This part of the tour has taken me the farthest North I have been in Scotland and to a place I have always longed to visit; Shetland. To make the most out of the trip I decided to take 5 days to explore the island and deliver two workshops, one in Lerwick and one in Unst. However, travelling this far north has meant that having a regular internet connetion (even with my fabby dongle) has been very limited. When I did find a free connection I was blocked from accessing wordpress, hence the full five days documented here for this single post.
Friday: I set off first thing on Friday morning, heading out to the Inverness Airport to hopefully catch my flight to Sumburgh. News reports of the second Volcanic Ash cloud and temporary No Flight Zones across the North and West coasts of Scotland had me worried, but thankfully the airport was open and I was checked in and ready to go. It was a tiny plane, not what I was used to when travelling back and forward from Hong Kong to Scotland when I was younger in jumbo jets, this jet was three seats wide and you could pretty much see the cockpit, I should definately travel like this more often. As we sat waiting for the plane to take off we were introduced to the Captain, who regrettably had to inform us of a delay in our departure, the ash had struck again! We were however comforted with the news that at the height we would be flying the ash would have no affect on us whatsoever, the delay was due to the fact that air traffic control was too busy sorting out the flight paths of the ‘Big Boys’ (as the Captain explained) and their delays and reschedules. So we waited on the tarmac for about 45 minutes before finally recieveing the ‘Go Ahead’ we’d been waiting for.
In a sense this flight was more like an aero-bus, stopping off in Kirkwall to drop some travellers off and to pick up a couple along the way. This stop over in Kirkwall however meant that we were grounded and needed air traffic control once again to give us a time to take off – and surprise, surprise, they were too busy to deal with our plane. So we sat on the tarmac once again, this time for about an hour, before the Captain took the executive decision to fly across to Sumbrugh anyway. It wasn’t until we were about 5 minutes into the journey that I realised what that meant; it meant flying at 2000 feet above sea level. What an incredible way to fly, a beautiful sunny day, the waves crashing below and a clear path to Sumburgh, hurrah!
I arrived in Sumburgh about 2 hours later then planned, and unfortunately the lad who was greeting me to drive me out to where I could collect the car I’d hired, had had to wait around for an extra hour in the airport! But he wasn’t bothered, he liked being around planes, and was saving up enough money to pay is his way through Flight School in the States. On collecting the car, I drove around a little, getting lost, no surprise there. But I eventually found the sign posts marked ‘Lerwick’ and set off along the winding and mountainous cliff tops towards Shetlands main town.
Lerwick grew out of the fishing trade and still has a functioning harbour port. I decided to take a stroll along Commercial Street to take in the atmosphere, and found a fantastic crafty shop along the main drag called the Peerie Shop. A peek in there and I saw a decidedly inviting cafe, that promised a hot cup of tea and a bite to eat. I was due to meet with the lovely people at Shetland Arts at 3pm so a fresh Shetland salmon bagel and cream cheese would tie me over until then.
I went to meet with Mary Smith, who I found out was the founder of the Bonhoga Gallery, and gave me a fascinating insight into the world of arts and culture in Shetland as well as invaluable local insight on where to visit and what to see while I was here. Most exciting is the Arts Centre that is currently being built down by the Shetland Museum, to be called The Mareel – Shetland Arts’ New Venue and opening in 2011, this will be a cinema, music and education venue, looking out over Lerwicks waterfront. I picked up a map with a representation of what the venue will look like, and I have to say I am really jealous, it will be a fabulous complex for locals and visitors alike, and once again reaffirm Shetland’s place within the Arts and Cultural sector, not that it really needs a boost. (It also begs another trip to Shetland – perhaps one that falls during the Tall Ship races next spring!)
After my meeting with Shetland Arts I took myself off to find the B&B I’d booked, and lucky me, it was so central, Commercial Street was literally within a stones throw away. After dropping off a bag heavier then myself, I decide to take a stroll through Lerwick, dropped into the Islesburgh Community Centre, where I was doing the workshop the next day, and then found somewhere for a bite to eat. I have to say though, I was a little disappointed with the choice, or rather lack of choice, of somewhere to eat, Chinese, Chinese or extortionate prices. Eventually settled on an Italian bistro, had my fill and headed back to get some rest before the first workshop on Saturday.
Saturday: Up early and along to the Islesburgh Community Centre to set up for the workshop. Had a great big room with a fab projector (I really am such a geek!), and just waited for everyone to arrive. The Lerwick workshop had been fully booked, and thankfully one person had contacted me earlier to say they couldn’t attend so I was able to accommodate for a late booking on Thursday afternoon. But as always I had lost some people along the way, so eventually we had a good size group of 18 people.
