By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS
Cruise ships are a welcome sign of the Shetland summer and the first of this season’s arrivals is due next week.
Like the puffins many of the passengers hope to see, the cruise ship season is brief, and in the case of each individual ship, may only amount to half a day.
Around 49 vessels are booked to visit Lerwick this year, usually carrying more than 1,000 passengers – one of the biggest, Crown Princess, accommodates 3,800.
What can thousands of foreign tourists do in a short time to get a taste of Shetland?
The answer can be provided by tourist guides, an invisible infrastructure that helps visitors learn about and enjoy their time in the isles – and hopefully provide what they want to see (ponies, puffins and archaeology, in that order).
Guiding started in an informal way when bus and tour operator Peter Leask asked people from a small band of helpers, preferably with language skills, to accompany tourist coach trips.
Now prospective guides, who mostly work part-time, must take a course and cannot be let loose on the public until they have achieved a green badge, an impressive metal pendant on a chain, awarded after 600 hours of study.
They have to be able to answer detailed and random questions about Shetland, such as: “Do black sheep know they’re black?” and: “Why do so many houses in Lerwick have fishing nets outside?”
A group of tourist guides participated in the tourist experience on Saturday when Lawrence Tulloch, one of the first accredited guides, took to the microphone on a bus heading to Eshaness.
Mr Tulloch drew attention to places of interest: Mavis Grind, where the Vikings drew their longships overland and Ronas Hill, which due to its northerly location would be equivalent to 11,000 feet in the Alps.
Wildlife, including whooper swans and corbies, was also pointed out before arriving for a comfort stop at Hillswick, an important trading area for German merchants of the Hanseatic League which ended in 1712.
The tourist guides took notes. It was very important to get everything right, Mr Tulloch said, and he should know, having been showing tourists around since the age of 15 when the Wallace Arnold and Midland Red buses would arrive in Yell.
“People pay a lot of money to get here and we want them to come back,” he said. “It could be that a person’s only experience of Shetland is through a tourist guide. A bad guide is totally unacceptable.”
But being a guide does not mean you have to talk all the time.
Catriona Anderson, who set up a business Island Vista with fellow guides Robin Hunter and Billy Robertson in 2007, said there must be time for tourists to “listen, look and absorb. If you rattle on too much the folk glaze over.”
Fellow guide and teacher Marsali Taylor said: “We help tourists make sense of what they see without giving them a lecture.”
Ms Anderson feels strongly that guides must be well trained and have a thorough knowledge of Shetland. Island Vista was formed after the demise of a previous tour company based in Orkney – now she is proud that there is a “local company run by local people”.
Cruise ship operators would normally liaise with a company such as Island Vista to arrange buses, itineraries and guides (although guides, who are all self-employed and listed on the Scottish Tourist Guides website, can be contacted direct by companies or individuals).
Island Vista would then request the services of one or more of the approximately 20 trained tourist guides in the isles, all of whom are members of the Shetland Islands Tourism Guide Association (SITGA).
Ms Anderson recalled a particular success last year when 930 passengers from the Norwegian Jewel, one of the biggest ships to visit, went on tour in two rotations.
Typically, a guided bus tour would take in Jarlshof, Sumburgh Head and Scalloway.
But tour guides hope to broaden this, hence the exploratory trip to Shetland’s rugged North Mainland. Timings were arranged with military precision – after Hillswick a 20-minute walk at Eshaness was scheduled, then a visit to Tangwick Haa museum, the former home of William Watson Cheyne. (His descendant, Patrick Cheyne, hosts the TV show Bargain Hunt – it is important to impart information tourists can relate to).
After lunch in Brae the tourist guides took a look at Sullom Voe Terminal from the vantage point of the car park, where Mr Hunter pointed out the various tanks for Schiehallion oil, as well as Brent and Ninian oil.
If the tourists like receiving information, the tourist guides love imparting it. One of the very first, Bella Irvine, who with Derick Herning, Elizabeth Morewood, Douglas Smith and Astrid Vetvik, was one of the pool for Leask’s coaches, said she still enjoys her work.
Mrs Irvine speaks Norwegian and a high proportion of tour guides either speak a foreign language or are foreign themselves.
Guide Silke Reeploeg, from Germany, who works part-time for Shetland Arts, said: “I really enjoy it. You meet all kinds of people and get out and about. People are so excited when they come off the cruise ships.”
Fellow German Babette Eikelmann agreed, saying there was a high demand for tours in German, even though Germans are renowned for their excellent English.
“They see it as an extra service,” she said. “But sometimes it’s quite scary trying to entertain everybody.”
French woman Nat Hall, who previously worked for the RSPB at Sumburgh, Mousa and Spiggie and now works in Anderson High Schools’s ASN department, graduated as a tour guide in 2004.
She said: “Guiding is a passion for me. It’s fun and a great way to share the archipelago with visitors.” More people than she expected wanted a French guide, she said, and her services had been called upon to escort Swiss, Spanish and French Canadian visitors.
Nadia Gould provides a Russian service, if needed. She took the tourist guide course to find out more about Shetland, never intending to take the final exam and certainly never intending to guide. But now she loves it, as all guides seem to do.
Fellow guide Deborah Lamb summed it up by saying simply: “It’s great fun.”
There are variations on the tourist guide theme. Specialist trips can be arranged – last year Japanese tourists wanted to see knitwear – and guide Roy Greenwald is a driver/guide who takes small groups on tour.
When the Deutschland arrives on Thursday the tourist guides will be waiting.
- Island Vista is based at John Leask & Son and has no connection with any other tourist organisation.