We are experiencing a colder winter than usual this year and as I shiver, Facebook reminds me that two years ago I enjoyed warm spring weather in the UK including the lovely two weeks experiencing the Absolute Orkney & Shetland Islands Escape with several days spent in Shetland.
I’m now revisiting that time in Shetland while continuing the journey of going through boxes of past writing and teaching files to ‘clear out clutter’.
Recently, I discovered one of the first poems I wrote when I moved to Mordialloc and attempted to fulfil a dream to be a writer.
Whether scribbled poems (and this one was pre-computer days for me) or journal notes, the words, like my Facebook posts and photographs catapulted me to another place, another time – in many ways – another me!
The Change of Seasons
Mairi Neil, 1992
A winter’s day at the beginning of June,
who would have thought it cold so soon?
The hum of the fan as the gas fire burns
lifeless clothes drip on the hoist as it turns
the breeze gentler no more leaves falling
but the plaintive cry of cockies calling
to be released from their caged captivity
a monument to mankind’s insensitivity.
The cold weather outside, wet and bleak –
where is the sunlight we all seek?
My neighbour traps birds to keep for pleasure
others destroy the environment to amass treasure
I frequently criticise but no action take –
is my concern for social justice all just fake?
The silent majority murdered the Vietnamese
a radical student, I demonstrated with ease
Like winter’s rain, my protests poured down
on the heads of politicians – even the Crown.
There are always Vietnams, wrongs to be righted
has motherhood, mortgage, my conscience blighted?
Puddles on the concrete quiver and ripple
Raindrops plop like intermittent spittle
Was I more effective when young and carefree?
Persistently protesting – no one silenced me!
Perhaps mature responsibilities have weakened my voice
the business of raising a family offers limited choice…
When young, I felt strong like the rain – now I’m spittle
still caring deeply, yet doing too little
Can I blame it on SAD – sunlight deprivation
And be like a bear, accept temporary hibernation?
Winter Nights In Front of The Telly With Jimmy
On Sunday nights, a new series of the television series Shetland is broadcast. The crime drama has amassed an international audience since it began in 2013. Its popularity due to the excellent adaptation of award-winning crime novels by Ann Cleeves, a location, which provides plenty of stunning coastal scenes, strong storylines, and good acting.
Douglas Henshall plays Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, the main character and in a recent interview, he agreed that the collection of around 300 islands lying between Orkney and the Faroe Islands, at the area where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet does intrigue and excite viewers.
“Not only because it’s beautiful but because it’s like another character in the show,” he said. “I think people are drawn to the place because they imagine themselves there.”
Cinema is all about suspension of disbelief so it may come as a surprise to viewers that many scenes in Shetland are filmed in Glasgow, Barrhead, Irvine and Ayr – hundreds of miles away in the lowlands of Scotland, in places resembling Shetland!
They just have to make sure no stray trees wander into the shot because trees are still not prolific on Shetland – although that is changing!
There was certainly a time when Shetland was almost devoid of trees. Old photographs from the early 1900s show a strikingly stark, bare landscape, even in and around settlements.
Whilst it’s true that large tracts of the islands lack tree cover to this day, there’s no doubt that things are changing. In part, this is because of a concerted effort by public bodies to plant more trees over recent decades…
Archaeological investigations have revealed that Shetland once enjoyed extensive tree and shrub cover, with species such as willow, downy birch, hazel and alder appearing in the pollen record. The real reasons for the lack of trees are to do with clearance for firewood and the presence of sheep, which have prevented natural regeneration. Where sheep are excluded, trees grow with little or no shelter.
Judging by the number of trees sold by local garden centres, not to mention the continuing work of the Shetland Amenity Trust, the Shetland landscape will continue to evolve; around settlements especially, we can expect it to change as much over the next generation as it has in the last one.
Alastair Hamilton, My Shetland, 2015
In June 2017, when I visited Shetland, I still had fun looking for familiar sites from Season 1 & 2 of the TV series, the only seasons released in Australia before I left.
And last night watching the final Season Six, not yet released free to air in Melbourne, it was satisfying spotting places I visited, beaches I walked on, houses or ruins I stood beside contemplating ancient Shetland!
I visited Jarlshof one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the UK spanning Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to Middle Ages.
