West Side Story

There may not be many Sharks in the waters around Shetland, and precious few Jets frequent the runways at Sumburgh, but West Side Story seems to be a pretty good summary of the last few weeks on Shetland.

Old Coastguard Lookout at Gloup Ness
My intention had been to spend time exploring the northern extremities of Shetland.  I did get as far far north as Gloup Ness at the top end of Yell, but I've spent more time exploring the west edges of Shetland.

I've revisited Eshaness, I've been back to Sandness, I've explored the far side of St Ninian's Isle and Fitful Head and I've walked at Fulga Ness and around Banna Minn.  And of course I've spent time wandering Scatness.

One of the encouragements to venture west is the ever-changing Shetland weather.  Rather strangely over the last couple of weeks the winds on Shetland have been very light, and it’s been rather easier than usual to walk some of the cliffs without fear of being buffeted over the edge.

The west side of Shetland is traditionally the ‘exposed’ side – the houses are usually oriented so that the door (often only one so that a through draught can’t cause havoc inside) is on the more sheltered east side.   These western locations are also often very sparsely populated, and in some cases are just sites for lookout posts or a light houses, encouraging passing shipping to keep well away.  The wild winds and the churning seas (carried the full power of the Atlantic Ocean along with them) have over the millennia blasted away any fragile rocks or vegetation, and every location is characterised by a storm-bound beauty.

Eshaness.  The poster child of Shetland.  Eshaness regularly pops up when a dramatic Shetland cliff-scape is required.  The dumpy little lighthouse doesn’t need to be any bigger, it stands at the edge of a high cliff looking straight out to sea.

Fugla Ness

Fugla Ness. There are lots of light houses around the Shetland coastline.  The well-known ones, the major lights, are the lighthouses at Sumburgh or Eshaness or Muckle Flugga.  There are also a series of minor lights dotted around the coast too.

On Fugla Ness, one of the minor lights marks the route into Hamna Voe.

Banna Minn
Banna Minn.  At the southern end of the Burras, the narrow finger-shaped islands on the west side of Shetland, is the long curved sheltered beach at Banna Minn, the island on the south end of the beach includes one of the traditional Shetland boat-houses, a common 'second use' for boats that had passed beyond seafaring.

St Ninian's tombolo at low tide

St Ninian’s Isle.  A little south of the Burras is another of Shetlands iconic coast scenes, the tombolo at St Ninian’s Isle.  When the tide is high the island become a real island, at low tides the double-sided beach offers waves from both north and south.  If you venture round to the far side of St Ninian’s you’ll get a glimpse of a more rugged side of the island.  The rocks fend off the waves that roll in from the Atlantic, the next bit of land to the west is the southern tip of Greenland about 1400 miles away.

Scat Ness
Scatness. The southwest corner of Shetland, Scat Ness had traces of habitation back over 2000 years, and standing here with only the sea birds, seals and the occasional otter for company, it’s not hard to imagine that the landscape hasn't changed much over that time.  Over the years a few walls, and small stone enclosures (called planticrubs) have been built, but the coast line probably hasn’t seen too many changes.

There are more of these images online on Flickr, and they will also be part of my exhibition during Oxford Artweeks in the second half of May.

Adding to the blog

I've been building this site for about 10 years, over that time it's evolved from a place to just post pictures to having lots of thoughts and observations about travel and photography, and posts about the places I've visited.  There are now over 600 posts and despite the Labels block on the left hand side, it's not alway easy to find things.

So, I've now added a couple of extra areas to the site - there are links in the page header.

Place Notes.  These are notes about the logistics about getting to some of the places I've been to over the past few years.  Currently there are notes about the Arctic and Antarctic places I've been to and links to blog posts about the areas.

Popular Posts.  There's also a list of some of the more popular posts on the blog.

And I've added a new header too - this one is of Sumburgh Head in Shetland Islands taken from Scat Ness.

Changing Islands

Framing the Story
In the second-half of May I'll be showing pictures at Oxford Artweeks.

I've regularly visited - and sometime bought at - other peoples exhibits at Artweeks in past years, but this is the first time I've committed to doing my own show.

One of the challenges in putting any collection together is finding a theme.  At one level it's tempting to go with 'Really Nice Pictures I Have Taken' or 'Nice Places I've Been To', but while these might satisfy the photographer or artist putting the exhibition together it doesn't really do much for the visitor pitching up to see the pictures.

As I've been pulling together images for the exhibition, and based on experiences at the Jam Factory I'm going to have images in a range of sizes from 6 x 9 inches up to A1 (23 x 33 inches), I've been thinking about themes or stories that are going to mean something to people coming to look at the images

A while ago I decided that the broad theme was going to be "Islands", but within that I keep coming back to the idea of change within the various islands I've visited over the last few years.  On many of the islands I've visited there is a tension between traditional activities and change.  

On South Georgia the change at this point is all about habitat restoration. 

Orca - never a whalers target, and still
common around South Georgia
The island of South Georgia was discovered (probably) in the 17th Century, but it didn't really make it onto the radar until the early 19th Century when it was regarded as a resource to be exploited - over about 100 years sealers and whalers did their best to kill pretty much all the (mammal) wildlife either on the island and in the waters around it.  And the reality is that they didn't stop until it became uneconomic to carry on. 

