“You’ve come at the wrong time.”
This is what everyone tells me.
They don’t say, “Welcome to Shetland!” Instead they say, “It’s such a pity you came right now, in January.”
Then, like an answering machine instructing you to call back later, they tell me to come back in summer. Some insist that June is the best month, others swear it’s August that shows off the best of Shetland . . . and what is the best? Long sunny nights that last until dawn, white sand beaches that sparkle in summer light, and a million birds breeding up a storm. Also, everything is open in summer, whereas in winter, so much is shuttered against the dark days and relentless wind.
But what so few understand is that I am not searching for sunshine or a tan. I am not here on holiday. Like a confused bird, I have flown north for winter, eager to see Shetland as it is.
When I arrive on the southern tip of the island, it is very dark and very wet–it remains this way for most of my stay. There are brief times of light: around ten in the morning, the blank sky separates from the dark shape of the land, blue against black. The short day continues in a state of perpetual sunset and by half three, it is finished, as if the sun only works part-time.
For some of us, the love of rare places outweighs the love of warmth and comfort. The beauty of Shetland is forever linked to its long distance from “Scotland” in the South. Only a few rare birds are blown here by accident. The rest of us arrive in Shetland intentionally.
I am not sure what my original intention was–only to make it here. I have no new passport stamp to prove it–I am technically still in the United Kingdom–but the rain cutting across my face and the wind whipping my back is proof that I have landed safely in the middle of the North Sea.
60° North to be exact–the same latitude as Alaska and Norway and Russia. But Shetland remains far warmer than its latitudinal cousins. Even now in January, I explore the hills around Lerwick in jeans and a raincoat. My phone says it’s 50°F (10°C), but I suspect the wet wind subtracts from that optimistic temperature.
Perhaps I have come at the wrong time. Other than music at the pub last night, nothing seems to be “on” right now. There is no tourist show, no planned excursions or man-made spectacle for me to see.
There is only this island called Shetland and the constant wind and the pelting rain and the modest sun.
Yet strange as it may seem, I love it all. The cold and lonely places of the world call to me like a good book from the shelf. I crave the off-season–I love traveling in the right place at the wrong time.
“It’s a pity you’re not staying longer,” says another Shetlander to me, shaking her head in disappointment. “You’ll miss Up Helly Aa!”
Yes, I shall miss the fire festival at the end of this month. I would like to see it one day, but the annual Viking celebration is not what brought me here right now, right after New Year’s.
I came only to see Shetland–to illustrate the name on the map with the sights and sounds I now carry forever inside me. It is the real reason I travel–so that when I close my eyes and think of Shetland, I can feel the sting of sea salt upon my cheeks, I can hear the wind howling around the cliff’s edge, I can see the glowing pink line of cold light that peeks out between grey sea and white cloud, I can make out the lovely incomprehensible strains of Shetlandic dialect, and I can feel the warm exhale from a pony’s wet black nose.
Let the rest of them come in August if they’d like. I came to Shetland in early January and I am no less fond of the place because of the calendar.
In fact, I think, it was the perfect time for me.