by Tom Morton -
The light comes in, days lengthen, midnight skies turn dark blue, then indigo, then pale pink or creamy grey. It’s May, and after the last rattle of hail, the final flutter of snow, comes a sudden blast of warmth.
At last the rhubarb is long enough to be worth harvesting, and at this time of year it’s sweet and tender. Puddings are sorted now until September, beyond if there’s a surplus, and there nearly always is, and there’s room in the freezer. Crumbles, pies, sorbets, stewed breakfast toppings, fools, yoghurts; amazing concoctions involving rhubarb cooked with mutton and mackerel, though not at the same time. Once considered so precious by the Chinese, people died to stop it being smuggled to the west. Now endemic in Shetland, unstoppable, unkillable, glorious. Appearing to grow inches from day to day, rhubarb is the sour, sharp sweetness of summer, even for gardeners lacking green fingers.
Green toes. And ankles. That’s an issue for those of us with grass to cut. From now until October, it’s every week, and the struggle to start reluctant mowers leads to pounding hearts, barked knuckles and much swearing. Finally, the engines smoke into life, and the endless tramping around lawns begins, the careful cutting into stripes of greensward, the dumping of cuttings on tattie beds to induce warmth and quicker growth. Along with the kelp, gathered from beaches after storms, washed and dried.
The days grow hotter, longer still, and you can find yourself up to two grass-cuts a week, mulch ingrained into sandled feet, or up shins if you’ve given in, unwisely to the temptation of shorts.
How hot can Shetland get? How sunny. May can be amazing. In 1992, suncream supplies ran out as the weeks went on an the skies remained unbelievably blue. And unusually, Shetland was aligned with mainland Scotland, where it was the warmest May since 1833. The heatwave began on the 13th, when very warm southerly winds from North Africa embraced the entire country. Under the clear sunny skies, temperatures soared into the high 20s and Scotland had its warmest day for that year on the 14th, with Glasgow recording 26.8C, Aviemore 25.9C and Edinburgh an amazing 28.9C.
Shetland? Well, Shetland for once avoided the curse of the fog, the sea-mist, the haar. It just felt cooler because of the breeze. That’s the issue if you’re wandering about on a fine day that feels cool. You’re still getting burnt. This was spelt out to me the first time I went peat-cutting, and returned so stiff and scarred with sunburn I couldn’t sleep for two calamine lotion-drenched nights in succession.
In 2009, things got a little out of hand. It was the warmest June ever, or at least since records began. More than 240 hours of sunshine. In 1959, there had been a mere 236. Again, there was an absence of that frequent sense of local grievance at the rest of Scotland for being sunny when Shetland was flightless and sightless. No fog. A maximum temperature of 21.7 C, and even a night when things never cooled beyond 14 degrees. It was another occasion when emergency supplies of sunscreen had to be ordered in as shops sold out. The Gilbert Bain Hospital had to deal with three cases of severe sunburn at the accident and emergency department. Cool off in teh sea? Why not? For a minute or two. Survival time in Shetland coastal waters, even in these conditions, can be as short at 30 minutes’ total immersion. Be careful.
This year? Who knows? On 9 May, ill-advised amounts of skin were exposed by workers and tourists alike as a combination of blue skies, heat and stillness brought a near-tropical atmosphere and a very swift dearth of barbecue supplies. In Northmavine, the demand for local man Peter Sinclair’s upcycled truck-wheel barbecues and firepits made from old washing machine drums reached fever pitch. Charcoal ran out. Sausages were changing hands at inflated prices, or might have been had any been available.
Meanwhile, it is time to cut, to raise, turn, stack and bag peats. Activity is not as fervid as it has been in recent years, what with the oil price being so low, but the competition for peat banks near the road, and hence easier to exploit, can be fierce. The grazings committee allocates the banks, which may be associated with a particular house or croft. Tushkars, the scythe-like instrument used to cut and lift the wet peat, are known in Western Isles Gaelic as 'tarasgeirs' . Please, don't help yourself to peats left stacked by the side of the road. Secret peat police patrol Shetland in summer to guard them! Maybe. And the same goes for those piles of precious driftwood behind the beach...
As the peats dry and are then carted home, thoughts turn towards the coming winter; the slow, then faster and faster dimming of the days.
Because even in the midst of light, we are in darkness. We know it in our hearts. Winter is coming.
Posted in: Exploring Shetland