Growing up in the north of England, neighboring Scotland was just over the
horizon, the Border Country our backyard. The Lowlands and the Highlands, the
Trossachs, the Firth of Forth, Oban and the islands of Rum and Mull, the
Hebrides and the Isle of Skye – all familiar territory where many a family
holiday was spent. But we never ventured to the far, far north, where Britain
comes to an end, tapering off with the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and finally
the Faroes. Here Norway and the Arctic Circle are the neighbors, much closer
It was a plea, or more precisely an invitation, in the
bulletin of the Amateur Chamber Music Players that eventually brought me to
Shetland. The ACMP, an international fraternity of amateur musicians, publishes
a list of members worldwide who welcome travelers and visitors, inviting them to
make contact and arrange a session of chamber music. In his letter, Roger
Wildman, a seasoned amateur violinist, living in Lerwick, the Shetland capital,
Britain’s most northerly city, lamented that being so far off the beaten track
no one ever contacted him. He went on to offer generous hospitality, plus music
unbounded, to anyone who would venture to the Shetland Isles.
I took him
at his word and accepted the invitation. During our ensuing e-mail exchange we
got to know one another, and finally settled on a date in mid-June, when, in the
land of the midnight sun, there is daylight practically round the clock and the
weather is most likely to be clement. Roger has a house filled with sheet music,
a piano and numerous string instruments for visitors, so there was no need to
bring my cello.
But I did make a contribution by persuading my sister
(violin) and cousin (viola) to join in this adventure, thus ensuring that we
would, together with Roger, form a complete string quartet.
we traveled the length of Britain, south to north, an eight-hour rail journey
along the east coast of England and Scotland, through Edinburgh, across the
Forth Bridge, the scenery growing wilder and more dramatic as we approached
Aberdeen. The “granite city,” grey and somber, has a dignified and prosperous
air, still a busy port and industrial center.
Here we boarded our
overnight ferry, the “Hjalstand” (the old Norse name for Shetland), run by
Northlink Ferries. To our surprise and delight, the vessel turned out to be a
new addition to the fleet, modern, well-equipped, comfortable, offering cabin
passengers the equivalent of an overnight cruise. There was daylight till well
after 11 p.m.; we strolled the decks, inspected the shop, the bar and the
cinema, enjoyed an aperitif in the lounge and dined well in the restaurant. We
had a good night’s sleep in our four-berth cabin and concluded with a very
decent breakfast as the ship steamed into port next morning.
waiting for us at the quayside, holding up a large notice inscribed “Roger.” We
piled into his car and headed for Gulberwick, the tiny village some miles
outside Lerwick, where he lives in a wooden house he himself
Unpacking and room arrangements completed, we paused and took a
deep breath. What now? Cuppa tea? Slug of whiskey? Roger gazed at the three of
“Haydn?” he suggested.
We nodded, got out our instruments,
tuned up and were off. It was OK – thank goodness. We were compatible and gelled
as a quartet, more or less; the chamber music component of the holiday was in
place. During the four days of our stay on the island we were able to repay
Roger’s hospitality and satisfy his thirst for chamber music, with a total of
For the larger works we were joined by local musicians,
some of whom travelled a long way to be with us.
But there was more to
our visit than Haydn and Mozart, and again luck was on our side. The sun shone,
the rain held off, the weather was perfect for sightseeing.
hired car we toured the mainland, the largest of the Shetland Islands, and fell
in love with this craggy, windswept outpost of the British Isles, thinly
populated today, offering beautiful land- and seascapes, and a fascinating
collection of archeological sites and ancient ruins, testifying to human
settlement on the islands over the past 3,000 years.
There is little
traffic on the roads, often single lane, but generally
Transport between the outlying islands is by local
ferry. Skipper Tom Jamieson takes visitors in his boat to the tiny uninhabited
island of Mousa, a nature reserve and home to flocks of sheep, colonies of
seals, otters, porpoises and an abundance of seabirds. No dogs are allowed. We
walked around the island over green turf and black rock, on a marked trail, with
splendid views at every turn, and reached the massive Iron Age Mousa Broch. This
famous 2,000-year-old fort or broch, 13 meters high, served as a watch tower and
a defense against invaders, and was inhabited until the 11th century. Built of
dry stone walling, with thick double walls, no windows but with stairs inside
leading to the top, it is an impressive monument and in remarkably good
At the southern tip of the mainland is Sumburgh Head, a nature
reserve and bird sanctuary, a promontory with panoramic views in all directions.
There is good access here for viewing and snapping the flocks of puffins,
guillemots, kittiwakes, terns, fulmars and gannets that nest and breed on the
Here we saw Shetland ponies, the tiny sure-footed
miniature creatures native to this part of the world. Shetland’s airport is
located nearby for those in a hurry. Archeological sites abound, the most
exciting being Jarlshof, where remains of settlements from the Bronze Age, the
Iron Age, the Norse and Viking periods and a medieval farmhouse can all be seen,
beautifully restored and laid out, with clear explanations and an interpretive
center to guide the visitor.
A visit to the port town of Scalloway, the
ancient capital of Shetland, revealed something of the history of more recent
In World War II, Norwegian freedom fighters gathered here to
combat the German occupation of Norway. Under cover of the winter darkness small
fishing boats made the dangerous North Sea crossing, landing ammunition and
fighters on the Norwegian coast, returning with refugees. Scalloway port was the
base for this daring operation in which many lives were lost.
is told by David Howarth in his book The Shetland Bus. Today there are monuments
and plaques at the harbor side and a museum, commemorating the heroism of the
Shetland Bus seamen.
A trip to the extreme northwest of the mainland
island took us to a coastline of dramatic cliffs, topped with soft green turf,
the sea pounding furiously at the rocks below and birds perched on every
There are fine cliff-top walks, with some marked
THE LAND here is nearly empty of human habitation. In the coastal
villages old croft houses can be seen, mostly in ruins with their thatched roofs
fallen in, reflecting the decline in Shetland’s population. To reproduce
Shetland village life of former times, the Croft House Museum, housed in a
thatched roof homestead, has been restored as a croft would have appeared a
hundred years ago.
There has been something of a revival of local crafts,
an outcome of the growing tourist traffic. In Lerwick we saw demonstrations of
spinning, weaving and knitting of the raw sheep’s wool, and the famed Shetland
knitwear can be bought in many outlets.
The tradition of fiddling has had
a new lease of life. On our last evening we enjoyed a concert given by the High
Strings, a group of young fiddlers, playing with great verve and skill in the
toe-tapping Irish style.
The weather had blessed our sightseeing
excursions with sun and a brisk breeze, but on the day of departure the skies
darkened and the heavy rain set in. It was time to leave Shetland, to thank
Roger for his warm hospitality and enjoy a last session of music-making
together. Back at the quayside, we boarded our ship for the overnight crossing
and, with the strains of Mendelssohn and Schubert still in our ears, set sail,
southbound for England.