02 June 2012

The Sea Which Surrounds Us is Big

A few 'tweets' from a 'tweep' whom I follow (god, the terminology) reminded me that I failed to add a blog about my trip to Shetland, which followed on from the Orkney visit described in my last blog (shamefully over a month ago). Although I've been to Orkney many times, this was my first visit to Shetland in over a decade, and only my second visit ever (about time too). It's always good to be reminded of both how similar and how different the two island groups are. Visually, they are linked by Fair Isle - I could see it both from North Ronaldsay, and then again from the living-room window of the friends I was staying with on Westside in Shetland. The visit was quite a short one, though I managed to see lots of interesting things. Here, I'll just mention a couple of places well-known to me through sagas and poetry, and then another wee couple of things.

Girlsta Loch (pictured left) is quite a gloomy and forbidding place, and it's easy to imagine the death by drowning there of Geirhildr, daughter of Flóki, the víkingr mikill who, according to Landnámabók, was one of the three main discoverers of Iceland. The name is oddly appropriate, though the 'Girl-' in Girlsta has nothing to do with her maidenhood, as the name seems to be the reflex of an original Geirhildarstaðir. This means then, of course, that the story doesn't quite add up, since Geirhildarstaðir implies that she was there long enough to give her name to the farm and not, as Landnámabók suggests, that she just fell into the loch while her father was anchored in Flókavágr, wherever that is. But then the anecdotes of Landnámabók are generally lapidary, and you get a sense that they convey some fundamental truth, even though they don't know all the details. At any rate, it shows that 13th-century Icelanders knew that there was a place of that name in Shetland.

Especially exciting for me was to see Gullberwick (pictured right), where, according to Orkneyinga saga, Earl Rögnvaldr was shipwrecked, probably in the autumn of 1148, and composed several witty stanzas about it and the aftermath - they lost all their goods, but luckily no lives, so he could laugh about it. I particularly like the stanza in which he complains about the deleterious effect of the shipwreck on his clothing, and his promise to be properly dressed next time he arrives somewhere by ship:
Skekk hér skinnfeld hrokkinn;
skrauts mér afar lítit;
stórr, sás stendr of órum,
stafnvöllr yfirhöfnum.
Nærgis enn af úrgum
álvangs mari göngum
- brim rak hest við hamra
húns - skrautligar búnir.
I shake out here a wrinkled leather garment; it provides me with very little finery; the prow-field [sea] which surrounds our outerwear is big. Some day we'll go more finely dressed from a spray-swept horse of the eel plain [sea = ship]; surf drove the stallion of the mast-head [ship] onto cliffs.
Regular readers of my blog will know I like coming over old buses and tractors on my island voyages. This time round, I not only got to see a lovely old bus (pictured left), but to meet the gentleman (Pat Isbister) who used to drive it and own the company. Pat is the husband of my friend's Cousin Betty, who gave us coffee and cakes and, most wonderful of all, a copy of the calendar depicting many of their old buses through the years - heaven! The calendar was made for a worthy cause, the Shetland Stroke Support Group - check them out if you can. And thanks to everyone for their wonderful Shetland hospitality.

One final thing which I hope will raise a smile is this house, built for a well-known fiddler, proclaiming his passion to everyone who passes by:

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