No part of Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea and everywhere the landscape is stunning.
Gulls cry overhead
circling rugged cliffs
and ancient rocks
the remnants of a long-ago
but not forgotten past…
The constant motion
of waves crashing,
massaging, and chipping as they
accompany the wind song –
wild background music to
settlement, farms and crofts…
I imagine a family watching
the horizon with anticipation
the tempestuous sea surging,
the creeping mist of dawn.
Watching with hearts filled with hope
for a returning fishing fleet
or do they tremble with trepidation
at warships ploughing through
the tumultuous waves
to claim a land not their’s?
I don’t read a lot of crime fiction nowadays but often love the TV adaptations, particularly when Ann Cleeves’ great characters like Vera and Jimmy Perez, come to life or Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Alan Hunter’s George Gently and of course Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple.
I can thank my mother for introducing me to Agatha Christie and another of her favourites, Georges Simenon’s, Maigret. I still have several old hardback novels decades old that I should declutter because if the truth is faced, I won’t read them again.
However, they are a link to Mum and a period in my life when I virtually read a book a day commuting by train to work on the old Red Rattlers from Croydon to the City so I just can’t part with them – yet.
I even watch the repeats on TV with several reincarnations of Miss Marple to argue over who is the best and although Peter Ustinov did a fine job in the movies, most people agree that David Suchet has now made Poirot his own.
I’m biased towards British crime novelists and their television adaptations. Many of them character-driven and tackling society’s issues and a bigger picture than petty crime or one issue. They are not just police procedurals (although there is plenty of that), but explore the social reasons for crime, not just the crime itself.
They show justice is fluid and the ones set in particular periods of history mark the effects of social change – or lack of it! They examine the human condition in a way most of us experience and/or comprehend. Who isn’t flawed?
The all-important conflict necessary for gripping fiction is flawed characters and their struggles to come to terms with the world, whether external or internal. Good novelists and screenwriters of the quality of Shetland dish it up in wonderful dollops!
Shetland has examined the rise of populism and the extreme Right, people smuggling and sex-trafficking, social isolation, bigotry, child abuse and the effect of oil and gas discoveries on environmental pollution among other hot topics.
However, one of the best storylines included a character who Ann Cleeves said she wished she had written – Tosh, a female detective who is raped in the line of duty.
The way this tragedy is handled and the arcs of various characters in Shetland are examples of fine writing and storytelling.
Along the way, we learn about life in a close-knit community, where everybody almost seems to know of each other – not hard in a population of 23,000.
As a comparison, I think of the City of Mordialloc before it merged with Kingston in 1994. In an area of 5.25 square miles, there was a population of almost 28,000. A dramatic difference in population density to Shetland’s archipelago.
When I mentioned on FB that I was standing outside the house in Lerwick used for Jimmy Perez, and then posted pictures of other houses used in the series with ‘a murder committed here‘… ‘another crime scene‘ … a friend referring to the ABC’s Dr Blake Mystery series commented,
Is there anyone left alive in Shetland? It’s a dangerous place, like Ballarat…
A bit like the popular English series Midsomer Murders where picturesque English villages harbour murderers and serial killers who knock off the local population at an alarming rate…
However, be assured Shetland locals are friendly and welcoming as this poster in Shetland dialect on the Library noticeboard says:
And as this article from a local paper relates, Shetland has produced female writers who don’t necessarily delve into the dark side of human nature…
All the people I came into contact with were wonderful and I’d return in a heartbeat.
I think at this time in my life, a place like Shetland appeals because I can imagine myself in a cottage, tending a garden and writing – no need for bright city lights anymore just a haven to indulge an inner search for peace and serenity!
I made a lovely Canadian friend, Linda during my trip and we still keep in touch hoping that one day we’ll meet again – either in Melbourne or Vancouver.
Our guide for Shetland was Robina Barton, an expert on history and geology and also the Labour Party candidate for the north, which is held by the Liberal Democrats. (She gave him a good shake in 2017 elections!)
I found her a most obliging and generous guide similar to those I experienced one-to-one in Mongolia and Russia. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, caring guides who added so much to my extended holiday.
Robina met Linda and me at the ferry terminal and although there was a schedule for the day, she was more than happy to take us for ‘a cup of tea’ where we discussed whether we wanted to stick with the planned tour or do something else that suited our interests and mood.
