Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - For distance, Shetland wins by miles

I have been pleased to read Tom Morton's implied acknowledgement over the past couple of months that in Shetland, home of "horizontal rain", he inhabits a place that is both fresher and farther out than Galloway, where the warm Gulf Stream fosters a healthy growth of paIm trees and what Fodor's guide to Scotland terms "other southern hemisphere exotica". If not a lot of people know about our exotica, it could be because, according to our tourist slogan, Dumfries and Galloway is "Scotland's best kept secret"; a psychologically distancing description if ever there was one.

As for literal distance, though, Shetland wins hands down. As Morton explained (Fresh in from far out, 25 October), Shetland lies 200 miles from the mainland, at the end of the "longest, most exposed, most dangerous ferry route in Britain". However, what I recall most particularly about that voyage, when a girlfriend and I made it many years ago, was the nature of my fellow northern tourists. As I rose at dawn from a body-cricking sleep, they were already alert to the day. They favoured greens and browns; seriously expensive outdoor kit with studs, zips and clasps. They lifted binoculars to their eyes, not randomly as I did, but with the expectation of having intuitions confirmed. A range of equipment hung from them: geological hammers, do-it-all knives, cameras with intimidating zooms, for nothing they wished to photograph would pose against a railing. And I thought of those other ferries, the ones I usually took, which headed south, and of the slack-limbed lotus eaters who filled them: people with no real skills, aptitudes, knowledge or energy; their flimsy day bags packed with fat novels and sun cream. And I felt like a fifth columnist heading north.

So, desperately chasing the authentic as usual, once Lerwick's pavements stopped lilting beneath our feet, I asked about a ferry to another island - Fair Isle, perhaps? Ah no, we were told, Fair Isle's too touristy these days. If you want the authentic island experience, Foula is where you want to go.

When, at Walls harbour on the west of the main island, a fisherman pointed out to us the Foula ferry, I declared the boat a fair enough size for the journey. Ah but no, that was a fishing boat; the ferry to Foula was the outside boat. And there, at the end of a set of boats laid out like Russian dolls, was a launch that barely cleared the water. There was panic in our eyes.

If you were to ask me the location of Foula - the most distantly inhabited island in the British Isles - I would have to say that, to my certain knowledge, it is in the middle of the Atlantic, at least halfway to America. For an eternity, it seemed, we sat on a narrow wooden bench seeing first the sky, then the sea. Sea, sky. Sea, sky. When the engine cut midway and we bobbed on the waves as the boatman guddled with the mechanics, fumes filling the cabin, my whole system was in uproar. Dark jokes were cracked, yet I didn't dare even smile. I needed all my concentration to seal up the pandemonium of my innards. It was only a temporary denial. That night, I crawled out of our tent, and beneath the moon, naked as a herring, the pent-up sea breached my every orifice.

It was only once we were safely ashore on Foula that we heard the stories of Christmas cards delivered in March; of the person who had come to visit and settIed, unable to face the ferry trip home. Strangely, I discovered that one who had settled was the daughter of my old Latin master. He and his wife had spent time here; he teaching, she as a nurse. Their daughter had been courted by a local and now lived in a smaIl farm at the bottom of the island.

To visit her, we crossed the back of the island, frequently dive-bombed by nesting great skuas, past cliffs where puffins were so close we could almost have kissed their orange soles. Once in her snug farm kitchen, I tried to hold together her present with my memories of Hippo in the tree-lined elegance of Edinburgh's Regent Terrace, making a class of wee boys giggle at the Latin number sex.

Like others before us, we couldn't face the trip back and flew from an airstrip like a patch of plucked heather.

Still, whenever I listen to the poet Christine de Luca, whose Shetlandic work is so rich you expect the objects she describes to body forth from her lips, I think of the awful movement of the Atlantic - "waas o water smored dem/brucks o boats" - and am glad that, most of the time, roads take me where I want to go.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery