The UK is an incredibly densely populated country – and it’s hard to get away from it all. Three times now I have got away from it all to the Shetland Islands. To the uninitiated, they are the group of Islands off the north east coast of Scotland – the ones most people here thought were the Falklands in 1982. Sean Penn has a holiday home there. Actually that last bit may not be true.
My three favourite facts about the Shetlands are that there are no trees there, the closest city is Bergen and that’s in Norway, and Lerwick the main town is further from London than Munich is. I have always stayed in the same place – a serious middle of nowhere hotel on the west coast. And I mean middle of nowhere. Nothing else man-made in sight at all. Apart from on the island – more on that in a moment.
The hotel (nameless for reasons you will see) is my idea of paradise. Lobster from the sea for dinner, total silence, otters on the beach, only four rooms so not many other people to get in the way, no television etc etc. Like many things on Shetland it’s run by a non-local – the islands are full of feral escapees from London and H., who ran the hotel is as I recall from Greenwich. She is married to B. – who is sort of local. He was I guess in his late forties, quite distinguished looking and was in charge of serving at dinner, and the bar. Very amiable but always – at least in my view – gave the impression that serving at table was a little beneath him.
From the hotel, apart from sea and sheep, the only thing you can see is an island. A barren looking strip of grass with a windsock and a castle. Not an old one but a Victorian baronial-style fake one. I was of course curious about it – did anyone live there, how did they get there, why the castle? I asked B. but he didn’t seem to know much and H. was equally vague. Odd as they were just across the water from it. The next day I walked up to the village – a couple of miles – and in the small shop asked the lady what she knew – once she realised where I was staying she also didn’t seem to know much about it and suddenly went very funny on me. I was even more interested at that point.
Back at the hotel that night I was looking at the titles on the small bookcase in the lounge and found – stuffed behind some books – a small but nicely made booklet. It was a history of the castle. I secreted it about my person and took it to the bedroom. The picture on the inside front cover made my blood run cold. It was a family group, the laird, his wife, two children and some dogs on the steps of the castle. The full aristocratic works. The laird, when I looked closely, yes it was B. It was hard to date but it was him. The wife was not H. of course.
I have never really found out what happened – I chatted with some guys in a bar in Lerwick who said that the castle was built by a Lancashire mill owner and had passed down to B. who had inherited it from an uncle. Something had gone badly wrong, as B. had worked as a decorator and taxi driver until he met H. and they had opened the hotel. Somehow he had been forced to sell the island and it must have been so hard for him to see it and the castle that had been in his family for over 100 years out there across the water every day. No wonder he was so glum serving my gin and ‘go easy on the tonic please’.
As for the family in the picture I have no idea. My imagination has run wild on that one, but I’ve probably just read too much Daphne du Maurier. I have been back there twice and will go again but of course will never ask.
(I have not named the hotel or the people involved but they have now sold up and ran a deli in Lerwick for a while but have now sold that too.)