With mutual understanding, the day went from good to great and helped colour my view of Shetland – I mentioned already I would return in a heartbeat!
In the photo below we were interrupted in our orientation stroll by a man offering free boutique chocolates – now that’s what I call hospitality! A chef who had just moved to Lerwick, he was promoting his soon to be opened restaurant.
WELCOME TO LERWICK
Lerwick is Shetland’s capital and takes its name from Old Norse Leirvik meaning muddy bay. Sheltered by Bressay over the water – where Robina lives. I could see her house from my hotel window and said goodnight to her twinkling lights after a super day.
The natural harbour attracts a wide range of visiting craft and a large cruise ship came in adding to the constant stream of ferries, fishing boats, and working craft from the oil rigs. Also a few moored ‘Viking’ long boats because of course, Shetland celebrates Up Helly Aa – the Viking Fire Festival in mid-winter January.
Lerwick, only officially named the capital in the 19th century, building on the trade from the Dutch herring industry. From a scattering of huts on a shoreline track, the busy Commercial Street developed surrounded by tightly packed narrow lanes. Later, new docks were created north of the town to accommodate the fishing fleet.
The characteristics of the buildings, brickwork and flagstones different from anything seen in Melbourne and many a lot older!
The largest ship built in Lerwick was the barque North Briton in 1836 at Hay’s Dock, now home to the Shetland Museum and Archives. There are models of typical Shetland Boats and to keep alive traditions, festivals are held and displays.
For me, the innovative incorporation of boats in buildings and gardens very appealing, but considering my forbears were all sailors and fishermen from the Isle of Skye, I loved learning about Shetlanders and the sea too!
Facebook Post, June 16, 2017
The Kveldsro House Hotel harks back to another era with Reading Rooms, relaxing lounges and shoe shine machines in the corridor. The bar even has a stained glass sign for Gents and of course, the Ladies Powder Room is some distance away!
There are plenty of tasteful furnishings and interesting artworks. The staff from Portugal, Ecuador, Greece and even Scotland 😆
I have been fortunate with all of the places I have stayed this trip.
Atop a hill and across from Shetland’s highest mountain we found where rocks crack and explode and create a moonscape. Robina a mine of information on the geological formation of Shetland.
Wildflowers blooming, sheep bleating, salt in the air and evidence of human habitation going back hundreds of years as sunlight glitters on the water like scattered gemstones.
Lunch stops are always interesting too, meeting the locals, getting to know each other, tasting Shetland delicacies. And a bonus when it rained while we were snug inside!
Different sides of mainland Shetland have different weather depending on whether exposed to North Sea or Atlantic .
We learnt a lot about geology today from Robina, our expert guide. The variety of rocks amazing. We also went on wildflower searches.
No view here boring and each pile of rocks intriguing – is it a broch, remnants of a tomb, a medieval or Viking village, a deserted croft from the cruel land clearances or collapse of herring fishing industry?
Is that of neolithic significance or a deliberate structure from WW2?
The Kveldsro House Hotel was comfortable and the staff pleasant. I usually had the same woman serving me breakfast, she was from Portugal and couldn’t wait to return home to the Mediterranean sunshine.
To do Shetland justice, I’ll have to write some more posts because although I didn’t experience any crime or startling epiphanies, I did learn some interesting history and a lot more about the natural world of birds and wildflowers.
We even got our ‘Viking’ on when we stopped at a restaurant for lunch that incorporated all things Up Helly Aa. After watching a video on the origins of the Fire Festival and reading reminisces of participants, we could dress up and let loose our inner Viking.
It was a fun interlude in a day that ended depressingly, sad – the Nightly News full of the Grenfell Tower Fire – an incredible tragedy hard to imagine.
I had spent some time in London with a friend when I arrived in the UK for this final leg of my journey and there were a couple of sisters at the hotel who joined our tour the next day who lived in London.
As you can imagine, news updates dominated the mealtime discussions over the next few days.
The horrors and brutality often associated with marauding Vikings wear a different mantle in modern times. Will those in authority whose greed, negligence and even deliberate contempt for others ever be held accountable? Death and destruction among the least wealthy and privileged in society a tale as old as time!
My next post about Shetland will definitely end on a more cheerful note!