by Malachy Tallack

Sixty Degrees North

May 30, 2015 | by Malachy Tallack

Driving through the hamlets of Bigton and Ireland at the south end of the Shetland Mainland, the sun was icy bright and the sky a polished blue, barely troubled by clouds. Half a mile away the Atlantic lay like a desert, and beyond, the horizon, a soft, blunt edge interrupting a view that might otherwise stretch all the way around the world. On days like this it is hard to think of leaving. Days like this extinguish all other days.

The narrow road I was on stooped towards the coast, then faded to an unsurfaced track. A mile or so beyond the last house I stopped, parked the car and got out. The air was still and quiet, and warm enough to leave my jacket behind. It felt good to be there, to inhabit the day. Somewhere along this stretch of coast, the sixtieth parallel tied the ocean to the island, passing unmarked between land and water. A few miles or so to the east, it would meet the sea again, connecting Shetland to Norway. As I reached the cliff top, I pulled the map from my bag and unfolded it, exploring the space between where I was and where I wanted to be. The lines on the map were solid and stark, dividing the blue water from the white land. Everything on the page was certain of itself, but the world in front of me was nothing like that. It took a moment to pull these two images together, to merge them, and imagine how they might be reconciled.

I was standing at the top of a steep-sided cove, a geo, perhaps thirty metres above the water. From there the land fell sharply towards a bouldered beach, and then the sea, where a thick mat of kelp was tousled by the ebbing tide. Half a dozen seals, alert to my silhouette, abandoned their positions on the rocks and heaved themselves back into the waves. Once safe, they turned to look more carefully at this figure above them, unable to restrain their curiosity. Just offshore, three skerries lay littered with cormorants, black wings outstretched, as the sea around them shivered and shook in the sunlight. Far beyond, to the northwest, the island of Foula lay like a great wave on the horizon. If my map-reading skills were to be trusted, these skerries were the Billia Cletts, which would place me just a few hundred metres south of where I wanted to be. As I walked carefully along the cliff edge the seals were still visible below, their thick bodies dark in the clear water. I stepped slowly, on grey rocks glorious with colour; each stone was splashed yellow-orange by lichen, every crack and crevice was speckled with sea pinks.

Driving through the hamlets of Bigton and Ireland at the south end of the Shetland Mainland, the sun was icy bright and the sky a polished blue, barely troubled by clouds. Half a mile away the Atlantic lay like a desert, and beyond, the horizon, a soft, blunt edge interrupting a view that might otherwise stretch all the way around the world. On days like this it is hard to think of leaving. Days like this extinguish all other days.

The narrow road I was on stooped towards the coast, then faded to an unsurfaced track. A mile or so beyond the last house I stopped, parked the car and got out. The air was still and quiet, and warm enough to leave my jacket behind. It felt good to be there, to inhabit the day. Somewhere along this stretch of coast, the sixtieth parallel tied the ocean to the island, passing unmarked between land and water. A few miles or so to the east, it would meet the sea again, connecting Shetland to Norway. As I reached the cliff top, I pulled the map from my bag and unfolded it, exploring the space between where I was and where I wanted to be. The lines on the map were solid and stark, dividing the blue water from the white land. Everything on the page was certain of itself, but the world in front of me was nothing like that. It took a moment to pull these two images together, to merge them, and imagine how they might be reconciled.

I was standing at the top of a steep-sided cove, a geo, perhaps thirty metres above the water. From there the land fell sharply towards a bouldered beach, and then the sea, where a thick mat of kelp was tousled by the ebbing tide. Half a dozen seals, alert to my silhouette, abandoned their positions on the rocks and heaved themselves back into the waves. Once safe, they turned to look more carefully at this figure above them, unable to restrain their curiosity. Just offshore, three skerries lay littered with cormorants, black wings outstretched, as the sea around them shivered and shook in the sunlight. Far beyond, to the northwest, the island of Foula lay like a great wave on the horizon. If my map-reading skills were to be trusted, these skerries were the Billia Cletts, which would place me just a few hundred metres south of where I wanted to be. As I walked carefully along the cliff edge the seals were still visible below, their thick bodies dark in the clear water. I stepped slowly, on grey rocks glorious with colour; each stone was splashed yellow-orange by lichen, every crack and crevice was speckled with sea pinks.

