Shetland Weather Update…

…again! Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. These last two weeks have been windy with gale to strong gale force winds and with a climax of “hurricane” winds. I could say, “Finally. Some decent Shetland weather.”

Photo: A tired little harbor seal resting from stormy seas

Surprisingly similar to mountain storms, there are some affects that are different. Several weeks ago, while on a very windy walk, we found a harbour seal lying on Bannaminn Beach. It was alive, but taken, and our first thoughts were that it was hurt; perhaps dying. We spoke with a local resident and, with the question of what should be done, he just said to leave it alone. We took the advice and continued.

The next morning, we went back to the beach expecting to find a seal cadaver near the water’s edge. We didn’t find it and supposed it was washed backed out to sea. But, we met the man and he explained that the seal took itself back out in the water soon after we had left it. It probably was just up on the beach to rest from the frothy windswept waters.

Since then, we’ve noticed the odd seal bobbing in high waves near beaches when it was very windy and the sea smashed against the shores. This last weekend was not exception. As we took walks, we saw the occasional seal in the surf. Just amazing how seals have adapted so well to bad weather and high waves and almost seem to have fun with this.

Photo: Playing tag with the waves at St. Ninians Beach

But, Shetland had heavy winds this last weekend. Seals or no seals, the waves were impressing and winds blew a body around as they pleased. These last few days, Shetland’s harbors have been full of safety seeking ships and boats sitting patiently for the winds to blow over and to return to their work. The winds created problems with a short power outage and boats have needed assistance. Vehicles had difficulties with staying on the roads. (see- Shetland News)

The wind has now died down to a normalcy. The weather is recruiting new surprises and it is expected to snow tonight. Ah…a new Shetland experience! (see- Shetland Weather Forecast)

Photo 1: Eshaness shoreline on Tuesday, as winds become angrier.

Photo 2: A Shetland pony asking us how we’re doing with the winds.

Photo 3: Ships finding shelter in the harbor at Symbister, Whalsay

Another Shetland Beach…

…that gives a long lasting impression to the islands is found at Quendale. On the southern mainland coastline, and not at all far from Sumburgh Airport, this gem of sandy beach stretches over an English mile (1.6 km) across the Bay of Quendale and is easliy accessed, not by the footpaths from A 970 nor the village of Hestingott, but via a short distance south of the quaint Quendale Mill Musuem.

Photo: The Quendale Beach stretches a mile along the bay

Historically, Quendale Beach wasn’t always as it looks like today. Over two hundred years ago, there is documentation of a sandy Sahara-like landscape that progressively fingered itself more and more inland each year. Due to the southerly Shetland winds, the sand covered good pasture land, making this area useless. There are accounts of how this “desert” was ruining the Quendale Kirk and its nearby graveyard. But, more about this later.

Apparently, the lairds at the time realized that, if nothing was to be done about the problem, they would have less and less land for pasture for their sheep. Greedily, they had grass planted and tended to for years in a successful attempt with stopping the sand from going further and saving precious pasturage for themselves.

Photo: Before planting grass, Quendale Beach stretched inland giving an impression of a desert

Today, the area behind Quendale Beach still show the scars of sand dunes, now covered with grass, and gives a small reflection to how the area may have been like years ago. The beach is delightful and this, as well as the Quendale Mill Museum, is a recommended place to visit when in Shetland.

Photo: Quendale Beach

How Does Shetland Salmon…

…get to my plate? A question not many of us have, as we may be seated in front of a plate of “Grilled Salmon with Hot Cheese Roulade”, “Char-broiled Salmon Steaks” or a classic “Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict. Still, having lived a landlocked life, it’s a question I’ve had in my head the many times I picked a plastic-wrapped piece of pink salmon meat out from the grocery cooler and toss it into my shopping cart.

Shetland salmon farm in North Atlantic waters

Shetland salmon farm in North Atlantic waters

The world’s wild salmon supply has been slowly depreciating through the years and has necessitated an increase in salmon farming. Already in the 1960’s, salmon farming was being introduced as a new form of rural business with new employment opportunities in Scotland and saw its potential grow in the mid-eighties. Parallel to this, and most recently, salmon was being hailed as a food high in vitamins and proteins and has become a recommended food for better health.

