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By Alastair HamiltonNovember 30th 2023
Alastair Hamilton

Shetland’s natural environment is exceptional by any standard. The islands and their surrounding seas offer encounters with a huge variety of wildlife, enriching the lives of all who live here and drawing visitors from around the world. In a new book, Shetland naturalist Brydon Thomason captures the essence of that diverse heritage, illustrating the story with outstanding photography. He tells me about his love of the natural world and offers insights into his practice as a guide and photographer.

Brydon grew up in Fetlar, one of Shetland’s three northern isles. It lies south of Unst and east of Yell. These days, he lives in Unst with his wife Vaila and their three children, Casey, Corey and Nula. However, he still thinks of Fetlar as his ‘home island’:

“I have Fetlar and all its riches to thank for my childhood, upbringing and roots as a naturalist. The community at that time, and especially family, are as big a part of my love for the islands as the wildlife and the many places I know so well.”

His interest in nature “feels as if it has always been in me.” Growing up as part of a crofting family in Fetlar, he spent every hour of every day that he could with his father, working outdoors on the farm in all weathers:

“I always had a natural curiosity about the wildlife around us and, from an early age, was tuned into our connection, as Shetlanders, with our natural environment. I loved how big a talking point it was, particularly when you heard the first skylark of the year or saw the first phalarope back on Loch of Funzie, or – in those days – seeing the Snowy Owl on the Vord Hill. So often, I regaled my otter stalking antics to my family!”

Brydon is one of many Shetlanders who have, down the years, made their mark as expert naturalists. He mentions three who have particularly influenced him.

“In my childhood days, the late Bobby Tulloch was something of a real-life hero. A Shetlander through and through, he was a renowned naturalist, photographer, musician, boatman, and entertainer. You get the picture: he was a talented man! He was to me then what TV naturalists are to our bairns now, but more than this, I knew him and would see him on Fetlar often in the summer. He used his knowledge of our wildlife and our heritage to pioneer nature tourism. Bobby was a huge inspiration.

“Alongside Bobby, Dennis Coutts and Andy Gear are renowned for the knowledge of birds and photography. The images they and Bobby captured, many decades ago, of species I knew so well, still tantalise me to this very day and remind me how big a part they all played in the life, interests and career I am so lucky to have.”

Against that background, Brydon had always dreamed of sharing Shetland’s wildlife with others, “particularly knowing Bobby and the working life he had created for himself.”

Going down a more academic or scientific route was never really a consideration for Brydon. “School was not a place where I found learning easy. Neither the classroom nor study was for me.”

However, Brydon was good with his hands and he served his time as a joiner. Then another opportunity opened up: he became a crew member aboard one of the inter-island ferries. There was an ulterior motive: the shift pattern allowed him to work as a freelance wildlife tour guide.

“And so began my career in nature tourism. After a few years I had established Shetland Nature well enough to take the plunge with a full-time wildlife tour company. That remains one of the best decisions of my life! I would say best, but I have my wife and our children, who come before that.”

With all the wildlife riches that Shetland offers, what does Brydon think are the highlights?

“The diversity of species and overall experience to be enjoyed in Shetland is globally renowned and arguably, unique. We have flowers that grow nowhere else in the world; semi-resident orca pods; humpback whales that pass through the isles between the Arctic and Caribbean; phalaropes that winter in the Pacific Ocean and migrating birds from Asia and North America. Not to mention what is quite probably the highest density of Eurasian otter in the world! It’s little wonder that people visit from all over the world. We who live here have so much to see and enjoy.”

That said, Brydon does at times fantasise about seeing exotic wildlife in far-flung destinations and – more than that – he feels “privileged to have lifted my binoculars to my eyes on all seven continents”.

But nothing, he says,

“…compares to the connection I feel with nature here in my homeland. For me it’s the lifetime of loving: the places, the people, the stories or memories and of course, the individual species that make for the most special encounters. And as a photographer, it is those feelings and experiences that motivate and inspire me to tell their story through my images.”

It was that desire to tell the story that led to the book, but its gestation was longer than he cares to admit!

