The never-ending story
One writer’s journey to the Shetland Islands reveals humanity, clarity and peace
Late in the afternoon of the day my parents and I arrived in the Shetland Islands, a pony attacked our rental car.
We had stopped to take some photos, on the drive back to our hotel from the epic cliffs of Eshaness, and a group of the hairy little ponies took umbrage at our presence. One, slightly braver than the rest, slowly approached our vehicle, opened its mouth to reveal a row of browning, flat herbivore teeth, and promptly started using those ivories to scratch at the paint of the front door. Unsatisfied with his handiwork, he walked around to my side of the small sedan and, before I could drive off, started chomping, repeatedly, on the door handle.
When I told the rental agency, the woman started laughing. She had lived in the Shetlands her whole life and this was the first time she’d heard of a pony biting a car.
The Shetland Islands, an archipelago of roughly 100 rocky, windswept, isles 200-plus miles north of mainland Scotland, are the northernmost part of Great Britain. They’re closer to Norway than to Scotland, Viking outposts that became a part of Scotland just over half a millennium ago, gifted as part of a marriage dowry between Norwegian and Scottish royalty. Many of the houses, especially on smaller islands such as Unst, reached from the main island by a series of small ferries, look Nordic, with steep roofs coming down low to the ground. Many of the place names sound Scandinavian.
I had decided to take my parents to the Shetlands to celebrate their upcoming 50th wedding anniversary. My thinking was somewhat along the lines of the disembodied narrator in the old Monty Python TV shows: “And now for something completely different.”
We took the train up from London to Aberdeen, whiled away a few hours in a rather bleak station pub and then embarked on a 12-hour overnight ferry from Aberdeen northeast to the little town of Lerwick, perched roughly in the middle of the largest, most populous island in the chain. In the small, windowless cabin, late at night, which the three of us slept in after a three-course dinner in the ship’s restaurant, followed by a sunset walk up on deck, one could sense the strong swell of the ocean rising and falling beneath us. It alternated between being soporific and disconcerting.
The Shetlands are, indeed, completely different. They’re as remote as one can get in Western Europe, and, consequently, despite their stunning beauty, as immune from a large influx of tourists as possible. At any one time, on the entire archipelago there are probably only a couple thousand outsiders. And that’s at high season. You can walk for hours and see just a handful of people; sometimes, if you’re lucky, not even that handful. Even at the small museums, such as the one attached to the beautiful 19th century Sumburgh Head lighthouse, on the southern end of the main island—complete with the original World War II radar station that was designed as an early-warning system against incoming Luftwaffe aircraft on missions to raid Royal Navy vessels in ports off of the Scottish mainland—you’re unlikely to see more than a couple other families.
As a result of all of this emptiness, as you experience one wonderful place after the next, you feel like you’ve accidentally stumbled on a treasure chest, something secreted away by generations past that only you now know about. There are stone brochs in the Shetlands, the remains of Neolithic towers and fortresses that are thousands of years old, glimpses into a distant, distant, past. With nobody there to tell you off, you can clamber on these ancient walls and play like children amidst the ruins.
There are uninhabited islands, too, such as St. Ninian’s—connected, in summer, to the main island by a narrow “tombolo” sand causeway, cut off in winter by the furious waters—where one can spend a day walking atop the ancient cliffs, and watching the birds soaring on the air currents over the raging waters.
One is far up in the north Atlantic here, in waters patrolled by killer whales. The sun, when it shines through gaps in the clouds, stays high until very late in early August, and the sky is huge. The wind hits you hard, unrelentingly, making it feel far colder than it actually is. The slate-gray architecture of Lerwick is austere, self-sufficient, a no-nonsense presence.
On the west side of Shetland, a 40-minute drive from the hotel where we stayed for three nights, are the magnificent cliffs of Eshaness, sheer drops from the green, sheep-and-pony populated expanses, into the roiling Atlantic below. Puffins and terns, Arctic skuas, grouse and numerous other rare birds populate the rocks of these cliffs, soaring over the waters looking for food. There are no fences here; no warning signs. If you step wrong, you’d be falling through the void, heading down toward the rocks as fast as the gannet birds do their vertical drops into the water once they spy a vulnerable fish below. And so you walk carefully, aware of your surroundings, aware of the unforgiving power of nature.Nothing lasts forever
There’s something humbling about all of this. The remote, stark beauty. The Viking ruins on bluffs overlooking wild beaches—remains of stone houses and farm walls, community gathering spots, religious centers—amongst which flocks of sheep now wander. The crofters still living in houses miles from each other. The influences, in place names, of ancient languages and rites now long since vanished from the Earth.
This is just one little archipelago, in one small corner of this wondrous world. It is one small part of the human story. And yet, it would take many lifetimes to even begin to familiarize oneself with all of its mysteries.
It’s an antidote to the Twitterverse, of bluster and of exclamation points, of crass boasts and meaningless claims to omniscience.
Nobody can know everything about everything, or everything about one country, or one moment in time, or even just one particular problem. And anybody who claims that they are the only person who can tackle the world’s woes single-handedly is either a fool or a charlatan, a person ignorant of the complexities of life and too blinkered to be curious about all the varying ways of interacting with landscape and culture, with nature and with history.
Since, when I’m not travel writing, I spend much of my time writing about politics, the past eight or nine months have, for me, been uniquely discomforting. It’s not just that I don’t like Donald Trump; it’s that I find the Trumpist moment to be uniquely philistine—a world reduced to 140-character clichés and to cartoonlike hyperbole. That so many millions of Americans respond positively to a man who rides roughshod over any notions of complexity and diversity fills me with dread. That so many people flock to a false prophet who prides himself on his ignorance, who delights in his lack of interest in other countries, other cultures and other moments in time makes me want to curl up in a ball and pull the covers over my head.
When one travels, one sees the kaleidoscopic patterns of life, configurations continually reimagined. What was life like for those Viking settlers, 1,500 years ago, on the island of Unst? How did those British radar monitors pass the time during World War II when they weren’t looking for incoming enemy planes? What does a crofter see when he surveys his green, damp, windswept land, and his flock of wondering sheep?
Exploring the Shetlands is a meditation, a series of deep breaths that both draw you into yourself and help you see the world outside. Away from the hustle and bustle, away from the inanities of the moment, it’s a way of regaining an equilibrium and regrasping a calmer perspective on life.
Nothing lasts forever. The Viking ruins, stone remnants set against stone cliffs, are testament to that. Good things fade into the past, as too do bad. Perhaps, eventually, the bad simply become the stuff of myths: stories of ogres and monsters who once upon a time breathed their fiery halitosis on the world they trampled, and who, at long last, were brought low by their own hubris.