Shetland January 2012

After very relaxed three Christmassy weeks in Oxford, it was time to head back to the south end of Shetland.  As you might expect at this time of year there was lots of weather about, ranging from relatively warm dry weather, via pretty serious winds accompanied by horizontal rain, sleet and hail, through to bitterly cold clear weather.

These different weathers provided incentive to do different things.  The winds bring both dramatic waves to the cliffs and beaches and interesting ships to harbour seeking shelter.  The sea can be particularly photogenic (from the shore at least) in the days just after a big storm when there is still lots of energy in the waves, but it can be accompanied by good light.

The cold clear weather can provide mirror flat lochs and lakes just crying out to be photographed. And if the weather is wet and windy, with low clouds and rubbish visibility there is incentive to stay inside in the warm and work on photographs and words from other trips.

The cold clear weather also brings the tantalising possibility that the Northern Lights might put in an appearance.  The odds on seeing the aurora are better in Shetland than anywhere else in the UK, but a good aurora forecast still sets local media (both traditional and online) buzzing. Late January this year was marked by lots of sun spot activity, which led to quite a lot of aurora activity, including a couple of days when the aurora was directly over Shetland, rather than being far off to the North.  And on one of these days the clouds cooperated too, clearing away for about 40 minutes late one evening at the south of Shetland, and providing a magnificent view of the Northern Lights.  After standing watching for a few minutes, nearly speechless (I wasn't actually speechless, but I was struggling to describe what I was seeing to my other half over the phone without going 'wow' every other word), I did finally have the wit to say that I needed to stop talking and take some pictures.  Once I got round to sharing the images via twitter I got requests from both SkyNews and STV News to use the pictures online and on their TV broadcasts.  One of the interesting aspects of my aurora watching was the role of online media, particularly twitter, both for sharing photographs after the event, but also for tracking what was happening during the evening as the aurora started to become visible. The aurora watching was very much a community activity.

The one thing I needed to miss out on in Shetland this January was the extra-ordinary event that is Up Helly Aa.  This fire festival is held on the last Tuesday in January each year, and is the chance for Shetlanders to get in touch with their inner Viking, to dress-up in clothes both traditional and esoteric and to spend the best part of 24 hours getting wasted in the 'Halls' of Lerwick.  I've been on Shetland on the day after Up Helly Aa, and the only sound you hear is the wind (and people going "shhh" as you walk past the doors of their houses).

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