Saturday, 15 December 2007

Shetland Sojourn I

Saturday morning we scraped the snow off the car, and headed north, to the top left-hand corner of Shetland Mainland, to Eshaness, where the geology meets the sea. Literally. Here the sea has cut through the flank of an ancient volcano, different types of lava flow stacked up like a layer cake, a cross section of an explosive past. There are gas bubbles, ash and volcanic bombs, the fine grained flows of runny lavas, the blobby agglomerations of the stickier stuff. Different hardnesses of rock give way to the sea at different speeds – in places the cliffs are like giant’s staircases, in others, arches and needles rise from the Atlantic rollers like the teeth of a fossilised monster.

The power of the sea is evident. Rocks lie along the cliff-top, thrown up by storm and tide, to be swept off by other waves reaching 40 metres above the sea, and the waters offshore are littered with wrecks. Yet people have lived here for many thousands of years, their presence recorded in the stone age cairns, Pictish brochs and in the remnants of pre-clearance villages.

The wind is bitter. As I step from the car to take photos, my eyes immediately stream, and the cold slices into my bones. It’s not a day to hang around.

Eshaness Lighthouse – now a private house (lucky people!) – is one of the few that has a square tower. It stands foursquare against the wind and weather, staring out across the Atlantic. I snapped the picture and dived back into the warmth of the car.

We head back towards Sullom Voe, where the tankers discharge and fill their tanks with the oil from the hostile fields in the seas between Shetland and Norway. It’s actually not that imposing – the Flotta terminal in Orkney is more obvious, and the St Fergus terminal at home, with its huge flares of burning gas, more dramatic. Nearby is Mavis Grind (pronounced, I think, with a short ‘i’) which is designated the shortest distance between the Atlantic and the North Sea - a mere stone’s throw (if you have a small stone and a very strong arm!) We head to the northern ferry terminal at Toft, where the inter-island ferries head out to the low-lying, peat-covered island of Yell. No, we’re not going to Yell, but there is purpose in our trip.

Years ago, on Fetlar, we were chatting with a local gentleman about the likelihood of seeing otters. Go to the ferry terminals, he said, it’s almost guaranteed – they like the disturbed water where the ferries come and go, it stirs up the fish.

He was right, as we’ve discovered on numerous occasions since that conversation.

We sat and ate our sandwiches, watching the ferry load up and the seabirds go back and forth. Ferry terminals are also a good place to find well-maintained public toilets, so we took advantage, and I was just getting back into the car, when Mum noticed a disturbance offshore.

Binoculars snap to attention, and with delight we spot two otters, fishing in the bay. They roll around each other, diving and splashing, and then separate. They are some distance off the beach, but I take a picture anyway - honest, this IS an otter! While we watch, it catches a butterfish and, gripping it firmly between its paws, happily chomps it in front of us.

The light is fading rapidly – twilight comes at around 3 p.m. - so we head back towards our base, and our warm and cosy apartment.


Mackie said...

Mad, lovely, lovely writing, and wonderful pictures. this new camera was an excellent investion :-)

thank you :smooch:

Anonymous said...

What Mackie said! Also your writing is so personal that I feel the cold wind and almost taste the sandwich and feel the delight at the otters.


Sue said...

Mad - this is great...but is it really an otter? there's a hint of the Loch Ness Monster a little off course!

Girl from Mars said...

I can actually see this is an otter :lol: He/she is lying on the back, they are so adorable when they do that!