They say first impressions are the most important – but in case of Shetland, Day Two changed our perception of the place completely.
With the weather improved – I’m not saying “good”, but at least we could see beyond the nearest bend – and us moving to a more densely populated south of the Mainland, we soon discovered the pretty and interesting side of Shetland.
The small town of Scalloway lies on the shore opposite to the current capital of Lerwick; it used to be the capital itself, some centuries ago, and it is here that the infamous laird Patrick Stewart (no relation) had built his prominent castle. The Scottish lairds, and then British landlords feature in Shetland’s history very much as villains, persecuting the native Norse settlers, destroying their livelihoods and removing them from the land.
Despite ridding the islands of their native Norn language, the endeavour was, I’m happy to report, not entirely successful. Today still, the Shetlanders have 60% Viking blood, the Scalloway Castle is a grim, tall ruin, and the town is surrounded by the red and blue wooden houses which scream “Here is Norway” from afar. While the old rural houses are built on the Highland pattern – grey stone walls with two chimneys on opposite gables – all the new builds are of the Scandinavian sort.
There’s little to see and do in Scalloway these days; unlike many of these “second towns”, it never outgrew its fall, and is now merely a few, surprisingly green and colourful, streets wide; its main claim to fame, other than the castle, is its role in World War II as the headquarters of the Shetland Bus – a Norwegian Resistance operation utilizing small fishing boats to maintain contact with Britain: smuggling spies and refugees between Allied and Occupied parts of Europe.
The road takes us further south, towards Shetland’s main set of archaeological wonders; not far from Sandwick we spot the ferry to Mousa, and decide to have a look. Now, Mousa is a tiny island with several important features, and normally we’d hop over, but the timetable of the only boat going there and back was terribly unfavourable. It would have meant spending three hours on the island, which may have made sense in the middle of a summer heatwave, but it was really not something we were looking forward to in the cold September, even with Scotland’s best preserved Broch and the largest population of Storm Petrels to look out for. You can see the broch from the land, anyway.
We did spend a few more minutes in Sandwick and surroundings, searching for a mysterious Visitor Centre (of what, we never learned), but found instead a small bakery selling traditional beremeal (flour from an ancient Scottish/Viking variety of barley) bannocks (flat breads). The rural shops of Shetland are a whole separate story to tell: from the outside, they are often grim, bleak, with paint peeling off; in other parts of Britain, their stock would consist of some potatoes and farming implements. Here, they are situated somewhere between Sainsbury and Waitrose. Certainly, it seems the locals are not lacking in oil cash.
A short detour to make a photo of St Ninian’s Isle and its spectacular moving sand spit later, we arrive at the very edge of Shetland, the Sumburgh Head. Not having too much of flat space to share, Shetlands make do remarkably with what they have; the main road north-south crosses the runway of the Sumburgh Airport at a railway-style level crossing. It’s a surreal experience, having to wait in queue for a turbo-prop airliner to land or start before moving on. (In a similarly surreal experience the next day, we’ll have our breakfast interrupted by a Coastguard helicopter landing right above our heads in the middle of the campsite).
Just off the airport, the first Iron Age site stretches along the road: the Old Scatness, a Pictish village of roundhouses and brochs; sadly, it’s as yet inaccessible to the public other than via appointed groups – the excavations are still going on. But that’s still not why we’re here.
Yet a mile further south, a ruin of a 16th century manor house rises tall on a wind-swept seaside plain. It is now called fancifully, The Jarlshof, although it used to be known simply as “The Old House”. The low mound upon which it rises remained just that – a low grassy knoll – until a fateful stormy night in late 19th century, which revealed part of the extensive ruins underneath.
The excavations lasted decades and proved that the site had been continuously occupied since Bronze Age until the demise of the manor, four thousand years later. In an inspired move, the excavators decided to leave successive layers of settlement visible, like a peeled onion or a slice of cake, for the future generations of students, rather than simply going straight for the oldest one. The result is a remarkable lesson in history of Shetlands, and all of Scotland.
An audio guide takes the visitor, in a rough spiral, from the oldest, simplest, smallest Bronze Age hut, through a large, many-chambered smithy, then an Iron Age broch with extensive courtyard, a cluster of later wheel houses, some scattered Pictish remains, and finally, the main settlement, a complete village of Viking longhouses that lasted and was expanded upon – with additions such as the grain kiln and mill, and a sauna – for five centuries, until the arrival of the Scottish lairds, who had built the manor and a garden; the final stage of the site’s history (before the archaelogists came) was its use as an overspill cemetery of a nearby church – thus the living finally gave way to the dead.
Of all the buildings in Jarlshof, the two wheelhouses are the most impressive; the best known examples of their kind, their sophisticated layout inspires even today: a hearth and kitchen in the middle of a circular wall, with spokes dividing the interior into cozy rooms, to this day perfectly protected from COLD AND RRAIN (as the audio guide said) even without the roof. Make it a bit bigger, and add modern plumbing, and it wouldn’t feel out of place in Grand Designs.
There are campsites which have their own swimming pools; but the Clickimin is a swimming pool with a campsite attached.
The Clickimin Leisure Centre is the largest one of several such establishments in Shetlands; a charitable trust makes sure every inhabitant has access to a full range of indoor activities. The one in Lerwick has the addition of a small, well laid-out campsite; the campers even get a concession at the centre, which we soon made good use of, spending the next two hours at the pool and in the adjacent saunas and turkish baths. What a difference it made from the night before, on a lonely pub car park!
The Clickimin campsite has more unique features; as far as I know, it’s the only site overlooking an Iron Age broch, and the only one adjacent to a working helipad. Sadly, it seems we were one of the last campers to use it, as the council – which runs the site – decided to close it down in October to make place for a school, a decision not wholly understood even by the locals, as it will mean ridding the Shetland capital of any camping sites for the near future.