A great time of year for beachcombing

Fresh gales have whistled and hissed their fury over Shetland again this week. Every blast that lashed the cowering landscape, every thundering wave that crashed onto the shuddering shore, left something new behind, to be discovered and savoured once calm, serene conditions returned.

Scoured of clinging earth and vegetation, areas over cliff faces glow in the low morning and evening sunlight with the many colours of exposed rock, complete with veining, faulting and the coded ancient weather reports of sedimentary banding.

At every low tide, and there have been many, new curiosities are stranded spreadeagled over damp sand or wrack-bound rocks and there is no chance that the observant and inquisitive can return home empty handed. I have tried to school myself into just looking and appreciating, not collecting and filling pockets, but I can’t do it.

I am in the process of sending a belated Christmas present to two relations, city-bound young boys who are green with envy at the thought of “Auntie Jill” living near the sea. A pair of scallop shells, two clams and a scuttle of “peerie­winkles”, the yellow, orange and brown ones; and almost identical twin limpets are lying ready for wrapping beside a bundle of scran­ned bubble wrap and an ancient roll of sellotape, a beachcombed trophy from several years ago.

It was the biggest roll of sellotape I had ever seen; probably one made for some commercial process, large scale wrapping, packaging business or something. After peeling off the outer half inch or so of layers, the underneath tape was still very sticky.

So here it still sits, gradually getting smaller and thinner, but proud veteran of many a parcelled-up Christmas gift. So, apart from some very thin presents, which managed to slide through the letter-post measuring slot, the rest went on the Thursday. Beaches provided both the gifts and the means of securing them!

Gardeners and crofters alike fertilise their crops and there is no better fertiliser in Shetland than seaweed. A score of large sacks or a couple of carrier bags, whatever scale of seaweed you require, it is ready and waiting for you on the next fine day. You will probably have to weed out a few lengths of coloured twine, bits of plastic sacks and bottles, but it will be worth it.

You may turn up unexpected treasures while you gather your free fertiliser and soil conditioner. Storms have washed up some valuable things over the years.

There is a stile somewhere in Shetland which I recall crossing with the Shetland Field Studies Group on a walk some years ago. Instead of a wooden step on one side of the fence, a large block of something grey and strange looking had been securely placed.

Our guide informed us that it was “a bale of rubber”, washed up on a local beach; another stile was accessed by a huge block of wax. Large Day-Glo buoys get washed up, as well as brand new fish boxes and I have been told that you can hand them in and receive a small bounty for them.

There is always the possibility of a few lengths of good timber, provided that it really is on the shore and not already drawn up onto the beach.

One of the first rules we were taught on arrival in Shetland in 1980 was the ownership of drift­wood rule. On the strand line, a freshly washed up chunk of wood belongs to whomsoever claims it and drags it up onto the upper shore. Wood already drawn up, especially if there is quite a pile, belongs to the person who heaved it up out of reach of high tides and is not to be taken.

Much less likely, but not without Shetland precedent is Spanish gold coins. I was shown a fabulous one once, which, following a fierce storm, had been found at low watermark, in a rock pool, where it had been flung. There were known wrecks in the vicinity and presum­ably, as the ship was slowly demol­ished over the years, its contents became vulnerable to shallow water storm surges. It isn’t all that impossible. A group of lads found an old sextant washed up on St Ninian’s Isle ayre some years ago.

But you can find some marvel­lous natural treasures too. Intense blue blobs may turn out to be a rare stranding of the “By the Wind Sailor”, Velella, a small jellyfish which is very occasioally blown against Shetland shores.

Whole, empty sea urchin shells or “tests” are always much appreciated gifts to landlubbers with an eye for the unusual and beautiful. Seal skulls, giant crab claws, monkfish jaws, sea potatoes, whale ribs or vertebrae are among the curiosities nestling between the books in our sitting room.

And then there is the remote possibility of ambergris: a nice, big, football-sized chunk could fetch a fortune. But I have an inkling that ambergris is no longer used and its sale discontinued. Does anyone know for certain?

Finley Armstrong was cavorting along the beach in Levenwick a few weeks back, with friend Ben and mum Janice when they came across a very weird sight. Seven-year-old Finley knew the beach well, and had spent many happy hours racing along the sand, hiding among the high grasses above the beach, attempting to dam the out-flowing burn and exploring among the rocks at either end.

There was always plenty of wildlife interest, with seals to watch and be watched by, beautiful seashells, bones, feathers and once, after dark, some wonderful shining specks glowing in the shallows. This time Finley scanned as he ran, looking for anything out of the ordinary, lying half buried or floating in the wavelets. What they did find was at first glance shockingly revolting.

Shaped a bit like a kite, it was leathery, slimy, spiky, smooth, ugly, amazing, pink, white and greeny-grey-black all at the same time. What on earth was it? The body was fairly battered and the skin torn, but there was still a lot to take in.

They made notes, sketched details and repaired home for a hot drink and a hunt among the refer­ence books in the book case. There they found quite a few of the marine mystery organisms and began to hunt among the descrip­tions for clues.

The “thing” was obviously a fish of some kind and the Hamlyn Guide to Seashores and Shallow Seas of Britain and Europe by Andrew Campbell provided plenty of choice. It was a ray of some kind, and although the creature had been badly battered by stormy seas, there was still enough evidence for a tentative identification – a thorn­back ray. The spines on its back and tail, plus the skin colouration and patterning gave it away. It must have been magnificent in its prime.

A whole year of beach combing lies ahead to be enjoyed, but I have work to do in terms of taking things home. There would be no shell sand beaches if everyone took shells home, so I will try to take only one, and even then, not if I have a specimen of the same kind already. Wish me luck.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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