Ampm around 325BC the Greek geographer and explorer Pytheas made a remarkable voyage to Northern Europe. Although his account hasn’t survived, it appears that he navigated round the British coastline and then sailed further north to encounter Arctic ice and the midnight sun. Pytheas used the word ‘Thule’ to name a distant land he visited. There have been centuries of debate about the identity of Thule – Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Shetland?
The author Joanna Kavenna visited all these places and many more in search of Thule. In her book The Ice Museum she recounts her journey from Aberdeen to Lerwick in Shetland on the ferry MV Hrossey. Over a decade later my friends and I travelled on the same ferry on our way to a holiday in Shetland. Like Kavenna, we didn’t find Thule but we loved our time there.
I’ve often written about the power of wild landscapes. The approach by sea to Lerwick was inspiring. Alongside the larger islands there were small uninhabited islets and tall rocky stacks. Finally, we approached Lerwick Harbour:
I quickly became obsessed by Shetland’s seabirds and I am grateful to my friends for putting up with me! A couple of us took a small boat trip to see the noisy seabird colonies on the island of Noss. What an experience! Escorted out of the harbour by seals we soon arrived at the colonies where we we were just a few feet from these young Gannets:
And this very large Great Skua
Later in the week we searched for Puffins and found this pretty little creature at the RSPB reserve at Sumburgh Head on the southern tip of the largest island in Shetland, the Mainland:
We had quite a surprise when we walked to the Head. A group of Arctic Terns flew angrily around our heads, with a few diving down on us. No doubt they thought we’d stumbled too near their breeding colony. Luckily they didn’t make contact. I’ve seen a video of Arctic Terns attacking a polar bear and drawing blood!
This experience made me think about when I’d last been attacked by a wild animal. Here in the UK we’ve wiped out the majority of the animals that might do us harm. I’ve been stung by wasps and bees and been hissed at by swans and pecked by greedy geese. After I returned home, I dreamt of being attacked by a Razorbill! This seabird has a large bill but normally uses it to catch fish.
Our last day on Shetland turned out sunny, and we visited the beautiful Banna Minn beach and loved the clear blue-green water.
Leaving Lerwick on the ferry that evening was both sad and hopeful. We were accompanied by Skuas, Fulmars and this Gannet which flew high over the ship in the late evening. Was it giving me permission to come back one day?
My last photo was of this sunset:
If I returned to Shetland, could I go in the winter? The writer Amy Liptrot, while recovering from alcoholism, spent a winter in on the tiny island of Papa Westray in her native Orkney. The winter would be dark but what’s wrong with that? Darkness protects me because it conceals the dangers of the world. When it’s bright and sunny, I feel that I am expected to be cheerful but darkness allows me to be who I want to be. I can hide in quiet corners feeling much safer in the dark than when I am being exposed to the harsh brightness of the normal world.
And if I went to Shetland in winter I could see Slavonian Grebes and Long-Tailed Ducks – what could be better than that?