To The North!

Through a glacial, U-shaped valley (probably).

Today I traveled to the northernmost part of the UK: the island of Unst at the top of the Shetland Isles.  Despite having lived in Shetland my whole life I don’t recall ever visiting Unst, though apparently I had been before when I was really young.  Getting to Unst is a bit of a stretch; tens of miles of road over the most beautiful, desolate scenery you can find and then two surprisingly comfortable ferries.  It’s a journey which proudly displays the variety of Shetland’s topography and human habitation.  We traveled through hills long ago ravaged by glaciers and watched as pollutant horrors burned on the horizon at the Sullom Voe oil terminal.  Many times, particularly through the island of Yell, it appeared that human civilisation had been left behind completely, so sparse is the landscape.

The Arctic beckons in the north.

Our first stop was the most northern beach in the UK, Skaw Beach.  After passing one of those boat-roof huts tourists seem to rave about, we explored the beach.  The river’s neat path carved into the sand impressed a respect for natural processes – aided by the fact I’m currently reading about Lovelock’s Gaia theory.  Our planet is amazing.  Next was a lovely building which used to have a purpose for the former RAF base, where I drank coffee and ate chocolate cake.

While I’m raving about geography, the geology of Unst is incredible.  I’m not greatly informed about it but I know the island is comprised predominantly of two different kinds of rock.  It shows.  Half of the island is like most of Shetland; moorland of grass or heather, with the occasional rocky outcrop of glacial till.  The other half, however, was a geographical delight.  It was as if the sky had opened up and let loose a barrage of rocks.  Presumably this rock is weaker and was therefore further pulverised by glaciers in the last Ice Age than the other side of the island, though that’s just me guessing.

I’m surfing wrong, aren’t I?

Another fascinating stop was the Muness Castle.  While not as famous nor as large as Scalloway Castle, it had its own charm.  It is very hard to visualise an open, drafty upper floor as once having been the base of powerful comfort.  How soon things decay.  Will our own structures, so seemingly stable today, collapse within another 500 years?

When you live somewhere, you forget how beautiful it really is.  I’m eager to leave Shetland to move on to new things but I am glad to have been brought up in such a great place.

Also, this has to be the best bus-shelter in the country:

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Brief University Update: St. Andrews

Today, my tour of Scottish universities, having previously covered Glasgow and Edinburgh, was rounded off with a look at the University of St. Andrews.  Having fallen in love with Edinburgh and its university, I almost felt like a fraud being shown around St. Andrews, and then having a personal discussion with a representative from the university over aspects of studying there.  St. Andrews has a reputation of snobbery, of privilege – Prince William, for instance – and of existing in a state of Splendid Isolation, so I was curious how far these perceptions would be challenged by reality, and whether I could be tempted away from Edinburgh.

On the whole, the visit failed in its intentions.  Upon first arriving at the town of St. Andrews, despite the picturesque scenery of green fields and massive rivers – which are mostly alien to me – it became clear that this is not somewhere I would thrive in.  The streets, quiet and plain (possibly due to students, a third of the town’s population, being on Easter break) are eerily similar to those you might find in the town of Lerwick in Shetland, where I live – the sort of streets I would really like a change from.  By no means is St. Andrews dislikeable town with its coastal and historic beauty, but having just arrived from Edinburgh it really does lack in areas such as research opportunities, literary and political activity, the diversity you could only find in a city, etc.  And I would imagine the view of endless golf courses might become tiring and claustrophobic after four years.

The university itself seems alright, though the tour had a large focus on its frankly bizarre traditions, which includes parading across the pier in red cloaks, being adopted into student ‘families’, and having massive shaving foam fights in the centre of the university.  These crazy traditions may be endearing to some, but I personally would probably sit in my dormitory and read until it’s over.  St. Andrews seems to exemplify your typical rural but vibrant town, your ancient settlement with queer traditions.  I suspect me real reason of disliking it is the large similarities it holds with Shetland; the break is simply not clean enough between the quiet life of my childhood and the life of what I hope will become a prolific future.

This trip has been highly interested.  Glasgow proved better than expected and St. Andrews worse but Edinburgh, as expected, looks set to be my second home for the next four years.

Thoughts on ‘Shetland’

Contains spoilers.  Maybe.

These are strange times for Shetlanders.  Accustomed to obscurity, used to explaining with an illustrated map precisely where we live, it is not common for Shetland to be at the forefront of media attention.  We are typically left off weather maps and nobody really seems to care about us unless discussing North sea oil.  So it’s with some surprise that I’ve witnessed our islands become almost famous in recent weeks: first with a certain dancing pony advert and now with the BBC adaptation of Ann Cleaves’ book, Red Bones, creatively called ‘Shetland’.

I’m completely unable to look at this programme objectively – in fact, my sole reason of watching it was just because it’s set in Shetland.  I don’t tend to watch much TV, otherwise.  And, of course, I spent most of the first episode jeering at inaccuracies, like virtually every other of our 22,000 residents.  They’d get a ferry from Lerwick (wrongly pronounced ‘Lerrik’) to Bressay (wrongly pronounced ‘Bres-say’) and end up on a completely different island!  I had no idea there were so many Glaswegian accents here – a Shetland or an English accent was nowhere to be heard.  What I expected to be the worst offender, when watching the trailer, was the line, “on a good day you can see Norway from here” [Norway is 200 miles away], but this sort of turned out to be in jest.  I think.  Not quite sure.  And, of course, the fact that not just one but two murders would happen here is incredibly unlikely – as mentioned in the show, a lot of people don’t lock their doors here, and I can’t really remember any murders in my lifetime.  …They got the bit about the terrible phone signal right, however.

Poking at inaccuracies aside, I really wasn’t that impressed in general.  As I said I can’t take an objective view, but the ‘gritty’ style of direction just didn’t appeal to me.  The acting, the dialogue, it all felt so falsely forced.  People are just not that stand-offish with one another, they don’t speak so perfectly… Seeing a TV drama set where I live has exacerbated how forced the genre can be, out of place in the setting, though Shetland felt particularly bad.  And the tinting!  Gosh, is distorting the colours really supposed to make it more engaging?  There really are more colours than grey and green here!

But I did enjoy Part 2 more.  The plot actually began to move, rather than the characters aimlessly travelling around and chatting to faces I’d forget once they left the screen.  The plot gained some momentum and, while never really reaching an effective climax, did begin to engage me.  I enjoyed the Up Helly-Aa scenes.  But, again, I can’t distinguish between the show and the place its set.  How weird it was to see the street I regularly walk down filmed on polished, BBC cameras!  And even weirder to see friends as extras during the crowd scenes.

Overall, it was a very interesting experience watching Shetland, but I’m not convinced I ever actually enjoyed it.  It doesn’t help I have a very low interest in crime dramas at the best of times, I suppose.