by Marsali Taylor
Life changed for everyone at the beginning of 2020, and Shetland was no different from the rest of the world.
My own start to the pandemic wasn’t quite the same as most people’s – I couldn’t obey instructions to stay home, because I wasn’t there.
As Mystery People readers know, early last year I was waiting for an operation for an infected pelvis and was quite horribly ill; I only realise just how ill now I’m better. I finally got my op date – Friday 13 March! This time my husband Philip and I were determined to be ready for a lengthy stay in hospital and convalescence after. Philip booked himself into CLAN, the wonderful Aberdeen hostel for cancer patients and their families, for the duration. I bought several sets of nightwear and alerted our cat-sitters, and we engaged a cleaner, for when I got home. I was just about to do a major cook-and-freeze-athon when the infection flared up horribly. Best laid plans of mice and women ... I threw several books into my half-packed rucksack, and turned myself in at the local A&E. That was on the last Sunday of February, when the UK was isolating its first Covid cases.
I had a preliminary op at the hospital here, but my surgeon Mr Parnaby had his crack team assembled for March 13th, and wanted to wait till then, so Philip and I were sent down to Aberdeen by air ambulance. The hospital there didn’t have WiFi, but Philip and my London-based daughter Marnie kept me updated on the news: shelves emptying in the supermarkets, children sent home from school, walk-this-way and queue-here tickertape, smaller shops closing – including the Aberdeen Oxfam bookshop, on which I’d counted for Philip bringing me books during my hospital stay. It seems hard to imagine now, but the day after the op I had Philip, Marnie and my brother Niall, who’d driven up from the Borders, all chatting round my intensive care bed. A week later the hospital was closed to visitors. Fortunately WiFi was installed, so I could Facetime, and I was able at last to see what was actually happening in the outside world. The rising death toll was a horrid shock.
I concentrated on getting better. The airless ward gave me breathing problems, so before I knew it I was isolated – in a room with an opening window, where I rapidly got better. As I walked determinedly round on my zimmer, the ward was clearing around me ready for Covid patients, and I was almost the last to leave – on 1st April, via air ambulance again, met at Sumburgh airport by a road ambulance. I stumbled out into Philip’s arms at our own house. My only view for a month, other than excursions for X-rays, scans etc, had been the top of a concrete building, so it was a joyful surprise to see the garden ringed with daffodils. I staggered to bed and my beloved cat Miss Matty jumped onto my chest and purred and purred.
After that I was confined to barracks. Luckily Philip had driven me down to the marina to run my yacht Karima’s engine before the NHS ‘stay home’ letter had arrived, so I focused on getting better and pottering gently round the garden. It helped that it was the most beautiful spring and summer. Naturally, our cleaner couldn’t come, so we just ignored housework for a bit.
Our village shop was wonderful: Philip phoned in an order, and they phoned back when it was ready to collect from the shop porch. The village shops all over the islands were stars during lockdown, taking orders and elivering to houses. They had everything we needed, so we didn’t go into Lerwick at all for several months.
Karima, then, once the six weeks of not lifting a kettle was up, I included a quarter bucket of hot soapy water, then sandpaper and varnish. By the end of May my boat was looking smarter than she had for two years, with all the ‘must get round to’ tasks done. She wasn’t the only one; and when boats were allowed to sea at last, the first weekend of June, the marina suddenly emptied. Before the op, I’d told myself that I’d just have to do without the mast this year, because I didn’t expect to be strong enough to haul up mainsails and winch in ropes, but I’d recovered so fast that when I was phoned with news of a crane I got it up after all, though I’m not sure that shared crane-hire was Covid-legal. I spent the rest of the summer happily messing around on the water.
Our biggest miss was Mass. Our local, St Margaret’s in Lerwick, was closed, and Father Ambrose wasn’t allowed to do house visits, so we became temporary online parishioners of St Joseph’s in Aberdeen, the nearest online church. As soon as households were allowed to meet, Father Ambrose did garden Masses, and ours was the first, in the shelter of an apple tree laden with candy-stripe blossom. St Margaret’s was the first Shetland church to open for private prayer, and then for socially distanced services, with booking beforehand. We had instrumental music at Christmas, and the first (choir) singing during Lent – I became an honorary Filipina for that and joined our singing group. We have congregational singing at last now, though from behind masks.
