Saturday, April 6, 2013

Debacle in Shetland: My Initial Reaction

I've enjoyed both of my trips to Orkney, far more than I probably should have. As a result, I've developed a sort of fixation on the Northern Isles. Part of the reason why I was interested in coming to Aberdeen was for its transport connections to the Northern Isles; so, in addition to visiting Orkney again, I wanted to visit Shetland. I was about ready to do it in mid-March, but ended up having several different academic and social commitments that took precedence. In early April, I got things sorted out and went north.

While politically and geographically independent of one another, Orkney and Shetland are inextricably linked. They share a common history - for example, Shetland is mentioned repeatedly in the Orkneyinga Saga - and there are plenty of similarities between the two. They're only separated by about fifty or sixty miles of ocean. I expected Shetland to be fairly similar to Orkney, but with some of its own local history and culture to enjoy.

At this point, I'd like to fall back on an anecdote. I went to high school with these two sisters, whom we'll call Lauren and Anna. The older sister, Lauren, was very popular, gorgeous, a varsity cheerleader, had a very effervescent personality, and dated several of the most popular guys in school. I think her younger sister, Anna, had a hard time measuring up to that example. She had a reputation for being a lot more prudish than Lauren, she wasn't as pretty, and had a more severe personality, which meant that she sort of fell into Lauren's shadow. You just knew that if you wanted to have fun, you should hang out with Lauren, not with Anna.

In case you hadn't figured out where I was going with that story, Orkney is Lauren and Shetland is Anna. That's not to say that Shetland's horrible - it's certainly not! - but it just sort of doesn't measure up to its neighbor to the southwest.

There are plenty of things in Shetland's favor. First and foremost for me is that it just plain happens to be out further than Orkney - as great as Orkney is, there's further to go. Second, even though Shetland's landscapes and vistas aren't really as pretty as those in Orkney, some of them have some charm - for example, there are places in Shetland that initially reminded me of Wyoming, and that's a good thing because I love Wyoming. Third, and probably more important to the Shetlanders, is that the people of Shetland were phenomenally friendly and helpful, and even though I didn't interact that much with them, they lived up to their Orcadian cousins' example for hospitality.

Unfortunately, Shetland seems to fall short in some other areas. First, as far as I can tell, there's nowhere near as much for visitors to do as there is in Orkney. Second, Shetland's scenery just isn't as pretty as Orkney - much less green, a lot more dark brown foliage that makes it look like Shetland suffered from some scorched earth attacks. In fact, at times, the landscape's appearance (though not its actual composition) began to remind me of Oklahoma in a lot of cases, and Oklahoma is hideous. Third, there were several incidents that were such a hassle that it really made it hard to like the place.

I judge my vacations ("holidays" in the British vernacular) against two or three extreme examples: Orkney and Muscat on the good end, and Beirut on the bad end. Shetland falls somewhere in the middle, probably leaning more toward Orkney and Muscat. I'm very glad that I went, and it certainly wasn't the worst trip I've ever taken, but it really didn't live up to my unreasonably high expectations following my two euphoric trips to Orkney. The result was that the second day became sort of a running joke in which I began keeping track of all of the weird, silly things that I saw or did. Shetland became a sort of Bizarro Orkney.

So, over the course of the next few weeks, I'll recount my two days of adventures - or, perhaps, misadventures - in Shetland.

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