As Sienna and Isla are finding out, the life of a would-be crofter isn’t easy. Barely a week before we meet in late May, they saw a pickup coming down the driveway with two orphaned lambs, or caddy lambs. “We thought they were so cute,” says Sienna, ten, of the arrival into the family of Junior and Sprinkles, both five weeks into the world and in need of a helping hand. “But the first night I had to feed Junior, he ran to the other side of the field. When I chased him, he ran back. It was chaotic, but then it worked. Now they run up to the bottle, but they also chew on our jackets. And we have to get up early on the weekends to feed them, which is a big no-no.”
Junior and Sprinkles are the latest addition to the Smith family, led by Shetland-born Ross, who runs a physiotherapy practice in Lerwick, and his New Zealand-born wife, Bronwyn, who is about to return to teaching at the 18-pupil Skeld school in the West side of Shetland. As well as Sienna and Isla, eight, there’s also baby Mia, who is not quite up to looking after caddy lambs, but is keen to take part in the family interview, mostly via the medium of gurgles.
They all live in a large, brand new home in Whiteness, on Shetland’s west side. It’s a Saturday morning in May, and as Sienna and Isla work on a colouring-in book, the light is streaming in through the large windows. From the living room, there are stunning views across the Whiteness Voe and, through another large window, across to the field where Junior and Sprinkles are contentedly munching on grass.
It’s barely a month since the house was fully finished, so it’s still sparsely furnished. Around Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve, there was no electricity and the ground was just concrete. But the family decided to put mattresses on the floor and camp. “We just didn’t want to go back, so we slept here for a week,” says Ross. “We’d wake up on these beautiful winter mornings, when it was frosty outside, and you’d look out at the view and just be like, Wow, this is amazing. You can just sit and watch it.”
Building the house has been a nine-year process. Ross and Bronwyn were living in New Zealand when they started thinking that Shetland might be the right place to bring up their young family. Ross’s family had been croft tenants on this patch of land for hundreds of years, though it had not been lived on since Ross’s grandfather passed away in the 1990s. The process of buying, de-crofting and building on the land was complicated by the fact that they had to track down the owner of the croft, who they eventually found out was living in New Zealand. “It was a long, tricky process,” says Ross. “But we’ve ended up with the kind of family home we always wanted.”
This isn’t uncommon in Shetland, where more and more people are building modern homes, often on old crofts, or smallholdings, and almost always with show-stopping views. As Ross puts it: “You find where you want to be in the world and then you build a house on the site, which I think is a pretty amazing opportunity, really, because I don’t think it’s everywhere in the world that you get that chance.”
Ross and Bronwyn met 18 years ago, when Wellington-born Bronwyn visited Shetland on her OE (Overseas Experience), the Kiwi version of the gap year. They’d met on the ferry leaving Shetland, perhaps a sign of what was to come. They moved to New Zealand in 2006 and, after Ross studied physiotherapy in Auckland, they ended up living near the sandy beach in Orewa, an hour or so north of the city. With Ross working as a physiotherapist, life was good, so it was a big call to pack up and move to Shetland with two young daughters.
“People just couldn’t understand why we’d want to move,” recalls Bronwyn of their 2011 move. “They thought we were mad. But we chose Shetland because of the beautiful, unique sense of community, and because we knew that the kids, and us, would be looked after here. There’s just something about the place and the community here that’s special.”
Nonetheless, Bronwyn did have reservations: “I was a bit worried that Ross would fit in really well because he’s a Shetlander, and I worried it might be difficult for me. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was this instant welcome, from the very first toddlers group. It felt like everyone instantly knew who I was, and wanted to help, and the children got on so well.”
If they quickly felt like part of the local furniture, Ross’s idea of opening a physiotherapy practice was a potentially risky one. “In New Zealand, physiotherapy is really common, but there was nothing like that in Shetland.” But when he started his Injury Shetland business, there were already four or five new clients and, within a few weeks, “it had completely snowballed. It grew much quicker than we ever thought it, and it was actually quite overwhelming. We learned that people here were prepared to pay for a good service. People kept coming back.”
