Readers may remember the “stick with legs” which neighbours’ children brought round a short while ago. The curiosity turned out to be a Caddis fly larva, in its little handmade crafty house. We had a lot of fun finding out about it, and then we all said “goodbye”. I thought that was that. Done and dusted, as folk say. But an hour or so later, there was a second knock at the door. The bairns, or rather some of them, together with new lass Sarah Irvine, were back with another surprise.
“We made you a nest to say thank you,” said one of the lasses. “And we filled it with funny leaves,” said another. “We thought you might know what they were,” said the third. I couldn’t believe my eyes. If they had carried in a nest which they had found in a bush, I would have accepted it without hesitation as a birds’ nest. Theirs was a delight. They had simply gathered dry grass and twisted and wound it, tucking it in, binding the frayed strands and pressing a deep hollow in the centre. It was a little work of art and I was thrilled to bits.
The “funny leaves” were a collection of bits of moss, mostly hair moss, which I was fairly sure about, but the other leaves were strangers. They were definitely lichens of some kind and they were “flowering”. Lichens don’t flower in the rose and daisy sense, but they do develop fascinating little blobs, hollows or swollen patches where their reproductive structures can mature and be released. I was keen to try to put a name to them and into the kitchen we all trooped again, this time to haul out a different gadderie of field guides.
Rather cartoon-like, the wavy edges and cinnamon tipped protuberances of the lichen were quite distinctive. There was one page in the Oxford Book of Flowerless Plants which had a whole page of similar individuals. We narrowed it down by degrees until we were fairly sure that it was Peltigera polydactyla, a relative of the more familiar Dog lichen, Peltigera canina. Scaly grey blue patches of the latter are a common sight in the hills in Shetland. But this was my first experience of the many fingered “polydactyla”.
Bairns are often less daunted by the weather than their older friends and relatives. I enjoy hearing the shouts and squeals of excited play on dull and blustery days, despite the inevitable tinge of shame that I have opted for lazier and warmer activities indoors. But on the occasions that I make the effort to venture out regardless, it is never as bad as it looks from the cosy security of a centrally heated sitting room.
It is perfectly possible to enjoy fine walking in Shetland in winter. Some places are at their finest seen in a dusting of snow and with a fierce gale blasting the maddened waves at the cowering, towering cliffs, but it can be a touch hazardous. Weather can change from fair, to devilish and dangerous astonishingly fast. That’s why Shetland Field Studies Group (SFSG) opt to take a break from their advertised guided walks programme between November and March. Winter is a time for indoor exploration, and a winter programme of travellers’ tales and images replaces the wild, wet and wonderful real outdoors.
We always make a big effort to find a particularly exciting talk for the annual general meeting in March, as these can be tedious, though important formal events otherwise. This year we excelled ourselves, through the good offices of several different people and agencies. The SFSG make use of as many interested and knowledgeable folk as they can get a hold of during their walking season. We like to study the routes of the walks in advance and put detailed notes and maps together for those who come and take part in the walks each time.
From the very beginning, geology has featured large in the overall plan. Back in 1980, the handful of folk who set the walks up, including Alan Inkster, Mike Richardson, John Copeland, Andrew and I and others, felt that there was a vast amount of knowledge about all manner of aspects of the islands, their history, natural history, landscape, etc, which, if tapped, could add immeasurably to the enjoyment and understanding of the area we were walking through.
Among the areas well documented in Shetland was geology. The nature, chemistry and history of the rocks underlying areas within Shetland can tell a great deal about the why and the how of later human settlement and the plant and animal life which preceded it. So simplified geology maps were drawn up for every trip.
Shetland’s geology is magnificently rich, varied and complicated, but there are things everyone can see, enjoy and understand at least a bit. Fossils, folds and faults tend to be obvious and these islands have fine examples of them. Serpentines, volcanics, schists and gneisses, rarities like chromite, mine possibilities for iron, copper, talc have all played a part in island life and its economy over the years. Now all of it is coming into focus at once. Shetland is in the running for Geopark status.
For this year’s meeting, we asked Jonathan Swale if he could repeat the wonderful illustrated geology presentation he gave at an event in the Garrison, shared with Simon King last year. He went one better; he put together a completely new talk altogether. Robina Barton, Geopark development officer in the Shetland Amenity Trust, helped to organise the event through the new Shetland Museum’s interpretive facilities and the splendid lecture hall was the venue for a memorable night.
There was a guided tour of the museum’s own rock displays, then hands-on examination of specimens brought by Mr Swale before the talk began. It was a singularly entertaining talk, bringing the basic themes of geology to life with great originality, humour and skill. The audience was rapt, following the clear explanations and Shetland examples of wide ranging features of local stone, and the uses to which different kinds were put. Mining, chemistry, continental drift, fossils, deep sea crust minerals, volcanics, amount to serious stuff, yet Jonathan had us laughing uproariously at the unexpected twists and turns of the story line. I hope there will be further talks to come.
A particularly popular winter favourite is an evening spent with Alister Smith and some of his marvellous collection of old Shetland films. This year a delighted audience saw old friends and familiar faces on the screen, but over 30 years younger. There was a continuous live sound track of gasps, cries of pleasure and quiet chatter as the past came to life before our eyes. A variety of films were shown, which merit a report of their own, but all of them evoked a very different Shetland, with threads of things to come just discernible among the reflections of the “old ways”.
The Shetland Museum and the Shetland Amenity Trust are in the process of investigating the old film scene. This is the perfect time to bring out your old spools, videos and tapes of times gone by. Help is on offer to those who are willing to lend their priceless recordings, to transfer their content onto CD, DVD or more modern hi-tech means for viewing, saving them from decay and deterioration in the process. I am heading for the cupboard where early videos of a walk with Bobby Tulloch were stored. I hope it is still viewable.
Jill Slee Blackadder