20th April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Notes from a niseach

An ill wind

Rare though these times might be, the wind can sometimes create its own unique and individual beauty.

This thought occurred to me on a bright, sunlit morning recently when I was out enjoying one of the highspots of Shetland life, the Knab. Out of the edge of my eye, I was aware of two dark objects moving, twirling, shifting across the headland, as if they were taking part in some bizarre ballet in the breeze.
For a moment, I thought they were two crows dancing with a fluency and rhythm I was never aware they possessed before, partnering each other across the golf course. It took me a while to realise exactly what the pair of acrobats were – two of Shetland Island Council’s ubiquitous black bags transformed into low-flying artistes by the force of the wind. Barely had I time to focus on them than they were up and away. They disappeared into the distance, no doubt ending their flight sprawled in that place where such flocks always seem to gather, draped across someone’s garden fence

It is not the only time I have seen the wind generate wonders like these.
Plastic shopping bags can take on the shades and shapes of swans. Whitecaps can swirl and swish on the tops of waves. Sometimes there is even a similar sense of wonder to be found when the wind flurries and disturbs the mane of a horse or a sheep’s fleece. Yet these times are unusual. Mostly, it is the world’s stillness that creates marvels. The calmness of a summer sunset. The peace of a quiet bay or voe. Scenes that can spark amazement at the nature of the world we have around us, making us witnesses to miracles to which we are often blind or simply ignore.

More often than not, it is a different kind of awe that is created by the strength of an island wind. Like many of those born and raised in islands like Shetland, I have often been astonished by the bulk and weight I have seen it shift and hurl. I have witnessed a brand new kithouse, the embodiment of a young couple’s hopes and dreams, lifted up and smashed into splinters by a sudden storm. I have seen the roof, too, of an old building, the last remnants of a family home, pitched and rolled across acres of croftland on a winter’s day, bringing about the final destruction of a place which so many previous generations had lived in and enjoyed.

And then there have been other startling moments. There was, for instance, the morning when one of my family’s neighbours woke up to find no stalk or straw remaining of the huge haystack they had put so carefully in place the previous autumn. The power of the wind had unravelled the strong rope they used to fasten it; tossed aside the old fishing net that covered its crest; even lifted up the huge grey stones used to weigh it down, ensuring it remained fixed to the ground. The household stepped out the following day to be astonished and amazed, witnesses to a vanishing act that magicians like Paul Daniels or David Copperfield would have been unable to imitate or perform.

There was, too, the devastation that followed one particular storm I witnessed while living in Uist in the Hebrides – an event that resulted in great loss to one family I knew. They lost five members that day, victims of a frightening coincidence, a wicked combination of storm and tide which left not only them but acres of low-lying machair land swallowed by the sea.
Most houses had slates ripped from their roofs. Windows were smashed and shattered, often lying splintered on the floors of bedrooms, sitting rooms, kitchens. There was even the astonishing sight of a garden fence, complete with posts, uprooted from the soil in front of a house. Transformed into a writhing snake, it curled upwards, stripping slates and rattling them downwards in a fierce and heavy shower on the cars parked outside.

Looking at the landscape the following day, I felt as if I were in a war-zone. A builders’ store looked as if it had been pitted by bullets. A lorry lay by the roadside, rolled onto its side. The sheet metal encasing the local garage had worked loose, banging and drumming incessantly. For a while, numbed and chastened by the storm, I wondered if this had been among the worst this country had ever experienced. It certainly felt like it might have been.

It was then I remembered my uncle talking about a night he had lived through – the hours of darkness between 31st January and 1st February 1953. Looking back, it is difficult for us to imagine the terrors which many of the population in towns and villages along the coastline of both Britain and places like Holland and Belgium went through that night. Blowing fiercely enough to create great damage in Orkney and Shetland, the combination of a surge in the North Sea and strong winds reserved its real venom for those in the south. Around 307 souls perished in places like Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Sussex, and Essex. In the Netherlands, over 300 died; around 30 in Flanders, Belgium.

There were those, too, in peril on the deep. Some 224 died in the waters around Britain. They included 133 passengers on board the vessel, Princess Victoria, drowned on the relatively narrow channel between Larne in Northern Ireland and Stranraer. There were smaller boats too, swallowed by the fury of the sea while they fished out of this country’s harbours. All in all, an awesome, unimaginable toll of human life.

And then there was the story my uncle often spoke about. Travelling down the road between my home village of South Dell and the main town of Stornoway, he would often flick a finger in the direction of the sea a short distance away from the village of Borve on the west side of the isle of Lewis.
“That’s where the Clan McQuarrie went down.”

It was an incident that brought about its own act of transformation. The crofters of that village became heroes that night. With no rescue helicopter available in that era, they brought all 66 crewmen to shore by breeches buoy, a lifebelt device with canvas breeches suspended from a pulley that ran from the ship to coastline. After completing the largest ever rescue of that kind which had ever occurred, they took the sailors with them, sheltering them from hurricane-force winds in the warmth and comfort of their homes.

It was an ill wind, too, that brought some good to the village. As a result of it, the owners, the Clan Line, built a new village hall, one that is only being replaced by a new one this year. It provides a place where they can gather, to talk about the strange things that life might blow their way.

Donald S Murray

See ‘Past Life’ for more about the great storm of 1953, and the damage done to the Horn o’ Papa.