The fish first hatch as eggs, then grow to smolts in a freshwater environment the first 10-15 months. Later, they are placed in saltwater cages another 12-18 months to grow to a desirable harvesting weight of 3-4 kg. According to the Scottish Agriculture College, Scotland produces over 130,000 tons of salmon every year at a value of an estimated £300 million.

The Shetland Salmon Farming Association started in the mid 1980’s. Statistics show a membership of 46 salmon farms and 6 smolt hatcheries directly employing over 370 people. In 2003, Shetland farms produced over 59,000 tons of salmon at a value over £90 million.

Photo: Shetland salmon awaiting harvesting in saltwater cages

A Practical Experience

But, How does salmon really get to my plate? Recently, I had a first-hand educational opportunity to meet the people, see the work involved and understand some risks taken with harvesting salmon in the North Atlantic waters of Shetland. Together with a good friend, I headed out for a “something entirely different” adventure and found out how life as a salmon farmer can really be.

After an early 25 minute boat ride, the crew came to a barge with some 10 salmon cages. The barge was like a floating factory with its own electricity, powered by diesel generators, several silos full of many tons of fish food, dressing room, kitchen and all the equipment necessary to lift, haul or repair in a self-sustainable working atmosphere. Outside the windows were the fish cages, each covered with a thin netting to keep the birds from getting in. The barge had a modern computerized feeding center.

Photo:Underwater TV monitors reveal how the fish react during feeding

Using boats for short transportation rounds, the crew prepared for a harvesting this day. One man stayed inside the barge to direct and control feeding the cages through fingers of polyethylene pipes, floating out to each cage, and to keep a safe eye over the crew working outside.

Harvesting required the crew to stretch out a skimming net in the cage collecting some of the 54,000 fish. This net is a Shetland invention and allows a natural selectivity of sizes. With this done, the harvesting ship came and, with an large hose, sucked fish into its hold, passing a computerized counter which immediately weighed, counted and tallied this information on a computer. This way, the harvester knew how many and how heavy his load would be in order to fulfill the previously agreed sales contract. In our case this day, we had to skim the cage twice to deliver the needed amount.

Photo: A special Shetland net is used for a natural selection of fish

What I learned was that, while fish are harvested, they are introduced into colder water. The ocean water had a temperature of approx. +12C but, by putting them into +5C water, the fish move around less and are easier to handle later at the fish factory. I also learned that “consumer shelf-life” for fish, starts at the moment of harvesting. So it is imperative that fish are taken to the factory, cleaned, packed and distributed as quickly as possible for consumers (me) to get them as fresh as consumer laws allow.

Everyone in the crew must have a food and hygiene certification, since they are handling a consumable foodstuff. The fish must sustain a high consumer quality. Therefore, fish farming is constantly finger sensitive to disease and parasite control and this adds a greater responsibility on the shoulders of the crew and harvester. An example of this was when crew members immediately walked through a disinfecting bath before boarding the boat in the morning.

Then, I experienced and understood the risks involved for the crew. Immediately before leaving shore, life jackets and wet weather clothing were downed and kept on. With this particular cage, the crew worked on two polyethylene pipes about 80 cm apart and, with only one mistake, could slip into the ocean. I can personally guarantee that walking on this made me very very nervous. Especially knowing that the water was cold, 30 meters deep and risk of getting caught in netting seemed apparent.

Photo: A piece of kelp, poor boots or a wrong step working hurriedly can quickly put a worker into the sea

Fish feeding must be done daily and in all weather. One of the crew warned of the weather conditions. Once, when he was working another cage, a large ocean swell came from behind and hit him waist high. He held onto the cage for dear life so as not to be swept away. Thinking of the notorious Shetland gales, these men were becoming my saltwater heroes.

Summarizing, I learned a lot about how my salmon gets to my plate. I thoroughly enjoyed being with the crew that day and I have gained great respect for them working cages, the risks they take and their unique knowledge and experience. My experience was so positive and the crew members so Shetland friendly that I could think of going back and helping another day. An experience that will be considered every time I buy salmon at the groceries!

