Tourism: Memorable moments

Wendy Dickson looks back on some of the ups and downs of her years as a tourist guide, in Shetland and beyond.

“Guiding is fun” – that is the mantra instilled in all tourist guides during our training. I have been part of the tour-guiding scene in Shetland for the past decade or so, and during that time I have had the privilege of showing thousands of folk the best that Shetland has to offer.

I’ve always felt a tinge of excitement seeing a cruise ship, whether it be huge or of more modest proportions, nudging into the harbour and wondering what the day will hold, but now I’ve decided its time to hang up the microphone and vacate the jump seat to make way for others. And while the job of being a tourist guide is a serious one, there have been a number of memorable moments during that time, some of which still make me laugh.

Mousa is a very popular venue, and I have been lucky enough to lead several tours there, which are always enjoyable . . . well, almost always. One particular tour, however, comprised a coachload of Italians and Spanish, neither of which language I have even a smattering of. But on this occasion I had a very competent interpreter – Jessica I think her name was. The tour was entitled “Mousa, home of the seals”, and this particular day, due to repairs at Sandsayre Pier, we were leaving from Cunningsburgh. Tom the skipper told me that due to the sea state, tides, etc., he was going to take us for a run down the coast just to sound out the sea conditions. I told Jessica this but we decided not to pass on the information to the group, just in case. Well, we set off and after a while Tom’s excellent judgement dictated that we could cross the sound to the pier, which went well, but there was no sign of any seals. Then, on arrival, Tom said we could have just one hour to visit the broch and then we’d have to go back to catch the ferry, and that meant not going on to the pools to see the seals. Hmm, could be tricky.

As we walked there was the usual collection of birds, which I pointed out, and the flowers are always interesting, though it was getting late in the season. However, on mentioning these to Jessica she laughed and said “Don’t be silly, we have flowers in Italy”. We arrived at the broch and a few were interested enough to go in but the rest wandered off and we had to work hard to make sure they didn’t go too far. All too soon we had to set off back towards the pier and, with not a seal in sight so far, I sensed the atmosphere was getting a bit tense. They wanted seals and obviously imagined they would be lined up as in a zoo, waiting for feeding time. I realised Jessica was getting quite a lot of flak, but then they started on me. One lady in particular, who I judged might just give me a ducking in the sea, came right up to me, anger oozing from every pore of her face as she shouted, “Phoca, phoca, phoca!” And yes it did sound as rude as you might imagine. But fortunately my interest in natural history quickly made me realise she was not being as abusive as it sounded – phoca is the Italian name for a seal. She persisted.

When the ferry returned for us I relayed the problem to Tom, who decided to take us back to Sandsayre as work had not yet commenced, and there, lying on some rocks as we approached, were some seals. Phew!

But Mousa also has another abiding memory for me, this time a really good one. It was a trip a few years ago for folk off a National Trust for Scotland cruise which included that lovely singer Isla St. Clair, who sat on the beach while we gathered for the return ferry trip and sang to the seals – pure magic.

Until last year a fairly frequent visitor to Lerwick Harbour was the small Finnish cruise ship Kristina Regina, a lovely 35 year old vessel with real funnels, sadly now decommissioned due to stringent health and safety rules. Over the years I have done several tours from her, but Finnish is not a language any of our tourist guides currently speak, so it is always a case of having an interpreter, which works with greater or lesser success depending on the occasion. But one tour a few years ago particularly stays in my mind.

Introducing myself to the lady assigned to my coach, as I eyed up her smart two-piece tight-skirted city suit and high heels, she brusquely asked me “Are you the guide?” “Yes”. “I don’t need you”, she replied confidently. “You can sit behind me and look after my husband.” This was not a request I had previously had, but I duly sat where instructed, though “looking after her husband” was rather a non-event as I suspect he didn’t understand any English. Was it really going to be such an easy morning?

Meanwhile his wife occupied the jump seat, arranged her notes and started talking, barely coming up for breath in the first twenty minutes. What she was telling them I have no idea and not much was given away by any tangible reactions from the passengers. And so it went on as we headed towards Jarlshof, with her occasionally turning to ask me a question. We negotiated our way around the archaeological site with her definitely in charge, before heading up to Sumburgh Head to see the ever-popular and obliging puffins (well that is except the guide, whose tight skirt and shoes were prohibitive of such a climb in the time allotted). That done we reboarded the coach and headed for our refreshment stop at Hoswick Visitor Centre.

