More island hopping
Itís mid summer again but this year we fly into Sumburgh to clear skies and light north easterlies. Seeing Shetland spread out below us thereís that pull of the familiar. Iím always glad to be back.
Iím here to research the third book in the Shetland quartet. I want to write part of it from the perspective of Sandy Wilson, Perezís colleague. In the earlier books he comes across as slightly stupid and Iíd like the readers to know him better. He comes from Whalsay, so much of the action will be set there.
But our first full day is Sunday and our friend Ingirid has a day off, so we spend it sight seeing. First stop is the Wind Dog Cafť next to the ferry terminal in Yell to fill up with coffee and bacon rolls. By chance the next ferry in is for Fetlar and thereís room for the car so we get onto that. I havenít been to Fetlar for 30 years. I remember is as a pretty island, lush and green and covered with flowers and thatís how it seems now. We stop by the Loch of Funzie to look at the red necked phalaropes for which itís famous. In the brilliant light the delicate wading birds have an astounding clarity. We watch them move along the shore of the loch like clockwork toys. Then we go to Unst, the most northerly inhabited British island. Donít quite make it to Muckle Flugga though, because by then weíre starving and there are two ferry rides before we get home to Whiteness.
The next day we do make it out to Whalsay, which has a reputation in Shetland for its affluence. 7 out of the 8 Shetland pelagic fishing boats are based here. When we arrive the houses do seem very big and grand, but what we notice most is the friendliness of the people. Everyone waves and speaks and we get invited into one house for tea and homebakes. Tim meets two of the resident birdwatchers. Despite the islandís prosperity the old traditions are kept. Thereís peat casting and the gardens are well tended. I see a couple of folk wearing hand-knitted jerseys with all over patterns. Ingirid spent 15 years on Fair Isle and knows about these things.
In the new Shetland book thereíll be a sub plot about archaeology and the next day I grab a useful conversation with Val Turner, Shetlandís archaeologist. Sheís amazingly helpful and I can continue writing with some confidence now. Later I meet up with Bob Gunn, an ex-policeman, whoís full of stories and seems to have an instinct for what a writer needs to know. Then to the tourist office to meet Andy Steven to discuss the trip by some readers from the US to Lerwick in September Ė they want to see Jimmy Perezís Shetland and we both want them to have a good time.
That evening we go to Mousa Ė our sixth island of the trip Ė to watch the storm petrels come in. The boat leaves Sandwick at 11 in the evening. Itís still not dark of course. The broch at Mousa is 2000 years old, immaculately built, a double walled tower with steps winding between the walls to the top. From there we get quite a different perspective of Shetland mainland. As the light starts to fade the storm petrels fly in to relieve the birds which have been sitting on nests in the broch walls and the boulder beaches. Theyíre small bat-like birds. The walls become alive with their calls. On the way back in the boat at 1.30, the sky is light in the west where the sunís just set and in the east where itís just about to rise. By the time weíre back at Ingiridís house, itís almost daylight.
The last day in Shetland took us back to Whalsay, to the prosperous, courteous island. I want to match the real geography with the fictitious geography of the book in progress. Back in the mainland and on our way to Whiteness we stop to check out a possible otter site. We just get out of the car and an otter appears on the rocky beach below us. It pulls apart a fish and eats it, then swims even closer.
The view down to Whiteness Voe is my favourite in the islands. Ingirid has her little house on the shore there. We spend our last evening eating a banquet of fish prepared by her daughter Rachael, looking out over the water. The next day we fly south to Kirkwall.
Orkney is very different from Shetland, gentler, softer, more established. By temperament Iím more of a Shetlander, but I appreciate itís attraction. Weíre here for a surprise birthday party. Our old friend Eric thinks heís going into Papa Westray to have dinner with Joc and Neil and with his immediate family. In fact thereíll be a meal for 30 people in the kirk, then a dance in the grain loft at Holland. Throughout the day we gather in Papay. Some arrived the day before, some come in on the morning plane. Tim and I get the ferry to Westray, then the small boat into the island (which brings my trip total to 9). We spend the morning laying tables and blowing up balloons, then thereís lunch in the loft and the chance for a walk. Eric arrives by the 5 oíclock plane. By now he knows somethingís up because he spotted John and Marion at the airport the day before, but we want to maintain as much of a surprise as we can. Heís satisfyingly astonished to see Tim and me.
Later, full of food and wine, we make our way up to the farm. The loft is huge, long and narrow, with old pews from the kirk lining the walls. Itís recently been whitewashed and the rafters are strung with balloons. A band has arrived from Westray and has set up at one end. At the other is a bar and a keg of Scapa beer. The whole island has been invited. This isnít like a barn dance in England where an MC shouts out the steps for the ignorant. People are brought as babies and grow up knowing them. There are some children here who are fearsome dancers, despite the fiendishly complicated steps. I look on at a particularly rowdy one. Called the Papay Ninepins, itís a sort of testosterone fuelled musical chairs. The men shoot out from the centre to catch a woman. Itíll have to appear in one of the Shetland books Ė perhaps as the Whalsay Ninepins. At midnight thereís Auld Lang Syne and the band leaves. But someone starts playing the accordion and the dancing goes on.
Writing in Sweden
Last month we went to Sweden to visit our friends Lars and Ingrid. We've known Lars for years since he advertised in a birding mag for an Englsih family to do a house swap when our kids were small. He shares Tim's passion for birds, the Scilly Islands and the occasional pint of Guiness. Tim has been to Scania several times; this was my first visit to Sweden.
We spent most of our time on Öland (pronounced Urland with two dots on the O), a long spear of an island in the Baltic Sea reached by bridge from Kalmar. Despite being so exposed it's a green, lush place with patches of woodland and flower rich meadows, traditional red wooden farmhouses and the Alvar, a unique heathland habitat. We hunted rare orchids, saw birds like red-backed shrike, thrush nightingale and icterine warbler which would be scarce migrants here in the UK. At the south of the island there's a lighthouse and a bird observatory and museum, which reminded Tim of Portland, one of his favourite places. There we caught up with 'the boss' Bosse Carlsson. We last saw him in Fair Isle where he was stranded by storms and desperate to get home.
Öland is known as the island of wind and sun, but for most of our stay there was low cloud. Not pleasant for sightseeing, but brilliant inspiration for my third Shetland book. Each morning the others would go birding; fuelled by good strong coffee and Ingrid's fantastic home-made bread, I'd spend a couple of hours writing. The new book is set in a foggy spring on Whalsay one of the smaller Shetland islands and the Oland mist gave just the feeling I wanted to create of being cut off from the world.
Ing-Britt, my Swedish editor tell me there are plans for a quartet of crime books set in Öland. Each apparently will be set in a different season... I hope they get translated into English. In the meantime I have the germ of an idea myself for a piece set there. Not a novel but a short story. We visited a house on the east coast of the island close to a lighthouse, surrounded by a magic garden and quite cut off. A perfect setting for a traditional murder mystery.
Photo © Lars Rydgren, 2007