Just over a year ago, I stood by the shore on a brilliant, starry night in Scalloway, carrying a flaming torch in my gloved hands. On all sides were men and women dressed as though we were in 9th-century Scandinavia and not 21st-century Shetland. We watched as a wooden ship – clinker-built in that curved, distinctive Viking shape – was launched into the water before we threw our torches into the hull to set the ship alight. Off she went: flaming, crackling, as cheers rose up around us.
This was Up Helly Aa, the wild winter festival that serves as a powerful reminder that the Shetland Islands are much closer, geographically speaking, to Bergen in Norway than they are to Edinburgh. It speaks to a geography of the mind, too. Go to Shetland once and you may miss it for the rest of your life.
So I was glad to find myself in Hackney on 28 February for “A Shetland Night in London”, a celebration of the islands, organised by the curator and art consultant Helen Nisbet to exhibit the food and culture of her birthplace in the south.
There were about 80 of us upstairs in the private room of a bar overlooking London Fields, starting the evening with cocktails and oatcakes served with potted Shetland salmon as we watched two extraordinary films. Clavel, by the writer-turned-film-maker Shona Main, follows an 85-year-old crofter, James Robert Sinclair, as he tends the sheep on his smallholding despite medical difficulties that have forced him to live in sheltered housing in a village nearby.
It provided the perfect companion piece to In Sheep’s Clothing, a short silent film about the islands’ wool industry, shot in 1932 by the documentary-maker Jenny Gilbertson, who was among the first solo female documentary directors. The two films made for fascinating companion pieces – portraits of change and continuity. Both demonstrate in different ways the particular nature of the Shetland Islands. When I went there last year, in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum, I expected that Shetlanders would be in favour of independence. That was not the case at all. Islanders overwhelmingly voted No.
“Shetlanders have such a strong identity,” Shona Main tells me. “They’re not drawn in by the Scottish struggle. Holyrood is as far away as Westminster to them!” She laughs. Though Main is now based in Dundee, her home islands are never far from her mind: “I can’t separate the idea of myself from the idea of Shetland – the greens and blues, the light, the cycle of life and death. When I’m thinking about writing, my head is in Shetland.”
It’s striking that when I talk to Nisbet separately, she speaks in very similar terms about the place. She, too, finds the memory of her native islands “very emotional” and misses the sense of community, the way that people of all ages seem to mix. “I never see people in their seventies here in London,” she says.
That community has done well, in part thanks to North Sea oil reserves, about two-thirds of which lie in Shetland waters. But there’s more to it than that.
After the films, we ate Shetland mussels and mutton pie cooked by a London chef, Anna Tobias, who works with Margot Henderson at east London’s chic Rochelle Canteen. Tobias had brought along Margot and her husband, Fergus, of the St John restaurant. Tonight’s food was “fantastic”, he said.
As well as providing fine food, however, the evening held the same sense of Shetland warmth I felt last year, up in the high north, and have never forgotten. “If you don’t go for a while, something’s missing,” Nisbet said to me. She’s right.