In the Shetlands, tourists come for two reasons. There are the twitchers, for the islands are renowned for their birdlife—puffins in particular, and many other varieties of seabird: guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, and gannet, which nest in breeding grounds on the islands’ cliffs. The other kind of tourist, people like us, are here in search of the past.
Early one morning, I drew back the blackout curtain of the cabin I shared with my mother to a view of the cliffs at the southerly tip of the Shetland Mainland. Less than an hour after docking and driving the length of the island, a much smaller ferry carried us to Yell, an island made of peat, like a big peat patty, on which the most common activity (after fishing and fish farming) is, unsurprisingly, peat harvesting. At the other end of Yell we arrived to find the first ferry to Unst full and so we went to the ticket office to book ourselves onto the next available crossing. We had paid for a return ticket, but once aboard, the ferryman took our ticket but failed to return the stub. On the Shetlands you show your ticket on the way north but nobody bothers you for it on the way south: “For how else did you get there in the first place?” said the ferryman.
Haroldswick, so named for the Viking King Harald, of the famous Icelandic chronicle Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, which tells of his exploits—romantic, military, and religious in Sicily, Palestine, Jerusalem, and Novograd. Haroldswick is reputed to be the first place in the British Isles the Vikings disembarked from their longships and where they came to settle. There’s a reconstruction of a longship on the road into the hamlet. Longships were capable of carrying one hundred people as well as their animals. For several centuries the Vikings occupied themselves with raids on settlements as far north as Iceland and Greenland, south to Andalusia and the North African coast, east to the Black and Caspian Seas, and, at least once, west to Newfoundland. They guided their longships by the sun and stars and followed the migratory flight path of birds.