To the North. May 2013.

I got the time of the boat wrong; fortunately arriving early, not late. I had two hours to spend in Aberdeen; I wandered around, had a coffee, had some chocolate. The centre of Aberdeen seemed badly hit by the downturn, with many shops closed out vacant; yet oil money was meant to keep the city buoyant whatever happened in the broader economy. It might be that the petrol dollars are not evenly distributed, and that the centre suffers whilst offer parts boom.

I went to the Maritime Museum, down by the docks. It is an excellent museum, though full of images of disaster. Oil paintings of wrecked vessels and drowning sailors abound; one display after another recount tales of bravery and folly at sea: while fishing fleets destroyed by a turn in the weather. Fishing families, poor at best, devastated as all the men drown. (This must be why so much of the folk music is full of despair.)

Worst of all was the detailed exhibit on the Piper Alpha disaster. Twenty five years ago, the drilling platform caught fire, killing 167 men (including some rescuers); the 61 survivors were scarred physically and mentally. (The father of a friend of mine was a psychiatrist who worked with survivors at an Aberdeen hospital – and apparently he found it traumatising enough.) It is hard to comprehend the horror. On a rig, there’s nowhere to escape to. Even today, the disaster hangs over the city, which is dependent on oil.

After this litany of disaster – all of it heart-rending – I was surprised not to see an RNLI collection box anywhere. They’d have cleaned up. The museum is excellent, well put together and engaging, if a little depressing. That’s life at sea, I guess.

Shetland is a long way, nearer Norway than Scotland; the Arctic Circle is nearer than Edinburgh. The ferry takes twelve hours to get there, ploughing through the rough waves and calamitous North Sea swells that caused so much of the damage described in the museum. Or, fortunately, not. On this occasion, the sea was flat as a pancake.

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Aberdeen harbour is busy, full of oil support vessels and large rescue craft (in part a legacy of Piper Alpha). The quays are crammed with oil storage tanks and steel containers (everything is taken onto and off the rigs in containers). There are even ice-breakers.


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The sky and the sea were the same gun metal grey. I spent a lot of time on the deck, watching the north east coast slip by until we were out of sight. The occasional splodge of bright orange set against the grey showed where the rigs were, the gas flames flowing unnaturally. (You can see the same from Edinburgh, from gas processing works in Fife, across the Forth.)

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The ferry goes overnight, leaving Scotland in the evening and arriving in Shetland – Lerwick – in the morning. You can book cabins, but not wanting to share, instead I booked a “sleeping pod” – a kind of deluxe chair – largely because the idea of having to share a cabin really didn’t appeal. Really bad plan! Firstly because the boat was pretty quiet, so I doubt I’d have had to share; but mostly because it was very hard to sleep in the ill-named sleeping pods.

It barely got dark. Six weeks before the solstice, the sun hardly dipped below the horizon. There was a strip of bright sky in the north throughout the night. At 2am, the darkest, the clouds have enough glow to cast a (very weak) shadow; a week later, it was possible to read outside at that time, without a torch.

There were distant lights on the horizon. Ships that pass in the night.

I was wide awake by 5am, full-Scottish breakfasted by 6, when the canteen (and bar!) opened, and on deck to watch us arrive in Lerwick at 6.30. Low cloud hung over Mainland as we passed the long spur that starts with Sumburgh and ends in Lerwick.

I first stocked up with food, as soon as the supermarket opened, and then drive north. Further north. Unst is a further two ferry rides from Mainland – Yell lies in between (home to its own fishing tragedy – 58 men drowned, 36 from the small village of Gloup). I took the back road over Yell, following the south and then east costs. I stopped at the community museum, which had some interesting displays (not least about Gloup, but also paintings and a bit about the wildlife), and had a coffee. Kind of. Nescafe, in fact, which I hadn’t had for years. For reasons I don’t understand, no one seemed to make real coffee on the islands. Everywhere I went, they had Nescafe. Good thing I bought ground coffee at Lerwick.

I was the only passenger on the ferry between Yell and Unst. It would be a quiet week.

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