Photo: As I hang onto the cage, the harvester ship sails away with its load

Ocean Garbage…

…is a fact that inlanders hardly are aware of. Possibly, when visiting a coastline during vacation, through a television program or the isolated article in the local newspaper, people living away from salty shores may get a small insight of all the refuse and waste that exists in the oceans. It wasn’t until I started walking the shores along Shetland that the variety and amount of floating scrap became apparent, and I earlier wouldn’t or couldn’t conceive how the world is polluting the seas until coming to this tiny group of Atlantic islands.

And, the garbage is very real! While taking walks along a nearby part of Shetland’s shores, the beachcomber comes out in me. Eyes pointed downwards, I search the deposits of freshly washed up kelp for some special seashell, piece of wood, hunk of amber or rare maritime artifact but, after a short time, realize that a large percentage of beached debris is manmade polyethylene.

The garbage becomes more apparent as I glance higher up along the beach or shore, where many years of accumulated crap can be found. It’s mind-boggling with the ropes and netting material, plastic containers and water bottles that are pushed on shore or slowly disappearing into the sands. One distressing thought is the seals, dolphins or birds that can, and do, get tangled into this junk.

Occasionally, I can consider who’s to blame for this mess. It isn’t Shetland’s fault that somebody else’s garbage blows up on its shoreline! It’s hardly the fault of the people visiting the beaches, though in some cases the odd soda can or forgotten shoe can be had. And, can one really blame the ships or fishing vessels out to sea, when fighting heavy winds as their fishing nets are torn away or loose equipment wash overboard?

If I remember right, about three times more garbage is thrown into the seas than the amount of fish taken. And, there is so much debate about EU fishing quotas and so little said about keeping the ocean clean…? It just seems baffling. Where are the champions for keeping our oceans clean?
Photo:Meal Beach

In an attempt to suggest something positive, I want to highlight that Shetland sets aside time and money to clean-up its shores. Each year, residents are invited to participate in a road and shore clean-up and literally hundreds take time to handpick scrap off of the beaches etc. The council provides and allocates funds for pick-up and hauling of the collected garbage.

I think this is commendable! Both the council and especially the volunteers need to be patted on their backs for this great effort. Unfortunately, the crap keeps blowing in from the seas at a regular pace and almost defeats the purpose.

Think, if more and more of us would refuse using non-degradable polyethylene where possible? One idea that I try to practice, is to pick-up some beach scrap and carry it home for disposal each time I go for a walk. Think if everyone did this as they visit Shetland’s shoreline? Could be a great habit and good idea?

Here It Has Stood…

This, the soldier of strength,
This, the gatekeeper of Mousa Sound.
This, the sentinel of Shetland
Watching over its destiny… its past.
No lime, nor cement, nor earth, sand and water.
Dry stone built, with precision and intent.

Thirteen meters of ancient architecture…
The wind still whistles around its kiln-like tower
And the rains still cut into its moss covered shell
The sun still pushes on its back, its side, its front
And it still stands as it has…for 20 centuries

The shadows who gave it birth,
Who breathed life into it,
Stone after stone after stone
Worn, heavy with sweat and anticipation
Are nearby, yet, have journeyed onwards… elsewhere.

This tower, this broch of Mousa Isle
Solid, daring, watching, remembering
So many, many lives
Once warming, once sheltering…protecting
Now tolerant, patient, reliant
Inviting in its secrets
Forever, standing guard over its waters

Shetland Has Sandy Beaches…

…that probably could make a few world-renowned vacation spots green with jealousy. Shetland has sandy, pebble and boulder beaches that can be found along some 1500 km of coastline. All depending upon your choice, there are patches of different beach to be had for that special outing and a day’s relaxation.

Just this year, four Shetland beaches have been awarded the prestigious Blue Flag Award by Keep Scotland Beautiful, a charitable organization to improve and sustain the environment of Scotland through a variety of projects. Three beaches on Shetland, Sands of Breckon on Yell, Tresta on Fetlar and West Voe are new to the awards, but a recurring award winner is the tombola-style beach at St. Ninian’s Isle. The largest in Great Britain with a length of appxm. 500 meters.

