watch and listen to the waves uninterrupted by anything other than the cry and swoop of fulmar, Arctic Skua and oyster-catcher. It's a wonderful, dramatic, isolated place. On one unseasonably sunny day last October, we watched half a dozen seals bobbing about in the water until, with resignation and disbelief, we pulled ourselves away to head for the boat home and a return to our southern life.
I kept thinking about this remote part of Shetland as I was reading Jim Crace's excellent historical novel, The Gift of Stones. At the southern tip of the peninsula, looking towards Sumburgh Head and, ultimately, Fair Isle is the Ness of Burgi an Iron Age promontory fort and blockhouse. It is reached by a steep scramble up the rocks, with a rope handrail to your left for perilous clinging onto should it be windy - as it usually is on Shetland. The Historic Scotland sign among the ruined structure says: "We cannot be sure what this building was used for - a platform for rituals, a symbolic display of power and prestige, a defensive refuge, a coastal family home, or a mixture of these?" It is precisely this not knowing that adds to the air of mystery and excitement about this now uninhabited spot. I always feel a sense of awe at the thought of previous generations of humans occupying this space and eking out whatever precarious, or indeed rich and powerful, existence they could make possible there. Whatever kind of life it was, it couldn't have been easy. And it is no easy life that Crace describes in his story of a prosperous but insular Stone Age coastal community learning to come to terms with the arrival of invaders who bring a new metal [bronze] that threatens their livelihood.
Crace's littoral descriptions are one of the particular delights of this book. "The clifftop path was cut by wolves and goats. It made no sense. At times it ran, ankle-deep, as straight as sunlight across thickets of winkle-berries…I breakfasted on fruit. But then...(t)heir paths ran out. I did the best I could, but made mistakes. I finished up on rocky promontories where going on meant sprouting wings. I found good downward paths to silent coves which offered no escape except by going back. I fell from rocks. I cut my shins. At least I wasn’t lost... Any fool could turn about and follow the clfftops home.” As with our walk on Scatness, a lone dog keeps the story-teller company. Available food consists of guillemot, eel, seakale, goose eggs, scallops, mussels, crab, and laver and samphire "picked at low tide in summer from the marshes". In one of his stories, the story-teller describes what it is like in the world beyond what is familiar to his audience: “The landscape changed. It was not cliffs and coves. Low heathland swept gently to the shoe where thrift and black-tufted lichens lived side by side on rocks with barnacles and limpets. There were clumps of seablite, flourishing on spray, There was arrow grass and milkwort. All the herbs and medicines and dye plants that we saw bunched and dried and up for barter in the marketplace were in abundance here… I collected seablite for its purple fleshy leaves. Good for stews and dyeing wool.”
And as the community make their way into this new world at the end of the book, it is these words that are repeated as they are leaving the village, acknowledging the description from the story teller. His gift has made the unknown seem familiar, the unsafe seem possible, as the next tale for this small human community unfolds.