Men at work, but nature's in charge

For thousands of years, Shetlanders have battled with the elements. But, it's clear who's really in control
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

If you don't want to know how a puffin gets mugged, then look away now. Unpalatable as it is that anything would want to attack a puffin, a creature so clearly one of nature's jokes, sentiment doesn't come into it when you're an Arctic skua made tetchy by hunger.

Divebombing the unsuspecting puffin, the skua shakes the little bird's tail until its beakful of food is relinquished. The skua then swoops lower and catches the fish. The puffin lands clumsily on the cliff edge, a little dazed, and bumbles around as though it has misplaced its spectacles. Apart from having nothing with which to feed its own young, it is unharmed.

Shetland seems the right place for such an elemental act of thuggery. Little has changed over the centuries in these remote islands, as far north as you can go on British soil. Much of the landscape appears as it probably did at the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago. Here, close to the scene of the puffin's misfortune above the jagged cliffs of Esha Ness, the Arctic tundra turns an almost alien shade of green. The wind blows hard, with no sign that it is about to draw breath.

Nature is firmly in charge. Despite attempts to colonise Shetland, man hasn't been able to bend the island's elements to his will since first arriving some 5,500 years ago. Shaken by the elements, those early settlers turned to the skies for their salvation. They were hardy souls, who arrived in open boats from Orkney, 60 miles to the south, and Fair Isle, which formed a bridgehead in their migration northwards. Dependent on the weather for their survival, they needed to mollify the elements in the hope it would help the crops to grow. Successive migrations of Vikings and Norsemen did the same.

At Jarlshof, a settlement continually occupied for almost 30 centuries, the sea laps the outer surviving walls, having already reclaimed much of this prehistoric settlement with its fantastically complex series of rooms and tunnels that once served one of the biggest neolithic communities in western Europe.

Those at the top of the social pile at Jarlshof could expect a decent burial but mystery still shrouds much of the worshipping habits of the early arrivals. The chambered tombs and cairns point to a healthy respect for the dead, though often the remains of earlier burials were simply shovelled up to make room for new ones. Three neolithic "temples" have been identified on the island, and a carving of a dog-headed man carrying an axe has been found on a graveyard stone.

The first Christians, small groups of priest-monks who arrived at the end of the sixth century, caught the mood, too. Primary chapels were built on prominent headlands facing squarely out to sea and the teeth of the gales that surge in from the North Atlantic. At St Ninian's Isle, a pre-Christian burial site was converted into a medieval chapel connected to the Shetland mainland by a double-sided beach, a rare natural feature known as a tombolo. Walking upon this causeway of sand, built up by wave action from opposing directions, felt like treading upon badly sprung floorboards and served only to reinforce the remoteness of the place. The location is no accident: it is easy to imagine those early pilgrims staring out at the setting sun, its light flitting across the firths along the fringe of the island.

There is a more recent, equally visible, past to Shetland. Along the peninsula of West Burra, almost every house is shadowed by a derelict croft, while in Hamnavoe, a tiny village on the promontory, fishing boats are moored on wheels in front gardens. This umbilical link to the sea is reinforced by garden gates made of ironwork forged into fish motifs.

A sensational series of sea stacks, known as the Drongs, stands a little to the east of Esha Ness, poking up above the sea and resembling the humps of a vast stickleback monster. At nearby Dore Holm, a natural arch, nature is again at work. While all around the sea is calm, it rages through the arch. Esha Ness is littered with huge boulders, seemingly dropped by some careless giant. Some were not left by nature: Shetland abounds in standing stones, most occurring singly. Some may be the remainders of enclosed cremation cemeteries; all are enigmatic.

At Esha Ness the light changes by the hour, turning jagged cliffs black, brown and yellow. This natural landscape melts into the man-made settlement of Tingwall, with its huge sloping roofs painted yellow, green or red resting upon blackened wood. Colourful architecture is very much a trait of Shetland. In Scalloway, Shetland's second town, population 2,600, houses are decorated in loud colours: yellow with blue window frames, another purple with brown frames, and a third one white with light-green trimmings. It was like staring into a Battenburg cake.

We ambled north to see one last natural wonder. Mavis Grind sounds like the name of an elderly Victorian seamstress, but is, in fact, a sliver of a causeway north of Brae. Here, those with a strong arm can throw a pebble one way to land in the Atlantic and another way to sink in the North Sea. In time, nature will nibble into this causeway, cutting the north of the island off from the south. Man may build a bridge to restore links between the two, but the message is clear: nature is boss and always looking to stay one step ahead.

The Facts

Getting there

P&O Scottish Ferries (01224 572615) runs a service between Aberdeen and Lerwick. Prices start from £90.50 return for a car and from £111 per adult.

British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.britishairways.com) operates frequent scheduled flights to Shetland connecting in Aberdeen. Return flights from London start from £266.

Shetland Islands tourism office (01595 693434; www.visitshetland.com) has accommodation lists. Expect to pay from £20 per person per night.

Comments