No storm could smash the cold burgh of 7,000 souls. Edging the North Sea, Lerwick was low and old, windswept and valiant, stone-structured and combat-proofed. Its people walked in heavy clothing, its narrow roads slick with rain, and come evening the streetlights cast orange glows onto the glistening gray brick of Harbour Street outside my guesthouse window, below the black battlements and looming clock tower of Fort Charlotte, tolling hourly, ominously, in Scotland’s most Norwegian of towns.
Yet Lerwick, capital of the Shetland Islands, was 130 miles northeast of the Scottish mainland and 225 from Norway. “Mind, it would be a bit fookin’ weird if we was still Norwegian,” Sigurd, the guesthouse’s cook, had told me two hours prior. He was Shetlandic, tall and red-headed, freckly and foul-breathed, a descendent of the Norse vikings who colonized Hjaltland in the 9th century. The archipelago became Scottish after a marriage was arranged between Margaret, the 13-year-old daughter of Norway’s King Christian I, and Scotland’s 18-year-old King James III. For dowry, Christian I pledged Shetland to the young James, planning to reclaim his archipelago by giving 8,000 gold coins to Scotland. Christian I was broke, however, so in 1469 Shetland was annexed to Scotland.
“Any talk of seceding?” I asked Sigurd.
“From Scotland? Oh, god no. Aye, it’s far from here, but we’ve no need for autonomy.” He flipped a steaming pink steak of salmon; the iron pan’s grease popped loudly; smoke fluffed the ceiling. The tiny kitchen reeked of fish. “Look at your country, mate. Would Hawai’i secede? Fook no!” He dabbed his sweaty forehead with a blue rag. “Everybody knows we’d never survive on our own. Scotland provides our roads, post, petrol, absolutely everything except sheep, cows, horses, and fish.”
“And oil,” I said, noting the North Sea’s rich reservoirs and recent oil exploration in the Atlantic between Shetland and the Faroe Islands, an autonomous Danish province.
“Aye, and what if the Faroes weren’t part of fookin’ Denmark?” he asked. “They’d be shite!”
After I mentioned the Norse translation on every road sign announcing a town, Sigurd spoke of Shetlandic elders being able to converse with the Faroese. “That’s the old Shetland,” he said. “Speaking of old, Shetland used to be down near the equator.”
“Shetland would be a bit different if it was on the equator,” I said.
“Aw, and it’d be nice, aye?”
Though overdone, his salmon was a fine meal, and later, upstairs in my small room, I gazed through the window and listened to rain patter the roof. My wetsuit hung dripping in the shower. With an unchilled pint of Sjolmet Stout I lounged on a comfortable chair, absorbing quietude of the autumnal Lerwick eve, nuances of old Norway abound—nearby streets were called King Erik, St. Olaf, King Haakon; the cook’s name was Norwegian (and he was a participant in Up Helly Aa, Lerwick’s viking fire festival); my beer was made by a brewery named after Valhalla, the mythological Norse “hall of the slain.” With an aura perhaps more Nordic than Scottish, Shetland seemed complex and compelling, even cryptic.
But it is bad for surfing. Unlike Norway, an arctic wave garden with a burgeoning surf populace, Shetland cannot accommodate. Teasingly loaded with North Atlantic energy, the archipelago is rife with swell but bereft of surf spots. Its best surf-geography lies along the 23 east-coast miles between Gulberwick and Sumburgh Head, yet for the two or three Shetlandic surfers (whom I never saw), east swells are almost nonexistent and, if they do appear, are typically created by—and thus arrive with—onshore gales. Typically, roads don’t go where you want them to; hiking distances are vast and often require fording deep bogs. Elsewhere stand vertical cliffs and vertical drops into deep sea with virtually no continental shelf, offering swells no chance to break until they collide with sheer rock. The few beachbreaks are generally formless, surfable reefs are scant, and you can forget about finding a Shetlandic Thurso East.