Once the exploitation stopped the whalers (who were the last to leave), just abandoned the islands and went back home.  In recent years the push has been to help the indigenous wildlife recover.

The fur seals, who were driven close to extinction, have now reclaimed the islands and the beaches, and the penguins have also recovered very significantly.  The whale populations haven't recovered, and despite the recent move to out-law commercial whaling in the Antarctic (under any label) it's unlikely that the whale population will ever recover to the level it was at in the early part of the 20th Century.   On land, however, work is underway to return the island to close to its original state. 

Abandoned whaling station, Stromness Bay
Several of the whaling stations have been cleared completely, others have essentially been 'made safe', and the process of rewilding is happening.  

Rats were introduced pretty much as soon as ships reached the island, and over many decades had caused great damage to ground nesting birds (in SG, trees are pretty thin on the ground, so ground nesting is a big deal).  Over the last few years a project has been under-way to spread poison across the island to attempt to eradicate the rat population. There is limited window to do this work, which is only logisically possible because the island is currently divided, by glaciers, into manageable zones. Once global warming has forced the glaciers to retreat from the coastline, rats would have run of the island and any attempt at eradication would have been fruitless.  

Reindeer, Ocean Harbour on South Georgia
The second big project was to tackle a rather larger introduced species, reindeer.  In the early 20th Century Norwegian whalers introduced reindeer to provide meat at the whaling stations.  The landscape suited reindeer well, and when the whalers finally left in the 1960s the reindeer remained, and until recently roamed freely across the island.  At one level there was probably a temptation to leave them alone (killing 'Rudolph' is a harder sell than announcing that rat eradiction is underway), but the increasing population was doing significant damage to the endemic plants so it was decided that it was the right time to cull the herd and allow the island to recover.

I'm interested to see how far it's going to be possible to return South Georgia to its original state - there are relatively few places in the word where this is even possible, South Georgia might be one of them.

Up Helly Aa, Lerwick
In the Shetland Islands change has been a pretty common theme over the centuries. The islands, unlike South Georgia where there is no resident human population, have been populated for over 6000 years, and over that time have seen many changes.  It's not clear what how rapid the changes were for the first 5000 years, but over the last 1000 they have been significant and accelerating.  The Vikings undoubtedly 'encouraged' some changes (still celebrated in Up Helly Aa each winter).  There was a fairly serious tussle between Norway and Scotland over ownership and Hanseatic traders were a big deal across the North Sea throughout the 17th Century, including allowing Shetlanders to become traders for the first time.  

After 1707 there were still more changes. The blocking of Hanseatic trade brought significant depression to Shetland, as did the constant switching of land ownership and the occasional suggestion that Shetland should return to being a part of Norway.  

Shetlanders have historically relied on the sea as, at least, a major part of their livelihood and that continued right through until the mid-1960s when the final few Shetlanders stopped doing the regular trips down to South Georgia for the whaling, and oil became a major aspect of Shetland life.

Oil brought huge changes to Shetland.  It brought many incomers to the islands, the population jumped by about 5000 in a relatively short period of time, and many of these incomers (Sooth Moothers, since they arrive on the ferry through the South Mouth of Bressay Sound) and their families have stayed.  The oil also brought huge amounts of development to the islands, from roads, to health centres, to leisure centres.  

Camouflaged accommodation barge, Lerwick Harbour
At the moment there is further wave of construction work underway to develop infrastructure around gas extraction in the North Sea off Shetland.  That's brought a mini-boom all of its own.  A new hotel has been built up near the new gas plant, and it feels like every harbour is filled with floating accommodation for the construction teams.  

Not everyone is happy about the huge influx of temporary workers, but any anxiety around this is as nothing compared to the tensions around the proposed development of wind farms on Shetland. 

Burradale Wind Farm
There are a limited number of solitary wind turbines around the islands  mostly powering single houses or farms, and one slightly more substantial wind farm (with five turbines) at Burradale just outside Lerwick.  The tensions surround a proposal to build a wind farm with over 100 turbines about 15 miles north of Lerwick.  This proposal has divided the island community and is being chased up and down the Scottish legal system at the moment.  The other energy source that being explored, to take the place of oil and gas, is wave power.

Plenty of power in the Shetland Waves
Shetland has plenty of wind, it's probably the weather feature that the visitor first notices when the car door gets ripped from their grip.  The other natural, renewable, resource that Shetland has in abundance is wave and tide power. There is due to be an experimental wave turbine tested off the west side of Shetland, it certainly won't be as obvious as the wind turbines are but it is based on experimental technology. In the last couple of days I've also read about a suggestion that a hybrid bridge-tidal-turbine could be constructed across Bluemell Sound between Yell and Unst at the northern end of Shetland.

I think it's fairly inevitable that as oil and gas production ramp down we will see renewable resources come further to the fore.  I wouldn't like to bet on whether that's going to be based on wind or water, but whichever it is, I'm guessing it's going to involve more change on Shetland.