Coming home

Dave Clark, former Council Chief Executive, remembers what it felt like to return to his boyhood home.

The aircraft looked so tiny, parked there on the tarmac, They had always seemed so large as a peerie lad. The Viscounts, then the Hawker Siddeley’s that replaced them. Were all my childhood memories about to be challenged – or, God forbid, destroyed?

Yes; I was heading to Shetland, where the summers were long with never ending sunny days. The ocean was blue to match the sky and the landscape one exciting adventure playground, leading onto the next. The beaches were white with birds in happy chorus. At least in my memories of almost 35 years before. But they were strong and vivid and alive.

The small twin engine plane burst into raw power and we were airborne and North-headed. The loud drone of the engines reminded me of my flights as a child when they would hypnotise me to sleep – my hearing cutting off intermittently until I was fully unconscious.

The warm sun cut through the strong crisp breeze as I walked to the terminal below the protection of Sumburgh Head. I had watched it pass out of sight below as I left Shetland for my new life on the mainland when I was 10.

It was a child’s excitement that coursed through my veins as I stopped the hire car to photograph the road ahead cross the open runway.

Did Shetland remain a third world backwater or had she embraced her wealth and driven herself into becoming a leading society? I couldn’t wait to find out. My preparation for my interview as Chief Executive gave the impression of stagnant, inward-looking wasteful dependency rather than capitalist vibrancy or socialist utopia. But that was for Monday and what was left of Saturday and Sunday were for revisiting the past and soaking up the present. The future could wait. The day I was informed I was being invited for interview, I was tempted to withdraw my application – and even now I knew not what I’d do if offered the job. Such a unique and exciting job… but that could wait.

The airport had more than its fair share of expensive cars, and I contrasted this with my recollection of wrecks dotted everywhere. My euphoria faltered when I spotted the neglected Sierra next to the shed. But I was on a mission and turned off the main road north towards Spiggie beach, with memories of my three year old cousin and me shouting COO-EE to each other across the grassy dunes.

As I turned in and walked through the gap in these same dunes, my stomach leapt as I soaked up the sight of the bright azure ocean merging with the cloudless sky. The Aztec green of the girse against the pure white of the sand was punctuated by pieces of long redundant luminous orange fishnets.

It was perfect paradise, matched only by the beaches of Cuba in my experience. Was Shetland also a survivor, despite the odds against it, despite a similarly greed-lust filled neighbour?

I headed to Sandwick, determined to have a glimpse of Mousa Broch. Then headed towards my old home town, drawn mystically by the two masts atop the extinct volcano in the distance.

The ponies were all behind fences and I wondered if that had always been the case – when I had tentatively held out lumps of sugar on my small flat shaky hands.

I detoured through Gulberwick, delighted at the ease with which the little car dispatched the hill that used to beat many a bus on my Sunday School outings.

Then passing the tadpole ponds she was suddenly in view – adorned by the magnificent Victorian baronial town hall. Lerwick.

I saw the house my parents had had built in the grounds of Craigielea, and turned in, passing first my old house then the home of my best friend, across from Bob’s shop which now displayed a bizarre mix of textile wares. Then onwards past the big hoose which, in my childhood, always held me in such awe – as did the lovely little creature that lived there. The floorie park and play park had changed little except they were EMPTY of children.

At the end of St Olaf Street the chip shop was still there. On a Saturday night I’d have to wait in the car while my dad went in ‘in case there were any drunk men’. As I got older, I used to cycle down during Saturday Night at the Movies and never once saw a drunk man.

Tonight was for nostalgia so I took my fish supper down to the pier and ate it out the paper. The goods shed was gone, and yachts worth millions lined the quay where once the St Clair and St Ninian used to berth – opposite, pilot boats replaced the Earl of Zetland.

The old wall remained above the slipway where Brenda once commenced her treacherous journey to Bressay, sometimes with a car precariously perched on two planks laid across her.

I missed my granny, sitting with her on the wall, eating chips from the chip window.

The early evening was still bright and the Lerwick Hotel held little appeal for me.

Another run around Lerwick showed everything was exactly where I remembered, and just as I remembered. Our first house at 4 Market Street, our rented home in Twageos Road, the Town Hall, The Memorial. There was a gap where the swimming pool had opened to such riotous excitement when I was seven or eight. The old library – in plain view of the seat of local power – had been allowed to fall into unkempt decay.

My oil painting shows Scalloway Castle in silhouetted splendour, so it was with some dismay that I saw her jutting up from a melange of industrial buildings. The magic gone, I set off for Trondra bridge – scene of many a tale told me when I was a boy, then engineer, then project manager. Forty years on she seemed structurally sound, but the temporary fencing held on with cable ties disgraced a council with quarter of a billion on tap.

Not wanting my room given away – I checked into the Lerwick Hotel and settled with my gin and tonic to watch the waves crash in. Crash, Crash, Crash. I could watch that forever – and longed to hear the fog-horn which used to lull me to sleep on many a dank winter’s night.

The pub was my taxi-driver’s choice, but the under-aged, under-dressed girls made me feel it was not the pub for me – on a Saturday night anyway. So I tried the Lounge and quickly retreated upstairs. One drink was enough, so off to Da Noost which was once the scene for many a morning lemonade with mum and granny. Young and old alike danced to the golden oldies disco and that contented me until well after midnight. 

The scenery as I headed West was breathtaking. Voe after voe dotted generously with peerie isles. The sun came and went, as did the drizzle, but the breeze was constant. 

In contrast to the lonely, abandoned neo-classical mansion, the brightness of the Nordic homes proved Shetland’s independence from Scotland and the Hebrides, and Skeld charmed me as I looked down onto her marina. The Shetland flags fluttered with pride.

Driving to Walls I took a turn and found myself at a dead end in a tiny little bay. The seals saw my arrival and one by one slithered off the rocks on which they were perched. My annoyance at scaring them away quickly turned to happiness as one by one their heads popped out the water a few short feet away. They just wanted to know who was disturbing their Sunday morning sunbathing.


***   ***   ***

Up and down, up and down, then across then back across, but still no success. In two hours I had surely checked every grave at least twice, but still could not find where granny had been buried back 1972. I found the grave of my little friend who fell from the Knab to his death. 


***   ***   ***

 I knew I had done well from the response to my presentation, but had I been just too cocky? The interview was day two, but preparation for it could wait until evening, and I headed north. The last time I had headed to Sullom Voe was before construction began, and dad and I had then gone to visit old Ms Anderson.

As a younger woman, Ms Anderson, had been hounded and harried because she was living with a man who was not her husband. The locals sought to drive her from her job, but mob rule was denied and she remained a teacher at Brae. Only when she died did her private papers reveal the joke she had played on the spiteful, sanctimonious self-righteous local gossip mongers. She and her bidie-in had been married all along. She cared not one jot what they thought, and denied them the satisfaction of responding to their misplaced accusations.


***   ***   ***

The interview went well and they knew what they would be getting if they chose me. I held nothing back.


***   ***   ***

With time in hand I explored the roads around Spiggie and found another secluded bay where I smoked a cigar and introduced myself to the seals.

Then standing in the sun-kissed wind at Sumburgh Head, I reflected on what this meant. I had arrived three days earlier not knowing what I would do if I if got the job. Now I didn’t know what I would do if I did not.

Through my mind drifted the words uttered 264 years before. The words of a man having recently landed on a distant Scottish Island, the land of his fore-fathers, so full of hope and optimism and expectation.


“I am come home and will entertain no notion of returning from whence I came!”


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