HAPPY New Year! The light is on its way back. On the 21st of December, the sun, seen from our kitchen window, set right over the distant profile of Hulsidale, in Hamnavoe, Burra Isle.
The calendar really ought to start the New Year with the returning light, but I can’t see the powers that be taking any notice of celestial features, so we can always celebrate two New Years instead; a natural one and a cultural, historical one. The natural one has certainly come in gently.
What a pleasure, after recent gales, to be woken by the song of a blackbird on Boxing Day and later to spend an hour or so calling up friends and family and find that everywhere was in the grip of a hard frost, with very icy roads and bitter cold air. Shetland, by contrast, enjoyed a mild, calm day with plenty of light for some early gardening efforts. A stream of fine days followed, thankfully allowing enough time for some basic post-gale first aid to the more damaged corners.
There were a few surprises too, among the dark and soggy undergrowth. I was certainly not expecting anything to be flowering yet! But sure enough, under the edges of some over-wintering cabbages, Andrew pointed out several wild flowers, which were in full bloom. A few tiny sips of nectar or nibbles of pollen can make the difference between life and death for stray insects, emerging dangerously early. There were dandelions and daisies and the miniature yellow shaving brush shaped flowers of groundsel, a favourite treat of the budgerigars we had as bairns.
Comfortable though the weather was, I hope that we get a burst of bitter cold at some point, just to nip off any nasty bugs that may be lying in wait. The old adage “green winter, full churchyard” was one of the first sayings I recall learning and it never lost its sense of doom. Winter, even when relatively calm and mild can be gloomy at times, so it makes sense to focus on the lighter, warmer days ahead and do some planning. Just sitting before the fire in the sitting room gets me started, as I lean over the coffee table.
This much loved piece of furniture has a circular plate glass top, over a wooden hexagonal table. Built nearly 30 years ago by a carpenter from Quarff, it is designed to reflect the geology of Shetland and every chunk of island stone reminds me of a walk somewhere in the islands. Red calcite from Fladdabister, blue green serpentine from Unst, banded sandstone from Norby, silver and mulberry riebekite felsite from Uyea, magnetite from Fethaland; yellow, orange, agate, jasper, garnets, gold pyrites, mouth watering stones from marvellous places. It’s time to do more than just think about a new year of walks.
A whole new season of Shetland Field Study Group walks lies ahead and although the dates are always the same (first Saturday and third Sunday of the month, starting with the third Sunday in April through to the end of October) the routes change each year. Selecting the locations for the new year’s programme is more complicated than it might seem, but there is a real sense of exhilaration as it begins to take shape.
It is a time of remembering some of the best walks, the most dramatic scenery, the most spectacular wildlife displays and the most entertaining and inspiring guides. All the elements of a fine year’s walking are thrown into the melting pot. We need a good one to start with, that features landscape and history most of all, as wildlife can take a while to get started in many years. But the weather can be grim in April, so the route needs to be able to reach shelter if needed.
The last walk or two of the programme can be similarly problematical. Summer walks are spoiled for choice, as every single corner of the islands will be bursting with bird life, wild flowers and heavenly scenery. The trick is to keep an eye on the spread of walks. The programme has to be spread evenly throughout Shetland, avoiding the risk of favouring one area over another. Mainland walks must include one or two in the north, south, east, west and central areas and every walk needs to be matched to a guide.
Almost anywhere in Shetland can provide a stunning day out in the wild, but what really makes the SFSG experience is the combination of guides and leaders. There is no better guide for a Shetland walk than someone who has lived and breathed the area for most, if not all of their lives. Local history, well known characters, incidents from the past all come to life during the walk and there are always unexpected extras. A detail in the landscape can trigger a long forgotten memory, even a song or a local rhyme.
Back in the early eighties, when the SFSG was new, local guides were like gold dust. Shetland reticence to stand up and hold forth seemed almost universal. It took a long time for some of our first Shetland guides to feel comfortable relating memories and local knowledge with a group of strangers. It’s easy enough, one to one, over a cup of tea beside the stove: reminiscences flow like the Weisdale Burn.
But outside, in the wind, before a dozen, or two dozen eager, wind burned but unfamiliar faces, is another thing altogether. However, as the years and walks progressed, more and more Shetland folk joined the ranks and found real enjoyment in sharing their own experiences of time and place with the rest. Everyone is an expert in what they know and where they have lived, what they have seen and grown up with and how their own landscape has evolved in recent years. Everyone had something to offer every walk.
But not every guide has to be locally born and bred. Shetland has a wealth of experts in a multitude of fields, many of whom are naturals when it comes to sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with others. The walks’ record book, in which everyone signs their name and comments on the day’s outing, is a rich repository of references to wonderful guides. A selection of local and expert guides is pencilled in against possible routes, or subjects. The ingredients to the walks “cake” are accumulating.
The Northern Isles, Yell and Unst feature every year, with Fetlar and Whalsay and the smaller islands Bressay, Muckle Roe, Burra, Trondra every few years. Uninhabited islands too are researched and visited, but only where appropriate transport can be organised. Needless to say, rules and regulations make this task harder by the year. The days of piling into local creel boats are long gone.
Foula, Fair Isle and Papa Stour are star attractions, but take more planning and are better visited for a longer spell than just a few hours, so where possible, they go into the residential category. We arrange accommodation and transport and the group stays over a long weekend and really gets the best out of the visit. Self catering, local cooking, where it exists, home made evening entertainment and great camaraderie make these trips among the most enjoyable – but back to the detailed planning.
Programmes of past years and lists of guides too are scanned along with recorded suggestions and requests from members. Too many new, un-researched walks in a year make for heavy pressure on committee members’ time, so a balance of new and familiar routes has to be agreed. Then the shortlists are examined for number and quality of special features. What archaeological sites are we aware of? Are there any really striking geological features? At last the perfect balance is agreed. All we need now as great weather for every walk; some chance! But we can live in hope.
Jill Slee Blackadder