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  • Evangelia Papoutsaki

Shetland sojourn

June was the season for island studies conferences this year and after two and a half years behind closed borders in Aotearoa, courtesy of the pandemic, I braved the airways and headed up north to co-host a gathering of island scholars and friends at the Centre for Island Creativity, University of the Highlands and Islands.

Glasgow airport: boarding a tiny plane to Shetland, where the pilot forgot to introduce the air hostess by name resulting the air hostess calling him on intercom to tell him off which then resulted in the pilot coming back to us to introduce Sharon properly and to encourage us to do what Sharon says. Sharon then tells us that we are not allowed to consume our own alcohol unless we want to share it!

So began my return to the Scottish isles and the hosting of the international small island cultures conference, and the recovery of my traveling mojo after two and a half years of hibernation!

Landing at final destination and in one piece! From the South Pacific to the North Sea in one go and from a mildly wintery Auckland to a wintery “summer” in Shetland.

And a follow up on Sharon, the Loganair air hostess who after seeing my indecisiveness on her offer of a Scottish shortbread or a Tunnock’s biscuit with my coffee, she decided I should have both! On arrival I had the warmest welcome by island colleagues who treated me as their good old friend. Did I say I love the Scots? So good to be back!

The island of Bressay, where I was staying, is only seven minutes by ferry from Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. It’s so close, you can watch the ferry coming from the south to the port and hear Lerwick’s many church bells chiming to the hour. Courtesy of my jetlag I was up very early and so I went out for a walk. I noticed the silence until I realized that it wasn’t silent at all! We tend to think of silence as the absence of human made sounds. But nature and the other-than-human inhabitants of the island were busy generating sounds that were vibrating all around me. When my colleague who was hosting me took me around later for a mini tour, I realised that there is more than meets the eye in this small island of 400 people and its many crofts. It’s an island community of humans and other-than-humans busy making life.

Staying on this island and being hosted by locals before the small island cultures international conference provided me with unique insights into life in Shetland that a hotel stay would not have afforded me.

What a day! Shetland weather accompanied us through our tour around the islands today adding an extra dose of drama to an already dramatic landscape which included a cinematic coastline of dramatic cliffs, a prehistoric brog and a spectacular white beach. We persevered through rain and gale and felt victorious at the end of the day. Lesson learned: while on Scottish isles do not allow the weather to cancel your plans, do what the locals do: embrace it and keep going! What a place! Check here some of the places I visited today while braving the elements:

Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, is like the rest of this group of islands. The more you get to know it, the more layers you get to uncover that are not always visible at first encounter. I love waking up with the sound of seagulls, the sea views and looking at the isle of Bressay across the port, that looks like a life size postcard. But the real asset of this place is its people, some of the friendliest people on earth!

There are many versions of Shetland: rainy (horizontal and vertical), misty (romantic), foggy (mysterious), windy (penetrating your bones), drizzly( don’t bother getting your raincoat), dreich (with a particular Scottish flavor), cold and damp and all of the above in various combinations!

And then, there is the sunny one that feels like you earned a bonus that gives an encore of the islands in their most dazzling version. At the end of the conference we all spread out across the harbor with fish and chips, like snails out after the rain looking around and wondering if we were still in Shetland. But we were indeed and what a delight! Magic!

Here lies our land By Kathleen Jamie

Here lies our land: every airt Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun, Belonging to none but itself.

We are mere transients, who sing Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes, Northern lights and siller tides,

Small folk playing our part. ‘Come all ye’, the country says, You win me, who take me most to heart. (Via Hazel Redpath)

The narrow lanes of Lerwick: if you missed them in your visit, you would have missed a quintessential part of this town. The center of Lerwick unfolds its compact size through its many narrow lanes that enable you to navigate its space while protected by the elements. No matter how many times I went through some of them, there was always something new to spot. They run through the urban landscape like arteries, small and easy to miss but vital in connecting the top part of the town to its sea front.

My favorite part of town and where I spent most of my time, chasing shadows and curves.

On the ferry to Aberdeen: Farewell Shetland…


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