“It had been something of lifetime goal. It was around the time that I started Shetland Nature, 17 years ago, that I really started to think about it. When I first approached The Shetland Times, they were enthusiastic about the proposal, particularly as the concept was initially to follow on from Bobby Tulloch’s Shetland, published two decades previously”

The new book is packed with many exceptional photographs. In a crowded field – Shetland has many accomplished nature photographers – Brydon’s work is as good as it gets. So, how did he get involved in photography? He recalls that he’d had a pair of binoculars – a Christmas present from his parents – from the age of eleven, but it wasn’t until he was in his late twenties that he bought his first camera.

“Growing up, nature photography was a profession of very few and though I was in awe of the imagery I saw in books, magazines and especially slideshows by Bobby, Dennis and Andy, owning a camera just didn’t feel a reality or affordable. It was meeting my wife Vaila that really opened my eyes to taking my own pictures.”

Anyone who appreciates wildlife photography will be grateful for that, because Brydon has clearly learned to take wonderful photographs. What advice can he offer?

“It’s very easy for newcomers to photography, young or old, to get hung up on what gear they have – or more often, the gear they want. Looking back on my own photographic journey, I was forever wanting a bigger lens, higher resolution or more frames per second.”

But he soon realised that his experience, growing into the role of naturalist, gave him “a massive advantage, way more valuable than the bigger lens or camera that I couldn’t at the time afford. Field craft and subject knowledge are the very roots of, not only my photography, but my working life as a guide, photographer and ecologist.” So, what’s the key to successful nature photography?

“Get to know your subjects, their environment and how they use it; and, more importantly, learn their behaviour and how to approach without disturbance. As for gear, learn to shoot within the capabilities of the gear you have. There are so many ways to take inspiring images. They don’t all need to be full-frame, perfectly-lit portraits. Learn to appreciate the changing light and the habitats and how your subject could be shown within them.”

Whatever camera you have, Brydon says, you really need to understand the basics of its functions and settings, how they work together and when to use them to the best effect. “Read online tutorials, books or watch YouTubers; practise on the simplest and most accessible subjects.”

Looking through the book, it’s obvious that Brydon has combined his profound understanding of the environment, finely-honed fieldcraft and those essential technical skills to produce something truly remarkable. There is that entirely deceptive sense of effortlessness that’s the mark of a real master of any art or craft.

Brydon says:

“I’ve tried to share and celebrate our heritage and demonstrate how the islands, our environment and – particularly – our wildlife, are all very much part of who we are here. As Shetlanders, the pride we feel for our islands, community and way of life runs deep; and in this book, I hope I’ve communicated that, as well as portraying that outstanding natural heritage. I hope I’ve done Shetland proud!”

Those who’ve already had the chance to read the book and sample that wonderful photography are in no doubt that he has.

Ann Cleeves, author of the Shetland-based detective mysteries, wrote:

“I love Shetland in every season. This book, with its stunning photographs, makes me feel I’m there A must for people passionate about the islands and about natural history in all its forms.”

Four of Britain’s best known naturalists have added their praise. One of the BBC’s Springwatch presenters, Iolo Williams, has provided a foreword, in which he highlights Brydon’s ethical approach to nature photography, in which the interests of wildlife always come first. This is, says Iolo, “an absolute corker of a book.”

Another Springwatch presenter, broadcaster and author Kate Humble, said:

“Visually stunning, this thought-provoking book is a fitting homage to Shetland’s wildlife by one of the islands’ most celebrated naturalists and photographers. Thomason shares his deep connection with the natural world that has inspired him all his life, introducing the reader to the iconic species of his homeland and reminding us that it is in all our interests that our wildlife is protected, treasured and most of all, enjoyed.”

Patrick Barkham, whose books will be familiar to many naturalists, felt that the book was:

“A beautiful, intimate and informative celebration of the natural history of this most magical archipelago. Brydon Thomason is a Shetlander and this book shines with deep knowledge, local lore and wonder, as well as the latest science.”

There is warm praise, too, from Shetland’s own Dennis Coutts, himself an outstanding photographer, who documented not only natural history, but every aspect of life in Shetland, over five decades. He recalls earlier generations of nature photographers and concludes:

“Here is nature photography in an entirely new league. This book is a winner!”

Nobody who turns the pages of Wild Shetland Through The Seasons will be left in any doubt of that, or that Brydon has done Shetland justice.

You can order the book directly from The Shetland Times through this link.