The seals were having a people-spotting Away Day today: I was bagged four and possibly five times on my wanderings along the shore today. At the time, I thought they were grey seals (Roman noses, you know), but checking on the internet it looks as if the one I photographed was a common seal (V-shaped nostrils). Perhaps both species were out and about. At one time, in Grutness Voe, two seals together were checking out the human population, but they ducked as soon as I got them in the viewfinder.
I finished my walk to Ness of Burgi fort today as it was dry and there was hardly any wind. The sea was absolutely calm, and the waves were slopping in and out lazily; probably exhausted after their exertions of the previous month. The geo on the Ness is completely pacific; last time I was here, I was faced with a wall of water barrelling in from Greenland. The rocks which looked so forbidding last time are completely dry, and the path to the end of the Ness is no problem at all although I was very grateful for the reassuring chain “handrail”.
According to the information board on the Ness, the fort (or blockhouse) is unusual in being square, rather than round. This leads to speculation about its’ purpose, and raises the possibility of that good old archaeologists’ standby – Ritual. Personally I suspect a radical Pictish architect trying to convince the rest that round was just too passé, and that square was the coming design must-have. They weren’t convinced: “Och away with you, stick it on the end of the ness over there and have done with it” “Alright then, I will, so.” And he did.
And we can stand on the narrow neck of land, looking at an ancient blockhouse, the ruins of World War 2 fortifications and the modern radar installations around the airport, and reflect upon the passing of time. The Ozymandias moment.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Generally speaking I have not been tempted to sit and spy upon people from my vantage point on the rock: there are, quite frankly, more interesting things to look at. (I make an exception for the men spraying marks on the road in a tempest of wind and rain.) Most people appear remarkably similar through the windows of the Visitor Centre: woolly hats, fleece jackets, trousers and boots, plus or minus waterproofs. Men and women, boys and girls. I look very similar when I go out. We are in uniform, as are men in business suits or women in leggings and short dresses.
Today, however, a different type of visitor in a different uniform.
At 11.10 a.m a mini convoy of three 4x4s and a sports car drives with deliberation up to the carpark. Equally spaced on the road, headlights on. H.M. Coastguard Search and Rescue. Doors are opened, fourteen figures in ultra-high visibility clothing get out. Are we in for some excitement? A fishing boat sank on my arrival in Lerwick at the beginning of the month, although I swear it was nothing to do with me. Am I about see a thrilling rescue before my departure? The absence of flashing blue lights suggests otherwise, and the leisureliness of foregathering on the clifftop confirms that this is a training exercise. Kit is assembled – very slowly. Stakes are hammered into the ground – very slowly. Is everyone having a go? Probably they are.
After about two hours we are ready for the first pair to abseil off the cliff. After two and a half hours, my curiosity gets the better of me, and I wander nonchalantly down towards the carpark, sketchbook and binoculars to hand. I am not really going to gawp, not at all. I do not take my camera with me. After all, I have been rather guiltily spying on them, and drawing them, from a great height. Drawing does not count as spying – definitely not – but I confess to a high level photograph.
As I get within earshot it is obviously a basic training exercise: everyone is definitely having a go at everything, from pulling on the lines to going up and down the cliff on a rope. The Man in Charge is issuing instructions: “remember Safety”; “hand signals?” – the figures at the top of the cliff wave hands above heads in a circular motion, and the team pulls in unison.
Oddly enough, few of the other visitors to the carpark take much notice of all this bright yellow activity on the clifftop. A lot of them are in hired cars, so perhaps they think this is Normal For Shetland. Or perhaps, like me, they are self-consciously Not Looking.
I suppose many people have “seeing the Northern Lights” on their bucket list. Although it’s perfectly possible to see them in North Wales, somehow I have never managed it. It’s either too cloudy or they appear too late, or I miss the alert from the University of Lancaster AuroraWatchUK. The Lights have that mystery which attaches to spectacular natural phenomena, but also – for me – the additional attraction of things experienced vicariously as a child, through the memories of my parents. My father grew up in Aberdeen in the days before intensive street lighting, and the Aurora Borealis was, if not commonplace, just another of those things that happened from time to time. My mother saw the Lights once, during the War, and the story is associated with the other tales she told of nursing in the Thirties and Forties: low pay, autocratic matrons, the unexploded bomb in the Nurses Home at Manchester Royal Infirmary, and working in a T.B. Sanatorium by Lake Windermere, where the boys preferred to sleep outside on the balconies (in their beds) in all weathers.
I was really hoping for a chance to see the Aurora during my stay in Shetland. On Tuesday, the auspices were excellent: significant magnetic activity on AuroraWatchUK, and a forecast of a clear night. I spent all evening in the Stevenson Room, looking out of the window. I even set the alarm and got up in the middle of the night for another look. Nothing. So you can imagine my feelings when I looked online on Wednesday morning and saw the overnight Sumburgh Head webcam footage of brilliant green Northern Lights, taken 20 yards away from the spot where I was peering Northwards and seeing nothing apart from the airport lights.
And there lies part of the explanation: there is significant light pollution here (even without the beam from the lighthouse ). The double glazing in the Stevenson Room is an inch thick, highly refractive/reflective and probably coated in something protective. And finally: that glorious green colour seen on the webcam is enhanced. Unfair, unfair.
Wednesday night, and the forecasts were good: cold and clear, with minor magnetic activity for hours. Go online, wait for the webcam to show lots of green light on the horizon, rush outside holding hand up to shield out the airport lights (being careful not to fall over the edge of the terrace). And success – a brief green light over the north-east horizon followed by a gently waxing and waning glow like moonlight to the northwest for about an hour. And a shooting star.
Another tick on the list of Shetland Firsts.
I think I may have mentioned that I am spending a lot of my time looking out from the (semi-)panopticon which is the Stevenson Room at the Visitor Centre. Being able to touch-type is a great advantage, so blogging does not interfere too much with looking. I am watching the light change over Fitful Head to the north west, and envying the owners of a very smart house just above the shoreline. (Typed “hose”, but spotted it in time.) (Tend to miss the numerals too, if I’m not looking at the keyboard. I learned touch-typing on an old Royal typewriter during the Winter of Discontent, bu candlelight. by candlelight.)
Strangely enough, faced with such a huge vista, ideas for exploration have contracted rather than expanded. I had great plans for walking up Fitful Head, as it’s one of the Relative Hills of Britain, but I think I may not make it. I could take a bus part of the way there, but getting back again? Miss the bus and it’s a very late return on foot.
Little details catch my eye when I’m walking. Things in corners: a distressing amount of plastic, but also the Brownie’s Geocache; round things, square things; apertures open and closed.
A bird has spent the night in a hollow in a doorway at the lighthouse.
On a fine day, the retreating waves leave a pattern of lace on the sand.
A stud on the pier at Grutness sports aWW2 Ward Department arrow, and is still shiny while younger metals have rusted almost to nothing.
Other odd objects lie in the grass: a bizarre, decaying machine of wood and iron; a Steampunk mangle? There’s no-one to ask.