The cliffs along this part of the coast are heavily pitted with caves, hollows and geos. In winter, this side of Shetland meets the full weight of the Atlantic and the southwesterly gales that thunder their way across the ocean. Waves that began life thousands of miles away find their way to these shores, growing larger and more powerful as they go. Water carves itself into the land, and throws giant boulders up the cliffs like marbles. Summer visitors may imagine these islands to be only a timid north, a place protected from the climatic severities of other northern lands. But bring that visitor back in the middle of a winter storm and they would feel differently. This is one of the windiest places in Europe, and recounting stories of storms past is a favourite occupation for islanders. 

There is, for instance, the ‘Hogmanay Hurricane’ of New Year’s Eve, 1991, in which gusts of over 173 miles per hour were recorded before the anemometer was torn from the ground. Then there is the month of January 1993, which brought a record twenty-five days of gales, and saw the oil tanker Braer wrecked on the coast, just south of the parallel. Wind is the dominant and most extreme element of Shetland’s climate. It can, at times, seem so utterly unremitting that the air itself becomes a physical presence, as solid as a clenched fist. And on those rare calm days its absence can be shocking and wonderful. 

It is this violence, of wind and sea, combined with its glacial past, that makes Shetland’s coastline what it is: a ragged, fractal form. ‘Hardly anything can be imagined,’ wrote John Shirreff in 1814, ‘more irregular than the shape of this island.’ According to the Ordnance Survey, the coastline of Shetland amounts to almost 1,700 miles and a glance at the map shows why. The largest of the islands, known as ‘the Mainland’, is fifty miles long, north to south, and just twenty at its widest point. But nowhere is more than three miles from the sea. This southern end is a peninsula, almost thirty miles in length and rarely three wide, which extends like a finger from the fist of the central Mainland. Further north, the coast is a panoply of beaches, coves, steep sea cliffs and narrow inlets, known as voes. These voes, like mini-fjords, are deep valleys, flooded by the rising sea after the last ice age. They bite into the land, creating distance, and making the ocean always, everywhere, inescapable.

When Shetland emerged from beneath the ice, 12,000 years ago, it was an empty place. There was no vegetation, no birds, no mammals, no life at all. It was a blank space, waiting to be filled. And as the climate steadily improved, that process of filling began. Lichens, mosses and low shrubs were the first colonisers, followed by sea birds, exploiting the abundant food resources of the North Atlantic. As more birds arrived, they carried with them the seeds of other plants, on their feet and in their stomachs.

The first land mammals in Shetland were people, who arrived around 6,000 years ago. The islands that met these original immigrants would have looked very different from the islands of today. Low woodland dominated – birch, juniper, alder, oak, willow – as well as tall herbs and ferns, particularly around the coast. It was a lush, green and mild place, and the lack of land prey, of deer in particular, was more than compensated for by the lack of predators and of competition. There were none of the wolves and bears the settlers had left behind in Scotland. Here they found an abundance of birds, providing meat and eggs, as well as seals, walrus, whales and fish.

This early settlement of Shetland coincided with the latter stages of a major change in lifestyle in northern Europe. Agriculture, which began in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, had gradually spread west and north across the continent as the climate improved and stabilised. Land that had once been scoured and scarred by ice was being transformed by the hands of people. Forests were cut down and burned, and the space given over to domestic animals. The early Shetlanders were also early farmers, and it is hard not to be impressed by their achievements. That they managed to cross the dangerous waters between Britain and the islands in their fragile, skin-covered boats, and in sufficient numbers to build extensive communities, is astonishing enough. But that they also managed to take considerable quantities of livestock with them – pigs, sheep, goats and cattle – is doubly so. These animals, and the people that brought them, were to prove the greatest factor in altering and reshaping the landscape once the ice retreated. 

