June 10th, 2008


A most singular island

My mother and I arrived in Shetland in the early hours of Tuesday morning after a pitching, lurching, churning passage from Aberdeen on the Hjaltland, a ferry soon caught up in a Force 8 gale.

Lerwick is a cluster of thatched shacks built on slabs of komatiite rock, and overlooking the windswept Iapetus Ocean. The harbour is filled with the longships of Harald Fairhair, king of Norway. On the boats throng vikings, descendants of Earl Rognvald. When these fearsome men come ashore, they take what they want, I'm told, shouting orders in Norn, a language from Old Norse by way of Faroese and Icelandic.

We were warned against the vikings by a man named Thord, nicknamed Dragon Skull. He was threshing oats from the straw in a barn. He also told us to beware of "nyuggles", ghostly horses lurking round streams and lochs. They seem docile, said Thord, but, should the weary traveller mount one, the nyuggle will instantly bolt for the nearest water, drowning its rider. There are also risks associated with travel by boat in these parts; sea serpents known as brigdi entwine the gunwales of craft with finny tentacles, then dive to the bottom, dragging craft and passengers with them.

We thanked Thord Dragon Skull for his advice, refusing his kind offer of a dish of piltocks and cabbage (the staple here, a sort of prehistoric fish). We passed a group of children who were begging in straw outfits from door to door. "Skeklers," explained a young lady chasing a crow to find her future husband's house. We had hoped to see Lerwick's fire festival, where young men drag burning tar barrels through the streets and finally haul a longship up the hill, but were told that the vikings had banned the ceremony, annoyed at the destruction of their vessels.

We came upon a circle of islanders singing veeseks -- long-versed ballads recited from memory and accompanied by clapping. Then they broke into a song that went "balloo ballili, balloo ballili, balloo baa". Between Beltin Day, when haaf-fishing begins, and Johnsmas, when it ends, many bonfires are set on hilltops to ward off witches unpropitious to the catch. The fishermen drink toasts and the young folk eat a special gruel. This is a season favoured by finns, spirits which can change their shape at will.

There is much else strange and wonderful to report from this island far to the north of Britain -- the earnest fiddle dance of the six tall geysers, for instance, the scuddler with a napkin-covered face and straw petticoats, the gentleman the fool -- but I shall tell you of these wonders in a future missive. Now I must search the island for open wifi in order to dispatch this report. If you are reading this, I have succeded, and the Shetlanders have managed to combine a life rich in traditional ritual with access to global media technology. Then again, it might just be that Shetland is, these days, a place with cars, satellite dishes, Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants and wifi, and that I've got a bit carried away after a day at the excellent new Shetland Archive Centre.