Some years ago I was commissioned to write a play based on the Flannan Isles lighthouse story. The more I researched the historic background, the more certain I became that there were principal characters missing from the extant documentation. There are many traditions and stories centred on the idea of three exceptional waves.
These imagined characters entered the drama. They developed as I spoke to fishermen, surfers and sailors. And people who simply like to look at the sea. Eventually, footage of waves, recorded west of the Hebrides, was projected onto 4 screens in many venues in the Highlands. Wherever you sat, you were confronted with the image of power in the form of moving water.
Here is another image of moving water. It was taken in the Fair Isle Gap. I was crewing on the 28ft Spirit of Rema for my friend Ed Anker. After a close look at the one possible anchorage and at the approaches to the north harbour on Fair Isle, we elected to face rising seas and a northerly gale in open sea, beating on to Shetland.
You can see the building water, before the full force of the wind hit us. I did not take any more images until we were safe at anchor near Sumburgh.
Ed needed to call in to a port in Norway for complex legal maritime reasons. I told him I had about two weeks free. I was happy to crew for him across the North Sea or to explore a bit of Shetland’s coasts and islands. He thought it out. On one hand it would be good to share the work in what is often a tough crossing. In another, he had to get re-used to sailing alone to continue on his solo circumnavigation of the world, in a year or so. This is the man who had sailed on, single-handed to St Kilda, in this small simple yacht, after making his landfall in Wales. That was after his crossing from New Zealand via the Patagonian canals. That’s where he bought the 5 horse-power outboard. But he only used it in now in emergencies.
He’d judged that he could not safely enter Fair Isle harbour in the prevailing conditions without the motor. It didn’t qualify as an emergency. That’s why we’d sailed on. I got used to his way of thinking, in this well-balanced craft, fitted out by himself from a bare hull moulding.
Ed asked if I’d be happy to spend the time cruising East Shetlands slow time. He had not seen as much of West Scotland’s coastline as he’d hoped. I told him I’d already made two North Sea crossings, East to West and could live without the West to East experience for now. Slow time cruising sounded just fine.
I got to know Ed better as I learned more about handling his very fine cutter. We each visited the broch of Mousa, taking turns to keep anchor-watch. I boiled and dressed the crabs we’d been given in one of the several fine small-boat harbours we visited. We sailed on past the entrance to Lerwick harbour and found a good anchorage a few miles up the road. We’d return later, when we really needed the excellent facilities and use of the library, internet and all. We got the big cruising chute flying and made a fair speed as we headed for Out Skerries. We were made welcome everywhere and Baltasound and the Unst boat museum were other highlights.
Back in Lerwick, we visited the excellent museum and I looked up some friends. We had a proper boat-ceilidh with other adventurers, moored alongside. I knew that the experience would feed into writing and exhibtion plans but had no idea at this point that my working life would become closely tied to Shetland.
A couple of years on and Ed is moored in South Africa, waiting the season to make the crossing to Australia. I’ve just completed a 6 month residency, developed and administered by Shetland Arts. But I haven’t left home turf. We also call our island “the rock”. I’m looking forward to meeting the other 4 Readers in Residence. Discovering what was the main thrust of their activites. Points of comparison. Points of contrast.
This morning I called in to Isles FM, our community radio station which has so generously supported the Residency. I hope it won’t be the final appearance (can you say that of radio?) on the Donald and Janet show. These guys give you scope. “What have you been reading, cove?” Janet asked.
Non-fiction and fiction. I read extracts from the the chapter headed “Fishing Incidents” in “The Tolsta Townships” by Donald Macdonald (published by the Tolsta Community Association in 1984). There is a heartfelt description of the characters involved in the risky enterprise of offshore line-fishing in open boats. This is a direct equivalent to the haaf fishing from sixerns, in Shetlandic waters. The accounts of tragic events, rescues and premonitions have a genuine basis in oral history. Storytelling continues on the pages.
restored traditional North Lewis line-fishing vessel: sgoth Jubilee (1980s)
You could call my next read a contrast. It’s Vikram Seth’s huge-scale novel, “A Suitable Boy.” It’s not set in the Western Isles. Shetland neither. But it is set in a new India, a few years after Partition. Like Macdonald’s work, it allows entry into places and times which you could not access now in any other way. Not even in Spirit of Rema (blessing be upon her and all who sail in her).
If I’ve come to any conclusion during this residency this is it. I’m even more hard-pressed to be able to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The spoken and the written. They are all about trying to be true to our experience.
There are plans to continue the reading and writing group which now meets regularly in Stornoway library. It has had a stronger emphasis on stories and reading. The group will probably focus more on comparing notes on territories discovered in books.
Tomorrow I’ll call in to join the Catch 23 writers’ group, in Stornoway. It’s likely I’ll end my regular sessions with telling a Finman story learned from Lawrence Tulloch, from Yell, Shetland. We’ve been using traditional stories as a stimulus to writing in different forms. I hope to maintain contact with this long-established group.
Along with the artist Christine Morrison, I’ve been editing a new story from the huge number of drawings made by Western Isles pupils in response to classical and traditional tales. We’ve made a series of prints, in photo-gravure, from these, at Highland Print Studio. We hope these will become a touring exhibition, before long. Now they exist as an artists’ book to be shown soon in the Art, Space and Nature postgrad degree-show in Tent Gallery, Edinburgh College of Art, open to the public from Sat 2nd June. I would be very happy if they could form part of a future exhibition in The Shetland Museum.
Written by Ian Stephen