Shetland was at the very far edge of the world for these settlers. Beyond the edge, in fact. It was as far north as it was possible to go through Britain, and the people that came took huge risks. So why did they bother? What pulled them northwards? Could it be that the spirit of adventure was enough – that the cliffs of Shetland, just visible on the horizon from Orkney, taunted people until they could resist no longer? Was it simply human beings exploring the limits of what was possible?

There was a light breeze now, spilling up and over the cliff top, and fulmars were clinging to it, riding like fairground horses up and down on the shimmering air. One bird lifted higher, close to my head, and hung for a moment against the wind. He seemed almost to float there, and as I watched him I was sure he was looking straight back. For those few seconds we eyed each other, fascinated: me by his sublime disregard for gravity, and he by my clumsy bulk and strange attachment to the earth.

Further along the cliff top I reached the Burn of Burgistacks, where wheatears scattered at my approach, each clacking like pebbles in a cloth bag. As I walked they kept their distance ahead of me, hopping a little further with every few steps I took. The burn here clambers hastily towards the sea, down a rocky slope and then a brief waterfall, lined with sopping green moss. Beyond the burn were the Burgi Stacks themselves. And then, according to the map, I was almost at the parallel. 

I stopped, and looked carefully at the contours of the land. It was harder than I’d expected it to be to distinguish one point from another, and to be sure exactly where I was. The map showed a cave, over which my line appeared to cross, but from where I stood the cave was entirely hidden. I walked north until I was sure I had crossed the parallel, then retraced my steps. As I peered over the edge of a steep scree slope, the map’s clean lines were shattered into stones and grass and waves. The angle of the cliff and the jutting rocks prevented any kind of certainty.

I was hot and thirsty, and annoyed at myself for not bringing a GPS to make things clearer. For a moment it all seemed arbitrary and pointless; there could be no real certainty like this. But still I wanted a fixed point, a starting block from which to begin. So I looked again at the paper, read again every word of the surrounding area: to the south, the Burgi Stacks, the cave, then the Seat of Mandrup and Sheep Pund to the north. Just east was the Green of Mandrup, the field behind me.

And then I saw it. Almost completely hidden by those words – ‘Green of Mandrup’ – but just protruding from behind the letters on either side, was a solid, straight line: a fence. And as it reached the cliff, it corresponded with the parallel. I stood and faced east, following the posts that ran through the field and up the hill, and then looked back to where the fence ended in a muddle of wire and wood hanging over the cliff edge. So this was it: sixty degrees north of the equator. This was my starting line. Geography begins at the only point of which we can be certain. It begins inside. And from there, from inside, rises a single question: where am I?

* * *

UNLIKE internal or ‘story’ maps, early world maps were intended as scientific or philosophical exercises rather than navigational guides. Their practicality was limited by two significant factors. Firstly, the ancient Greeks who pioneered cartography had limited geographical knowledge. Centred on the Mediterranean, their maps extended eastward only as far as India, with their westward edge at the Strait of Gibraltar. Beyond these boundaries the world was more or less unknown, though speculation about the grotesque barbarians dwelling in northern Europe and Africa was widespread. The other major problem for the Greek map-makers was their lack of a practical means of representing distance and shape accurately. What was required to do this was some kind of scale or grid, which could be applied both to the spherical surface of the Earth and, potentially, to a globe or a flat map. That grid was provided in the second century BC, when Hipparchus of Nicaea devised the system that we still use today: measuring the Earth in degrees of arc. Although similar methods had been proposed previously by the Babylonians, Hipparchus’ achievement was to divide a circle into 360 degrees of arc, and so provide the foundation stone for trigonometry. 

A degree was a measurement of the angle at the centre of a circle, between one radius and another, like the hands on a clock. If the time is three o’clock, the angle between the two hands is 90°: one quarter of a full circle. On the outside of the circle, the points where the two radii, or hands, touch the edge can also be said to be 90° apart. This measurement could further be applied to spheres, like the Earth, with the north-south angle denoted by one measurement – latitude – and the east-west angle by another – longitude. It was then possible, at least theoretically, to give co-ordinates for any place on the planet, and that information could further be used to represent geographical space accurately on a map. This was a revolutionary step for navigation and for cartography.

