DAY 1 - Travelling North
This is as far north as you can go in the UK! Step off the inimitably named Muckle Flugga, Britain’s last chunk of terra firma and four hundred miles further on, you’ve crossed the Arctic Circle. Britain's most remote archipelago is on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska and for millennia Shetland enjoyed closer ties with Bergen, Norway than Edinburgh, Scotland.
As if to emphasises the point, Shetlanders refer to Scotland as 'Scotland'. "We're going down to Scotland for the weekend," What? You’re already in Scotland? Apparently, to some people NOT! As late as 1850, there were significant numbers of Norwegian speakers (or Norn, a variety thereof) on these isles and some Shetlanders still feel they should throw in their lot in with Mother Norway rather than the ‘Soothmoothers’ from Stockbridge and South Queensferry! From the 8th to 15th centuries, Vikings ruled these island and 30 per cent of Shetland Islanders remain direct genetic descendants of the Norse marauders.
My son Ewan was along on this trip. He’s handy as Key Grip and second camera but more significantly as a chief food researcher with a special interest in quantity. It's a great excuse for me to get away with the boy, not the keenest of golfers but happy to carry his old man's bag and take a snap or video as we go.
As the Northlink Ferry slipped smoothly out of Aberdeen Harbour, two dolphins decided to put on a display. "Come on Daphne, here comes the Shetland boat… let's give them a thrill! Do that thing when we both leap up at the same time and make the shape of a heart. Ready, steady... go!" And up they leap to the utter joy of the tourists out on deck who whoop and sigh giving those magnificent mammals the adoration they so deserve.
We were heading for the island of Whalsay to play the Johnson's Charity Texas Scramble. Whalsay is Britain's most northerly golf course and I'd played a similar event there many years ago. When the opportunity came to return, I grabbed at it. On the night before departure however, Robert, the club manager called to say, due of a particularly inclement weather forecast, they were cancelling. We decided to go anyway!
The Northlink Ferry clearly is the best way to get to Shetland. You drive on, park the van below decks and relax. At least that’s the theory. Ewan, my son put forward another theory that if you drink enough whisky, it cancels out the effect of a ship's motion and you can then walk in a straight line. It was a relatively smooth sail so unfortunately, we couldn’t put his theory to the test.
During boarding we'd been told to leave the car unlocked and windows slightly ajar so as not to set the car alarm off with the ship's motion. As much as that's totally counterintuitive when you've got a van full of cameras and golfing equipment, some dumbass had disobeyed and now a car alarm was sounding every 5 minutes. I still managed to get a great sleep to the boat’s gentle rocking.
I woke up the next morning with a feeling like the ship was stretching and yawning as if it was doing yoga asanas. The swell had increased noticeably compared to last night but I had slept well, possibly because of it. We then reached the southern tip of Shetland at Sumburgh Head where the vessel gets leeward protection and the stretching and yawning stopped.
I first came to Shetland as a student looking for a summer job in the fish packing factories. Two of us had sailed north with the promise of work and within an hour of disembarking, we were signed to start. Before long most of our Dundee friends had followed and there was now a ghetto of long-haired Dundon louts marauding Lerwick like Vikings of old. It was a special time! The plan was to make some money and set off around the world. That was my plan anyhow! I got as far as Istanbul; the rest got as far as the nearest pub!
Whatever the outcome, Shetland was definitely a turning point. In its grey, damp, wind-buffeted way, these treeless islands were exotic! We slept in draughty ‘Gutters Huts’ living on smoked haddock and boiled potatoes with not much else, putting in our shifts at the cold, fish packing belts. We didn't make much money and what we did, we gave to the people behind the bar in The Excelsior, The Marlex or The Lounge, our favourite drinking spots.