“What er ye mad comin’ out here?” the ferryman yells over a smack from a North Sea wave.
Between the wind at 50 knots and constant smacks from swells of liquid ice, he can’t hear my excuse and drags me from the deck back into the lounge.
Bleck. I choke at the onslaught of retching sounds and stench from my fellow passengers. We left Aberdeen, Scotland an hour ago. Nine more hours ’til we reach Shetland. No way I’m staying in here.
“You don’t haf te go out, Miss.” The ferryman hands me a barf bag.
“I’m okay as long as I don’t smell it.” I push my way back outside.
Smack, the boat lunges forward, then tips a good twenty degrees. I clasp the rail. He clasps my arm.
“Yer goin’ over if yeh stee out here.” He pulls me into the bar.
Quiet here. No sea spray, no barfing. I’m shivering so hard I can’t thank him before he leaves.
The barman says, “A shot of Scots whisky’ll take off that chill.”
“B-beer, please,” I chatter. ” B-bitter if you’ve got it.”
He hands me a bar towel, then the bitter. “Draught’s on the North Link. Yeh got strong sea legs for a Texan. Dallas maybe? Yeh sound like JR Ewing.”
“So what’s an oil princess doing here in winter? Checking on her wells?”
“Spring break from London classes,” I say. “Research.”
I’m tired of explaining to Brits that everyone from Texas doesn’t have oil. Fact is, I really don’t know why I’m headed to this chain of dots on my map. No family history, no business, just looking for something I can’t explain.
“You got a place to stay? The islands shut down to tourists in winter.”
“I’ve got a room,” I lie. Fact is, I picked out a hostel in the guidebook on the train. Didn’t call ahead.
After a long night of smacks and lunges, the North Sea plops us down at Lerwick, a whitewashed fishing village with rain falling sideways. It drenches our 7am landing then the sun breaks through. Strange, I feel like I just came home.
With no trees, the land looks like lumpy pillows of grass in the raging swell. The wind has a provocative voice, maybe of lost fishermen or the tangi, a sea spirit that masquerades as a wild horse or a handsome man. Don’t fall under its spell or it will drag you into the depths for company.
I throw on my pack and set out to explore. Can’t find a rental car. No bus or cab runs in March, but climbing into the Bronze Age ruins up the block, I’m transported by a presence that lingers here. The round, stone walls feel eternal, yet lonely, waiting for me to unpack. I want to know more about this place, Clickimin Brock, and need to find my hostel, so I drop by the only touristy spot in sight, the museum.
The clerk has great booklets on the Bronze Age, but doesn’t know if the hostel can take me tonight. Nobody answers the phone. After gesturing back and forth because I can’t understand her Scots-Norwegian dialect, she recommends checking with the police. There won’t be another ferry for days so there won’t be any turning back.
“What’s a young American doing here in winter?” asks the policeman, a transplant from Scotland who is apparently the only person in Shetland I can understand..
“Research over spring break, but I didn’t call ahead.”
“What type of research?”
“Um … archeological. ” I could fake my way through that better than natural science.
“If you’re going to be hiking around the islands alone,” he says, “be careful ’bout tuh haulin, Storms gather off the coast, lee side, then they blow in fast, sometimes deadly.”
He drives me toward the hostel. “You can hitchhike to see the sights.”
“Are you kidding?”
“There hasn’t been a rape here for fifty years.”
“Okay, but I’m from Houston where hitching is unthinkable. What about murders?”
“Not one–well not unless you count the tangi.”
After driving out across grassy tundra dotted with little white houses, we cross over a short, arched bridge and stop. My lodging sits on a pile of rock–not much wider than the building itself–in a narrow sound between two islands. It looks deserted. On one side of the rock, the bridge we just crossed connects back to the main island. On the other side, a flat footbridge leads to a wilder, uninhabited one.
The hostel itself is a former schoolhouse that might have been a quiet place except for the constant bird calls, animal wailing sounds, and unceasing wailings of wind. A family of seals shares these frigid sea rocks–with that wind. It’s leasing this place from the waves. The rest of us are its house guests.
The manager seems shocked to have a patron. Gas is off, but he offers a space heater with extra blankets to drape a lower bunk. After explaining the icy shower and how to work the stove, he asks, “Are you sure you want to stay out here alone?”
“Ring me if you need anything,” he points to the dial phone, then leaves.
Grateful for a place to sleep, I take a walk along the shore. Nothing’s as expected, but then I never did expect, just felt drawn here. After unpacking and cooking a package of dry noodles while watching the seals, I endeavor to figure out why this place speaks to me. Everyone I know from school is sleeping on Spanish beaches by day and dancing away the nights. Why do I, an American college student, need to be on this island, the opposite of Ibiza?