What is great about these sessions is the variety of people who attend; we had jewelry designers, crafty sorts, someone from a heritage group and a photographer, just to name a few. The conversation got a little excited over the values of Social Media, and I am beginning to realise that I might be fighting a ‘social’ battle here, but I was able to explain the true value of using platforms like Facebook and Twitter, reminding people to have their professional, rather then personal, hats on when thinking about how social media can benefit and expand your potential audience. While my Chewbacca example might not have gone down well, the brilliant Peakcock Visual Arts facebook page told a different story, demonstrating not only the best way to be using facebook to promote what you do, but how to engage people, and give them a voice, not only within the organisation itself, but over the controversial Union Square debate.
It was a beautiful day outside, and everyone had their own Saturday afternoon things to do. So I took the opportunity to drop into the North Rock Gallery. The North Rock has become a bit infamous in the HI-Arts office, as my colleagues and I love their facebook page and all the beautiful arty items that they sell. So I popped into have an actual look for myself. The gallery itself sells all sorts of local craft and art, and luckily while I was there I not only got to see the incredible photography of Mark Sinclair I also got to meet him too. Mark and his wife set up the North Rock Gallery about a year ago, and it really is a family affair, with his sister working there at weekends and window dressing the downstairs shop. I tried to convince the both of them to set up a North Rock in Inverness, but what with a small family, Mark didn’t seem convinced!
After pottering around the gallery for a while I then headed out to the Shetland Museum and Archive. What a beautifully designed and set out museum this is, I highly recommend this as a visit if you are ever in Lerwick. Aside from its setting against the waterfront and harbour, there is a real life boat yard within the building and a fascinating and interactive tour through the ages of Shetland.
I also stumbled upon their latest exhibition from the artists Frances Pelly and John Cumming; Da Gadderie. Both studied at Scottish Art Colleges in the 1960s and focused their attention on sculpture and ceramics at a time when the discipline of drawing dominated most art students timetables. Both were interested in island culture and traditional craftmanship, which led to this joint exhibition, which has been on show at the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney and the Bonhoga Gallery here in Shetland. The exhibition itself comprised of figurative and abstract sculptures, relief panels of clay, stone, plaster, wood and paper, and are clearly influenced by the natural environment from which Cumming originated (Burra, Shetland) and Pelly’s influences from Orkney, Aberdeen and Norway. The overall exhibition was one of retrospection, to give the viewer a sense of their achievements in the contemporary world of sculpture, a beautifully curated exhibition, it was a great introduction into what I could expect while exploring the island of Shetland.
Sunday was spent exploring Lerwick. First thing I set off, after a hefty Scottish breakfast, along the coast walk through Lerwick. It was a fabulous day and a pleasant walk, I even got to see my first wild seals, and sat to watch them sun bathe on the rocks, if only I could join them! I then hopped into the car and drove off south to see the famous St. Ninians Isle. Stopping for a well deserved cuppa and scone in the St. Ninians Cafe/Gallery, the other customers and I were regaled with stories of ghostly Alsatian dogs (best go there yourself to get the full story – and it’s definitely worth the punch line). The drive down to the Isle itself was spectacular, and when it opened up to reveal this beautiful natural sand causeway, I was in awe.
I also made a new friend, who after sniffing my shoes and following me across the Isle I decided to call her Ninian. The black collie followed me all the way across the causeway and over the hill on the other side before abandoning me for her owners (animals are so fickle). Up until I started to make my way back across the causeway the weather had been great, sunny but not particularly warm, now it was cold, windy and hailing! I have come to realise that Shetland weather most definitely suffers from Split Personality Syndrome. Cheeks rosy and eyes streaming I managed to fight the gale back to the comfort of the car. I then took off back towards Lerwick, but not before stopping in Hoswick for a cup of tea at the local tourist centre, and then stopping, albeit very briefly to see the Scalloway Castle. Scalloway was the ancient capital of Shetland, and sits further south then Lerwick does, right along the west coast. By this time it was absolutely piddling it down, and getting windier and colder by the minute. It is an interesting experience when you have to be constantly steering slightly to the left when driving just to counter the wind and stay driving straight along the road. It was fast approaching dinner time, had a bite to eat in Lerwick, once again slightly disappointed, and then much needed zzz’s.
Monday: Up super early this morning to travel up to Unst, the farthest Northern inhabited island in Scotland. Two ferries and a 2 hour drive, I’d hoped to stop in at the Bonhoga Gallery, if it hadn’t been for the fact that it closes on a Monday. But I was lucky enough to meet Andy Ross of the Centre for the Creative Industries in Yell, at the Wind Dog Cafe.
