By Toby SkinnerOctober 27th 2020

Brydon Thomason is one of Shetland’s best-known naturalists – and his family on the northern island of Unst are similarly wildlife-obsessed.

NB: This piece was written in 2018, and some details have changed.

Keeping Brydon Thomason and his family focused on an interview can be a tricky task. It’s not just that Brydon and Vaila have three very lively kids — Casey, Corey and Nula — but that Brydon, in particular, is constantly aware of wildlife stirring around their home on Unst, Britain’s windswept northernmost island.

A few times during the course of our interview, he suddenly grabs his binoculars, turns and looks out beyond the garden fence. At one point, he sees a bunch of panicked starlings and gulls toward the bay behind their home, guessing that there must be a bird of prey around. “Sorry,” he says, turning back, having not seen said predator. “I’ll try to concentrate.”

“This happens all the time,” notes Vaila. Casey, eight, chips in with the time recently when he was 20 minutes late to youth club because he and Brydon had spotted a Marmora’s warbler, a rare winged visitor from the Mediterranean. Brydon later admits that he’s addicted to his binoculars the way many of us are addicted to our smartphones.

Brydon is the founder of Shetland Nature, a wildlife tour company that runs otter, birding and photography tours of the islands, ranging from day tours to seven-day trips. In addition to co-authoring an acclaimed book on otters, he has become Shetland’s go-to TV naturalist, and a first phone call for producers of shows like Springwatch, Countryfile and Simon King’s Shetland Diaries. You can see his nature photography across the islands, too, from Lerwick cafes to the North Isles ferry.

Brydon grew up on the tiny island of Fetlar, which is home to roughly 61 human beings and an astonishing array of birdlife. Half of Fetlar is an RSPB reserve, and it’s home to some of the most important breeding sites for rare species like whimbrel and red-necked phalarope. But, while Brydon has always been fascinated by birds, his chief obsession is Shetland’s thriving population of Eurasian otters, or draatsis, as they’re known locally. Aged seven, he recalls seeing a raucous family of otters, and being hooked. “They’re just such beautiful creatures,” he says. “They’re elusive, but they’re so lively and full of fun. Getting to know them has been a lifelong passion, that just keeps getting stronger.”

Otters are just such beautiful creatures. They’re elsusive, but they’re so lively and full of fun. Getting to know them has been a lifelong passion.

Brydon Thomason

As Brydon began to learn more about the otters, his childhood hero was Bobby Tulloch, a charismatic Shetland naturalist who was the first to run nature tours on the islands, and who became widely known when he discovered Britain’s first nesting snowy owls on Fetlar in 1967.

“In so many ways he was just like any other local character I knew, wearing a Shetland gansie [Fair Isle jumper], speaking in a broad accent like mine and into fishing, crofting and fiddle music — but above all he was the bird man!” says Brydon. “He showed me that you didn’t need to be a fancy academic to do this.” Bobby died in 1996, and Brydon started his own business ten years later. Initially, it was just him doing tours, but there are now 18 other guides listed on the company website, even if Brydon’s intimate knowledge of Shetland otters is still the main draw.

If Brydon is Mr Nature, Vaila is Mrs Most Other Stuff. She runs the family, the diary and manages to hold down four jobs. She works at the local leisure centre and the health centre, where she’s training to be a healthcare support worker, able to take blood pressure and do blood tests. She’s also a trained massage therapist and has a degree in zoology, which helps when it comes to doing the admin (and hopefully soon becoming a guide) for the family business. She was also a keen photographer before Brydon had even picked up a camera; they joke that he “stole photography”.

If six-year-old Corey is an iPad playing, wannabe app developer, and two-year-old Nula possibly too young to know, then eight-year-old Casey is the most obvious chip off the two not-that-old blocks. Not only is he obsessed by nature and dinosaurs, but he has designs on four jobs, like his mum: vet, zookeeper, diver, and paleontologist. “You maybe can’t do all of them,” Vaila suggests helpfully, after he lists his chosen future professions.

