June 1, 2019
G and S, already awake, greeted me when I emerged into the kitchen of The Snugg cottage. Breakfast was instant coffee with milk, then oatcakes with goat yogurt and hot-smoked salmon—Shetland milk, Shetland oatcakes, Shetland yogurt, Shetland salmon. The goat yogurt had a strong barnyard taste, like a feral creme fraiche. We suited up for June weather on the North Isles—layers of sweaters and raincoats. The plan was to take a ferry to Unst, do some hiking and sightseeing, and then find a place to watch the Champions league final match.
We took the ten-minute ferry from Gutcher to Belmont, then drove north in our tiny red rental car. Our first stop was Hermaness—the northernmost headland!—on Unst—the northernmost inhabited island!—from which we hoped we might see Muckle Flugga—the northernmost lighthouse in the British Isles.
Most of Yell and Unst are covered by blanket bog, and as we walked through Hermaness we marveled at the starry mosses and springy texture of the peat. Sections of the land appeared torn-open, revealing rich, dark dirt. Tiny rivulets of brassy-looking water ran between the hillocks, and occasionally we came upon a scattering of new ferns. We marveled, also, at the quantity of sheep shit. Lambing season is April, so the pastures were full of two-month-old lambs grazing alongside their stolid mothers. Nature, we agreed, is amazing.
Then the bog dropped abruptly out of the mist, and we were on a cliff staring at the North Sea. We spotted some great skuas—bonxies, locally—and a dizzying array of gulls, terns, and oystercatchers. A lamb and its mother casually dozed inches from the cliff’s edge.
We considered heading further along the coastline in hopes of glimpsing Muckle Flugga through the mist, but a thin cold rain had begun to fall and we were already getting hungry. We turned inland, against the wind. On the walk back I explained the premise of MOONSTRUCK. Yelling about Cher distracted me from the wet chill seeping through my gloves and leggings.
We drove to Victoria’s Tea Room—the northernmost tea room in the UK!—and ordered a huge amount of food: tomato and pepper soup, lamb sandwiches, crisp spring-lettuce salad, smoked mackerel paté with oatcakes, and a whole pot of tea for each of us. The sandwich had nothing on it but butter, tart rhubarb jam, and slices of fat-marbled Shetland lamb; admittedly I was starving, but it might have been the most perfect sandwich I’ve ever eaten. To top this off we ordered two enormous slices of homemade cake. We lingered at the table until our pants were mostly dry.
Behind the tea room stands the Unst Boat Haven, a small museum dedicated to the local history of wooden fishing boats. We ducked in and discovered a tin-roofed warehouse crammed with artifacts, posters, papers, ephemera, and at least half a dozen actual wooden boats, shored up on a bed of loose stones that sloped toward a concrete walkway painted sea-blue.
Above a diorama of felt dolls, a placard stated the women who used to gut fish—called, delightfully, gutter lasses—could clean and grade up to 60 herring a minute. We carefully sounded out the words to a Shetlandic poem titled “The Draem-Boat.” P found a buoy made of dog skin accompanied by a full binder of information about the history of dog-skin buoys. On one wall hung a faded note on a torn piece of paper: a message in a bottle that departed North Carolina in 1991 and arrived in Shetland in 1997, accompanied by a hand-drawn diagram tracking its likely path across the Atlantic. We spent a long time examining an ordnance map charting the fishing grounds between Shetland and mainland Europe—I’ve never seen a map so dense with information. Its annotations were evocative and inscrutable: WITCH GROUND; HALIBUT BANK gravel & stones; mud mud mud; and, everywhere, CATCHY.
Our tickets also admitted us to the Unst Heritage Centre just a few blocks away. We got there with only an hour until closing, but the woman at the front desk launched into conversation with such cheery enthusiasm that we ended up lingering in the entryway for nearly fifteen minutes. After pinpointing us as visitors “from the other side of the pond,” she related the story of her only trip to America—to Houston, for a work conference—and rhapsodized about visiting the Johnson Space Center. My one regret, she told us, is not buying more things at the museum shop with the NASA logo on them. I admired her commitment to her role.
The Heritage Centre was as eclectic as the Boat Haven, featuring cases of seabird eggs, neolithic carvings, and World War I relics. In the back room, a row of handmade knitwear for sale hung beneath a bulletin board. One cardigan caught my eye: the bulk of the sweater was olive green so deep it was nearly brown, like peat, but the classic Fair Isle snowflakes in its ivory yoke were the rich warm colors of autumn leaves—bronze and russet and flame-orange. At the center of each star-like floret was a tiny yellow dot, like the bright heart of a marigold. I hesitated—it was expensive and I hadn’t really planned to buy any sweater, let alone the first sweater I set eyes on—but tried it on anyway. Perfect fit—of course. Buy it, G said immediately when I came out to show it to her. The museum clerk told me that Barbara, the woman who knitted it, was “known for her colors,” and also that she hosted a show on local radio. I bought it. The clerk gave me Barbara’s business card, so I could send her a photo of myself wearing it in America.
P had hoped for a quick stop at Valhalla Brewery—the northernmost brewery in the UK!—but when we arrived there we found a deserted parking lot and an apology note taped to the door. We opted to check out the Balta Light, a bar we’d passed on the way in, which basically looked like a generator shed with a sign out front reading PUBLIC BAR. They had beer from Valhalla, but no food, so we drank one round and then left to catch the ferry back to Yell.
We bought groceries at the Tesco in Lerwick before heading north so we could cook dinner and breakfast for ourselves. The night before, we’d started watching THE ROCK—in which Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage break into Alcatraz to stop a mutinous Ed Harris from destroying San Francisco—and G put it on again while we cooked. I sautéed some zucchini with green onions and garlic, then added the last of our cherry tomatoes, while S tended to the pasta. When everything was done cooking I tossed the pasta and vegetables together with a few spoonfuls of goat yogurt. It turned out surprisingly well—a sort of makeshift alfredo. We ate our dinner and watched Nicolas Cage disarm chemical rockets.
Before coming to Shetland, G had made it clear that we would need to find somewhere where she could watch the Champions League final match. Research turned up the Mid Yell Boating Club, located in the town of Mid Yell. I desperately wanted to go to a place called the Mid Yell Boating Club. It was only a ten minute drive away.
When we got there, S rang the doorbell; a man about our age answered, looking confused. We explained that we were tourists looking for a place to watch the Champions League final, had seen their Facebook post, and were unsure whether we were allowed to enter the Boating Club. He affirmed that we were, and ushered us through a narrow entryway into a long, mostly empty room. Heavy blinds were drawn against the subarctic evening light. A handful of middle-aged men in jeans clustered around the small semicircular bar, like moths around the light on a dark porch. Our arrival was heralded with an uncertain silence.
S ordered a Guinness—the rest of us got gin and tonics—and we settled at a table near the bar. The game was playing on a big screen in the shadows at the far end of the room, over the untouched snooker table. The stream kept lagging, so every few minutes the players left ghostly streaks of themselves smeared across the pitch. Though I generally enjoy watching soccer I found the game fairly boring—everyone was playing conservatively. Sometime during the second half, G dozed off on S’s shoulder. The wifi worked on P’s phone, but not mine, so I began to eavesdrop. The men at the bar were talking about lawnmower brands. Part of me wanted to get up and talk with them, but that seemed like it might be intrusive. I finished my drink and concentrated on the game. Liverpool won, 2-0.