Our Weekend Wanders: Fetlar

August 13, 2019

I only thought about sharing this post after I’d been to Fetlar last weekend, otherwise I might have taken more photos, but here are some – and a few thoughts – from our most recent trip there.

Fetlar is a very special place to me. Lots of places in Shetland are dear to me, but Fetlar holds a particular place in my heart. The fourth largest of these isles, it’s known as “the garden of Shetland” due to its green and fertile land. But that’s not why I love it.

Tilly lamps burning through New Year power cuts. The hubbub of a village hall packed with bodies, warm from dancing, the background chatter punctuated by a practice piano-accordion chord. Huge skies. Sunny days spent in rubber boots, rolling “oo” (wool) during clipping time, hands greasy with lanolin and noses thick with the smell of sheep shit and wool.

Jumping off my dad’s boat into the freezing North Sea. Bloodied mackerel flip-flopping to their plastic bucket graves. Paddling in the lochs. Walking for miles as a teenager around dark, starlit, single track roads, speaking nonsense with pals.

Whisky, salt, tang, a heather breeze.

These are some distilled memories of Fetlar. I spent most of my childhood holidays there, and more time besides, with my Dad and his side. My family have been there for as long ago as there are records – which, I think, is to around 1530. They have been crofters and fishermen, knitters and child-bearers there for centuries, so it’s probably no wonder I feel a connection to to the place. 

It’s no island idyll. Like many rural communities, it faces challenges: depopulation being the biggest, exacerbated by transport issues, and employment and housing concerns. The island’s population has been dropping for decades, and although families have moved in over the years, it’s difficult to get people to stay.

My Granny’s house, with the green roof.

Often, I think, people have an idea of what life in a small rural island is like. Perhaps they imagine peace, a simpler way of life – and both of those things are there. But rural islands are also communities, and a community you don’t get to choose: there’s a certain amount of mucking in that’s essential for everything to run smoothly; a lot of selflessness and cooperation. “Running away from it all” to a small island might seem appealing, but a lot of the time it doesn’t work. Relationship issues, mental health problems; these things will follow you and in all likelihood be amplified in the vacuum and distraction that more people and busier places offer. There’s very little anonymity, somewhere like Fetlar. There’s nowhere to hide.

That’s not to say a big lifestyle change can’t be a wonderful thing, and I hope I’ve not scared anyone considering a rural move off! I’d just say do your research, and be realistic.

Fetlar has everything you’d really need: there’s a primary school and a shop, a nurse’s surgery, an interpretive centre (with an excellent local museum and archives). Part of the island is a RSBP reserve. There’s a well equipped hall (a cafe is open there during summer months, and the bar is open at the weekends). A local joiner. The people are some of the loveliest around.

And for children, for a holiday explore, it can’t be beat.

The beach at Tresta is one of my favourite places in the world: known locally as “Da Links”, it has pale golden sand, blue green sea, and at the far end, tall cliffs with swooping seabirds. The dunes back onto a flat grassy area and a loch – both of which have been the location of football matches and daft raft races over the years. I spent lots of my childhood here, rolling eggs at Easter with cousins, platching about in the sand, wind whipping our faces. Even as an adult I find the place weirdly magical. Being able to take my own children here and make memories with them is a very lovely thing.

And there are plenty of other “magical” places. Fetlar is steeped in folklore and stories, particularly those about trows (small troll-like people) who come out at night. The “fairy ring”, or Haltadans, is an ancient stone circle, which legend has it was formed by a group of trows dancing to fiddle music being played by a man and his wife. They were having such a good time they didn’t notice the sun coming up, and were turned to stone. There are many more stories like this, and plenty of archaeological sites of interest.

To get to Fetlar from mainland Shetland you have to take two ferries: one to the neighbouring island of Yell, and then one on to Fetlar. Accommodation wise there are only a couple of options, one of them being a comfy camping bod above the beach at Aithbank (it’s actually more like a very basic house – there are bunk beds, a simple kitchen, and a toilet and shower block outside).

If you ever have a chance to go, please do. Go for big walks through the hill, visit the Tresta links (the beach here) and swim in the sea or the loch, look for red necked phalaropes and other birds, and breath in the freshest air you can imagine.

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