Monday, August 23, 2010

Shetland Love

I almost didn't get to see this view.
(My window on the ferry crossing the North Sea, August, 2010)

We had driven almost 400 miles that day, from the remote wilds of Yorkshire to the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland in order to catch a 5pm ferry to the Shetland Islands. We arrived at the ferry terminal an hour early and did a collective high-five. And then...

Ticket Inspector:
I canna see that ye hae purchased a ticket for your car.

Oh, but we did. Months ago. (handing him a paper) Here's the confirmation.

Ticket Inspector:
(Long beat) I'm afraid it didna go through. Ye will hae to wait oot in the office tae see if the're any cancellations. But the ferry is bungful today. It daena look good.


The idea of our dream ending because of a stupid computer error is shattering. We have been dreaming about the Shetland Islands for months.

For half an hour, we slump on stiff plastic chairs in the ferry terminal and watch car after car board the ferry. The ferry clerk, a dead ringer for Susan Boyle, steadfastly avoids eye contact with us.

4:30 pm
She disappears down a hallway. Our hopes crumble.

4:45 pm
She returns, sits down at her desk, rearranges some papers, and stares at her nails. Minutes pass. Then, she looks at us and imperceptibly nods. In her hand is a little white ticket.

We race to our car and are immediately surrounded by beefy crewmen in yellow rubber raingear. "Hurry! Ye maesn't didder! It's gaena depairt!"

We drive on and within seconds, the hatch rises. We are the last car on.

Goodbye, Aberdeen. I hardly got to know ye.

Our berth is petite Scandinavian perfection. Luca is ecstatic over the little night light by his bed.

We eat an astoundingly large portion of fish and chips in the cafeteria upstairs...

...and then crawl into bed for the 14-hour crossing. I fall asleep instantly.

In the morning, I head up on deck to catch a first glimpse of Mainland, the largest of the Shetland Islands. There are over 100 islands in all, huddled together in the Atlantic Ocean between Orkney, Iceland and Norway.
(View of Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)

It's like a Lego town come to life. The gorgeous weather lends the buildings a supernatural crispness.
( Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)

(Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)

Once out of Lerwick (the main town or "burgh"), we are immediately apprised that this is not your average island.

We stop and let the kids run free. They are off like a shot.
Everywhere we turn, there is something to take your breath away. This tumbledown croft, fetchingly surrounded with flowering bushes, is a charming fusion of old and older.

We drive on. For miles, there's nothing but stark green landscape and the occasional ruined prehistoric Bronze Age settlement. I begin to experience selective geographic amnesia: Los Angeles? Where's that?

Out of nowhere, we are treated to the bizarre sight of a red phone booth in the middle of an abandoned pasture.

We park the car and go for a long hike along the coast and picnic on a peak (visible in the left corner of the photo). I feel as though I've been dropped into an Enid Blyton "Famous Five" book.

Afterwards, we drive to the northernmost point of Mainland and take a 20 minute ferry ride to the Island of Yell. (Yes, I got my yell. It exploded with exhilaration and gratefulness and contained within it a spiritual shout-out to all of you.)

Driving north through Yell, we board another ferry to the isle of Unst where we will be staying the night.

On the way to our hotel, another surprise: a bus shelter/art installation in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
(Unst bus shelter)

It even has its own website.

That night we stay at the Baltasound Hotel, officially "the northernmost hotel in the United Kingdom." A semi-circle of red log cabins perches on the edge of a panoramic inlet. Even at 10pm it was enchantingly light out, a Shetland Islands phenomenon known as "the simmer dim."
(Baltasound Hotel, Unst, August 2010)

The next morning, we head north for a few miles, get delightfully lost and end up parking our car near a remote farmhouse that abuts the North Sea.

We get out of the car and do a doubletake. On a fence in front of us hangs a lone sweatshirt emblazoned with the word, "California."

We climb over a turnstile and head out to sea.

The waves of the Burrafirth lap against the shore, the children clamber over rocks and hunt for exotic treasures and my friends and I try to forever imprint the memory of this scene on our souls. Los Angeles is a lifetime -- and then some -- away.

On the way back, we spot a Viking ship being built by the side of the road, in preparation for next February's Fire Festival called "Up-Helly-Aa." Local men build replicas of ancient vessels, drag them through the towns and burn them as a pagan homage to their Norse heritage. (They're growing their beards now.)

All too soon, it's time to catch the ferry back to Scotland. Goodbye, Shetland ponies.

Goodbye, 17th century croft.
Your quilted moors, your remote dignity and your enchanted light will remain in my veins.


Dianne said...

Oh so much to love. The crisp air and the legos of houses (perfect description) ...the ponies and the shore...and I am a sucker for a red phone booth! Too much goodness. Thanks for sharing it all.
I hope you go my email.

pve design said...

As my son says - Mom, you need to put it in Hi-def-
so it is crisper and clearer. That is what your photos look like. Wow, what a trip!

froogal said...