Photo: The beach at St. Ninian’s Isle stretches eastwards towards mainland Shetland

When driving to the St. Ninian’s Isle parking lot, just below the village of Bigton on the western coastline of south mainland, the beach stretches itself out towards the island with ocean waters on both sides. A tombola is a small spit of land or beach connecting an island with its mainland. St. Ninian’s beach size became even more greater and impressive as one advances towards and starts walking on the beige-white sand.

St. Ninian’s Isle itself is an archaeological object of interest. By its name, the isle has a Christian tone to it, but evidence of Neolithic graves have been found underneath and within the walls of a 12th century chapel on the island. It was this same chapel that the so-called St. Ninian Treasure, a collection of silver broaches and ornaments from Viking times, was found under a stone slab during an archaeological investigation in 1958.

Photo: Remnants of 12th century chapel at St. Ninian's Isle, Shetland

Photo: Remnants of 12th century chapel at St. Ninian's Isle, Shetland

Photo: St. Ninian’s Isle Beach stretches towards the island itself

Well worth a visit, don’t you think?

Shetland Weather…

…is brutally renowned for forceful North Sea winds and walls of rain showers tearing into the tiny islands and its inhabitants. Ever since we arrived, locals have made shrugging comments with slight intonations of apologies for a lesser attractive climate.

But, this year has proven this rule to be temporarily wrong. As locals speak of the damp windy weather of Shetland, their eyes can light up and add “…but May was super”! Media has commented that this last July has been the warmest since 1904 and spreading rumor is pronouncing a Shetland summer better than can ever be remembered.

Yes, we’ve had wind and rain! And, no, the temperatures haven’t hit the high twenties in Shetland. But, we’ve had many memorable sunny walks and fantastic sunny mornings and have really enjoyed the privilege of two white sandy beaches near our house and a nearby Atlantic coastline.

Perhaps normality will return as we venture closer into the fall. Perhaps we’ll experience normal Shetland weather soon or blog about how wet the days are later. But, until then, allow me to show panoramic Shetland pictures from our afternoon walk today. Enjoy!

Photo 1: WHALE WICK, where we often pass on walks

Photo 2: Almost an image of Padjelanta…RUFF LOCH.

Photo 3: More than 20 miles west of Burra Isle and often lost in the mist, FOULA shows itself to the mainland.

PS– Sorry, Anna! You’re in our thoughts!

It’s Harvest Time in Shetland…

…and farmers are reaping in their efforts from the past growing season. We are into the middle of cutting and making hay and, when the dry wind is blowing together with the warm sun we’ve had these last two weeks, the weather has been friendly for this work. Our neighbours cut hay the old fashion way with a scythe (en lie), cutting small patches of field one at at time. Then, they let the grass stay on the ground to dry in the wind/sun, turning this over occasionally in the process. Sometimes, the hay can be piled onto pyramid-like frames to dry, covered with a fishnet to prevent the hay from blowing off.

Photo: Making hay while the sun shines on Shetland

And, harvest time on Shetland means arranging agriculture fairs. These give an opportunity for everyone to show what they have been working with, be judged for quality of agricultural produce and definitely enjoy a good time.

We went to the “Voe Show”, as it was called, and had an immensely fun day. Perhaps because of the great weather, but more definite because of everything to see and do at this fair. For myself, having roots with county fairs in Ohio, I really get a kick out of seeing all the animals and produce as well as I’m impressed by the hard work everyone does and the pride they show in every example shown. It brings the “farmer” out in me.

Let’s just show some simple pictures from Voe’s agricultural show and try to imagine how it was…

Photo1:A curious Shetland pony

Photo2:Shetland fleece judged for its quality

Photo3:Examples of Shetland shawl competition and superb handknitted quality

Photo4:A Shetland Blackface ram

Photo5:The egg competition was more than expected

Photo6:Live entertainment and great fun for everyone

PS– Next weekend- The Walls Agricultural Show!

Shetland Heritage Attractions…

…can often take form in local heritage centers and museums, which are easily found by visitors and openly advertised in Shetland brochures, tourist websites and local networking. Experiencing these places have often proved impressive, such as our earlier visit to Quendale Mill. Needless to say, our short discovery trip to the second largest Shetland island, Yell, and to Britain’s most northerly inhabited island, Unst.