Ross soon added Pilates and massage therapy to his core physiotherapy, and had a podiatrist in the clinic, though they downsized last year so that he could spend more time with the family. “There seem to be a lot of people in Shetland who start their own businesses and do well,” says Ross. “If the service is good, word spreads fast.”
Sienna and Isla fitted in quickly, too. “They just go wherever they want and they have that freedom to just go together,” says Ross, who says that there have been times when there have been 14 children in the house, before heading out for bike races or sledging in winter. “It’s been really great for them, socially, to move here.”
I ask Sienna and Isla about their friends: there’s Erin and Innis next door, and Freya — “obviously” — and then Theo, Jayden and Jenson, who are good friends, and Luke and Jack, who tend to play with Innes and Theo. The list goes on.
Sienna, who wants to be a geologist when she’s older, likes to go geocaching, hunting GPS coordinates to find and replace objects, whether one-pound coins or Barbie dolls, mostly hidden under stones or fence posts in remote corners of Shetland. The other day, she says, her and Isla “went on the pier and saw ten starfish and 15 crabs, and 30 fish. Plus, you’ve got the otters and seals, and lots of plants you can only get in Shetland.” When Ross chips in that they recently went on a “whale hunt”, she quickly corrects him. “That sounds really wrong, Dad. We went looking for whales.”
Ross wanted his daughters’ childhood to have the same freedom that he had. “You just got up and went out, you created things to do and you came back when you were hungry,” he says. “I wanted these guys to have that, too. For them to just be able to go out on their bikes, and for us to know that there’ll be people looking out for them. If you need someone to watch the kids for an hour or so, there’s always someone there to help.”
Ross also believes that Shetland has a grounding influence. “There are no class divides here,” he says. “People are just people, and I think it’s a nice thing that everyone grows up on a nice level playing field. You can be sitting with a millionaire or someone who has nothing and it’s just, you’re all the same. No one is pretentious or materialistic, and I wanted the girls to have that grounding.”
Ross and Bronwyn emphasise both the security and the freedom for the children, and the fact that everyone knows who Isla and Sienna are, whether on their bikes in the area or at the Whiteness Primary School, with fewer than 100 pupils. “At school, you really get a sense that the teachers really know your child as an individual,” says Bronwyn. Or, as Sienna puts it, “It’s quite quiet, and it’s just really good. Most people are just nice.”
After leaving the house, we get a few feeding shots with Junior and Sprinkles, who are hungry on account of us delaying their usual feeding time. There’s no gnawing at jackets, just two caddy lambs sucking on a milk bottle with glazed, euphoric eyes. After the feed, we get in the car and head to Kergord Forest, a favourite family spot, and one of the few places in Shetland where there are trees (many people wrongly say that there are no trees in Shetland). Climbing trees was a big part of Bronwyn’s childhood in New Zealand, and it was important to her that her daughters had the same. Sienna, in particular, is a keen tree climber and den-builder.
At Kergord, the forest rises up the hill, and is surprisingly dense with high Sitka spruce and Japanese larch trees, with nooks and crannies worthy of fairytale reveries. There’s a fallen tree trunk lain perilously across the stream that runs up through the forest, which the family recently “bum-shuffled” across. The gentle tinkle of the stream and the tweets of woodland birds sounds very different to much of Shetland, more often a place where winds roar across moors and waves crash on rocks.
The final destination, near the top of the hill, is the rope swing across the stream, and this part of the family ritual seems well-practised. While Bronwyn holds baby Mia, who may or may not be subconsciously ingesting this familial love of wood and bark, Ross takes position to lift Sienna and then Isla onto the swing. He pulls them back, like human catapults, all grins suspended energy; and after that, the spring sounds of the woodland are drowned out by shrieks of joy.
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