Today is only the second time I have given up on a walk (if you don’t count the decision not to go to the end of the Ness of Burgi).  There have been several days when I have decided to stay put and work inside.  I have even had a day off.  I planned second day off today, but didn’t get very far.   Encased from head to toe in waterproofs, I set off to walk the mile-and-a-bit to the bus stop.  Within 200 yards it was obvious that a], I wouldn’t get there without being blown over and b], I wouldn’t get back afterwards.  Ah, farewell to the joys of the Shetland Museum, the coffee at Hays Dock Café, and the gastronomic delights of the Co-Op in Lerwick.  Here I am back up in the eyrie, watching the weather sweep in from every direction at once.

My shortest walk to date was made on March 14th.:  the sketchbook page is blank apart from the date, the weather report (gale force wind and driving rain) and the statement “15 paces and give up”.

Now, I’m back inside and thinking small, which is a challenge for someone who has got used to the extravagant gesture and the splashing of paint.  I don’t have the patience required for true illustration:

Perhaps I could try some tiny etchings when I get home.   For now, I am planning some 5cm x 5cm linocuts based on the footpaths and field markings , which have to be simple as I don’t have the tools for very fine cutting.  Proofs taken by rubbing with graphite stick – messy, but not as bad as ink and rollers.


I have started making some very small pieces indeed.

I generally have a fondness for working on a large scale.  At home in North Wales I usually feel comfortably enclosed within the landscape: high horizons, high hedges and banks, trees, green lanes.   A long roll of paper seems an obvious thing to use in order to re-imagine a walk, and the physical activity of painting and drawing at this size is rewarding in itself.  Painting on a surface bigger than oneself is also comfortably enclosing; almost immersive.

I definitely do not feel enclosed at Sumburgh Head.  The terrain here shows traces of long occupation, from prehistory through World Wars to the present, but it is the sea and the sky which dominate the landscape. The headland is barely 90 metres above sea level – I am three times higher at home, but the horizon here is more than 20 miles away on a good day, compared with less than a mile in Wales.  Here are no trees, no hedges on land; just winter-dead grass and dry stane dykes.  Above me the sky, below me the sea.  The sense of being a tiny scrap of humanity in an enormous landscape is almost overwhelming.  It’s a bit like looking up at the clear night sky and seeing the Milky Way above you.  So much space, so much time – all out there.  Within:  a little space, and a fractional amount of time.

So, somehow, it seems right to reflect this by reducing the scale of work rather than increasing it.  Odd, really – I imagined doing lots of drawings to take home and use as a basis for my usual large pieces.  But “working small” seems more logical.  5cm square in some instances.

Thinking with the camera:



Today’s walk: a gentle 8.3 mile ramble (according to taking in the coastal access path, the village shop in Toab, the airport runway – twice – and (almost) the Ness of Burgi.  In other words, a walk around the bay and back.

As usual, I start out with sketchbook in hand, and map the beginning of the walk with enthusiasm.  As time passes, there is less drawing and more looking.

I stop drawing completely while walking past the airport on the main road.  There is no pavement, and although the traffic is not heavy, it is fast.  It all stops for the aeroplanes, though.  The runway and the road are about 3 feet above sea level, and meet at the shore.  Lights flash, a siren sounds and an attendant in a high-viz jacket closes the barrier.  The post is covered in pustules of rust from the salty air.  Apparently, there was an automatic barrier once, but a bus hit it.  A plane lands, the barrier is opened, cars pass and the attendant radios the control tower for permission for me to cross the runway.  Special permission, you understand.  At the beginning of the week I waited for more than 20 minutes for a gap between flights long enough for me to walk the couple of hundred yards between the barriers.  Again, there is no pavement – just a very exposed stretch of concrete runway.  I scurry along as fast as I can, reach safety and proceed up the hill to the shop.  I then repeat the whole business on the way back.

My destination is the “fort” on the Ness of Burgi, the peninsula which encloses West Voe on the side opposite to Sumburgh Head.  The ground is never much more than 10 metres above sea level, and the waves are breaking over the little cliff on the west side.  At one place the peaty ground is peppered with empty, white limpet shells.  For a moment, I thought they were daisies.  A line of stones marks the way – how old are they?  The broch is very ancient, but this area is full of ruined enclosures, old wartime dugouts and concrete stores.

Suddenly, I come face to face with the North Atlantic ocean.  The waves are crashing into a rocky inlet which faces due west.  Next stop Greenland.

A little further on, and the way is reduced to a narrow neck of slippery rocks.  It is perfectly passable; there is even a heavy duty chain to hang on to, but suddenly it seems like a bad idea to go any further.  Out to sea, a squall is coming my way and I can see hail, or possibly snow, streaking down onto the water.  There is nobody else about.  If I were back in the Visitor Centre, I might see a walker slip into the sea and could give the alarm.  But I’m not there, I’m here, and it’s time to turn back.

