NEW Year’s Day was glorious and hordes of people made the best of the calm, still sunshine to enjoy a walk out of doors.
The hills at this time of year take on a palate of shades which change endlessly with the shifting light. But for the most part they are shades of brown. Grasses, tormentil, heath bedstraw and scores of other species are all in hiding, under the drying, disintegrating remnants of last year’s vegetation. Heather still holds a hint of green, but nothing like the eternal rich green of the mosses, which seem to be able to retain their colour all year round.
We set out for the Sundibanks burn, but the conditions were so perfect that turning back was out of the question. Last year’s grasses and woodrush hung in overlapping curtains down the steep face of the gorge, forming perfect insulating protection for the coming spring colonies of primroses, which will already be hearting up below the surface.
It may be calm and still on the surface, but there is a vast, invisible chemical factory at work below ground, as every seed, spore, root and bulb begins to absorb and transport its own unique cocktail of nutrients to the right place ready for a new season’s growth.
We crossed the new bridge where the Sundibanks burn turns sharply from the valley towards the sea and began to climb the north-facing brae. A startled snipe shot across the moor, scratching the peace with its jagged cry. Different cries floated down from high up among the heather across the valley to the east. A pair of ravens was coasting along just above the ground, alternating smooth flight with sudden bursts of erratic sharp mid-air turns.
My lungs had grown lazy after the Christmas ease and I stopped to catch my breath, enjoying a series of rests, looking back north and seeing the landscape open out and more and more of Tingwall and the West Side rise into view. The sea was an unbelievable rich forget-me-not blue.
But the eyes were in for a shock when we reached the ridge. The low sun burned straight at us across the ground, making forward progress possible only by squinting sideways or down at your feet. The low brilliance created special effects.
The tallest grasses caught the light and sizzled against the dark, damp undergrowth. Those ferocious pre-Christmas gales had frayed them and polished the blades until they fairly shone. It was sheer heaven to be up among the heights, with the most fabulous of views west, not a breath of wind, and only the cries of birds and unfiltered sunlight for company. Who could put a price on a day and a place like this? And Shetland has thousands of them.
As the first mile came and went, the ground changed. We had been following sheep gaets south along the ridge, with shallow, firm vegetation and easy going. Beyond a fence boundary, we were suddenly into deep heather and the sheep gaets vanished, only short stretches occasionally visible between mounds of the low shrub cover. Here and there a hole, concealed by heather, gave one leg or the other a moment’s alarm. Some were surprisingly deep.
We began to be aware of more raven cries and yet more. All the birds were flying low. Only the occasional solitary bird was glimpsed against the sky, and even then it was heading swiftly down towards the rest.
We stood to watch. What was attracting them to the ground; could it be a dead sheep? Did ravens feed on dead sheep? Swaabies seemed more likely, but they were certainly congregating. At one point there must have been 20 or so, all pottering and flapping about in a patch of deeper green grass on the far side of the valley, just above the boggy valley floor.
They seemed either agitated or excited and I wished that we were in the company of one of Shetland’s many bird experts to decode the behaviour. The noise was incredible. Ravens are supposed to croak, according to conventional literary references, but these were pulling out all the stops.
They honked, they hooted, they grunted, they barked. At times a few of them sounded like amateur operatic altos doing voice exercises, complete with tremolos. Five minutes or so of cavorting and calling finally ended as the party broke up. The various birds left in twos and threes, none singly. Was it a lonely hearts club meeting? Were they pairing up, or just celebrating the fine day?
The last raven flew out of sight and we carried on to the point where an old peat road winds up from the Quarff side. Reluctant to leave the ridge, we threaded our way down between the peat hags and were soon following the lines of the parallel ruts of the old route to the south. The Quarff valley cuts straight through this old hill system and you have to watch your feet as they have a tendency to shoot down ahead of you, leaving you briefly airborne, followed by a breath blocking thump as you land on your back.
It is worth standing at the top of the cut-off hill point, just to try to picture the huge river, which geologists believe carved out the valley, hundreds of millions of years ago. What would the landscape have looked like then, I wonder? What strange vegetation, if any, would have cloaked the ground surface and would there have been early life forms in the river water?
There are places in Shetland where fragments of fossil plants and fossil fish can be found. Even more extraordinary is the fact that some of the earliest known plant types still live, thrive and reproduce here to this day.
The lichens, studied by Keri Dalby and painted by his wife, artist Clare Dalby for almost half a century, bear witness to the huge variety of these organisms. The fungi, ferns, mosses, quillwort, club mosses all have their own long history of being early Shetland residents.
I have grasped the basic names of a few of these over the years, but maybe this year I will add one more resolution; to make an effort to find out a bit more about them. I have an idea that their life cycles involve a certain amount of swimming; or so I have been told, which sounds intriguing.
Ferns are tempting. They create such perfect shapes and patterns, so I will try to get my head around a few of Shetland’s ferns for starters. With a bit of luck, I will manage to swot up some of the basics in time for the great unfurling. It should be at least a couple of months before the new 2009 fronds appear. That’s all fern ow. (Sorry ed., only kidding.)
Jill Slee Blackadder