I leave my house at dawn on a cold and windless March morning. The sky is pink and the lifeboat sits at ease at its moorings. The sea is mirror-like, only sullied here and there by the ripples of fishing seabirds. It is a wrench to leave Shetland, such calm days are rare and to be made the most of, but I look forward to being child free, and free to read. I’m on the first flight to Aberdeen where I will have a MRI scan on my spine.
To reach Sumburgh Airport from our house I need to drive over four ridgelines. At the top of the first I am momentarily lost. Everything below, the voe, settlement and road, is hidden beneath a thick band of fog. I feel myself tense as I drive down the steep gradient and into the white. I surface again part way up the next hill to see blue sky and a merlin in a glide, and far above the merlin, the contrail of a jet. At the highest point of the road I am met by the sun which has just risen over the third ridgeline. But I leave it behind almost immediately as I begin the steep descent into Weisdale, and return to the half-light of dawn. There is a large flock of curlews on the mudflats at the head of the voe. There is no wind but they all face the same way. None are feeding, all of them look towards the ridge where the sun will soon appear. Their positioning looks deliberate, as if they are waiting for the sun.
The plane descends through the haar to land at Aberdeen Airport. I’d hoped for a fine day and a buzzard soaring over the fields between the airport and the city’s edge but the bare branches of the trees drip and the birds are elsewhere. In the city, a magpie. I miss these birds. There are none in Shetland and I’ve lost a knowing of them and the splayed flamboyance of their tail feathers catches me by surprise. There are jackdaws in pairs on chimneys, I’d forgotten this too. We pause at traffic lights and through the grime of the bus windows I wonder at the sleekness of the all black crows that forage on a small patch of grass that separates a block of flats and a strip of takeaways.
At the hospital, I take a seat opposite the main reception of the radiology department. On the office wall is a painting of a sea arch on Tiree. The artist, Frances Walker, looked to have worked at low tide, as if she was sat beneath the high water mark, and so it seems that the sea will soon return to submerge much of what is in the frame.
I watch it intently. It reminds me of a place on Shetland where a small sea cave is slowly becoming a sea arch. I can only enter the cave when spring tides pull the sea far from the shore. The first time I stepped inside I half expected to find the shed skin of a selkie. Fractures in the rock walls let in the light and, on the cave’s floor, there are pebbles graded by the sea into neat groups of similar sizes. It feels like a transgression and a gift, to stand in a place more usually occupied by violently agitated water.
The MRI scanner is in a mobile trailer which is steadfast and stranded within the four towering walls of a courtyard. It is tiny and whilst I am ushered in a patient emerges from the machine room, pictures of her spine still fill the screens, and we shuffle past each other. She wishes me luck. The radiographer asks me to confirm my address, looks up from the forms and questions “So what it is like in Shetland then?” He explains that he is usually based in Cambridge but was asked to work in the hospital in Lerwick, “I looked at the map and thought, no way!” I silently echo, no way. I lived for one winter on an arable farm not far from the city and spent hours searching for birds, any bird. And the fog there, there is no escape, not even for a hunting falcon.
I lie down on my back and the radiographer leaves, closes the door and the machine slowly moves me into the small tube-shaped chamber. I feel uneasy going in head first and work hard to quell a feeling of panic. The scan starts and at first sounds like a pneumatic drill, then switches to a shouting robot. Then silence and the machine moves me further in, and starts the process all over again. An age passes but the radiographers stay quiet and I have no way of knowing how long is left. The pain at the base of my spine increases but I daren’t move and risk another scan being needed. It becomes harder not to panic, to stay still.
On the plane to Aberdeen I had been reading Nature Cure by Richard Maybe and my mind drifts back to his mentioning of ‘funerary deposits…the skull of a phalarope – now a rare migrant wading-bird in East Anglia – lying between two antler picks, arranged with their tines facing inwards’. I make a list of what I would want placed in my grave. It is an absorbing task and I’m soon distracted. A sea-cleaned otter skull from a childhood holiday to Ardnamurchan, a posy of dried wildflowers from the Romanian hay meadows of my PhD fieldwork.
I remember a conversation with my neighbour in Romania. She was explaining to me that after death, the soul of a person stays close to home and visits all the places that were dear to them. She paused, and burst out laughing, “My, Sally, your soul will be very busy”. My life has changed much since then. I got married and had two children and between these two children we moved to Shetland. Other than these occasional trips to Aberdeen, I’m now bound within this island archipelago and it is beginning to feel like home, it feels like a good place to make a home.
The scan finishes and I make my way as quickly as I can through the labyrinth of corridors to the exit with the bus stops. Stepping outside feels like a release, it is becoming a day of surfacing. In my dazed state, and adjusted to the Shetland landscape where trees are low and often wind sculpted, I feel awed by the two bare branched giants that tower above. Higher still, two small birds of prey, sparrowhawks I think they must be, glide the same tight circle one after the other and all around them herring gulls criss-cross each other’s flight paths like daredevil stunt riders.
On the bus I weigh up whether to go shopping, I have a list of clothes to buy for my children, or to jump off early to wander through streets of houses and their gardens looking for blue tits and chaffinches. I’ve seen one chaffinch in Shetland but I cannot remember the last time I saw a blue tit, it must be nearly five years ago, as long as I have lived on the islands. I stay on the bus and get off at a shopping centre. There are four enclosed shopping spaces that I know of in Aberdeen all linked by brief stretches of open street, you can work them all in a line from Bon Accord to Union Square and barely notice that there is an outside.
Between the first and the second, I take a break from the crowds and artificial light to search for birds in the Kirkyard of St Nicholas. Even though the haar has slunk away, back to the sea, it is still dismal. There is not a single bird in the many trees. I read that the ground contains nine hundred years of burials. The visible graves and memorials are austere in the extreme. In Shetland, there is a cemetery by a beach which on each of our visits has been crewed by dunlin. The grass is mown very short but by late spring the sward is awash with the pink of thrift and the pale yellow of primroses.
By evening the haar has returned and the plane takes off in the white but quickly reaches the fog’s upper surface. The sun is setting and colours the snow on the Cairngorms pink. I feel my heart strings tug for the place that used to be home, somewhere down there, in the woods of their foothills. The haar is held back by these low hills. I spy Bennachie. At the top of Mither Tap, one of its summits, and above the neatly heaped stones of the Pictish fort, I once stood and waved at a Brocken Spectre, my own shadow resting on a cloud and surrounded by a halo of pale colours. I watch out of the window until the hills are left behind and we are over the sea and there is only cloud below.
Sally is a writer with a background in nature conservation. Her non-fiction has been featured by Caught by the River, The Island Review and Zoomorphic. Sally’s PhD combined ecology and anthropology to research the connections between low-intensity agricultural practices and butterflies in Carpathian hay meadows. She swapped mountains for islands to live in Shetland, writes an online nature diary (awarded Highly Commended in the BBC Wildlife Magazine 2015 Blogger Awards ) and blogs about an area of Shetland’s Mainland that is earmarked for a vast wind farm (http://boglochandhill.blogspot.co.uk/).
Photo credit: Angie Spoto