After a couple cups of tea (this trip is quickly shaping up to be a Tea tour of Shetland), I then boarded the second ferry of the day to Unst. Unst not only has the farthest Northern post office in the UK, it is also home to the farthest Northern operational lighthouse in the UK. Both of which I got to see, the second requiring me to take a trip up a very steep mountain, ignore the big NO Trespasser’s signs from the MOD (although they no longer have
operations here there is still all the signage and most of the homes and military buildings), and traverse across the bog (converse trainers, wet, boggy, grass, sheep and scary looking birds – not the best idea I’ve had) but well worth it, for the views out towards Muckle Flugga and across Unst were incredible!
Oh, did I mention that in between the spells of sunshine I was blasted with rain, hail and snow! Yes, snow, in the middle of May. While having a bite to eat in the ‘Last Checkout’ shop and cafe (loved the name all the more for knowing that it is in fact the last checkout if your traveling further north), the locals were all explaining how this time last year it was sun, sun, sun, and were not impressed with the snow and hail showers we were all being pummeled with. But then I guess that’s the kind of weather you have to expect when you are an island so exposed to the Atlantic and North Seas.
While exploring Unst I was practically jumping up and down when I came across the Unst Bus Shetler, the most luxurious bus stop ever. Covered in bright orange, the computer might be uber retro, the phone might not be plugged in anywhere, but the inviting Sheeps wool cover, Irn Bru posters and dainty orange and yellow flowers definitely makes this the most welcoming and beautiful bus stop I’ve ever seen. It’s taken many different guises since local schoolboy Bobby Maculay started to add bits a bobs to make the shelter a little more inviting. The Shetler has been featured in numerous magazines, newspapers and radio, and was voted the best bus shelter in Britian by Buses Magazine. What was equally endearing was the small memorial plaque just infront of the bus shelters traffic island…(see the photo below).
While I am in Unst I’ll be delivering a second workshop at Saxa Vord, and old military compound that has been turned into self-catering chalets and a hostel. Although basic, the people here are amazing, had a great chat this afternoon with Rose, the housekeeper, who on finding out I hadn’t any tea bags disappeared and returned with a whole cup full of them and some milk for me, ‘least I catch cold this evening’!
Tuesday: Up early this morning to help set up the dining room for the workshop today. Unfortunately I’d had a number of cancellations, but as I had no internet access I wasn’t to know this until later in the morning, when people started to arrive. It definitely made me realise just how reliant I am on the internet and my mobile phone, and while it was liberating not being contactable or able to contact anyone, there were still the downsides. (I was told later that day that if I walked around the back of the building down towards the bus shelter on the other side of the hill, and stood behind this with the phone pointing towards the South, I would in fact receive O2 signal.) So we were a smallish group this morning and it was a more relaxed affair. Again the conversation only really got going when social media was introduced into the mix, this time concerns over privacy was most prevalent on people’s minds. There appear to be a lot of concerns over using social media, and the access that these platforms seem to have into our personal lives, but remember the Facebook’s, Twitter’s and Bebo’s of this world only hold the information you give it, they can’t read your inner thoughts and secrets, don’t share what you don’t want people to know. But again it’s incredibly important to know what level of privacy these platforms offer, and I will be investigating further the privacy issues surrounding social media in a later blog post.
After the workshop was finished and I’d bought some Unst Bus Station fudge (vanilla and orange – yum), I then had the long journey back to Lerwick, and then onto my last B&B in Levenwick.
On Wednesday morning I was up and out by 6.45am to be at the airport for my flight back to Inverness. I had an excellent week in Shetland and feel I have been granted a privilege of working with the local artists, makers and practitioners of the arts and cultural sector here. It is an amazing array of Islands, with an enterprising, independent and self-reliant community, a group of people in which we can all learn from when it comes to getting things done. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, and all the wonderful people I met along the way. A couple of things really struck me on my return to the mainland, firstly that there were no tress anywhere in Shetland, it really is a rocky and barren island, although there are some fantastic sites, cliff tops, natural causeways, mountains and lochs, it really is the richness and diversity of the local communities which make Shetland a fantastic place to visit. I was also overwhelmed with the sense of distance, especially when I was in Unst, I felt really far away, it felt isolating and remote, even though I have visited remote communities across the Highlands, here in Unst, with a plane journey, drive up to the top of ‘mainland Shetland’, two ferries and a further drive all the way across the Island of Unst, you have a physical sense of the distance between you and your home, but also the distance between you and anyone else. Standing atop of Saxa Vord looking down and out over Unst, I really then began to appreciate and respect the communities and individuals who have made their lives here and welcome travelers and visitors as if they were one of their own.