My wife and I are about to enter our second Shetlandic winter. When we arrived to live and work in Shetland last summer, we were informed “If du can stand two winters, du’ll be fine.” Well, I say informed; we were more instructed. This is an aspect of the Shetland psyche I have come to admire in a curious way – a straightforwardness mixed in with a laid-back attitude.
I grew up in a North Glasgow housing scheme called Cadder where all the streets were named after places in Shetland. I grew up on Vaila Street; my best friend lived on Tresta Road; I went to school on Herma Street. So it was strangely fitting that I ended up here. And with a name like Nelson, and a childhood obsession with my Norwegian heritage, I slotted right in. In fact last month at Baltasound Hall I performed at a show where everyone in the first act was called Somethingson: Johnson, Adamson, Nicolson, Sandison, Jameson, Nelson.
I often return to Glasgow to work, at least once a month in fact, so I am constantly reminded of how Shetland is indeed its own thing. The mess of contradictions is fascinating. When you first arrive it’s a straightforward, “Who are you, why are you here and what do you want?” Then as soon as you have explained yourself it’s “Yes that sounds reasonable. Come on in, how can I help?” Perhaps the sharp contrast of summer and winter influences this seesaw attitude.
When we arrived here last year the storm around Mareel was still raging. Even after the building was given the go ahead in a close-called democratic election, people were calling for recounts, shouting of how they were avowed to overturn the decision. Many vociferous words were exchanged.
“Wow”, I thought, “What kind of building could invoke such hue and cry? A maximum security prison? A nuclear waste refinery? An Al Qaeda training camp?”
“It’s a cinema”, I was told.
“It’s a cinema and concert hall with a rehearsal room.”
“Like a picture house?”
”Where people sit silently in the dark sharing a bon huer with a touching storyline or a rollocking blockbuster?”
“And a concert hall with a state of the art sound system to attract world class musicians?”
“And a rehearsal room with a sprung floor for peerie lassies to go to dance class and couples in their thirties go to do salsa lessons?
Whether or not you will rejoice in Mareel or obstinately refuse to enjoy it once it’s built, you can be assured that this is the kind of debate that is lacking down south. Shetlands propensity to ask questions and make noise ensured that the Sumburgh departures are the only flights in FlyBe’s entire fleet that offer a piece of hold luggage and a refreshment in the ticket price.
And of course we cannot ignore the huge furore surrounding Viking Energy. Even those who are completely in favour of building a wind farm are asking question after question, making sure that what they get is what they want and that they are not palmed off with any old system.
From what I observe that wouldn’t happen down south. A Glasgow conversation could go like this:
“Excuse me, pal, we want to build a motorway slip road through your kitchen.”
“Uch, that’s ridiculous!”
Then they would sit back smoking their fags blaming asylum seekers, teenage neds and “they idiots in Brussels” rather than use that energy to question those who actually have the power to make the decisions that affect their lives.
Perhaps Shetland has always been like this. Certainly, in the 70s, Shetland asserted itself as the only council in the UK to benefit from oil revenue.
Shell even regarded the council’s chief executive, Ian Clark, as more difficult to deal with than Colonel Gaddafi.
I think it goes deeper. It’s the Scandinavian in you. As a regular visitor to Sweden I have noticed that young and old are in touch with socio-political goings on at all levels. Shetland even looks like a Scandinavian country – wheelchair and pram access properly built; pothole free roads; the arts and leisure taken seriously; a proper reliable public transport system. (Really – that’s the truth! I’ve seen it from all sides. If there’s a cancellation up here it’s because the bus or boat cannot physically operate. Down south it could be a snowflake on the line and all is lost.)
Now of course Shetland does have its downsides, which I would be foolish to discuss in my first column for this publication, lest my effigy appear at this year’s Up Helly Aa (he said, flattering himself). But it is the Cartesian habit of questioning everything that impresses me, and takes me back to my 1980s youth, when people shouted loud.
So as a result of last winter, my wife and I go into this winter with our first child on the way. That’s the kind of winter I like.
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Sandy Nelson is a writer and comedian from Glasgow, now living in Unst.