Like his dad, Casey is working on a photographic nature yearbook: for the project, which runs from last Hogmanay to next, he is photographing all the nature he sees, so far including Arctic snow bunting, Iceland gulls, otters, walruses, seals, and Edmonston’s Chickweed, a flower that only grows on Unst. He proclaims with total confidence that he is a better photographer than his father.

He’s also got a couple of more conceptual creative projects on the go. One is a photo-driven story book, set on the beaches of Shetland, starring warring Iron Man and Ultron action figures, “with chapters and everything”, the first of which features Iron Man getting marooned on a beach. Then there’s a newer book, which he describes as “lots of animals who can turn anything into more animals, including humans... and they’re savage… It’s a bit confusing.”

It’s a great way of life. It’s clean, it’s friendly, it’s happy, there’s this real sense of community.

Vaila Thomason

Brydon and Vaila met in Unst, back when Brydon was working on the North Isles ferry that runs between Unst and the neighbouring islands of Yell and Fetlar. Vaila used to refer to him as “my peerie (small) ferry man”. She’d been travelling, and remembers anxiously asking her mum what had happened to her peerie ferry man in the year or so she’d been away. At that moment, Brydon drove past. It seemed like fate, and a few weeks later they got talking at the Unst Yoal Regatta, a race involving Shetland’s traditional wooden rowing boats. They now live in Vaila’s family home, having spent a few years on Shetland’s mainland.

Naturally, many of the family activities revolve around nature. As well as a recent expedition to look at Edmonston’s Chickweed for Casey’s book, the family also go “platching or guddling the ebb”, which is Shetland-speak for searching for crabs, starfishes and the like around low-tide in Unst’s various rock pools.

Nature isn’t even something they particularly have to seek out, though. Brydon mentions that, in the past few weeks on Shetland (it’s late May), there have been orca sightings and a rare bearded Arctic seal who has decided to sun himself on a slipway at Lerwick harbour, right in the middle of town. Then there was that day when Brydon and Casey happened to drive past a Marmora’s warbler, apparently only the fifth time one of the tiny, comically stern-looking birds has been spotted in the UK.

After our interview, with the wind blowing the wrong way for otter sightings, Brydon takes us up to look at the birds at Saxa Vord, in Unst’s wild north. We drive along a dirt track, high on the headland on the other side of the voe (or bay) from Muckle Flugga, the evocative lighthouse on a little stack that’s Britain’s most northerly point. Above us is the white dome of the Saxa Vord radar system, which has recently begun to operate again, worryingly, in response to global events.

Right here, though, the only meaningful analogues to Trump or Putin are the great skuas, or bonxies in local dialect, which are the biggest, most aggressive birds in this bleakly beautiful place. The bonxies are wont to swoop fiercely towards people who come close to their nests, including David Attenborough, who was once attacked on a walk up the Hermaness headland towards Muckle Flugga. We watch the bonxies for a good half an hour, urging these chunky, posturing birds to spread their wings. Brydon, after thousands of such trips, seems as transfixed as we are.

Back at the house, though, Vaila is keen to point out that their life is about more than just nature. She talks about the kids’ schoolweek, which includes badminton, swimming and cello lessons, as well as the after-school youth club. She talks up the sports centre, where she works, which — like many such places in tiny Shetland communities — was funded to a high level by oil money grants. She also praises the quality of education at the Baltasound Junior High School, though wishes that more young families could come so that the school could justify another teacher.

“It’s a great way of life,” she says. “It’s clean, it’s friendly, it’s happy, there’s this real sense of community. Everyone looks out for each other, and it’s really safe. It’s a positive place to be, and we’re proud to call it home.” With that, she has to go to barbell class, leaving the kids to play in the garden around the old family house. As we leave, we see Brydon head back towards the living room, itching to be reunited with his binoculars.

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