Caught by the River

A Shetland Lighthouse Diary, Part Three

Jennifer Lucy Allan | 23rd March 2018

In her latest column from Shetland, Jennifer Lucy Allan battles gale-force winds in pursuit of stew ingredients

On Valentine’s Day a gale blew in, a force nine picking up to a ten after lunch. The sea grew muscles, the churning water in the bay flashed to white, and breakers crested the hundred-foot-high cliffs across the coastal path to the bus stop. The weather had turned hostile, but half a loaf of bread and a jar of Marmite did not make a meal and I had no milk for tea. The landscape grew a new topography in the violent weather, but I could no longer put off the three-hour round trip to the shop.

I took the new tarmac road down from the lighthouse, because the waves had swept over the winding coastal path that runs along along the steep edge of the land in raw crumbling soil and soggy skidding grasses. Down the hairpin of the driveway, past the fibreglass orca, spray lifted over the dry stone wall and covered my face.

As I scraped the wet hair from my eyes I hit a wind tunnel and slid, or was pushed, perfectly upright, five feet diagonally across the road into the muddy ditch, rugby tackled by the wind. I dug my heels into the grass and leant in, but the wind felt stronger than the gravity that rooted me. It seemed possible that I might give up on planted feet and swim three feet above the ground through the wind, arms tucked in a V like the birds around me. If my legs had gone from under me I felt I might fly. Visibility was bad, but down the hill near the hotel the ruined tower at Jarlshof was miniaturised.

If I had checked the shipping forecast instead of the weather I would have seen the gale warning: force 10 falling to 9. Force 10 is out of a possible 12, the scale taken from the Beaufort scale, written by Admiral Beaufort in his notebook in 1805, which describes weather in sensory descriptions not numbers. The Met Office, who still use Beaufort’s scale, describe a ten more poetically than I can: “Very high waves with long overhanging crests; resulting foam in great patches is blown in dense white streaks along the direction of the wind; on the whole the surface of the sea takes on a white appearance; rolling of the sea becomes heavy; visibility affected.”

I get back from the shop by resorting to a taxi. Outside my front door the driver won’t let me open my door, as wind like this can take off car doors. Someone tells me that the keepers here used to crawl between buildings in gales to stop themselves getting blown over and away. In the visitor centre, there are displays about the keepers who had been stationed here, and many of their quotes remember the wind on Shetland. They describe it moving parked cars, and one keeper recounts how he saw sea spray inside the lighthouse tower, roughly 250 feet above sea level.

The Stevenson lighthouse building dynasty, when they came to build lighthouses on Shetland, insisted that it was almost impossible, due to the weather, the inaccessible sites, and the violent seas. At the Muckle Flugga on the exposed northern tip of Shetland the waves would break constantly over the lighthouse site, sweeping away all building materials, soaking the workers and their temporary quarters.

Once back inside the lighthouse I watch the waves scaling the cliffs as spume flies past the window like heavy snow, only passing horizontally, not falling vertically. A thought forms: nobody knew about my shop trip. I could have taken the coastal path, the path now dissolved by water in parts, where new waterfalls coarse down the rocks into the sea and the cliffs crumble, surrendering raw soil in ugly wet chunks. I would have, could have, been washed away, disappearing into the churning maw of the frothing sea.

I wonder morbidly how long it would have taken to solve the mystery of my disappearance, the speculation and investigations into my recent communications, extrapolation and contradictions extant between personal messages and public posts. A modern Flannan Isles mystery, only with one 30-something woman in waterproofs and a rucksack of ingredients for stew disappearing, instead of three experienced lighthouse keepers who hadn’t spent the morning Whatsapping their family and friends.

The wind here is relentless and cold. Liz who I stayed with in Lerwick when I arrived on Shetland told me that the wind is such a constant presence on Shetland that on the rare days it drops she instantly notices, and often wakes feeling something is wrong: the silence is deafening.

I thought then that she might be exaggerating, or describing something only Shetlanders feel, until I wake up days after the storm to an eerie feeling I cannot pinpoint. In the soft grey light, the strange feeling does not lift until I realise the wind has gone. I listen, but I cannot hear it whistling through the sash windows, or screaming under the green barn door, or slapping the flaps of the bathroom extractor fan by clambering clumsily into the pipes from outside. The uncanny is found in the silence, and I wait quietly for the wind to return.