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A strange tale from main-man Mainland.

Byline: By Michael O'Flaherty

The skipper of the fishing boat turned his keen blue eyes to the looming sky. 'Strange place, this,' he said with a knowing smile. 'Strange things happen.'

His words were prophetic. When an invitation to visit the Shetlands came out of the blue, I accepted on the basis that I can't resist a challenge. How could I know I would spend nights sleeping in a cliff top lighthouse with the sea crashing beneath, throwing spumes of spray over the rocks; that I would become a champion mackerel catcher, and reflexology recipient?

This place was for years a hazy image in the mind, famous only for ponies, the wool that makes jumpers for the socks-with-sandals brigade, and possibly the wildest weather in the British Isles. Cliches, indeed.

I had come to the Shetland Islands, Britain's most northerly land, for what was billed as a 'weekend of nature and nurture'.

The islands are officially part of Scotland, but the fiercely independent locals don't regard themselves as Scots.

No wonder - it's actually closer to Bergen in Norway than to Aberdeen in Scotland and it's further north than either Moscow or Southern Greenland.

It's in a box on its own in the right hand corner of most maps - an archipelago of over 100 islands and islets, only 16 of which are inhabited. The population is a mere 23,000.

With a land area of 1,450 square kilometres enclosed by a coastline of 1,450 kilometres, nowhere is more than three miles from the sea.

Transcending all, it's a place of astounding beauty. A place with a tangible aura of spirituality, with soaring cliffs, dramatic seas, a varied bird life, barking doe-eyed seals, porpoises and dolphins, and ruins dating back to the Stone Age. There's also a welcoming people possessed of great friendliness and dry, almost acerbic humour.

Yes, the Shetlands have ponies and a rough wool used in wildly-patterned sweaters and scarves and old ladyish hats; but these aren't the reason why tourists visit.

This is a paradise for walkers, nature lovers and people seeking peace, serenity and an unhurried pace of life.

So there I was all at sea, but only in a literal sense, after two idyllic nights at the lighthouse. Freshly caught mackerel flipped about my feet while the skipper, a seaman with the wonderful name of Geordie Mainland, an 83-year-old man of the sea, smiled his enigmatic smile and made his observations about 'this strange place where strange things happen'. By then, I was fulfilling a childhood dream by staying in a working lighthouse at Bressay.

Instantly, I had recognised a peace about the place, a peace you could feel.

Bressay has a population of 400. Its name comes from Old Norse and means broad island. My lighthouse was sending out its saving light in the darkness.

Our host had warned that accommodation was basic. It wasn't.

We stayed in the converted lighthouse keepers' cottages and my room was large, with a double bed, and it even had central heating. I shared the cottage with four other visitors; one bathroom between us, but who cared?

Outside, the air was so fresh you could taste it. The day was calm, but the sea was all drama as it crashed and roared against the rocks below.

Breakfast was a great Shetland spread of eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, baked beans, black and white puddings, fried bread. And of course, porridge.

Later that day, in Lerwick, we joined Dr Jonathan Wills, a naturalist, for a three-hour trip entitled, Seabirds and Seals, on his boat MV Dunter. The seals were gathering as we left port, and the seabirds soared, swooped and dived.

We ventured out to the cliffs where thousands of seabirds had congregated. Their numbers were so great they covered the cliffs in white with their plumage.

Later we visited the uninhabited island of Mousa to see the Broch, an Iron Age round tower, one of the finest examples in the world.

On Sunday, it was time for Nurture. Along to the lighthouse came a reflexologist, a hypnotherapist-life coach and a Reiki practitioner. I didn't fancy life coaching at this stage, so I chose reflexology.

Reflexologists are renowned for diagnosing problems through the medium of the feet. All I can say is that I never realised I had so many. But it was relaxing nonetheless.

Afternoon came, and the fishing trip with old Geordie Mainland on his boat MV Alluvion. Geordie doesn't look a day over 60. The first mate had some age to him too - 79 years, making a total crew age of 162.

We dropped anchor over a shoal of mackerel and I dipped my rod in the water. Six mackerel. My friends whooped and shouted as they too brought their catches on board. We caught 84 in the space of 20 minutes.

Willie, the first mate, selected the best and put the others aside for the seals we were to feed on the return voyage. Strange place; strange things happen. Never a saying been so true... Check in

Michael O'Flaherty was a guest of Atlantic Airways. Direct scheduled flights ex-Stansted to Sumburgh twice weekly from June to September from pounds 161 return. Atlantic also flies ex-Stansted to the Faroe Islands.

Bookings: 020 7823 4242 or www.flyshetland.com

Shetland Islands Tourist Office - Visit Shetland - is on 08701 999 440 or www.visitshetland.com

The Bressay lighthouse costs pounds 200-400 per week. B&B at Busta House Hotel on the main island costs pounds 50 per person per night, with four/five course dinners at pounds 30, and home-made bar meals from pounds 6.

Specialist travel agent for the Shetlands is John Leaske & Son (01595 693 162).
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 13, 2007
Words:950
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