“Just turn down that track, boy, and you should find some surfin’ waves.” Early that morning, dangling a lighted cigarette between his middle and index fingers, the stout uniformed man had leaned inside the passenger window of my small blue rental car, pointing at the thin lane to my right. I was parked behind two cars, awaiting a plane to take off—the man guarded the gate and traffic light spanning the A970 South Road because, for a few dozens meters, it crossed Sumburgh Airport’s runway. Two days prior, my Loganair Saab 340 had landed dangerously here inside a southeast gale and horizontal rain; what appeared to be a messy right-hander slid into my porthole view seconds before touchdown.
Heeding the guardsman, I turned onto the track and within seconds faced that same right-hander—wobbly, smallish, in a rocky cove, very funky but surfable. Black ponies grazed on the adjacent green hillock, flecked with old wooden barns and bales of hay; fog slid to and fro in the bight, hiding and revealing jagged black skerries offshore, haloed by white squawking gulls. The wind was lightly onshore, the tide high, and there was no one around. Drizzle and brief sunlight created a photogenic double rainbow that arced over the surf spot, one of Shetland’s few. Enya’s “Water Shows the Hidden Heart” floated from the car stereo, apt for the scene, a cold cove flanked by rural island idyll and the butt of an asphalt runway.
Quickly the hooded 5-mil was found and the surfboard waxed, but reality spoke in the voice of a rough session: many rocks, a ding or two, bumpy chest-high waves, disorientating fog, and whitecapping wind. The hillside ponies whinnied and one aircraft—a Dash 8—landed in the hour I surfed. My body grew numb, a consensus and somewhat erstwhile deference to viking life because the vikings had no wetsuits, yet they blasted in and claimed Shetland’s shores, spiritually Nordic, innate muscle of the region’s humanity.
Under inky mid-morning skies I drove many northbound miles atop wide, manicured roads, then remote one-laners, targeting a right-hand slab wave I’d seen in Surfing magazine. Though a hoax, the wave looked interesting. The route to it sliced through settlements like Aith, Voe, and Bixter, where I mailed a Shetland pony postcard to my parents—longtime owners of such ponies—in California. Onward through Brae, past Sullom and Tanwick, out toward the primordial cliffs of Eshaness, I passed browny-black peat fields and deep glens, coppery creeks, desolate lochs, rabbits, horses, birds, and sheep scampering across the road—or laying on it. Wide space, few cars. Mist blurred the windscreen and I listened to BBC Scotland talk radio: lectures about Alcohol Awareness Week, 18th-century diary readings, news of a parliament scandal.
I found the slab barreling over the shallow reef in the bay fronting an old croft where, strangely, there was a green Volvo wagon with a surfboard inside. The car had Norway license plates. For a surfer, driving to this bay was a peripheral drift west from the nearby hamlet of Hamnavoe, wide open to swell, an alcove with particular promise.
I walked out onto the grassy headland above the wave and met Anders, a tall, bearded Norwegian who had taken the ferry (“Was a very rough ride.”) up from Aberdeen. He’d brought his car from his Stavanger home and had been exploring Shetland for the last 10 days, living in his Volvo, thrice attempting to ride the slab, which he too had seen in Surfing. The wave wasn’t hard to find—Shetland was small—but it didn’t matter because the wave was a farce.
“I surf this other right reef,” Anders said in a thick accent, showing me photos on his digital camera. I had checked the spot but it was flat, needing rare conditions to fire. I envied his score. “Is the best wave in Shetland, I think,” he said, “but I want to surf places that nobody has ever surfed.” He pointed to Muckle Ossa, an offshore sea stack. “Maybe there are waves out there?”
“Doubtful,” I said. “Have you found any other good waves?”
“Where have you looked?”
“All over. Here, Sandness, Yell, Unst. But I want to also see Fair Isle and Foula, maybe Out Skerries and Papa Stour. Those islands might have something.”
“I’ve heard otherwise.”
Anders laughed and lit a cigarette. “I think that for surf, Shetland can be called Shitland. Ha!”
“This used to be part of your country,” I said.
“Ja.” He blew smoke toward the clouds, then smiled. “But we Norse surfers, we do not think we miss it. No, no—Scotland can keep this beautiful place.”