Wednesday 5 October 2022

The Shetland Bus


As I stated in my last post, Shetland continues to have a strong alliance with it's former parent country, Norway. This was incredibly evident during the second world war and the Shetland Bus operation.  

On the night of April 8/9 1940, Norway was invaded by Germany. Having a long history of neutrality, Norway was unprepared for the invasion. Many Norwegians fled their homeland and headed out into the sea. The first friendly land they came to was Shetland.

Shetland was not only welcoming, but distant kin and willing to assist the Norwegians. The British military realized that if small boats could bring Norwegians to Shetland, similar sized boats could make the return journey, and hopefully stay beyond the sights of the Germans as being anything other than fishing boats. Soon a plan was hatched to use Norwegian fishing vessels to return to Norway, under cover of darkness, with operatives and artillery which were used to assist the Norwegians in their resistance against Germany. On their return, they brought refugees who were warmly welcomed into the Shetland communities.

Each trip took three weeks, in dangerous waters. The seas were stormy. Lighthouses were unlit. The men had only their compass for navigation. And all the while, the Germans were patrolling the skies around the rugged coast of Norway, watching for anything out of the ordinary.

The crew of the Shetland Bus fleet were young men who had great knowledge of the waters and the coastline of Norway.  

Fishing boats continued to be used until October 1943 when submarine chasers began to be used. In all, the Shetland Bus transported 192 agents and 383 tons of artillery and supplies to Norway. They brought out 373 refuges and 73 agents.

In the days before the submarine chasers, 44 lives were lost. There is a memorial in Scalloway honouring the bravery of these men and there is a display in the Scalloway Museum explaining the mission behind the Shetland Bus.

Tuesday 4 October 2022

And Just Like That, It's Over


In many ways the fact that I was actually going to Scotland felt surreal. This moment had been anticipated for so very long. Two and a half years long, to be exact. However, once I was on the ground, it felt as though no time had passed since my last visit home.


I was able to connect with colleagues in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Fife. I caught up with family and even met some cousins I only know virtually (What are the odds that two of my second cousins would be staying at the same wee hotel in Orkney that I was and at the same time?!)


I had a great wee group in Orkney. They were fantastic, fun and flexible and we had a wonderful week together. More touring than research but connections with cousins and with ancestors were made. We were in awe of the history that the island retains evidence of. Neolithic remnants dot the islands. Orkney is so picturesque. Gentle hills, inland lochs and miles of coastline. The major agriculture is now cattle and they clearly outnumber the people.

Orkney has a much slower pace than the rest of Scotland. In tune with the sea. And the weather. We were blessed with rainbows every afternoon, thanks to weather that literally changed every five minutes.


Orcadians never take their history for granted. A cairn or the remnants of a neolithic village may well be on their farm. They honour it and leave it as is. Our view every morning at breakfast was a look across the sea loch, Loch of Stenness, to see the standing stones at both Stenness and the larger Ring of Brodgar. Still unchanged after 5000 years. Except for a few cattle sharing the land.


From Orkney I made my way to Shetland. I have wanted to see Shetland since I first visited Orkney 6 years ago. I was told that the landscape was different but it was still a shock. Outwith the city of Lerwick, the land is rugged, vast and  sparsely populated. And I mean sparsely. It was reminiscent of the northern highlands of mainland Scotland, but more barren, if that is even possible. I could literally drive for miles and miles and encounter no one. No other car, no sign of a homestead, no animals. Shetland is more for sheep than cattle, but even the sheep were sparse.


All of the communities are coastal. And small. Usually a couple of dozen homes. Often fewer. Driving along a steep, twisting, single lane mountain road, I would see a sign pointing left to a community. Left! Where the country literally dropped off a cliff to the sea. A steep drive down would find a few scattered buildings along the coast. Many had a leisure centre and some also had a school. No corner shop. No grocery store. No clinic. No gas station. These amenities were miles away. Sometimes even a ferry ride away.


I could live in Orkney but I doubt I would survive long in Shetland. Not outwith Lerwick or Scalloway anyway. Scalloway was the original capital city - now known as the ancient capital, before the capital was moved to Lerwick. Compared to the rest of Shetland, Lerwick is a bustling town. Mostly thanks to the tourists. Scalloway is also a busy wee place. Both have wonderful museums, shops, restaurants and peaceful harbours. Surprisingly everything closes at 5 pm. There is a chippy in Lerwick that stays open until 8. And there are a couple of pubs that are open well into the evening. But shops and restaurants are closed by 5, if not earlier.


I was able to visit three islands: Unst, Yell and Mainland. There are interisland ferries between them, each about 5 - 10 minutes across. Unst has an incredible viking heritage. Replica ships, longhouses and even a broch. The Unst Heritage Centre is a small museum but one that is packed with information. As I tell everyone, "ask" when you are in any museum. The staff was so pleased to take me to the staff room and show me the wealth of genealogical records that they have available.


Unst and Yell can be done in a day. Yell has one small museum, which didn't have much on offer but which provided me a wonderful chat with a local man. He was truly delightful and I will treasure our conversation for years to come. Yell is a wonderful destination for anyone who enjoys rugged hill walks or mountain biking. The scenery is truly breathtaking.


There is so much to see in Mainland that I can quite understand why some folk never get to the north isles. I really enjoyed my time in Lerwick and making the trips to Scalloway, St Ninian's Isle, Sumburgh (Jarlshof and the Crofthouse Museum) and Bixter (the original Cake Fridge and the Shetland Pony Experience).


Shetland is at 60 degrees North. On par with Norway, Greenland, the Yukon and Nunavut. And it is easy to see the connection. The inland waterways are broken by mountain ranges, emerging out of the fjords. Truly, truly stunning. The climate will be similar although Shetland has the advantage of the effects of the North Atlantic Drift, which is the end part of the gulf stream, which, incidentally, also keeps the west of Scotland fairly moderate, temperature-wise.


Both Shetland and Orkney once belonged to Norway and Shetland has retained much of this early influence, particularly in their language, but also in their culture and their music. While road signs for places (Welcome to...) in Scotland are in both English and Gaelic, in Shetland the original Old Norse meaning of the name is given. For example, Tingwall (the field of the parliament) or Lerwick (Muddy Bay) or even Sumburgh (South broch). And in both Orkney and Shetland, words from Old Norse continue to be used like "peedie" in Orkney or "peerie" in Shetland meaning wee or small.


My final few days were spent with colleague Clare Wilson. Many of you will know of Clare from the Lanarkshire monthly presentations or from our Kilted Kulture events. Clare and I met thanks to the Lanarkshire Family History Society putting us in touch and from the first meeting she has felt like kin to me. I thoroughly enjoyed my few days with her and her husband and was sad to have to leave them. We played tourist and shared loads of laughs. And that is what time with kin is all about. Laughter.