Saturday, January 03, 2004

A memory from 23 years ago... 

This one's for the Ecotone bi-weekly topic of Cemetaries and Place

I have an old photo in front of me; the date on the back is June 1981. It’s not a particularly good quality photo, rather the reverse in fact, that’s why it has sat for the intervening 23 years in a box of miscellaneous prints. They’re not good enough to do anything with, yet have some attachment that binds them to me still and prevents me throwing them away.

The photo is taken from the top of a hill, not high but steep, on the island of Bressay, just off the East coast of Shetland, to the North of Scotland where the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea meet the Atlantic Ocean. The hill looks out over the straight that separates Bressay from the “mainland” of Shetland; the sea is grey, a jagged white line marks the breakers at the foot of low cliffs on the far shore, surmounted by pastures that on a clear day would be lush green, but on that day, as on so many, a thin grey mist lies over everything giving the view a sombre, monochrome appearance.

At the foot of the hill, at the seaward edge of a relatively level patch of green between the rough slopes of the hill and the low cliffs bordering the sea, is a small graveyard. Just a stone perimeter, the ruins of a small stone chapel and maybe two dozen headstones.

It’s a wild spot; anything less than a thirty mile-an-hour wind here is considered calm. A few people still live on the island, mostly gaining their livelihood from the tourist trade. There’s a small harbour where the ferry from Lerwick docks, one hotel and several cottages, mostly on the coastal fringes. But there’s little to indicate the community to which the graveyard was once attached. It stands almost alone on the inhospitable clifftop, looking out to sea, just a couple of ruined cottages marking the spot where once a little community existed.

I doubt that their life was much more than an existence. I’d guess most of their livelihood came from the sea; the land surely could not have supported many crops, only provided peat for the fires in those simple homes. Most of the food cooked over those fires would have come from the sea, and I imagine that is why the graveyard is located in that spot. Shetland may be politically part of Scotland, but the ancestry of its people traces directly back to the Vikings. The sea would have been in their blood; they may have made their homes on the land but it would have been on the sea where they made their living; the sea that was the source of tales told round the smoky peat fires on cold winter nights; and so it was natural that they would be buried at this border of land and sea where their souls might still gaze out over the waters where they had lived so much of their lives.

Now the graveyard is all that is left. The land has little value for anything else; no-one lives near this spot, few come here, just the occasional tourist. The stones may yet stand for many hundreds of years, lashed by horizontal rain and salt spray, undisturbed except for the crying of the gulls that ride the wild winds and waves.

Back to current posts