Thanks for the trip! Spectacular and enchanting photos. Now I know why my Scottish relatives felt so at home on the remote shores of Lake Superior.

loveandlilac said...

Really enjoyed your photos. Quite a contrast to LA eh? I'm trying to remember which Scottish Isle has a public library in a red telephone box.

Lily said...

The echo of your yell has been tossed across the sea like a message in a bottle and we've heard it loud and clear! HAPPY SUMMER! (or something like that I think...) Sounds like you'll be feasting on the crumbs of these magical memories for many years to come.

Laura said...

My, it feels a bit like something out of Alice and Wonderland with all of those fantastic non sequitur type items!

Splendid Sass said...

Love the imitation. Such beautiful images!

Jane said...

I think the people who run ferries must be the same world wide. I have had similar experiences going to Kangaroo Island and Tasmania and in New Zealand. The tension of watching the cars go on (and not yours) is something else.

I love that northern Scotland looks so much like bits of Scandinavia. What lovely images.

And whatever you do don't let Luca see the film 'Ring of Bright Water' Every time I see an Otter sign or image since I saw it in 1975 I feel like crying. xoxo

Vava (aka Virginia) said...

Can one drown in a blog? I felt immediately taken under...oh my. Your dialect, descriptions and dreams-come-true make a mighty good read, lassie!

helen tilston said...

Lisa- Thanks for taking us along on this beautiful adventure. I held my breadth as I awaited your ferry confirmation. A beautiful trip, wonderfully described. Thanks for brightening a rainy Monday

Susan's Snippets said...

Lisa -

I just finished reading your post and am now heading to bed in Chicago suburbia, praying that I dream about being some place grand!!

like far away shetland

donna baker said...

I never knew. Stunningly beautiful.

24 Corners said...

I got a bit teary reading's as if you all had traveled to the ends of the earth, I know my soul was imprinted upon.
You were very gracious about the ferry lady too I might add, checking her nails, please! Makes for a great story though.

Thanks for the yell... :O

Julie Anne Rhodes said...

Spectacular, and I love the Scottish accent thrown in for setting the mood, since the weather was so kind to you.

columnist said...

Enchanting. And you could pass for a Scot. Not sure what "didder-ing" is, but I get the gist! It would have been infuriating if you had not been able to get on the ferry; the best laid plans, and all.

I'm Scotland-bound in a couple of weeks - firstly to Perthshire, near where you were in Gargunnock, and thence to the Borders, and ending up back in Perthshire. Looking forward to a few cobwebs being blown away. But not drowned

Prairie Girl Studio said...

oh lisa ...
i could barely breathe and have tears gobbling up your images and words ...
you have captured my father's family 'home' so perfectly ...
my dad's parents met on the 'raw' isle of Sanday ~ she was raised on one side ~ my grandfather came to work on the other (if you look at Sanday on google earth, you will see why i say 'raw' ~ no trees! and i think you could probably 'spit' across ; )
they married there and had one daughter and then travelled to canada by sea where they raised my dad and his two sisters ...
all of his family remains there, in Scotland ~ mainland, Shetland, Orkney, Hoy, Sanday and it tugs at my heart tightly whenever anyone talks about this, my favourite place on the planet!
LOVE your accent ... *giggle* ... but ya dinna see any heeeland coos?
sorry to go on and on ... thank you so much for sharing this bonnie post ... i am thrilled that you and yours discovered this part of the world and enjoyed it so! LOVE the kids yelling at Yell!!!
i can not express how this has touched me ...
i yearn to go back ...
from the bottom of my heart ...xoxo

Emma said...

It has been a rough week chez moi caring for the newly Tonsil-less and Adenoid-less Wonder, but your lovely, lovely, [insert inadequate word here] post on your trip to the Shetland Islands was like the touch of the bracing wind I imagine blowing through your photos, energizing me and helping me soldier on. Blessings and thanks.

Miss Cavendish said...

Glorious!!!!! Will return for a more careful read.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Dianne: Your artwork is beautiful. Will email you personally. xx

PVE: I wish your boys could have romped with my boy on the crags and moors. xx

Froogal: You're right. Having visited northern Michigan, you are soo right.

loveandlilac: That sounds fascinating!

Lily: So glad you heard it! xx

Laura (What I Like): You're very insightful... it was a bit like AIW. A strange turning would lead to an unexpected surprise... just the kind of vacation I love. xx

Jane: Will heed your advice on the movie -- it sounds like you're still recovering! And yes, the Shetlands are quite similar to Scandinavia in parts. Maybe that's why I felt at home -- as a child, I lived in Norway and Sweden.

Vava: You are too kind. I soo appreciate your lovely comment. xx

Helen Tilston: We held our breath too (!). Wishing you a great rest of the week, my dear.

Susan's Snippets: Dream, dream, away. You won't be disappointed!

donna baker: I never knew either...!

