shetland have ample compensation for the slightly longer winter nights. The day lengthens rapidly, and by mid-May there is no complete darkness. At midsummer, it's light enough to read a book, go fishing or even play golf right through the night.
Photo by David Gifford
Over the winter, it's not just the glow from guizers" torches that lights up the Shetland sky. Because they're so far north, the islands are an excellent place to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, known in Shetland as the Mirrie Dancers. This year, for the first time, one travel company has been offering flights into Shetland airspace specifically to look for the phenomenon.
Of course, the aurora borealis isn't predictable and it would be possible to stay in the islands for some time without seeing anything. However, the displays, when they occur, can be truly spectacular, with shimmering curtains of light that may sometimes stretch from the eastern to the western horizon. Most often, they are greenish-blue, but they may also appear yellow, orange, pink or red, or combinations of these colours.
Several Shetland-based photographers feature spectacular pictures of the aurora on their websites and a search engine will produce many results. For more information on the aurora borealis in general, this Lancaster University site is useful.
Meanwhile, artists in Shetland have put together a series of lighting displays, inspired by the aurora borealis, around the islands. The project is entitled Mirrie Dancers and involves the use of coloured light installations at a number of different sites chosen by local communities. The project will culminate in a light display featuring Shetland lace at Mareel, the new arts centre being built in Lerwick that's due to open in 2011. The project website explains more of the background and includes slide-shows featuring the installations completed so far.
With the automation of lighthouses in Shetland towards the end of last century, these impressive buildings have found new uses, often as holiday accommodation. They can make an excellent base for small groups pursuing particular interests. Birdwatching, photography or painting spring quickly to mind, but the December-January issue of Coast magazine documents a bookbinding course run at the lighthouse on the island of Bressay.
Organised by book artist, photographer and writer Rachel Hazell, the course participants – drawn from several parts of the UK - spent three days creating books. Finding inspiration for poetry, paintings or drawings in the surrounding landscape, they learned the skills of binding, finishing their projects just in time to catch the ferry back to mainland Shetland and begin their journeys home.
Rachel Hazell describes herself on her website as "an islomaniac; a seeker of extremities; a bibliophile". Among the more unusual locations in which she has worked is Antarctica, where she combined her work with the roles of Assistant Post Mistress and Penguin Monitor. She'll be back at the Bressay Lighthouse towards the end of April 2010 to run another workshop, entitled "Dictionaries and definitions".
During 2009, the webcams that feature on the VisitShetland website appeared in the top ten webcams worldwide as assessed by EarthCam, a website that describes itself as the place "where the world watches the world". EarthCam sites range from Brazil and Vietnam to Greece and Japan.
The VisitShetland webcams have been in operation for a number of years. They offer a choice of Shetland images, including the coastlines of Eshaness or Lunna in the north mainland, the bird cliffs of Sumburgh Head in the south and several views of the historic centre of Lerwick and its harbour. Several of the cameras are programmed to offer a variety of different views. All of them produce "live" pictures rather than the series of still images so often found on similar sites.
For those at VisitShetland who put the project together, the motivation was a desire to portray Shetland honestly, so that visitors could see for themselves the contrasts that occur in light and weather throughout the year. However, many Shetland residents have found that the cameras offer other advantages. In particular, it's easy to check whether or not there are problems with fog or snow at Sumburgh Airport.
Photo by Dave Donaldson
Shetlanders are used to seeing sheep; there are at least ten times as many sheep as people. However, some residents of the south mainland, confronted by the newest woolly arrivals, may have wondered if they had over-indulged at Christmas, for the islands have just become host to a herd of ten alpacas, animals that hail from the Andes. Alpacas are somewhat smaller than llamas and were probably bred from their nearest wild relative, the vicuña, with wool and meat production in mind. Like llamas, they are members of the camel family. The alpacas were brought to Shetland from Dorset – along with some Soay sheep – by Colin and Philippa Arnot, who have decided to settle in the islands. Early indications are that the animals have adapted well to their new surroundings and that they have coped well with the cold, snowy conditions that have affected Shetland along with the rest of the UK in recent weeks. They have certainly attracted their fair share of local interest.
As 2009 drew to a close, the Highlands and Islands Broadband Project completed the last few links in a brand-new fast broadband network that connects scores of schools and public buildings in Shetland and hundreds throughout the north and west of Scotland. The project – known as "Pathfinder North" - was devised in order to provide broadband services as good as, or better than, those enjoyed in urban areas. The last of the Shetland sites to be connected – the Cunningsburgh Primary School, serving a rural community in the islands" south mainland – was able to log on for the first time on 18 December.
As well as providing fast links between public buildings, the project has other benefits. Schools are able to connect to the GLOW network, which has been set up by Learning and Teaching Scotland (a Scottish Government agency) to help teachers and pupils. GLOW offers easy access to high-quality teaching material and it enables pupils" assignments to be set and marked online. Pupils can easily collaborate on projects not only within schools but also between them, right across Scotland.
There are also ways in which the public can make use of the Pathfinder system. At any of Shetland Islands Council's ferry terminals or Tingwall Airport, anyone with a wifi-equipped laptop or other device can log on to the network and browse the internet or check their e-mail. The service is free and there are no formalities. In two districts, the village of Vidlin and the island of Fetlar, a pilot scheme allows public and business access to the high-speed network, offering a faster connection than conventional broadband.
Pathfinder is just one of several ways in which communications in Shetland are being improved. Work is in hand to bring BT's "21st Century Network" to Shetland; as elsewhere, it involves the replacement of equipment in every exchange but, in the islands" case, it also requires the laying of new sub-sea cables. The Islands Council is working on plans to connect Shetland to a Faroese fibre-optic cable that passes through Shetland. Meanwhile, mobile phone provider O² has become the first to introduce 3G network coverage.
