14th August 2018
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A walking education on the ‘landscape’ of the sea

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The Shetland landscape is rarely just land. You have to make a real effort to find a spectacularly wide and ranging panorama without any sea at all.

Where the expanses of moorland do manage to fill the scene exclu­sively, it can be just like being high on a Scottish wilderness, with barely a discernible trace of the hand of man in sight. But even where the land and sea interlock with more typical Shetland views, it tends to be the land in the panor­ama which draws our interest.

Is the ground broken with slabs of colour changes evidence of agriculture going back hundreds of years? Are there faint patches of green, nestling in lee spaces far up into dark heather reaches, signifying ancient agriculture, less dragooned within rectangular outlines, going back maybe thousands of years? Are there buildings, roads, ruins, walls, quarries, drains, the list could be endless? But what of the sea?

Do we look for familiar features among the waves, or do we just let our eyes hunt for buoys, boats, moorings, piers or bridges?

Our knowledge of what lies beneath the sea tends to be limited, for most of us, to the sea shore at low tide. The great watery covering of the planet is an effective mask to the biggest landscape of all, the sea bed. Light sheers off the surface and obscures everything beneath.

But there are some folk, especi­ally in Shetland, who are almost as familiar with those hidden spaces as they are with the dry land at their feet. One Sunday in June, the combined experience and passion for the sea and all its secrets came to the fore during a few magical hours along part of the south coast of Yell, spent in the company of two seasoned seamen.

A group of walkers listened intently to the flow of reminiscence, debate, explanation and speculation over the entire sea span from Unst to the Mainland. For these two, the light on the sea surface did nothing to obscure their combined know­ledge of the sea bed, the skerries, the baas, the trenches, the shallows. Fish and seasons, weather changes and history peopled those mysteri­ous spaces.

Much of the conversation went clean over my head, but there was no doubting the verity, nor the value of it. A wholly new face of Shetland now and through the past came into focus as they talked.

Skerries folk were “seen” flying for shelter here in a piece of the Yell coastline when wind from one direction threatened, and then Whalsay fishermen “afore dey hed da piers an da harbour” were imagined as they fled in a different airt of wind to the Wast Voe of Skerries.

We visualised the fierce battle to keel the boats over on their sides in order, when the tide wasn’t quite right, to sail into safety clear of the many rocks which lie close to the surface in this side of the Skerries. We could almost see the faces of the men, exhausted but full of relief when the boats were at anchor.

There were sea-linked features on the land’s brim here too. Frag­ment of old slipways under the ebb; a trace of a dyke at the edge of the shore above a beach, curving and ending wher “da 1900 gale” smashed the rest of it; all that was left of a fish curing beach.

A cluster of rusting curiosities, standing among the shingle, all that was left of an old fishing boat that broke her moorings during another gale-driven sea, her fly wheel (“hit took three men ta lift her”) now the mooring for a dainty rowing boat, meekly bobbing at her well-anchored buoy.

Smaller echoes of the past had been cast up by high tides.

Cork floats, lengths of heavy rope, fishing boxes, each scrap of ship or boat debris had a tale to tell, if you were someone who had worked with, repaired or used it in a former working life.

Storm-smashed skeos still stood among broken walls, witness to long vanished methods of food storage in the days before fridges and freezers.

Here surely is a perfect case for reconstruction. Faroe and Iceland, maybe other Scandinavian places too, still have and still use skeos, though the one we saw a decade ago or more in Faroe, was in use for drying strips of whale meat.

Many a Shetland home still features a rack of drying fish and a few hunks of cured meat. Despite electricity, television and daily sailings south, there is a wealth of “Old Shetland” still in working order.

Those drying beaches came into the discussion too. I had seen a good number over the years of walking with the Shetland Field Studies Group; Fethaland, Vaila, Hildasay, Stennes and a dozen more, but it never occurred to me that they had to be virtually rebuilt every year.

It makes perfect sense of course; winter seas wreak havoc with the shoreline every year, so how could anyone expect a pristine, even beach of well placed pebbles to remain intact through all that watery violence? But it took the fishermen themselves, with all their family histories and local knowledge, the understanding built on previous generations of teaching and memory walking with us through the actual places to bring it to life.

There is huge scope here for interpretation, not of what you can see, when looking out from the Shetland shoreline, but of what you can’t see.

Three dimensional illustration could “peel back” the waves and reveal the underwater features which meant life and death to fisherman through the centuries.

Scallop boats, creel boats and their crews, large or small, each had different perspectives within an area of sea. They could find a place to drop a creel, or start dragging a scallop net, without local landmarks to pin down the spot. Here too the land came into partnership with the sea, with its “meads”.

A high point, the geological trickery of a specific section of sea cliff, a quartz lens boulder high on a hillside, there were hundreds prob­ably thousands of useful meads, which when scrutinised against neighbouring ones, signal­led the fishermen exactly to where above the hidden sea bed, they needed to be.

A whole craft, coupled with a folk memory encyclopaedia of informa­tion, was part of everyday working life in those vast, danger­ous depths. It was a whole field of knowledge and learning, vital to the survival of the community.

But now it is fast disappearing and of little or no interest to the majority of comfortable, well shielded 20th and 21st century residents.

Maybe place names surveying needs a marine branch, extending the present collection of sea shore names to known, named locations below the waves.

Each year new technology comes up with cleverer and cleverer tech­niques and devices to solve fishing or navigating problems which have beset the profession for generations. Each new step sees old traditional methods slip away into memory and eventually they are lost altogether.

But however brilliant the new tricks and kits, so far, apart from improved forecasting, no-one has discovered a way of changing the weather and accidents still happen.

But listening in to the marvellous conversation in Yell last week, the combination of sea lore and experi­ence, interrupted now and again by contributions from Ness folk, Unst folk and mariners from Lerwick, was utterly engrossing. Despite problems with the Shetlandic, the memory of that talking walk in Yell will last a lifetime.

Jill Slee Blackadder