The squall passes behind me, and I return to Sumburgh Head along West Voe beach.  Just over a mile, and it’s a different country.  Silver sand, turquoise-blue sea.

Back at the airport, on another part of the runway, more men in high-viz jackets are busy, this time burning white markings onto the concrete.  It’s all very high-tech, apart from the chap walking along behind, throwing powder (reflective Oofle dust?) from a bucket.  Above the short turf beside the runway, a skylark sings.  It’s a wonderful life.


Mainly I am thinking – what on earth to write in this blog today?  A band of rain is passing westwards at the moment, and I really do not fancy going out, not even to draw in the Foul Weather Sketchbook. Walking in the rain, in this wind, is perhaps not like walking though a hail of bullets but it is like standing under a power shower. Nasty.  So I sit in my usual place, looking out of the window – as usual.

Between squalls of rain, two men in high-viz jackets are inspecting the road to the lighthouse. Periodically one bends down and touches the tarmac.  Sprays it, I think, with those cabalistic signs so beloved of Utility companies.  Are they inspecting the surface for flaws?  Planning more speedbumps? (Current Shetland moan:  the council is installing speed bumps, or anti-speed bumps I suppose, in Lerwick, and everyone is up in arms about the disturbance.)  But I know what’s on the road at Sumburgh Head – I’ve seen it:  tar crazed with a crackle of lines, and the occasional inclusion.

There are some odd things around, once you start to look.  Just by the imprisoned clothes peg (see above) there is a carefully placed pile of stones.  Someone has carefully arranged a large stone with two eyeholes on top of a larger stone with “shoulders”.  It looks a bit like Darth Vader, but try to photograph it, the light changes and the effect is lost.

Then there was the iguana on the beach, which was actually only a pile of washed-up kelp covered in sand.  Well, I thought it looked quite like an iguana.  A bit like an iguana.

And here are today’s mystery objects, as seen originally on Google Earth (one of them, anyway):



No – me neither.  So I asked, and they are the original waste disposal chutes, one on the north-west side of the site and one on the south-east, to take advantage of wherever the wind isn’t.  Two hundred years-worth of unspeakable gunk has left a track of black soil down the cliff.  Latterly, the gunk included waste from the chemical toilets.  Enough said.

The oddest things I have encountered so far are coils of birch bark lying discarded in corners.  There are no birch trees here – there are no trees at all that I can see.  (Further north, there are a few trees in a few gardens, and even some plantations.)  Apparently the bark washes up on the beaches – all the way from the east coast of America.  The locals call the coils “Loki’s candles”, and burn them for firelighters and fuel.  I shall try this, outside, once the wind has died down a bit.


Living in a lighthouse is paradoxically both reassuring and faintly unsettling.  I’m not living in the round bit – I’m in the assistant keeper’s cottage, which is built square with small sash windows and a flat, leaded roof.  The lighthouse itself is across a small courtyard and up a flight of steps, and it’s been there for nearly 200 years.  It is not likely to fall down while I’m here, however strong the winds may be (and they’re pretty strong at the moment).  The light shines steadily, seeming to wax and wane as the beam passes around the headland, over my head.  The lens rotates slowly all day and all night, and the mechanism makes a low-pitched trundling sort of noise, audible from my bedroom window.  It doesn’t stop, but it’s quite comforting.  Built to last..


It’s also a little uncanny: all this heavyweight machinery grumbling away on its’ own without any apparent human assistance.  Until fairly recently the headland was busy with lighthouse keepers, their families and livestock, but now the light is automated and the Northern Lighthouse Board keeper pays regular visits but does not live here. The light just rotates slowly and deliberately, independent and alone.  The electricity failed briefly on Sunday – my lights went out, but all the outside lights and the lights in the engine room came on as the emergency generator started up automatically.  The courtyard filled with diesel fumes and the noise was considerable.  I was the only person on the site at the time – for once there were no visitors, probably due to the thick fog – and it was definitely a bit strange, with all this machinery automatically working away. But also reassuring, knowing that the light does not fail.

And what effect is all this having on my artistic practice?  Not sure, at the moment.  I am spending a lot of time thinking, which can be overdone.  I am spending a great deal of time looking at the land and seascape – both genuinely Sublime (with capital “S”).  I am feeling increasingly conscious of my own smallness in relation to my environment.  My sketchbook drawings are becoming correspondingly smaller and sparer of detail.  Perhaps I shall end up making tiny drawings on huge pieces of paper.