That was my personal story. Overall, I think we islanders have had a different experience from people down south. It certainly doesn’t feel as though Covid has taken over here, though of course life has changed in some ways, much more for my former teaching colleagues and others still working than it has for a writer who has retired from other work. Shetland had cases earlier than the mainland, through a family returning from a holiday in Italy, and the schools closed a week before they shut elsewhere, which helped limit the spread, though I’ve since heard that with hindsight a number of people reckoned they were infected at the huge Lerwick Up Helly Aa, in the last week of January. After the initial six deaths, four of them in the same care centre, we had none for a long time – and we’ve still only had ten, in a population of 22,000. It was easier for us to be a ‘closed’ society, with ferries and planes taking only essential passengers, and people who travelled off the island generally self-isolating when they came home.
Though folk did keep to the rules pretty well, there wasn’t the sense of fear that I’ve noticed in friends from further south. We have no billboards or sides of buses, so we didn’t see doomsday advertising, or daily newspaper headlines; the dailies don’t arrive in Shetland till 2pm. Also, when you’re walking in the country – and lots of people were out walking – you see each other coming from a distance and can stop and chat from opposite sides of the road. Everyone knows everyone, remember! Children charged about on their bikes and leapt into the marina in wetsuits just as normal. Families formed bubbles – and we all forgot about social distancing when a humpbacked whale appeared in the voe, and performed all afternoon just off the pier. I still visited an elderly friend with dementia, though I annoyed her by insisting on sitting outside until two households were allowed to meet indoors (‘What will people think, that I’m not inviting you into the house?’). In terms of vaccinations, Shetland doctors whizzed through the population – naturally I reacted so badly to jab 1 that I didn’t risk jab 2.
I’d never have thought of Shetland as suffering from pollution, but I really noticed how much clearer the air was, and how the roadside wildflowers looked brighter. It was much quieter too, with no school traffic or tourist mobile homes and buses, and no aeroplanes high overhead on their way to New York. We’d rather hoped that one bright spot might be no mowing of the school football pitch – it’s one of those ride-on tractor mowers and makes a most distracting noise – but no, there was more, because the janitor had less to do, so he focused on beautifying the grounds. There wasn’t exactly a village Guy Fawkes bonfire, it was just that one family happened to be burning some rubbish on the shore, and the rest of us just wandered along. We had a beautiful snowy winter, with day after cold, crisp, sunny day, and I had a lot of fun identifying animal footprints, and watching otters in the voe. We even managed to get our peats cast this year.
There are a disproportionate number of small firms in Shetland, and they were remarkably inventive during lockdown. The newly opened Cake Fridge Cafe near us branched out into take-away sandwiches and puddings as well as cakes, and Busta House Hotel moved into home deliveries of their meals. The Mainlands Farm began veg boxes. Everyone benefited from increased online sales, and now that everything is pretty well normal there are very few vacant shops on The Street in Lerwick. Folk involved in our tourist industry were hardest hit, with no house rentals for a whole year, and of course cruise ships were cancelled. Conversely, our UK visitors have soared this summer, with people not wanting, or not being allowed, to go abroad. Though the restaurants aren’t as busy as formerly, they’re still doing well – we’ve eaten out regularly. In addition, Philip and I started ‘Restaurant at Home Wednesdays’ where we take it in turns to cook a three-course meal including things we haven’t tried before, with cocktails beforehand and a film afterwards. The most spectacular was probably the Pepys meal, as my Lockdown Reading Challenge was all nine volumes of his diaries. It included Pepys’s favourite “venison pasty”, and very good it was too.
Back to normal now? Well, mostly. We’ve managed a live meeting of our writers’ group in the local hall, and one of our readers’ group meetings in a house. We’ve had visitors, and regattas, and a joint sailing expedition ending in a picnic on Papa Stour. There are children playing in the school at break again, and my elderly friend and I went to the cinema. I’ve even had my first flute lesson in a year and a half.
So, there you have it. Like the rest of the world, we survived in our own way. And now the initial phase is over, and we have to learn to live with the virus, no doubt we’ll do that in our own way too.
Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.
Shetland Sailing Mysteries
Death on a Long Ship (2012
The Trowie Mound Murders (2014)
A Handful of Ash (2014
The Body in the Bracken (2015)
Ghosts of the Vikings (2016)
Death in Shetland Waters (2017)
Death on A Shetland Isle (2018)
Death From A Shetland Cliff (2020)
The Shetland Sea Murders (2021)
A Shetland Winter Mystery (2021)