On this particular day I was teamed up with Nick Dymond as driver, a long-time friend and fellow birder. Nick and I got our drinks and sat down together at one of the tables, inviting the lady and her husband to join us, which they duly did. No sooner had they done so when she opened her bag and produced a sheet of paper, which, as she unfolded it, I could see contained a list. She handed it to me with the request that I tick all the bird species that we had seen or were likely to see during the tour, so that she could pass the information on to the passengers when they reboarded the ship. I started to work my way down: gannet, yes; shag, yes; then “kormoran” and “karmoran” on two separate lines, both mis-spellings for cormorant. No, probably none of those today. Oystercatcher, yes; curlew yes; then “whimbler”. Um? . . . oh yes, an incorrectly keyed in whimbrel. But then as my eye went down I spotted the real gem: great auk! Now although great auk bones have been not an uncommon find in archaeological excavations in Shetland over the years, the species has been extinct since 1844, when the last known individual was killed off Iceland. I composed myself and looked straight across the table at Nick. “How many great auks do you think we have seen today?” I asked him. “About five or six?” Trying, I suspect, to stifle uncontrollable laughter, he just grunted. Oh, how tempting to tick it! Our friend would not have had a clue, but I detected some of the passengers at nearby tables realised what was going on and were even enjoying the episode themselves. So the list had to go back without great auk ticked.

But I hadn’t quite finished with her yet. It was my turn to ask her a question, one to which I suspected I knew the answer. “So have you been to Shetland several times before then?”  “No, never”, came the inevitable answer, and she was apparently flying back to Helsinki before the cruise finished. I don’t think she has ever been back here, but what a fun tour it was.

And on the subject of puffins, it’s amazing how many folk you hear talking about how much they enjoyed the “penguins” they have just seen while we make our way down from Sumburgh Head. And how selectively deaf they can be when you stop for Shetland pony pictures. You can tell them until you are blue in the face not to feed them, but, oh dear.

It’s not only cruise ships that the Shetland tourist guides work with. NorthLink  Ferries arrange for coach tours from all over Britain to come here, via Orkney, either on the way up or the way back.

Now it stands to reason that many of the folk who come on these trips are senior citizens, which is probably why they choose such tours, and that is splendid as long as they have the mobility to partake when we leave the coach. But you do at least expect the drivers, who, after all, are in effect usually the tour managers as well, to be in a fairly fit state.

One trip I had recently found a seriously overweight driver who couldn’t have been more than mid forties – but with few teeth available to age him by –  who had more than a little difficulty negotiating the steps up into his coach. On this occasion the majority of the passengers were certainly less than mobile, and by the end of the day I was thinking they must had evacuated a retirement home somewhere south of the Watford Gap and sent them on an outing while they changed the linen.

They had come up from Aberdeen and the crossing would have been very smooth. But one of two ladies sat behind me looked somewhat nervous. Her friend informed me that she didn’t like boat trips, so, in the hope that it calmed her, I said, “Well at least you have the longest part of the sea crossing behind you”. Whereupon she looked at me and said in a shaky voice, “No, I’ve still got to get to the Shetlands”. Her friend comforted her by saying she was already there and I decided “the Shetlands” would have to stay as that for the moment.

Drivers’ hours often cause problems, but one expects them to at least understand that situation. Even though tachographs aren’t really relevant in Shetland, visiting drivers are bound by them. On this day I asked the driver what time his tachograph would allow us to leave and he had no idea as he hadn’t checked what time they docked in Orkney later that night. That done (by me) we set off for what was not a very memorable tour, with the driver literally wheezing his way along the single and double-track roads, and I have to admit I was relieved to hand him back into the care of NorthLink before he had some major bodily malfunction with which I might have had to deal.

Drivers’ hours also caused another coach I was meeting a few years ago to clog up the entire offloading of the ferry. Parked right in front of the exit, the very formidable lady driver refused to either drive off herself or let any other qualified person do so for 20 minutes until she could legally do so. That was not a good start to the day. Fortunately NorthLink have now taken steps to avert this problem.

And lastly, a tour that actually took place in Northumberland over twenty years ago, but could have occurred anywhere: A colleague and I were leading a coachload of folk from the Newcastle area up the coast. Needless to say, a straggly line occurred, and as I was bringing up the rear two ladies decided to bend my ear. The first insisted on regaling me with how her husband had gone off with the Swedish au-pair girl. The second, her friend, turned out to be a very inexperienced walker. We stopped for lunch on a suitable stretch of beach and this lady opened a large can of Coke, of which she consumed about half. Carefully putting a piece of clingfilm over the open top she placed it back in her rucksack. I urged her to remember it was there.

Well, not more than half a mile further on, she spotted some flowers that took her fancy and . . . yes, bent over to take a look. Before I could speak, Coke began seeping out of her rucksack, through her long blond hair, down her frontispiece and onto her feet, now removed from their shoes and covered with sand. It was probably the last walk she went on. My sympathy must have sounded a bit hollow.

I could well go on but will refrain. But I can definitely say that yes, guiding is fun.

Wendy Dickson


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