24 Corners: Thank YOU for the comment. Looking at those photos makes me a bit teary, too, now that I am firmly back in civilization again. :) xxx

Julie Anne Rhodes: I so wish you had been with us!

Columnist: How exciting! I am feeling pangs of jealousy that you're headed there. Your plans sound incredible. Kiss Loch Lomond for me if you go there. xx

Prairie Girl Studio: Your comment is beyond fascinating and touches me to the core. Such Shetland Island history runs through your veins! I am honored that you think I did your land a bit of justice. The stark beauty of those quilted moors and craggy cliffs overwhelmed me. Thank you for all the details about Sanday and your parents. I love the term "raw" for "no trees." It's perfect. Please keep in touch and let me know if/when you go back. And thank you again for reaching out. xxx

Emma: Oh dear. That does sound challenging! I am so glad your mind was swept, albeit briefly, to a magical cluster of islands in the North Sea. I hope your Tonsil-less Wonder heals quickly and thanks you for your wonderful ministrations! xx

Miss Cavendish: Thank you so much for stopping by. xx

EMK said...

your pictures are just beautiful-i wanna gooooo!!
love your blog too :)

EMK said...

your pictures are just beautiful-i wanna goooo!
love your blog too :)

P. M. Doolan said...

The photos remind me a bit of the west of Ireland minus the rain.

Anonymous said...

Well, you've sold me! I want to go there, immediately if not sooner.

A Super Dilettante said...

Absolutely enchanting post. It almost reminded me of Gerald Durrell's novel "My Family and Other Animals"...

I'm awfully sorry to hear the incident at the ferry crossing in Aberdeen. How awful you must feel after travelling all the way up here and talk to inconsiderate people at the harbour!! I find *some* people can be so rude and coarse in manners compared to people in other parts of Scotland, let's say Huntly, Inverness or St. Andrews. It's very provenicial. I hope you made up the bad experience with lots of positive experience in Shetland. ASD x

LPC said...

The rapture of a northern maritime. And the photo with a jot of sky blue boat. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.

Slim Paley said...

Acchh! Enid Blyton! What wonderful memories just came flooding back!
Thanks for the gorgeous images- so love the crumbling stone walls, and the bright red phone booth incongruously plonked in such a pastoral setting.
And how lucky were YOU to have such great weather in Scotland?!

Miss Whistle said...

An otter crossing, a fabulous installation piece of a bus stop, an otter crossing, fish and chips and a viking ship -- what an adventure. I just ADORE this post.

Miss W x

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa: I recently discovered your blog, which I think is absolutely terrific.
Needless to say, I am glad you are back and am eagerly looking forward to new posts while working my way through your blog history. I’m having a really good time following your creative life and adventures. It seems that you are living a modern version the good side of the Bloomsbury life. I love the “free”, innovative, idealistic side of that period but am not very fond of the harsh realities, poverty and social cruelty. I like to think that we have advanced somewhat in those areas but perhaps that’s naïve.
As I have a love of both typography and needle arts, I think your embroidery is sensational and could go on and on about all the parts of your life-writing that I enjoy but my main purpose in contacting you is to recommend a Bloomsbury movie to you.
“Carrington” was made in 1995 and is the love story between painter Dora Carrington and author Lytton Strachey. I think Emma is a perfect Carrington and although they take a few liberties with the story, I loved this movie. It is available on DVD. If you haven’t seen it, I am sure you will enjoy it but --- here’s a SPOILER if you know their story then you will be prepared for the end. Like many artistic lives, theirs did not end well but like everything in Carrington’s life, she lived and died on her own terms.
Best regards, m

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

ASD: Because of you, I just ordered Durrell's "Animals." Can't believe I haven't read it! Scotland's up next...stay tuned, darling. xx

LPC: "The rapture of the northern maritime" is right. Beautifully put.

Slim Paley: So glad you liked it! Still looking forward to meeting you someday! xx

Miss Whistle: The above comment applies to you too. :)

Lady Gabby: Welcome to the blog world! I will check out your site...

Anonymous: What a lovely in-depth comment you have left me. I've seen "Carrington" but ages ago when it came out and now you have made me long and ache to see it again -- I'm going to add it to the top of my Netflix queue now!

Thank you for all the lovely words. I am incredibly flattered. xx

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic story, and such beautiful photos. I'm a Shetlander, and I love hearing about people who visit our islands and enjoy their experience.

I hope you don't think I'm being too cheeky, but anyone who'd like to learn more about Shetland, and about holidaying in these islands, can learn more from

Rebecca James said...

Late to reading this, but your evocation of a sense of place has left me enthralled with these islands I have know but thought little of, until I read "The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society." Because I knew so little of the Channel Islands, I googled them and got blissfully tangled in the web of all the other North Sea islands. I love the way your posts always contain, in blog or comment, something that I identify with; in this case, there were the Enid Blyton and "Carrington" references. Growing up in India, Enid Blyton put me on the path to a lifetime of voracious reading, and I have found few with a shared enthusiasm for "Carrington". Rebecca


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