I grab my camera and start the day’s journey. The moment I step onto the main road and put out my thumb, a driver stops, opens his door. Terror shoots through my soul–but he smiles, seems kind. My heart stops beating as I get in and thank him.
Michael, a fisherman, seems thrilled to have fresh company. He insists on taking me by ferry to his favorite site, an outcrop island called Papa Stour where the sea throws massive boulders up the cliffs and the wind reciprocates by blowing tiny bits of earth back down to the waves. Through millennia, those bits have amassed into natural towers of stone rising up hundreds of feet offshore. Sea caves, arches and blowholes make up the shoreline. I can’t understand Michael’s explanation, but in the rhythm of his words, I feel the Iron Age people who built their mills so close to the edge.
As the sun sets, we stop at the local pub where islanders serve up pints while telling stories. I can only make out occasional phrases, but in their voices, I feel the thrill of riding on spirits from the sea. Their glittering eyes cast a spell. We drink too much and stay too late.
On the way back to my hostel, Michael pulls over for a walk along a beach. He seems more handsome than before and all I can think about is the tangi, that sea spirit who might seduce me under the waves.
“We should really be getting back,” I say.
He doesn’t start the car. Instead, he stares at the moon through the windshield as I grasp the door handle–city girl ready to escape.
But Michael doesn’t make any moves. Instead he tells a story about a spirit dressed as a fine horse luring innocents for rides along the coast. After taking them for short adventures, it drags them under the waves.
This isn’t the most romantic story and it seems fully inspired by the loneliness of this man in this place. Will mine be the Shetland’s first rape in fifty years? No, can’t be. He’s too kind. How can I sit here and question someone who spent his entire afternoon showing me around.
I take a deep breath and listen for what seems like hours to his nearly undistinguishable dialect … exhausted, but wanting to show respect. When Michael finally drives me back to the hostel, I thank him for his kindness. He thanks me for my company.
The sunrise brings someone pounding on the hostel door. After squirming into my coat under the cover of wool blankets, I open up to the large nose of a wild pony begging for treats. He lets me pet him while nibbling instant oatmeal from my tourist hand. He’d probably let me ride him–if I dared.
I hitch a northbound sheep wagon to a seaside archeological site called Jarlshof: the remains of a Viking longhouse, built on top of Pictish ruins, next to Iron Age walls. They’re all surrounded by round Bronze Age houses dug into the dirt and rock. Amazingly, I’m encouraged to crawl around in them. Each structure was erected by people brought here by the wind. Their spirits never left.
Next day, I pack up and catch a series of rides to a small farm, or croft, on the northernmost island called Unst. Rockier here, with massive cliffs overlooking the sea. The croft sits inland on a grassy moor surrounded by grazing sheep.
Sweet, chatty family. I can’t understand their dialect so I show them the photo that first drew me to Shetland, a lighthouse on a rock island called Muckle Flugga. They know it as a boulder of land off Hermaness that may have inspired Treasure Island. They even have the book. Going out there can be dangerous, but they can direct me to the cliffs overlooking it. After a dinner of white sausage, I collapse on the feather bed, dreaming of pirates.
Next day, after a breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and tatties I call, ‘pieces of eight,’ I am dropped off at Hermaness peninsula by the crofters’ son home from university. Just a two-mile hike, he says, to Treasure Island. With book in hand, I set out on foot across an amber moorland animated by wind.
Grasses billow forward in waves like the sea and ragged edges of the peninsula seem to rise and fall on wings of nesting birds. Despite treading carefully, I piss off the endangered black & white puffins, yellow-head gannets and forty-year-old gray fulmars now dive-bombing and spitting at me from overhead. Wondering if some of them are the angry spirits of pirates, I tiptoe around their homesteads and approach the northern cliff.
The lighthouse and rock island come into sight … but it’s the view behind them that takes my breath. Pristine blue sea running north to forever: the top of the world or the closest I’m likely to get to it.
I don’t know why I came here, still don’t know quite how to describe what I’m looking for, but I found it. Here on this pillow of wild grass brought to life by sea wind, I sense something larger, beyond time, and I’m just a tiny dot in it. With kamikaze birds still diving at my head, I stare at forever for hours.
Lucie Smoker had to run from Hermaness when a storm blew in, tuh haulin. She keeps a piece of that place with her, forever pointing north. For more information on her books and other works, go to luciesmoker.wordpress.com.