Whereas longitudinal lines, or meridians, are of equal length, running through both poles, and dividing the planet like the segments of an orange, circles of latitude are parallel lines, progressively decreasing in size, from the planet’s full circumference at the equator to a single point at the Poles. They are represented as an angle up to 90° north or south of the equator. At 60° north, where I was standing, the parallel was half the length of the equator, and two thirds of the way to the Pole.

For the Greeks, the pinnacle of their cartographic tradition came in the mid-second century AD, in Roman Alexandria. It was here that Claudius Ptolemy created his Geographia, a work that gathered together the geographical knowledge of both the Greeks and the Romans. Ptolemy gave co-ordinates for around 8,000 places, stretching between his Prime Meridian at the Fortunate Isles (Cape Verde) in the west, China in the east, central Africa in the south and Shetland, which he called Thule, in the north. This was the known world, reaching 180 degrees in longitude and eighty in latitude, and Shetland then was at its very edge. Despite all but disappearing for more than 1,000 years, the influence of this book, eventually, was immense.

Today, we need only consult a map to learn of our location, or just press a button on our handheld GPS or phone, which can tell us our longitude and latitude in degrees, minutes and seconds of arc. But still somehow that question feels unanswered, still it gnaws at our certainty. Where am I? This is a strange place up here, this landscape of peat and heather. Often called generically ‘the hill’, it forms the core of Shetland, covering more than fifty per cent of the land. From that spot I could have walked to the north of the Mainland, forty miles away, and hardly stepped off it at all. It is a place separate from the places of people, a semi-wild moorland, divided by fence and dyke from the croft land below. It has also been, and in many parts of Shetland remains, a shared place – a common ground – with grazing and peat-cutting rights held collectively by crofters in adjacent communities.

Like those who dwell in the shadow of mountains, Shetlanders live with the constant presence of the moor and the hill. It is a presence that is as central to the character of the islanders as it is to the islands. For just as we inhabit the landscape, the landscape inhabits us, in thought, in myth and in memory; and somehow the openness of the land invites us to become attached, or else attaches itself to us. Our understanding of space and our relationship to that space are affected, and so too is our understanding of time. 

We are used to imagining time as a fixed dimension, through which we are moved, steadily and unfalteringly. But there are places where this image seems inadequate, where time itself seems to move at another pace altogether. There are places where we sense the moments rush by, unhindered, so close and so quick that we feel the breath of them as they pass. And then there are other places, such as here on the hill, where time seems to gather itself, to coil and unravel simultaneously. Here the past is closer. We find its memory embedded within the earth, like the eerily preserved bodies, centuries old, drawn out of peat bogs across Europe, with clothes, skin and hair intact. Or like the peat itself, a biological journal of the islands’ history. Things move slowly here. Change is stubbornly, solemnly recorded. To examine the land closely, and to take into account its own life and the lives upon and within it, is to be faced with a multitude of other times and other worlds. Here on the hill, where land and sky open out, past and present do the opposite; they wrap themselves tightly together. There is, here, a native timelessness.

* * *

I first visited Shetland when I was about five years old, on a holiday with my parents. My mother’s elder brother had moved to the islands from Belfast in the late 1960s for work, then married a Shetlander and had a family. My other uncle had followed and stayed, and we came to visit them several times. My mother and father had considered moving north before I was born. Both of them felt drawn here, away from the south of England where I spent my first few years, but it was not until after they separated that my mother eventually made the move. My memories of those early trips are vague, and have mingled with photographs from the family album, which fix them more solidly but less certainly in place. They are images more than they are true memories, snapshot moments that carry little weight. A boy on a beach, playing and swimming in the sunshine; games and tears in the Lerwick street where my uncle lived.

