You know you are going somewhere remote when the ferry you are on has only two cars, and one of them is yours!
When I first started talking about our trip to the kids, I told them we were going to find out the answers to two questions: Where do people come from? and Where do you come from?
My grandmother was born in Shetland in 1901, so we flew an hour and a half north of Glasgow to the islands located along the 60th parallel. We had a side trip to Orkney to refuel as the weather was typically bad, and the plane was forced to circle for some time.
When we reached Shetland, we managed to meet a few relatives in Lerwick before heading further north to Yell to spend the night. Yell is the island located between the Mainland (biggest island) and Unst where my Nana’s house was located.
Unst is a small island just 120 square kilometres in size. It is Britain’s northernmost inhabited island, and its outline looks suspiciously like the map of Treasure Island. This might be because the book’s author, Robert Louis Stevenson, had spent some time on the island prior to writing the story because his grandfather had been responsible for building the Muckle Flugga lighthouse.
(No, I did not make that name up.)
Unst was engulfed in fog the first day we showed up, so we had problems figuring out where my grandmother’s house was. We flagged down a Royal Mail van and asked the driver for the house by name (Stoorigarth) since there aren’t really any addresses. We then found it on the other side of the hill.
Unst is a beautiful wind-swept rock in the middle of the ocean where only about 700 people call the island home today. We saw peat stacks that people had dug up and left to dry in the sun just like they’ve done for hundreds of years. We had peat-burning stoves in our cottage, but luckily it wasn’t cold enough to use them.
Sheep and ponies roam around the island and tons of sea birds make their home on the cliffs. We soon learned that bonxies are appropriately named as the birds kept dive-bombing us when we walked too close to their nests.
Shetland was part of Denmark until the 1500s, so many of the place names and local dialect have a Norse feel to them. The islands were a stepping stone for the Vikings on their way to Greenland and Newfoundland. We came across a replica Viking ship rebuilt on the spot where a derelict one had been found, and we were able to climb on board and manipulate the oars.
We drove all over the island stopping to watch Shetland ponies and sheep. Later in the week we went down to the Mainland and had a great view of puffins by the Sumburgh lighthouse. We also watched modern-day weavers practice their craft and bought a few Shetland sweaters to take home.
Shetland has a lot of really cool archeological sites because it has been continuously inhabited for over 4,500 years in some spots. You would think the islands were too remote for anyone to want to live there, but they were important for many people at various points through time. Even the Romans sailed around Shetland at one point.
I think about the courage my grandmother must have had to leave almost 100 years ago for mainland Scotland. However, she didn’t stop there for very long and eventually wound up in Canada. The travel bug must be genetic!