Shetland – Episode 4 : Into the Light

Tosh begins to see the light and suggests that DI Perez should perhaps take a visit to hell.

We returned to the Mainland, taking a slightly different route through Yell. It’s one of those islands visitors tend to drive through rather than stay on and probably would warrant a few days exploration. However, we hadn’t been able to find much if any accommodation available so, like everyone else, we were just in transit. Back on the mainland we detoured into Lerwick to stock up on supplies as we knew they would be limited where we were headed.

Shopping done and heading back northwards we reached Mavis Grind (of which, more in another episode) and a sign declaring this to be North Mavine – out in the wilds of the frozen north where men are men and women are too. Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but there is a definite feeling of otherness to this area of Shetland. The hills are almost mountains, the land is fissured and fractured and at Sullom Voe on the east coast there is the UK’s largest oil and gas terminal.

Our destination was on the west coast – the dramatic cliffs and headland of Eshaness. The route became a narrow tarmac road with passing places and it seemed to be an age before we could just about discern our home for the next week standing right at the edge of the land – Eshaness Lighthouse.

Eshaness Lighthouse

The lighthouse dates from 1929 and it isn’t your classic picture book lighthouse with a tall, stripey tower. Instead it’s a rather squat building with a square tower a mere 12 metres high but it sits on a cliff face 61 metres (nearly 200 feet) above sea level so its light can be seen 25 nautical miles out on the sea. That’s beyond the oil rigs you can just about make out on the horizon. The reason for the lighthouse being here in the first place was because of the increase in oil tanker traffic bound for Sullom Voe after the first world war and a very dangerous set of semi-submerged rocks over 8 miles out at Ve Skerries.

There is no lighthouse keeper here these days. The light is controlled remotely by the Northern Lighthouse Board from some location and engineers only visit once a year. The house itself can be rented from the Shetland Amenity Trust and it’s a bit of a functional building with walls that are so thick you can hardly hear the waves or wind, despite what the weather throws at you – and we have had some weather thrown believe me. Surprisingly, the only view of the sea is from the small back bedroom windows. But when the sun sets, ever later at night, the view can be glorious.

At this time of the year sun set doesn’t actually herald darkness just a dimming of the light – the simmer dim in local parlance. And, indeed, if you look out of your eastern window around two to three am you will see a glow very much like sunset only it is sunrise. And this isn’t even mid-summer when it just doesn’t get dark in these northern latitudes.

The landscape of Eshaness was forged in the fires of hell. Around 360 million years ago a series of volcanic eruptions rent the earth apart. The blackened, ochre and red rocks and the evidence of sucesive larva flows tell their story of a violent past.

The geology of this place is endlessly fascinating. Just a few hundred feet away from our lighthouse is a deep gash in the earth, a geo, with a vertigo inducing, vertical drop into the ocean below. Remember, this is several hundred feet high and with no fence, barrier or safety device preventing you from a sudden and undoubtedly fatal fall into the water below. But the Fulmars ride the viscious updraft with absolute ease. We never tire of watching these incredible aerial acrobats as they attempt to reverse into a tiny ledge in a force 5 or 6 wind. We feel like clapping every time they make it.

A Fulmar in late evening sunlight

But their feat seems nothing against the tiny black and white form of the Puffins which gather in a raft in the bucking seas before launching themselves at the cliff face on whirring wings to attempt a landing on the smallest of ledges not occupied by an aggresive and unwelcoming Fulmar.

A pair of Puffin

Given its glorious position it isn’t surprising that the lighthouse gets quite a number of visitors during the daytime and the ocassional camper van parked overnight. But later in the evening, when most folk have left we can wander the clifftops in perfect solitude, checking on our avian neighbours, listening to the crashing waves, trying to stay upright in the biting wind and watching the ever changing cloud-scape. And each evening, come wind or high weather, we go out to see our Puffins, to marvel at their pluck and courage, to see them reunited, to gaze at their gorgeous, daft colours and to give thanks that we can witness such a spectacle amongst all the madness in the world. It is like taking a deep, calming breath.

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