Thoughts and observations from ex-pat who fell back in love with the isles he left
Sea View by Alastair Christie-Johnston. The Shetland Times Ltd, £9.99.
At first glance this book appears to be just another paeon of praise to Shetland, part blog, part guide book, but it is actually much richer than that.
Alastair Christie-Johnston left Shetland at a young age and has recently returned, having spent most of his adult life in Tasmania. Love for a place seems to be increased by separation, and now back in his native land Christie-Johnston indulges his feelings for the isles in a year’s worth of writing.
The book is a series of very personal reflections which arise in the course of the author’s daily life and especially on his walks, often around his home in Yell. These walks are acutely observed with descriptions of real beauty – in addition they provide an insight into the Shetland way of life (and suggestions for walks), history and dialect which would be educational for new arrivals to the isles and make ex-pats long to return.
The weather is a dominant theme – and it is not always pleasant. He writes: “Ten days in this deep freeze and the novelty is definitely wearing off. Putting one foot in front of the other is a hazardous undertaking. Silken sea and satin sky are both wearing hat-lining shades of grey.”
At another time: “The sky’s dome is like the inside of a pot – unblemished dull pewter.” The wind, of course, is ever-present – “It is waiting around the corner to ambush me, flinging knives honed on ice” – while salt spray attacks his car “like a rodent in a granary”. On another (calm) day the sea gleams with “adamantine splendour”. And thoughts about the weather lead to considerations of global warming and thermal expansion, as warmer water takes up more space than colder water.
The sea also acts as a “sounding board” on Hogmanay, when residents of North-a-Voe, carrying flaming torches, blow horns and trumpets to attract attention of neighbours across the voe before lighting a bonfire on the beach and having a party.
And, of course, the sea can provide a habitat for otters. Burravoe in Yell is one of the best places to see them, the author reveals, and he is fortunate enough to see one eating a rabbit in a nearby field (albeit in a howling blizzard). This prompts him to discuss the decline of draatsi numbers and leads on to thoughts about the fishing for sandeels … Later in the year the author is preoccupied with gardening, and much can be gleaned from his experiences.
Such observations and musings could become tedious, of course, but Christie-Johnston avoids this by interspersing the narrative with other material.
Thus we have an original pattern for a lace scarf, passages from Shakespeare, lines of poetry from Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold and a recipe for fish soup. Not only that, but Christie-Johnston shows his talent for photography and art with a fine selection of landscape and wildlife photos and his own pastel pictures.
Christie-Johnston is obviously making the most of being back in Shetland, but why would he exchange the sunshine of Tasmania for days of “dishwater grey”? In spite of the changes in Shetland – in his youth “everyone” grew rigs of corn, milked their cow and kept hens – there is still the magic of community. As he says: “Come if you dare and be prepared to be entranced.”