“Du wha?” said the driver, his eyes not leaving the road. “Aye, du fa Da Böd?” I tried to connect the syllables coming from his mouth, a thin line that barely seemed to move, with something comprehensible. Twenty minutes ago I stepped off a small plane full of oil-rig workers onto the tarmac of Sumburgh Airport, a tiny stopover in the North Sea and the southernmost tip of Shetland, the northernmost domain of Britain.
I was here in answer to a small notice tacked onto the wall of a cafe in Edinburgh advertising for volunteers interested in working at a wildlife sanctuary. In exchange for one month’s work I’d be given free return flights from Aberdeen and accommodation. The place was called The Booth and I suddenly realised that locally it must be known as Da Böd.
“Yes,” I said after a pause. “I’m working at Da Böd.”
“Ahh.” He blinked. “’Eard du was comin’,” he said, mercifully slowing and slightly anglicising his speech. How the driver of the first car to pass me walking on the thin road north from the airport knew about a backpacker who had decided to visit only a few days earlier was the first of many mysteries I would encounter. He offered only a shrug in explanation.
“Thars da only good t’com from da Braer, Da Böd.”
Two days pass before I understand this sentence. During a conversation with Jan Bevington, the woman who runs The Booth, I learn the Braer was an oil tanker that ran aground on the Shetland coast in early January 1993, spilling 85,000 tonnes of crude oil and having a devastating impact on local wildlife. The Booth, essentially a one-woman operation the day before the Braer broke apart on the edge of the Atlantic, became the global focus of the disaster as the media demanded pictures of oil-covered wildlife in what was traditionally the slowest news week of the year. Looking for any good PR from the biggest environmental disaster in Scottish history, the Shell Petroleum Company built permanent facilities at The Booth, and allowed volunteers to accompany oil-rig workers on their flights from Aberdeen out to Sullom Voe oil terminal in the North Sea. I hear the disaster mentioned many times over the next month as a defining moment in Shetland’s history.
After further polite struggles in communication with my driver, I spend the remainder of the ride looking out at the flat fields, distant hills and occasional spectacular curve of sandy beach. I note that I’m crossing 60 degrees north, and not too far from the Arctic Circle. Soon, I’m deposited outside a youth hostel in Lerwick, my home for the next night, before taking the bus north to Hillswick, home of The Booth, tomorrow afternoon.
Lerwick is the only sizeable town on what I soon learn is known as Mainland, the largest of Shetland’s 15 inhabited islands. Scotland, when it’s referred to at all, is known as “sooth”. Lerwick is a cluster of stone buildings and laneways around a mostly empty dock. Despite being home to only 7500 people, there appear to be distinct neighbourhoods. Some buildings and homes seem transported from a kind of Blytonian hamlet: the town hall’s intricate stonework; the neat lawns and low trees growing wall-high in the open gardens of the houses on residential streets; the red postbox fixed in the neatly packed stone wall. Other parts of Lerwick are industrial; some are newer housing estates built during the height of the first oil boom in the 1970s. Being the height of summer, the sun is bright and it’s a balmy 17 degrees.
The next morning, the hostel’s dormitory is primarily populated by a large number of stout men who turn out to be Faroese. I join a group of English birdwatchers, some proudly toting their binoculars at the breakfast table. One inquires: “So you’re here for the birds too, I expect?”
As I ask about the impressive birds I spied on the drive north – dark shapes hovering high in the air, almost invisible against the sun, that plummeted to the sea at phenomenal speed, skimming the surface and returning aloft with fish in mouth – his face falls.
“Gannets,” he replies with a bored sigh. I lose him to a conversation about a ferry timetable.
Back on the street and meandering to the bus station, I again confront that most notable Shetland challenge, comprehension of the spoken word. Overhearing a conversation outside the highly recommended Fort fish and chip shop, I discern little. The Shetlandic dialect is beyond Irvine-Welsh-drunk-Glaswegian-level difficult to decipher, because many words are not derived from English. Shetland spent centuries under Norwegian rule, and though it’s been part of Britain since the 1700s, residents spoke a North Germanic language known as Norn until the late 1800s and Norse terms skitter throughout conversations.
“Dunna chuck bruck” reads a sign next to the pictograph of a figure throwing rubbish in a bin. Here, the Scots word wee is replaced by peerie, I hear a warm jumper referred to as a gansey, and the term mann is later explained to me as meaning must. Place names are slugged with -wicks, -nesses and -burghs. Out Skerries, population 76, is the name given to an archipelago several hours’ ferry ride from Lerwick Harbour. Conversations rarely sound rushed, and there are few inflections that direct a beginner as to where one sentence begins and the previous one ends. Vowels are long, consonants percussive, but patience with confused outsiders seemingly unlimited.
“... also in local news, a bicycle was stolen from outside the Clickimin centre in Lerwick. The bicycle is red and white with a pink seat. Anyone with any information about the theft is asked to contact Lerwick police on 101.” Bus radio delivers the report, ahead of “Fish News” and “Jobspot”.
As the landscape shifts from gentle hills to uplands of low heather and dark peat, I’m struck by what a strange confluence of events and discoveries led to this niche of the world being as it is. Once Danish, then Norwegian, then British, and officially Scottish, but definitely not like Scotland – it is astonishing to think that the first arrivals didn’t turn around and go back to where land was arable, where there wasn’t horizontal rain for four to six months of the year, and where not every seaborne journey to a neighbour was fraught with the possibility of death.
“It seems unlikely that any coast is visited more wrathfully by the sea’s waves than the Shetlands and the Orkneys,” wrote Rachel Carson in The Sea Around Us. Despite it being a bright summer day, the irregular coast and flattened land speaks to fierce weather. Looking at a map of the islands, they seem like the last shreds of land the North Sea couldn’t blast away.
Even as we move north through the centre of Mainland, the sea constantly makes its presence felt. Little fjords, or voes as they’re known locally, slice inward from the coast, full of seabirds, some loitering on an updraft, others heading out to sea.
Once we’re north of the village of Brae and turning westward, we pass a plateau of peat fields. Terraced in parts, where a machine, or in some cases, a shovel – or tushkar – has cut another few feet down. Other fields have the peat bricks resting in a pyramid shape, drying to be later bagged and burned. While this could be used to flavour whisky, there is a more urgent need for fuel for hearths and ovens, given the lack of wood on the islands. Some fires, I’m told, have been burning for more than a century, such is the need to keep a house warm through the long Shetland winter, and so plentiful is the peat. The last stretch of the drive, from Brae to The Booth, takes us few remaining passengers past old farmhouses next to prefab bungalows sprouting satellite dishes with pristine cars parked outside, evidence of oil being the new form of energy shaping Shetland.
Besides revenue, oil brought an inundation of technology, which brought with it English. The slow erosion of the Shetland dialect that has marked my fleeting time here seems set to disappear in a generation or two as geographic outposts such as this are drawn in to the global conversation. As the bus driver announces Hillswick, I see Jan, her husband and another of the volunteers waiting to meet me, ready to teach me things I can’t learn just from looking and overhearing in this far-flung part of the world.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Shetland prosy". Subscribe here.