My last day in Shetland, and it's real Shetland weather, windy and rainy, so I'm not much looking forward to the crossing on the Northlink tonight.
The launch party on Friday night was wonderful. So many old friends turned out. Lots of people who had once lived on Fair Isle. Bill and Margo who still live on the Isle were on their way south. The sound man was Michael Stout, whom I'd last met as a schoolboy! Sarah, my editor had flown in from London the day before. There were people who'd helped me with the writing of the book, library staff, Arthur from the Arts Trust. And readers, plenty of readers. The whole event managed with efficiency and good humour by Silvija, Shetland libraries manager.
James and Claire, two members of the Shetland Youth Theatre did the readings for me. They read magnificently and though I don't usually like hearing my work out loud, the local accents and young voices brought the story to life in a way I hadn't thought possible. And then it was off to the Lounge for a couple of beers with the library people and poet in residence Jen Hadfield. More talk of books.
On Saturday, Marsali Taylor, a local writer, took Sarah and me sailing out of Aith. The day was so still that I couldn't believe we'd ever move, but we did, up the voe towards the open sea, followed by seals and scattering seabirds from the rocks. Sarah flew home on Saturday afternoon and took the good weather home with her.
Sunday was foul. A blanket of cloud and driving rain. I'd arranged to go to Yell one of the north isles, to the Wind Dog cafe, to meet some of the local writers and readers. The ferry was full of schoolkids on their way to a netball competition, dressed in shorts despite the cold. I'd brought Ingirid and Ann, two friend with me for moral support. I couldn't believe anyone would turn out on such a dreadful day. In the end we were a small but select gathering - including a local storyteller, a school librarian, and Wendy who lives right at the north end of Unst, the most northerly place to live in the UK.
And now it's my last day. Time to head south. But I'll be back. There's research to do for the next book.
Up Helly Aa
I arrived into Shetland at dawn on Tuesday on the northlink ferry. A clear frosty day. The right way to arrive in the island. The last Tuesday in January. Up Helly Aa. This forms the climax to my book. I've never been to the Shetland Fire Festival before. What if I got it all wrong?
I hadn't expected the scale of the thing. Nearly a thousand men in the parade. People start to gather before seven to watch. Just a sliver of moon and the stars very bright. Then the squads appear, lining up on each side of a straight road. They're in fancy dress. There are blue cows, penguins, men in fishnets and sequins... Down the middle a band marches, stirring up the crowd. At seven thirty the street lights go out, a rocket shoots into the sky and as if by magic, at least by some well practised sleight of hand, the torches are lit. We can feel the heat of them from where we're standing. The parade starts, led by the galley which has been months in the making, the Jarl's Squad dressed as Vikings, then all the Guizers.
We can't see much of the burning - too many people gathered around the playground where it'll take place. The PA system booms.
'Three cheers for the boys who built the galley.'
'Three cheers for the boys who lit the torches.'
'Three cheers for the Guizer Jarl.'
And behind me a voice. Female. Shetland. 'Three bloody cheers for when they let the women in.'
At last all the guizers are gathered around the galley. A row at a time they throw the torches into the boat. From where we stand all we can see are the flames licking around the top of the mast. At the top there's a pennant with the design of a raven on it. I wish I'd known about that at the time I wrote the book. It would have been a nice touch.
Photos © Marsali Taylor 2006