A PEACEFUL scene – sun warm and bright, barely a breath of wind; the ground remarkably dry here, a light, sandy soil covered with a thin fretwork of low plant growth. We are in a broad hollow behind the Quendale sands, and the rhythmic surge and draw of the sea rasps against the silence. But something rather strange is going on. Here and there are bodies lying face down among the grasses and flowers: forget me not, self heal and the wonderfully delicate, tiny stars and threadlike stems of fairy flax, Linus catharticum. One person sits up, head bent over a sheaf of cards and papers, pen poised, waiting. It is a curious scene. And then the silence is broken.
One of the prostrate bodies moves, turns a head, levers up on one elbow and calls out “Dicranella heteromalla”; the seated person nods, taking up the pen and adding something to one of the papers with a calm, courteous “thank you”. A few mild, sleepy seconds pass, then another motionless form moves: “Bryum capillare”. “Got it, thank you.” The finder returns to his restful pose. But despite first appearances, none of these apparently sleepy people are resting, far from it. This is not a scene from a disaster film, but a group of scientists gathering data from the “field”.
Each body is tense, a high powered hand lens held close to an eye, and the eye is scanning the ground between plant stems, feverishly searching for as yet unrecorded moss species. “Barbula convoluta”, calls a voice from the far side of the hollow. “Brachythecium albicans”, says a voice from the right hand corner.
“Plagium undulatum”. My brain grows dizzy from the surfeit of wonderful, but alien names. I wish I could understand Latin. I want to ask what each name means, but these folk are up against it, short of time, running their research on a shoestring. I long to find a moss that has so far escaped their eyes.
But as the day wears on, close listening reaps rewards. A cautious question here and there is answered with eager enthusiasm. The minute plants mean everything to these folk and I find them marvellously patient and encouraging and, yes, finally I do bring across a small scrap of trailing green to one scrutinising body and my efforts are rewarded with a beam and an “Ah yes, well done!” Pleased as a child I trot off and find a new place to lie face down with my little silver lens case and resume my scanning of the shady world of beetle and slater.
Mosses are amazing. They predate our flowering plants by millions of years. Much can be learned from their different habits and populations by climatologists and the data fed into the Shetland records by these specialists will add greatly to the biodiversity status of Shetland.
Paul Harvey, from Shetland’s Biological Records Office at the Shetland Amenity Trust, who organised this research event, has been delighted by the findings so far. Shetland is now known to have around 4,000 different living organisms and another 10 to 20 more moss species may soon be added to that list as a result of the visit from the bryologists.
Anyone interested in trips like this, or in learnning more about Shetland’s wildlife, might like to join one of Paul’s introductory courses. The next one, on invertebrates, takes place over the weekend of the 11th and 12th or August. Contact him at the Amenity Trust on (01595) 694688.
And while on the subject of invertebrates, what about this one! I am watching an emerald in motion. The light shafts from its curved back as it catches the livid brilliance of the incredible colour. There’s not much point in trying to look this one up in the Oxford Book of Insects. It hasn’t come from anywhere around here. The emerald waves two fine, black antennae and resumes its patrol around the curved side of the jar. I know it longs for escape, but there’s no knowing what microscopic “baddies” it harbours on or in its little immigrant body.
Nine year old Hannah Margaret found the beautiful beetle in a clear tub of berries, bought from a recently opened supermarket last Friday and it is still “mad livin’” now on Monday.
I must try to find some tiny morsels of different kinds of food, to help it settle down to the remainder of its life in captivity. No one would want it to continue the frantic scrambling round and round which it is currently engaged in. A fragment of bread perhaps, with a touch of water on one end to stop it drying out.
The emerald is a beetle, quite a large one by Shetland standards and the rich, almost luminous green of its back has to be seen to be believed. Well done Hannah for finding it and thank you to her mum and granny for bringing Hannah and the dazzling beetle all the way from Levenwick to Scalloway on Monday to show me. My problem is now to try to get a decent photograph of the creature without letting it escape. Those metallic wing cases could be lifted, the glittery, transparent wings unfurled and the insect airborne within a fraction of a second and it would be away.
It’s been a chilly, sometimes dismal week. I sympathise with any visitors, who, after making the huge financial and often, for those unfamiliar with the system, massively complicated logistical hassles, finally get to the long-awaited Shetland experience, only to hit a spell of cold, fiercely windy, low visibility reality. A party of 17 hopeful canoeists arrived last weekend for a week of wild canoeing and camping, only to be forced to change their plans as of day one.
You have to be exceedingly tough, strong and hardy to face a cold end and a cold, probably damp start to each day; exhausted after miles of paddling, facing a cold slog to forge meals and forced to set up tents before restorative sleep. I only hope that when the sun did elbow its way through the murk, and the wind eased off a bit, that these courageous souls managed to glimpse a little of Shetland’s coastal magic and be tempted to plan for another visit some time in the years ahead.
A surprise trip to Unst recently prompted some questions. How is it that white roses seem almost universal in many parts of Yell and Unst, with just the occasional burst of red? It seems that red flowering hedge roses are commoner in Mainland gardens, and I always notice with pleasure the occasional white flowering one. Maybe I’m looking at the wrong gardens.
What a wealth of Viking history is being brought to light here. The excavations and the Living History projects are marvellous. Great too to see Belmont House restored and resplendent now, but what of Halligarth? I was shocked to see the roof going already. This less grandiose building, set in once exquisite and famous grounds, with its furthest north wood and formerly trim graveyard, deserves better. I recall many a visit in days past to this former home to many of Shetland’s most famous names.
Doctors, scientists, writers of immense stature grew up or stayed here, and as far as I know the National Trust for Scotland was gifted the land and buildings with a substantial sum to start the restoration and care of the whole place for future generations. So what is happening? Am I entirely wrong? Has local politics held up efforts by the Trust? Is traditional resentment of all things connected with the privileged classes of the past blocking attempts to save Halligarth? Are warring descendants of different lairdly clans preventing progress? Has the National Trust for Scotland simply forgotten that it has responsibilities for places in the far north? Somebody must know the answer.
Perhaps as an outsider I should not be daring to ask questions like this in Shetland. But if you had shared as many cups of tea with Lorna and Stephen Saxby as we did years ago in their old fashioned kitchen with its copper pipes polished so bright that the walls looked like Christmas, if you had been taken round the garden to hear the stories of the roses bushes and seen the hand carved wooden windy light blades in action, you too would lament the imminent destruction of the house and its history.
Jill Slee Blackadder