The British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) has released its annual report on sightings of rare birds in Britain and it confirms that Shetland is the best place in Britain to find unusual species. During 2008, the BBRC says that 27 rare species turned up in Shetland, more than in any other area. Indeed, Shetland sightings accounted for almost half the Scottish total. Shetland's very active local ornithologists share information through an excellent website. There's more about the BBRC report in this Daily Telegraph article.
2010: An Eventful Year In Prospect
Visitors to the islands are always interested to know how islanders spend their leisure time, perhaps believing that not very much can happen in a relatively small place. The reality is that Shetland hosts a remarkable variety of events. Take music: there are half-a-dozen annual festivals focusing on different genres, and music also plays a major role in several of the other events.
The year kicks off with a series of Up Helly Aa celebrations, described above, which take us well into March. At the end of April, the Shetland Folk Festival is an international event, which this year will be celebrating its 30th anniversary with a great line-up of performers hailing from Scotland, the USA, India, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, France, Slovenia and England. The musical range stretches from Indian Camatic music to old-time American string band and from what has been described as "banjo punk" to a Slovenian blend of ethno-folk, rock and jazz. Alongside all this, there is much to please those who follow more traditional folk styles, in particular the Irish heritage represented by a band called Mórga. Shetland bands, including Fiddler's Bid, will also be centre-stage, reflecting the talent for which Shetland is well known. There's more information on the Folk Festival website; should you be thinking of attending, it's essential to book early, as concerts tend to sell out very quickly once tickets go on sale.
As summer arrives, the Shetland Hamefarin" (Homecoming) occupies the second half of June. People with Shetland connections from all over the world will be heading for the islands to celebrate Shetland culture and rediscover their roots. A large number of events, including walks, lectures, dances, Flavour of Shetland (a showcase for crafts, music and food) and an Up Helly Aa parade, will be laid on.
Yacht racing plays a large part in any Shetland summer. This year, the islands not only host the Bergen-Shetland races and the Thousand Mile Race but also the Shetland Round Britain and Ireland Race, for which Lerwick is one of four compulsory stops. Up to 50 boats can compete in the two-handed event and, at the time of writing, 23 teams had already registered.
In early July, another side of Shetland is represented in the Shetland Nature Festival, which offers all sorts of opportunities to see and learn about the islands" extraordinary natural environment. There's something for everyone, including hundreds of thousands of seabirds and their chicks, an abundance of wild flowers and the chance to see seals, otters, porpoises and whales. Many visitors will also want to follow up Shetland's recent designation as a European Geopark and take advantage of the excellent interpretation that has now been provided at sites of special interest.
August brings Creative Connections, a summer school featuring fiddle music, knitting, creative writing and storytelling. Held at venues throughout the islands, it's a great way to learn (or polish) a skill while seeing all that Shetland has to offer.
September is a busy month. There's more music in the form of the Shetland Blues Festival and the Guitar Festival. The islands also host a film festival (ScreenPlay) and a literary festival (WordPlay). Since early October is an ideal time to sample the best of Shetland's produce from land and sea, the Shetland Food Festival runs for ten days at the beginning of the month. It features a farmers" market, cookery demonstrations, talks, films and visits to producers. The Food Festival overlaps with yet another musical celebration, the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival, featuring many concerts and dances throughout the islands.
As the year draws to a close, the remarkable Shetland musician, Thomas Fraser, is honoured in his home community of Burra Isle, west of Shetland's south mainland, in the Thomas Fraser Memorial Festival, which takes place in November. By then, the Up-Helly-Aa squads will be hard at work building their galleys and devising their costumes, ready for the start of 2011.
During the year, we'll have more information about all these events and many more besides. A trip to the islands to sample any of them would, of course, be a good way to find out what life in the islands might have to offer and to confirm that islanders are never short of things to do.
Ann Cleeves" superb crime novels, set convincingly (if, perhaps, somewhat improbably) in Shetland, have built a well-deserved following. Three have been published so far and a fourth, Blue Lightning, comes out on 5 February. Meanwhile, one of the quartet, Raven Black, is to form the Saturday Play on Radio 4 on 23 January. The story begins with the the discovery of a body in the snow on a bitter January morning and comes to a tense and thrilling conclusion at Up Helly Aa. The programme begins at 2.30pm and the play, in an adaptation by Iain Finlay MacLeod, lasts for an hour.
Raven Black won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for the best crime novel of 2006, the judges praising its "superb sense of place". It has already been adapted for radio in Germany.
The London International Horse Show takes place every December at Olympia and one of its best-loved events is the Shetland Pony Grand National. However, almost a decade has passed since a Shetland rider has qualified to ride in the event and so hopes were high that the 2009 races would feature a boy or girl from the islands.
The dream was to be fulfilled for 11-year-old Arianne Fraser, who lives on the island of Whalsay, to the north-east of the Shetland mainland. Riding Clothie Uriebell, a pony six years her senior, Arianne was one of just ten riders to qualify from across the UK. She was also the youngest jockey to compete at Olympia in 2009. The races are fast and furious, as this BBC clip shows. We hope you enjoy it!
We'd welcome any comments you have about this email, or about the Shetland.org site. Also, if you have any enquiries at all about Shetland we'd be more than happy to assist you. Please contact us using any of the methods listed below.
Thank you again for taking the time to read this newsletter and please feel free to forward it to anyone else who may be interested in Shetland.
The Team at Shetland.org
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Shetland Islands Council, Solarhus, North Ness, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0LZ, UNITED KINGDOM