South Mainland Notebook

Still time to visit

Until the end of September, visitors to South Mainland won’t need the Tardis to travel back centuries.

While it’s undoubtedly true we are talking a seriously old site here – the broch is well over 2,000 years old, and was probably built on top of an even earlier settlement – a tour of Old Scatness conjures up the past so vividly that you really have the sense of having jumped back two millennia. “What I feel like,” says tour guide Jane Outram, “is an Iron Age estate agent.”

It was the Picts who constructed the buildings that you can see. And they did such a good job of it that one of the wheelhouses – so-called because of their shape – is known to have been occupied for 800 years.

Not without certain modifications, however. Jane points out where some “dry-stone cowboys” filled in a doorway, and a Scandinavian-style fireplace that the Vikings installed when they moved in.

She shows how an oven would have worked, and draws attention to communal areas with private spaces leading off them, which were probably bedrooms. “Their soft furnishings don’t survive,” Jane says. “But they had sheep so it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have used fleeces for bedding.”

And surprisingly comfortable their lives would have been too, as you discover in the reconstructed wheelhouse. Traces of pale yellow clay have been found painted onto the walls, perhaps with a view to reflecting the light.

But anyway you soon adapt to the dark, and there’s the flame of a seal oil lamp (now run on mackerel oil) and firelight from burning peat. “Peat smoke was Iron Age air-freshener,” Jane says. During the chill Shetland winters the thick stone walls would have retained their heat, and evidence found indicates that people liked to sit round their fires and do crafts.

The broch might originally have had a defensive purpose, but due in part to its prime location the site gradually took on a domestic function. From here the Vikings set out to fish for cod in deep waters. The land was farmed. In the reconstructed garden you can see the plants that would have been grown for food, medicine, dyes and textiles. Washed up whalebones were made into combs for weaving. Folk hunted seabirds and ducks. They traded: Roman glass, Baltic amber and Cornish tin have been found. “The seas were their motorways,” Jane says.

Throughout the summer there are local craftspeople on site, demonstrating day-to-day Iron Age activities, such as wood-carving, jewellery-making and pottery. Children and adults too can dress up in costumes and try their hand at making Viking wristbands, winnowing and grinding, working soapstone and playing a game that would have been familiar to Viking bairns.

“I’m always asked when the people who lived there left,” Jane says. “But their descendants are still here, living on Shetland today. So the answer is they didn’t.”

Old Scatness is open Sunday to Thursday from 10am to 5pm until 30th September, with guided tours and living history demonstrations. Admission is £4 for adults, £3 for children, groups and concessions and free for under-fives. Season tickets can be purchased for repeat visits, and there is a 20 per cent discount at Old Scatness with a Jarlshof ticket.

Yarns round the hearth

There’s an evening of storytelling and music by Elma Johnson and Friends from 7pm to 9pm at the Crofthouse Museum on Monday.

The event is called A Night by the Fireside. Tickets cost £12 for adults and £6 for children under 12 and concessions. To book call (01595) 695057.

Pony photos go on show

Timed to coincide with the Shetland Pony Festival, the new exhibition at Sumburgh Airport is a collection of photographs by Frances Taylor.

The works are entitled Nature Of The Njuggle, the njuggle being a mythological Shetland pony which, if mounted, will carry its rider into the sea to drown.

This lovely yet potentially malign beast is a particularly apposite metaphor for Ms Taylor’s pictures, which marry images of ponies with features of the Shetland environment. In one, a photograph of the ripples in a mane and the ripples in a stream stand alongside each other in the same frame. In another the rust colour of a pony’s coat is paired with dried grasses. Ponies’ black backs find an echo in wet black stones.

Ms Taylor came to Shetland 14 years ago, where she realised her dream of owning a herd of Shetland ponies and fell in love with the islands’ wild beauty.

“She approached us about doing an exhibition to take place at the same time as the Shetland Pony Festival, and we helped her develop her ideas,” says Jane Matthews, assistant arts development officer for Shetland Arts, and the exhibition’s curator. It was Shetland Arts who suggested to Ms Taylor that she should combine her two passions, and look at the ponies in terms of the landscape. The result is this very striking twinning of the two.

“The exhibition at Sumburgh is part of Bonhoga Gallery’s touring programme,” Ms Matthews says. “It’s the first place where Frances’ photographs are being put on show. The airport is a good venue to get an audience for an artist’s work because there are a lot of people passing through.”

Nature Of The Njuggle is at Sumburgh Airport until 16th November. For further information call (01595) 745750.

Vision meeting in Fair Isle

Shetland South Vision is a public engagement initiative, designed to gain information about how South Shetland communities view a range of service areas such as housing, employment, transport and health.

The aim is to understand the communities’ needs and aspirations and to identify priorities for future service provision.

If there are any issues you would like to raise, there is a meeting today in Fair Isle Hall from 10.30am to 12.30pm. MSP Tavish Scott will be attending.

Sunday teas at Quarff

Teas will be served on Sunday from 2.30pm to 5pm in Quarff Public Hall. The money raised will go towards a Christmas party for Quarff bairns.

Seals and stories on Mousa

The RSPB is hosting an open day on Mousa tomorrow. Expect to see seals and seabirds and to hear a few tales.

The event is from 2pm to 5pm and is free, though there is a ferry fare. Be sure to wear appropriate clothing and footwear, and please note that due to the uneven and sometimes slippery terrain on Mousa the event may not be suitable for all abilities. Phone (01950) 460800 for further information. Phone (01950) 431367 for ferry bookings.

Purple haze

South Mainlanders who have noted the particularly spectacular display the heather is putting on this year will not be surprised that it is the subject of much discussion.

Richard Hamilton, services manager for the Red Cross, says he has not seen the like since he walked the Great Glen Way in 2007, and guesses that it is caused by less grazing.

This is confirmed by gardening expert Rosa Steppanova, who says the flowering of the ling is getting better every year for that reason.

Geordie Jacobson, however, who has been photographing the heather at Sandwick, puts it down to the lovely warm weather, along with just enough rain and moisture at night to create ideal late season growing conditions. If you have another theory, please get in touch. But whatever the reason enjoy.

Cathy Feeny


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