The final stop on my Scotland expedition was Shetland, a small set of islands north of the British mainland. Shetland had been high on my list for as long as I can remember, it’s where my ancestors lived before starting a new life in New Zealand. I had myself booked in for 4 days in Shetland, but I wish I could have stayed a month. It was so peaceful and scenic, the perfect break from busy London.
I arrived off the overnight ferry from Aberdeen at 7:00am, completely disoriented from sleeping on the floor of a boat and being somewhere so far away from everywhere else. I walked through Lerwick, the capital, to find my hostel. Lerwick felt remote. Like if something were to happen, nobody would know for weeks. Every direction I looked, I saw vast sea views. Nothing but miles and miles of cool blue water. The high street, if you could even call it that, was lined with colourful bunting and every second shop stocked local gifts and crafts. Between visiting other places in the islands,I browsed for candles, soaps and pretty jewellery. My favourite little part of Lerwick was this tiny golden beach, Bain’s Beach. The water was crystal clear, so beautiful against the grey stone.
After lunch, I caught the bus to Walls to find my great great great grandfather’s gravestone. He died in 1866 and 8 years later, his widow and their three sons emigrated to New Zealand. The experience I had in Walls is something that will stay with me forever. Discovering the gravestone and knowing my family history so well sent shivers up my arms. I sat down for a few minutes, overwhelmed by where I was and how far away New Zealand felt. I remember the feeling of the breeze and the heat of the sun, as I paused in the cemetery. The next photo below is very special and holds a memory I hope to treasure forever.
There’s a shop and a bus stop and a church in Walls and not much else. I didn’t see a single person in the few hours I was there. I understand why my family wanted to leave! Mind you, that was 1874, but it must have been just as desolate. The sea is vast, its presence cannot be ignored, and ponies and sheep graze on the slopes. I walked half an hour outside of Walls with the hope of seeing the house my great great great grandfather built in 1830. Unbelievably, I managed to identify it from a shaky photo from the 1960s and saw exactly where they would have lived before moving to New Zealand. I saw the water and the landscape they would have looked out across every day, I saw the hills they would have travelled over to visit friends and family. I saw the very stones he laid to build his family a home, that after his death, they would abandon for a new life in New Zealand.
What I didn’t know about Shetland until I visited was the islands’ rich archeological history. The Broch of Clickimin, located conveniently across the road from Tesco in Lerwick, was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Brochs are unique to Scotland, although their use is still being debated. Some believe they were everyday dwellings, while there’s also evidence to suggest they served a military purpose. I also visited Jarlshof, in Sumburgh, in the South, which was a site of settlement between 2500BC and the 17th century. Amazingly, the site was submerged in earth until a storm in the late 19th century exposed the stone structures. The path through the site guides you through each era, there’s even an almost complete iron age wheel house to explore.
On my final day in Shetland, I visited Scalloway, the old capital. Scalloway Castle is a beautiful old ruin built in 1600. How incredible to think what this building has lived through! After the Castle, and the adjacent museum, I had a can of Irn Bru, like any true Scot, and looked out across the water. The fluorescent, chemically taste sweet and the memories sweeter. I hope to return to Shetland some time in the future, as there is still so much left to discover across this gorgeous scatter of islands. If only it wasn’t so far away…