A good 39 years ago we were in Shetland with light in the sky at mid-summer midnight, noisy Oystercatchers and a very territorial ram

This is going back a few years, 39 in fact to June 1983. We were going to Shetland for a couple of weeks isolated self-catering with wildlife, birds and wind. Today, in a modern car, the drive from near Huntingdon to Aberdeen for the ferry could just about be accomplished in a wearying day but back then our car was a reliable (and reliably slow and underpowered) Citroen Dyane so we would break the journey. That particular year we stopped at a very comfortable B&B in Perth where we knew from previous visits that there was a really, really good fish restaurant that did the very best sticky toffee pudding in the world. Wonder if it’s still there?

Anyway, we had the fish and toffee pud and got up the next morning keen and eager to get on the road and join the overnight ferry to Lerwick. The day started, as they do in Scottish B&Bs, with an enormous Scottish breakfast with plenty of bacon and black pudding and beans and sausages and eggs. You know the drill. Now, I know one should not stereotype of whole nation by the bizarre antics if one person … but across the dining room from us was a young couple, younger than us anyway, ordering their breakfasts. “I’ll have the full meal with extra sausages and nae vedgetubbles!. ah dinna eat vedgetubbles” the fellow said very loudly and positively. The lady taking the order look a bit bemused. “But there are no vegetables, sir” she responded and back the Scotsman came – “Those mushrooms, and tomatoes – ah dinnae want any of they things at all”.

We have dined out on that story many times over the years – now it’s your turn.

And, onwards we went. After a surprisingly calm crossing – previous visits having been anything but calm – we landed in Lerwick and drove across the main island to somewhere in the far and remote western reaches of the island, where we had rented a croft cottage for our stay. I can’t pinpoint just where after all these years but it was not far from Bridge of Walls. The place was ’Sefster’ but maps show that’s quite a large area.

The crofter’s sister met us and showed us the old-fashioned facilities, where to find the peat stack and how to light the stove with it for heat and cooking. Peat is wonderful stuff and we were very comfortable in no time at all. After all the travelling it was nice to relax by the hot stove with a reviving drink and our boots off. The cottage kitchen was very typical of old Shetland with bizarre wallpaper and multiple calendars. It seemed that leaving calendars from previous years on the walls was quite a common thing.

To get to the owners farm we could either go round by the road or walk across a field behind our cottage – and that’s what we would do in search of eggs and milk. In that field lived a Shetland ram who had been hand raised and expected visitors to feed him biscuits. Fortunately the Shetland sheep are quite small so although Aarne (his name we were told though I don’t know if that’s how to spell it – could have been Urne) was keen to show us who was boss he didn’t stop our walks … in fact we came to quite enjoy going out to meet him. Aarne was not much more than thigh height or a bit less and would walk up to us, pause, get closer and then lift his front feet off the ground and butt me – J mostly, but not always, tried to stay out of the way – with his very, very bony head. Butt and repeat all the way across the field. Quite the character.

We were in Shetland that year around the summer solstice and although south of the Arctic circle it is bright enough for the sky never to go dark at midnight. The sun was below the horizon for a period but not so far that the sky was not illuminated. Around the croft, the dominant birds were Oystercatchers – black heads and backs, white breasts and red beaks and legs. Very distinctive calls all day long, from midnight to midnight. The illustrations accompanying this tale is a Shetland Oystercatcher but not from a photo taken by us – we barely had cameras in those days, let along the high tech, ultra-sharp digital tools of today. Likewise, the ram is not Aarne/Erne but again, a reference image from the islands.

I found the following on the Shetland Times website about their name – as the birds eat bivalves but not actually oysters. Quote:

The Shetland name for these birds is shalder while, in Norway, the oystercatcher is known as tjeld. Sheld means part-coloured and refers to the bold black and white contrasting plumage. This colouration, along with its shoreline habitat, gave it the common name of sea pie in many parts of Britain. The name oystercatcher is a misnomer as these birds do not eat oysters. In the late 18th/early 19th century the term oystercatcher started to come into use in Britain from America.

To wrap up – our friend from the B&B would have been at home in Shetland. In the larger communities, and certainly in Lerwick, vegetables can be had but elsewhere apart from potatoes it was and probably still is sometimes hard to find much more than canned peas and cabbages. But we did well, Shetland is a fascinatingly beautiful place.