Have plane, might travel

A bout of severe weather exposes the vulnerability of fast-paced modern lifestyles

It is surprising how quickly you stop taking certain things for granted. Travelling, for instance.

At this moment I really shouldn’t be here. I am supposed to be 100 miles north of Fair Isle, in Unst, staying with my brother. But I’m not. I’m still at home.

After the gilded promises of last weekend, when the sun threatened to become a familiar visitor, we were brought firmly back to reality this week with some fairly horrific wind and rain, and, of course, transport has suffered. My flight on Friday afternoon was cancelled because of the weather, and a replacement flight on Saturday morning didn’t go either. It is now Sunday, but I will have to wait until tomorrow to travel. Well, hopefully tomorrow.

Travel delays here are common. Very common. The plane, which links Fair Isle and mainland Shetland, can’t fly if it is too windy, or the wind is in the wrong direction, or if it’s foggy, or if there’s low cloud, or snow, or ice, or if there are technical problems, which there are frustratingly often. (In fact, a brand new plane, just purchased by the council to provide the inter-island service, was recently stuck in Fair Isle for a week after suffering a cracked exhaust. The pilot and passengers had to be rescued by a second plane, and engineers were flown up from England to make the aircraft safe to remove.)

The ferry too is severely affected by the weather. During the winter months it sails only once a week: every Tuesday, in theory. But strong winds or heavy swell can make the crossing to Shetland impossible, and days, weeks even, can pass without a sailing.

The boat provides a vital link for the island, bringing essential food supplies, milk, bread and newspapers, so a delay can be a serious inconvenience. As of today, we have not had a boat for 11 days. However, relief has come from a special “freight plane”, which reached the island on Wednesday, carrying vegetables, milk, bread and other necessaries, so starvation is not on the cards just yet.

Shetland is a very windy place, with an average of 42 days of gales each year (a number that seems to be growing as the climate changes). Some of the strongest winds ever recorded in Britain have been recorded here, including an unofficial record gust of more than 150 knots, on New Year’s Day, 1992. Later that night, the anemometer which took the recording, at Muckle Flugga Lighthouse in Unst, blew away.

Last month, when mainland Britain was struck by strong winds, the Northern Isles were one of the few places to escape the gales. It was rather odd to see the chaos that erupted across the country. Here, winds of those speeds are not nearly so unusual, but the damage they cause tends to be minimal. Houses are built to withstand the weather, and significantly, there are no trees to blow over.

But with weather like that delays are something we get used to. When planning a journey off the island, it is prudent to allow several days extra travelling time just to be safe. And sometimes even that is not enough.

People spend so much time rushing around these days that even the slightest interruption to their schedule can throw them into fits of utter distress and helplessness. We rely on cars, trains, planes, buses and boats every day to get us where we want to be. Fast. But living in a place where our reliance is so easily undermined is a good reminder of how vulnerable that lifestyle really is.

Photographs: David Wheeler