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A Bad Day in Shetland

Barren, storm-swept islands in the North Sea have been a human refuge for more than 5,000 years

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"This place is for the birds!" And that about sums up my impression of the Shetland Islands.

The rain and wind started in the late afternoon, shortly after we left the Orkneys, and by the time we arrived in Lerwick the next morning the North Sea had been whipped into a frenzy of whitecaps and the Islands were being lashed by wind-driven rain.

Lerwick, the Island's capital, is home to about 6,000 people, most of whom make their living from the sea and its busy little port is the centre of Shetland's commercial life. Ever since the first intrepid sailors set out to explore the North Sea the Shetland Islands have provided a waypoint on the route from the British Isles to Northern Europe — a place to stock up on supplies, or simply ride out a storm in Lerwick's sheltered harbour.

Before landing at Lerwick, the ships' ornithologist gave us a briefing on seabirds. Kevin, whose enthusiasm for all things feathered is exceeded only by his total disdain for the weather, gave us a preview of his plan to take us to one of the largest rookeries on the islands. And so it was that we found ourselves slogging up a muddy trail in pouring rain to the cliffs of Sumburgh on the very southern tip of the Shetlands. Even the Shetland ponies and longhaired native bovines were hunkered down on the lea side of rock hedgerows in an effort to escape the driving rain. But Kevin and the hardcore bird watchers among us seemed oblivious to the weather.

From our lookout, just below the lighthouse on the edge of the cliffs, we have a sweeping view of the rookery and the ocean. Three hundred feet below the surf, gnawing at the base of the cliffs, is an angry maelstrom of white foam and each breaker that rolls in from the sea explodes into a towering plume of spray that bathes the cliffs in a perpetual wet mist. It's a wild, hostile environment but it is home to thousands of nesting birds. A breeding pair of puffins, fulmars or guillemots has staked every little ledge wide enough to hold an egg and the work of raising a family goes on regardless of the weather. Some birds are still incubating their eggs; others swoop in from the ocean with small silvery fish in an attempt to satisfy the insatiable appetites of their nestlings.

As I watched a half-feathered young fulmar yelling for more food while clinging precariously to its ledge above the surf I thought, "That little guy had better get it right the first time." When the fledglings raised on Sumburgh cliffs leave home for the first time it's either fly or die. There is no second chance. But the cliffs provide a degree of security from predators and that probably explains why the birds have chosen such an inhospitable place for their colony.

Why the first human settlers chose to locate their colony at a place called Jarishof is more difficult to explain. Located on a desolate, wind-swept spit of land just around the corner from Sumburgh Cliffs, it contains evidence of continuous human habitation from 2500 BC up to the 17th century AD. Perhaps it was the presence of nearby fresh-water springs or driftwood on the beach that attracted the first settlers — or was it the bird colony itself that lured them here? The bones of puffins found in the Jarishof's middens suggest that eggs and nestling birds from the nearby Sumburgh rookery were harvested for food.

Excavations at Jarishof have uncovered remarkably well preserved Bronze and early Iron Age structures but when we arrived, cold and soaking wet from our bird-watching escapade, the only building of any interest was the visitor centre with its warm hearth and coffee bar.

The rain never really stopped but it did let up enough for us to take a quick look around the Jarishof site where we were free to wander in and out of Bronze- and Iron-Age dwellings for a closer look at how people lived there hundreds of years ago. I recall one 1600 year old house where the walls, cupboards and benches were still intact and I thought — when the roof was still on and a peat fire was glowing on the hearth this must have actually been a cozy place to escape the weather.

For centuries this house, and most of the Jarisof site, lay buried in sand, which probably explains their remarkable state of preservation. Until a violent storm in the late 19th century stripped away the dunes and excavations began, the site was hidden and forgotten. Until then the only building visible on the site was the Old House of Sumburgh, a fortified Scottish house built during the 16th century.

The most remarkable thing about Jarishof is the seamless change from a Neolithic stone- to a bronze- and, finally, to an iron-based culture at the same location. The discovery of iron, around 800 BC, had enormous cultural impact. Equipped with iron tools and armed with iron weapons the people embarked on a furious round of new construction — all built on top of the older bronze-age structures. All of that iron, including that used by the Vikings who inhabited the site from the 9th to the 14th centuries, was smelted from locally obtained bog ore. Over thousands of years the slimy brown iron oxide that accumulates in bogs and swamps builds up into layers of limonite, a soft iron-rich mineral that can be mined with nothing more than a crude shovel and smelted in a simple clay kiln.

Under different circumstances we could have spent much more time exploring the Shetlands but after half a day in the driving rain even the keenest bird watchers and amateur archeologists among us were glad to return to the ship early. We changed into dry clothing and set off for the coast of Norway shortly after lunch – quite content to leave the Shetlands to the birds and the ghosts of Jarishof.