By Jon DunnSeptember 8th 2020
Jon Dunn

Natural history writer and photographer Jon Dunn on his love of finding treasures along Shetland's coastline.

In the early summer of 1914, Captain Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation was a man on a mission. He took to the seas around Scotland with a cargo of almost 2,000 glass bottles and, by the time he returned to dry land, he had lost every single one, sunk without trace.

This was no accident.

Each bottle, a slim vessel of thick, aqueous green glass, contained a numbered postcard that promised the finder the princely sum of sixpence if they returned it to the Director of the Fishery Board for Scotland.

“Please state where and when this card was found, and then put it in the nearest Post Office," read the printed message within each bottle. "You will be informed in reply where and when it was set adrift. Our object is to find out the direction of the deep currents of the North Sea."

Each bottle was carefully weighted to ensure it sank and then bobbed along the seabed, carried by the currents deep beneath the surface. The logic of the scheme was impeccable – the bottles, found by chance, would reveal something of the mechanics of the world hidden far beneath the shifting waves of the seas surrounding Scotland.

Almost 100 years later, Andrew Leaper, skipper of the Shetland fishing boat Copious, spotted something unusual tangled amongst the nets as they were being hauled aboard. Amongst the anticipated monkfish, cod and megrims was something rarer and, in its way, more valuable still – one of Captain Brown’s drift bottles. At the time this was the oldest known message in a bottle ever to be found anywhere in the world – beating the world record set, coincidentally, six years previously by another Shetland fisherman on board none other than the Copious.

Most of the 1,890 bottles released by Captain Brown remain unaccounted for to this day – only a few hundred have ever been found. They remain one of the rarest finds in Shetland for the fortunate fisherman or blessed beachcomber though, perhaps, not the ultimate prize, at least in monetary terms. The sum of six old pence pales into insignificance with the value of the gold ducats and silver ducatoons that periodically wash ashore on the rocky beaches of the Out Skerries, tantalising fragments of the cargoes of the doomed, treasure-laden, Dutch East India vessels Kennemerland and De Liefde that wrecked there in the 17th and 18th centuries.

this was the oldest known message in a bottle ever to be found anywhere in the world – beating the world record set, coincidentally, six years previously by another Shetland fisherman

The Skerries has a particularly rich beachcombing heritage, for in 2014 Adam Adamson found a hard rubbery block inscribed ‘TJIPETIR’ on a beach there. Similar blocks wash up on Atlantic beaches all around northern Europe, though more commonly in southwest England . They’re blocks of gutta-percha latex produced on the Tjipetir rubber plantation in Indonesia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are believed to come from a Japanese boat, the Miyazaki Maru, sunk by a German U-boat 150 miles west of the Isles of Scilly during the First World War. Those ocean currents that so intrigued Captain Brown can bring treasure to Shetland from further afield.

Technically, Shetland should be colder than it really is – the warm waters of the Gulf Stream ameliorate our sub-Arctic location at 60 degrees north. Those warm transatlantic waters sometimes bring us a taste of the tropics – fortunate beachcombers might stumble across a sea bean, a smooth, glossy, deep mahogany seed from a tropical flowering liana native to coastal Central and South America, and the Caribbean, carried across the Atlantic to wash up on a Shetland beach. As a young boy, growing up wandering the beaches of west Cornwall, I knew them as Caribbean beans, but they’re also known, more romantically, as sea hearts, named for the shape of the seed.

I never found many in Cornwall and, here in Shetland, they’re more infrequently encountered still. I set my sights a little lower when I’m walking on our local beaches – at the tideline, I look for mermaid’s purses, the egg cases of sharks and rays, curious and alien forms that have floated ashore, and for rolls of birch bark carried across the Atlantic to Shetland from the forests of the northern United States and Canada. Known here as Loki’s candles, a nod to Shetland’s Viking forebears, they are traditionally renowned for their firelighting qualities – they burn fierce and long once dried, giving off a thick, black, but sweetly scented smoke.

At low tide, some beaches are rich in shell debris as colourful as the plumage of the tropical birds that live amongst the sea heart-bearing lianas of the tropics. Flat periwinkles come in a rainbow of colours, from pea green to sunflower yellow, and sometimes candy-striped with tangerine swirls. Painted top shells, frosted with silver nacre, are whorled with livid patterns of pink and purple as intricate as a Fair Isle jumper. Looking at the inner shell of a blue-rayed limpet, when freshly emerged from the falling tide, is like gazing deep into a nebula of blue starbursts and coronae. Who needs the sea-tumbled coins from a Dutch shipwreck when one has treasure like this?

I always keep a sharp eye open for cowries – these cheerful, subtle shells are a scarce prize on any British beach, one to be taken home and duly treasured. My Cornish grandmother firmly avowed that one should only ever give a cowrie away to one’s true love. My best find, however, must remain a carved wooden duck that washed up on the beach below my croft many years ago.

Once brightly painted, only traces of his finery remain and, of the message that had been carried in a carved compartment in his base, there were only fragments of long dissolved paper. He was no reliable drift bottle, and there was no sixpence offered for his return – not that I would ever part with him. Some of the treasures that wash up on Shetland’s beaches are simply one of a kind.