Sometimes, my work takes me to places where my good intentions to highlight the importance of the microscopic world are swept away by the sheer grandeur of the landscape around me. That happened last week when a sampling trip to the Shetland Islands ended sooner than expected, leaving me just enough time to hire a car and explore the UK’s most northerly archipelago before heading back to the airport.
We worked in the interior of Mainland, the largest of the islands, where the rocks were mostly covered by a thick layer of peat, amidst strong winds and periodic heavy showers. When there were breaks in the clouds, the low sun imbued the landscape features with intense hues for short periods before the strong winds blew in more clouds. Walking across the peat moorland was tiring and, when I had time to myself, I was ready for a change.
When I collected my hire car from Lerwick, I was given careful instructions on how it should be parked in gale force conditions such as these. Park it facing away from the wind and a gust might pull the door from its hinges as soon as you opened it. I got the impression, from the way that this was carefully explained to me, that this was something that happened quite regularly to tourists on the island. Suitably briefed, I headed north across Mainland, across a narrow isthmus to Northmavine and past small settlements that looked more Scandinavian than Scottish in appearance clustered around sheltered bays. My destination was Esherness, at the far north-western corner of the Shetlands, where waves, ten or more metres high, crashed against cliffs made of hard volcanic rocks that stretched away into the distance. I was completely alone here, dwarfed by the landscape, buffeted by the wind blowing in off the Atlantic, but exhilarated by the experience.
Sea cliffs at Eshaness, Northmavine, on Shetland, October 2016. The upper photograph shows waves breaking on the tombolo connecting St Ninian’s Isle to Mainland.
The worst of the rain passed through overnight, but the strong winds persisted the following morning when I diverted from my drive back to the airport to the south-western coast where I stood on a beach looking across the waves to St Ninian’s Isle. The island is separated from the mainland by a 500 metre “tombolo” – a narrow sand spit that just about stood proud from the sea although, today, the wash of the waves from both sides often met in the middle, disabusing me of any notions that I had time to get out and back with dry clothes and enough time to make it to Sumburgh airport in time to catch my flight.
My one and only souvenir from the trip was a bottle of gin from the Shetland Distillery Company, based on Unst, the most northerly island in the group. The attraction of their “Ocean Scent” gin to me was that they used bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) as one of the botanicals although freaks who expect to the scent of seaweed to waft out of the bottle on opening will be in for a disappointment. The gin has the depth of flavour that one expects from a good craft gin, but the wrack is just one of a number of botanicals whose essences blend together in the final spirit. Having tried this gin, however, I’m also intrigued to try the Isle of Harris gin that features sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima)as one of its botanicals. I just need to find an excuse to visit …