When we moved north permanently, my mother, brother and I, I was ten years old. My parents had separated some time before that, but family life in Sussex had otherwise continued much as I had always known it. I was too young to really understand the significance of their split, and was anyway surrounded, always, by love. The idea of a relocation felt like an adventure, as such things always do to a child. From the moment it was first discussed, I was excited and eager to go. The reality though was different, like going away on holiday and discovering, while there, that you can never go back home. That half my family were with me did not detract from the sense that I had been lifted up and dropped in an alien place, a place that was not and could not be my home. The word for it, I suppose, is deracination – to be uprooted. That was how it seemed to me. My past was elsewhere, my childhood was elsewhere, my friends, my grandparents, my father were elsewhere.

That feeling of division and separation cut deep into me then. A sense that who I was and what I needed were not here but somewhere else grew inside me, and continued to grow. That sense evolved, over time, into the restlessness that dogs me even today and that triggered, in part, this journey. It evolved too into an unshakable feeling of exile and of homesickness, and a corresponding urge to extinguish that feeling: to be connected, to belong, to be a part of somewhere and no longer apart. My separation from Shetland was, I thought, as obvious to others as it was to me. And my antipathy, I believed, was reciprocated. According to the twin pillars of island identity – accent and ancestry – I was an outsider and would always be so. Growing up in Lerwick I imagined myself unable ever to truly fit in. I was often unhappy in school, sometimes bullied, and it was those differences, naturally, on which bullies would focus. For the first time I discovered that I was English, not because I had chosen to be so, but because that was the label that was tied around my neck. For a while I wore it proudly, like a badge of distinction, but in the end it didn’t seem to fit. My unsettledness in those early years, my sense of exile and longing, did not find a positive direction until I was sixteen, when I decided to go and study music and to live with my father. To make that choice – to decide the place where I would be – was enormously important.

Shetland, like other remote parts of Scotland, is scarred by the remnants of the past, by history made solid in the landscape. Rocks, reordered and rearranged, carry shadows of the people that moved them. They are the islands’ memory. From the ancient field dykes and boundary lines, burnt mounds and forts, to the crumbling croft houses, abandoned by the thousands who emigrated at the end of the nineteenth century, the land is witness to every change, but it is loss that it remembers most clearly. For some, these rocks reek of mortality. Their forms are an oppressive reminder that we, too, will leave little behind us.

The island of Mousa was once a place of people. It was once home to families, to fishermen and farmers, who lived and died there. But now the people are gone and their homes deserted. The island has been left to the sheep, the birds and the seals, and, in the summer at least, to the tourists. On the day I visited, there were fifteen of us – British, Scandinavian and North American – making the journey on the little ferry, Solan IV, which carries passengers between April and September. It is a short trip from the stone pier in Sandwick to the jetty on the island, and as we galloped across the grey sound I looked about at the other passengers. One, a man wearing beige combat trousers, checked shirt and red baseball cap, consulted a handheld GPS for the full five minutes of the crossing. He never looked up, never looked out at the water or the approaching island, just stared at the little screen in front of him. It was an odd way to experience the journey, but I was jealous of his gadget, and of the accuracy it promised. I wanted to see what he could see.

A remote island of just one and a half square miles might seem an unusual tourist attraction, but people come to Mousa for several reasons. First, there is the opportunity to explore an island once occupied, now uninhabited (what you might call the St Kilda factor). There is, too, the chance to see birds and seals, which take advantage of the lack of people to breed here in large numbers. But most of all, people come here for the broch. While Mousa is just one of around one hundred known Iron Age broch sites in Shetland, it is nevertheless unique, for only this one still looks much as it did when it was first built, over 2,000 years ago. For this fact alone Mousa would be impressive, having withstood two millennia of human and climatic violence; but no less remarkable than its longevity is the actual structure itself, standing at forty-four feet: the tallest prehistoric building in Britain. In shape, it is rather like a power station cooling tower, bulging slightly at the base, where its diameter is fifty feet, and slimming gently, then straightening to vertical towards the top. Constructed entirely of flat stones, the broch is held together by nothing more than the weight of the stones above and the skill of the original builders. It is an outstanding architectural achievement. Inside is a courtyard, separated from the world by double walls more than three metres thick. And between the two outer walls a stairway winds upwards, giving access to cells at various levels, and ultimately to the top of the tower, where visitors can look at the island spread out around them.

