The New Hall, with Sumburgh Head lighthouse in the background.

At the risk of turning this blog into the story of what I did on my holidays I thought I would post a few pictures of Jarlshof, a prehistoric site at the southern tip of Shetland, at Sumburgh Head. It is generally considered the most important prehistoric site on Shetland, dating back to around 2500BC and inhabited more or less without interruption until the 1600s. Sir Walter Scott was a commissioner for the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head and set his novel The Pirate (1822) in the most modern of the houses at Jarlshof, the biggest ruin in the pictures.

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What I most like about sites like this is the sense of people living in them. You can imagine these rough huts, with their turf roofs, and would be glad of their shelter even now. I particularly like the way that the geometric patterns of human dwellings is both imposed on the landscape and is forced to fit into it.

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Apart from the Norse long house and the latest building, almost everything here is curved, and yet even the curves are built from layers of rocks, laid carefully upon on one another with a plan in mind.

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Jarlshof contains most of the types of ancient construction used on Shetland, from early buildings to brochs and wheelhouses, and a Norse settlement that dominated the village for 400 years from the 800s AD. There is also a medieval farm and, most prominent of all the New Hall, which inspired Scott. Anyway, Jarlshof is a fascinating, atmospheric place. I hope you enjoy the pictures.

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Whales, Puffins, and a Borrowed Zoom Lens

Puffin looking at the sky.
One eye on the sky, looking for skuas.

Like most people who enjoy taking pictures the closest I get to photographing unusual wildlife is at the zoo. While an ancient film camera is perfectly adequate for shooting the exotic creatures stalking the streets of Liverpool, I don’t have the funds for the kind of equipment needed to get really close-up shots of anything more reclusive. Even so, a trip to Shetland seemed like an opportunity to play at wildlife photography, so I borrowed a Tamron 18-200mm ‘superzoom’  lens from my sister (Thanks Sis) and set out with high hopes. We had three goals: to see dolphins, whales, and puffins.

Orcas at Levenwick, Shetland, July 28, 2013.
Orcas at Levenwick, Shetland, July 28, 2013.

We got lucky on day one when our neighbour (and owner of our holiday apartment) came over to say that orcas had been spotted just off the coast nearby. It turned out to be a pod of four (or maybe five) and they treated us to a spectacular display of the kind that wildlife television crews sit around in wet tents for months to see.

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This included a demonstration of seal throwing that was both thrilling and quite harrowing to watch, especially when it became clear that they were doing it for fun and not for food. You can’t see the seal in the picture above, but it’s in there somewhere.

Even at 200mm the lens wasn’t really adequate at that distance–I reckon I needed at least twice that to get really close–but some cropping helped bring them closer. Here’s an excellent video taken by John Moncrieff not long before we arrived.

We had even more good luck at Sumburgh Head the following day, where not only were there loads of puffins scattered across the sloping cliff tops, but a pair popped out of their burrow right at our feet.

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Photographing these birds was easy. They were well within the range of the 200mm lens–some of them were close enough to photograph with a phone–and even those further away kept still long enough for me to compose the shot.

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It was trickier capturing them in flight. The autofocus on the Tamron lens just wasn’t fast or accurate enough to lock on to them as they approached from the sea.

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Tracking them as they took off and plunged down the cliff was easier, but I wanted a landing shot.

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I finally got one as we were leaving, but more by luck than judgement. This image is cropped too as the bird was quite far away. I was quite impressed by the lens, which is small and light despite its wide range, but it is an old design now and the slow autofocus and lack of stabilisation were sometimes irritating. I’d go for the newer Tamron 18-270mm, which has a welcome extra bit of reach and is stabilised to reduce camera shake. Overall, despite the limitations, it was refreshing to use one ‘do everything’ lens for a change. If I was thinking of buying a new crop-sensor DSLR I’d be tempted to buy a body on its own and one of these to go with it, rather than the standard kit lens.

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We never did see dolphins, but getting this close (and closer) to these charming little birds, while they ignored us, was quite a thrill.

Shetland Sixareens and Arctic Whaleboats

Boats moored in Hays Dock, Lerwick.
Boats moored in Hays Dock, Lerwick.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whalers left their home ports in England and mainland Scotland in late February or March heading for the Arctic fishing grounds. Many of them stopped at Shetland, which is about a third of the way between ports such as Whitby and the edge of the ice where Bowhead whales spent the summer months. There they picked up supplies, spent a day or two adjusting ballast, but most importantly they collected men to complete their crews. In some cases almost half the crew of a Hull whaleship would consist of ‘Shetland Men’ who had a reputation for good seamanship, especially in small open rowing boats.

A modern sixareen in the boat shed at the Lerwick Museum.
A modern sixareen in the boat shed at the Lerwick Museum.

It is not immediately obvious why a man from Shetland would be prized over one from any number of fishing villages on the east coast of England or Scotland, or at least it wasn’t to me until I visited Shetland and found out about the Sixareen, a six-oared boat with a prow at each end used for fishing, and its smaller cousins, Yoals, Fourareens and haddock boats. These boats, many of which were imported from Norway before 1830–Shetland has very few trees–were used on fishing trips, sometimes with a small sail to supplement the effort of the rowers. Sixareens were used for deep-sea fishing on trips lasting three days or more. Shetland’s lack of roads at that time also meant that it was quicker and easier to travel around by sea than over land so they were also used for general transport around the islands for people as well as animals and other cargo. Sixareens and Yoals, or boats like them, are now used for racing.

Yoal made at Shetland Museum, Lerwick.
Yoal made at Shetland Museum, Lerwick.

I’m far from an expert in the details of these boats, but the similarity between the smaller, narrower Yoal and a whaleboat is striking, and Shetland men, besides being used to spending time at sea in small open boats, must have been physically well prepared for rowing at speed for long periods. In contrast, whaleship crews from ports in mainland Britain would have less experience, and significantly less long-distance rowing ability.

Small boats in Hay's Dock, Lerwick.
Hay’s Dock, Lerwick.

The boats pictured above are at the Shetland Museum, which is at Hay’s Dock in Lerwick, the last part of Lerwick harbour remaining from the early nineteenth century. Hay’s Dock was new when William Scoresby Jr. and the Arctic whaling fleet anchored in Bressay Sound on their way northward. Scoresby’s aim was to recruit whaleboat crews, but It is intriguing to wonder whether the connection went both ways, and whether Sixareens, Yoals and Fourareens influenced the design of whaleboats themselves.

Steps up to the pier at Hay's Dock, Lerwick.
Steps up to the pier at Hay’s Dock, Lerwick.