The Shetland Islands: Cliffs, crofts and chamber music

Far, far north in Scotland, Norway and the Arctic Circle are much closer than London.

Shetland Islands Puffins (photo credit: Sara Manobla)
Shetland Islands Puffins
(photo credit: Sara Manobla)
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 than London.
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.
From London 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.
Roger was 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 built.
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 us.
“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 seven sessions.
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.
With our 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 well-maintained.
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 condition.
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 precipitous crags.
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 times.
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.
The story 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 ledge.
There are fine cliff-top walks, with some marked trails.
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.