Will Self has called Mousa Broch ‘one of my sacred sites. For me, comparable to the pyramids’. And that comparison is understandable. The broch is beautiful and mysterious, imposing and tantalisingly intact. Yet we know almost nothing of the people who decided to build this structure. It is safe to assume that the architects of Scotland’s brochs were a militarised people, for the towers’ defensive capabilities are obvious. But there is something about this broch that implies more than simply defence. Its massive size seems beyond necessity, and the sheer extravagance of it suggests that, if security was the primary concern, it must have been built in a state of extreme paranoia. So perhaps a more likely possibility is that the brochs were built not for defence alone, but as acts of self-glorification by Iron Age chieftains. They were status symbols, born of a bravado much like that which created skyscrapers in the twentieth century: a combination of functionality and showing off. That this particular example has survived so perfectly for so long is partly a result of its remoteness, and partly because nobody has ever had the need to take it to pieces.

The people who built this broch, who lived in and around it, seem far out of reach to us today, an enigma. Archaeologists and historians examine the available clues carefully and they make assessments, suppositions. But in our desire to eradicate mystery from the past, and to understand and know these people, we forget one crucial point. We miss the real mystery. Sitting on the grass beneath the broch, looking back towards the Mainland, I scratched my wrists and brushed the midges from my face. There was no wind, and the insects were taking advantage of the opportunity to feed. The clouds hung low over the sound, and draped softly onto the hills across the water. What struck me then, as I leaned back against the ancient stone wall, was not the great distance and difference that lay between now and then, nor was it the tragedy of all we do not know. What struck me was the sense of continuity, and the deep determination of people to live in this place. Rebecca West once wrote that certain places ‘imprint the same stamp on whatever inhabitants history brings them, even if conquest spills out one population and pours in another wholly different in race and philosophy’. This stamp is what Lawrence Durrell called ‘the invisible constant’; it is the thread that holds the history of a place together, the sense of sameness that cuts through the past like a furrow through a field.

* * *

AS I walked slowly back towards the boat, a cloud of arctic terns – called tirricks in Shetland – billowed like a smoke signal from a beach just ahead. Some of the birds drifted southwards, swooping then hovering above me, pinned like little crucifixes against the sky. Everything about the terns is sharp – beak, wings, tail – even their cries are serrated. And their tiny forms belie an aggression that can terrify the unwary walker. Like the Arctic and great skuas that share this island with them, tirricks attack without hesitation anyone who seems to threaten their nesting ground. There is no subtlety in their assault.

It occurred to me, almost too late, that I had forgotten why I was here on the island. The departure time for the ferry was approaching, but I pulled the map out of my bag and tried to locate the parallel on the paper. I was only a hundred metres or so from the line, it seemed, so I hurried ahead to find it. But when I turned the next corner I stopped again, for standing just where I was heading was the man in the red baseball cap, staring down at his GPS. Clearly he too was looking for the parallel. The man took a few steps back, and consulted the gadget again, head down. By this time he was only ten metres or so away, and soon noticed that I was standing watching. He turned, as if to ask what I was doing. I smiled the best smile I could muster, which probably looked more half-witted than friendly. He didn’t smile back. I wasn’t sure what to do. I could have spoken to him, told him that we were both looking for the same thing, but somehow the seconds passed and we continued to stand there, each hoping the other would just go away. I had no particular desire to explain myself, and he, it seemed, felt the same way. It was an awkward moment, and in the end it was me who gave up and moved on. I nodded, then put my head down and walked towards the jetty, where the little boat was waiting. 


60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home 

Malachy Tallack 

Polygon, £12.99, ISBN 978 1846973369, PP208

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