Shetland Ferry Service
Obviously, getting from the mainland to these islands require using the inter-island ferry system. The ferries are the responsibility of the Shetland Island Council (SIC), which maintain a fleet of some 12 ferries with services between all inhabited islands. More information can be had at Inter Island Ferry Service.

Photo: The ferry to Unst coming in to Gutcher Pier

As for the degree or quality of this service, I asked a vacationing employee on Yell about this. His reply was that the council’s intention was to provide the absolute best ferry service possible to Shetland citizens. At any time on any day, the ferries can be booked. With this I asked, What about 3 am on January 2, for example? His comment was, book a few days beforehand and the ferry will be ready to give service at this time on this day!

After having used the ferries to the northern islands, The Shetland Inter Ferry Service keeps time, has clean and well-maintained ferries and gives smooth boarding with pleasant service from staff.

Unst Heritage Center
The Unst Heritage Center is an example of local community effort with exploring, maintaining and exhibiting local history, culture and identity. A small building in the village of Haroldswick, the Heritage Center exhibits the crofting culture of Unst as well as glimpses of historical matters and how people and services were the village and Unst.

The attendant, or host for the heritage center, was an exceptional resource of information. She readily supplied answers to visitor questions, but even provided more information or news to similar subjects. We learned of an easier way to see Muckle Flugga lighthouse, that there was to be sheep shearing later that evening and that there was to be a traditional music and slideshow event given at the Public Hall in Uyeasound. The little “extra effort” that most visitors appreciate.

Photo: An example of a traditional crofters house interior. Notice the details and the life-like “lady of the croft”.

The exhibition was very thorough in content and ranged from Unst geology to relics from an earlier post office and school environment. I personally was impressed with the details found with a life-like model of a crofthouse interior, where one could almost walk inside and shake the hand of the “lady of the croft” sitting next to her warming fire.

Later, we found a great B&B called Prestegaard in Uyeasound and attended the gathering at the Public Hall, where we listened to a superb group of teenagers playing traditional folk music and watched a slideshow. We were personally served with tea and cakes as a small boy went around and collected donations to a cancer fund project the community was supporting. All volunteer work!

In the morning, we visited the nearby Muness Castle of Unst. What would Scotland, or even Shetland, be without derelict castles. This exceptionally interesting attraction was open to visitors, free and very visitor friendly. Great fun for everyone with an imagination for history!

Burravoe’s “Old Haa”
The next day, after the ferry ride back to Yell, we drove a side road past “The White Wife” and onwards stopping at “The Old Haa” in Burravoe. Again, like so many other places on Shetland, this was a local community effort and attraction and centered its exhibit on local whaling history and sailing as a compliment to crofting. Interestingly, Shetlanders would sail through the years to Greenland and Antarctica to search for whales in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the exhibition should tools and implements for this work together with whale, seal and otter displays.

Photo: Whaling tools, memorabilia etc. exhibited at “The Old Haa”, Burravoe

Again, as most Shetland heritage places, coffee could be bought and we took our cups outside to the back garden where we sat in the warm sun and let our eyes glance over a greatly appeasing array of flowers along the stone wall.

Photo: The back garden of “The Old Haa”, Burravoe

After having visited several heritage centers or museums, I have been immensely impressed by the details and degree of work that has been invested in these places. After asking, I found that some of the staff are employed on a seasonal basis but that most work is done voluntarily by citizens. The upkeep and maintenance, or even the actual start-up costs for the buildings, are subsidized by the Shetland Council, Shetland Amenity Trust etc. in some way or another. Economically, it seems apparent that Shetland prioritizes needs and wishes for its citizens and show support for local ventures and development. Could this be an example for other places in the world?

I want to congratulate and honor all the volunteers that are involved with and have developed these places. They do amazing work and which tourists and visitors really enjoy but, also, the local community has pleasure in and learns so much of the past with.

Extra– visual aids from Unst and Yell-
Photo: Wine cellar of Muness Castle

Photo: A xylophone boat to occupy one’s time while waiting for the ferry at Belmont, Unst

Photo: Shetland beach flowers