Yggdrasil in Shetland, by Jen Hadfield

For National Tree Week, here is Jen Hadfield on the trees of Shetland. This piece is an extract from Arboreal, a new woodland anthology published by Little Toller Books. 


My aunt owns a cabin by a river in British Columbia. It’s wrapped in temperate rainforest, dense and protean: pockets of old-growth cedar and maple, the glittering autumnal coins of quaking aspen. In the 1950s, a car broke down here. Twin maples grew up around it, cracking its bonnet like a nut. The new growth and rotting wood are webbed with bandages of sopping moss, hung with old man’s beard, like an aerial seaweed. Trunks utter smooth bracket fungus: toad-throats and harelips. The fallen trunks, drilled by sapsuckers and downy woodpeckers, melt down into a deep bed of humus. Up, 20 metres up, ferns garner moss, manufacturing their own soil, in which showers of seeds, like a golden rain, can germinate. And everywhere, nests – from the ospreys’ splatter of twigs and fouled traps to the moss thumb-pots welded into the joints of branches by hummingbirds. This is bush that gets hold of you. The bramble vines are laced with claws that hook backwards into your skin. You get free by tearing out small chunks of flesh. The logs are glassy with greasy algae; massive, fallen trunks criss-cross in impassable mats over your head. When a twig cracks, or the salal begins purposefully to wag, your heart pounds in your throat. Bleeding lightly, you escape onto the riverbank. In the baked clay between the rocks grow cottonwoods by the thousand. In BC, where such a phenomenon is conceivable, these are weed trees: seeding on poor ground, their reptilian leaves flashing. In spring, the Lower Mainland reeks of them, a constant simmer of honey. For my family and me, the cabin – and what surrounds it – is one of those places that are sacred in a domestic, familiar kind of way.

In my Shetland garden grows a single, precious cottonwood. Scorched and tattered by salty winds, the leaves sometimes seem to shrink back as fast as they grow. In 2005, I nearly moved to Canada for good, but then I was offered a residency in Shetland, and could not bear to leave. The contrast between the two places is extreme and I’m often asked why I chose Shetland over Canada. This morning, in Cheshire, I went into a Ryman’s. ‘It must be terribly bleak,’ insisted the stationer. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s beautiful.’ ‘I didn’t say it wasn’t beautiful,’ he interrupted cleverly, ‘but isn’t it terribly bleak? And remote?’ Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land, pitches in Barry Lopez, no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know.

Like many northern landscapes, Shetland is far too often defined by people who don’t live here. But while its comparative treelessness is undeniable (Shetlanders themselves dub the islands ‘Da Aald Rock’), I’ve met few Shetland or Orkney folk who feel that trees are something they lack. ‘They get in the way of the view,’ says Mary. ‘When I visited my English grandmother,’ said Amy, ‘the tree and hedge-lined roads seemed dark and narrow.’ In 60 Degrees North, Shetlander Malachy Tallack talks about his relief on reaching a vantage point in Fort Smith, a town ‘islanded’ by trees, and is able to relax his eyes, looking into the horizon.

So, what primal buttons is the idea of ‘treelessness’ pressing?

I asked James Mackenzie, the Woodlands Officer at the Shetland Amenity Trust, what he thought. His answer was beguiling. ‘Trees are branchlets of the life-lungs of the world, breathing in CO2 and exhaling oxygen.’ But he also enjoys the apparently bare hillsides, the contours – like muscle and bone – of rock visible under djub and julk; peat and sphagnum and heath. He and Rosa Steppanova – whose book The Impossible Garden is about establishing Lea Gardens on two acres of open hill at Tresta – are two of Shetland’s defiant gardeners. Her specialism is the herbaceous border; his – first a shelter belt, then a thicket, then a wood – of exotic and native tree and shrub species. When they go out into the garden, says James, pulling on his boots, he looks up and she looks down.

I notice a rare quality of light in James and Rosa’s porch: an autumnal light. The smoky sun is as small as an aspirin, now; it dapples through leaves and hazy glass. It’s almost as if there is no autumn in Shetland – though I’ve hardly missed it. There is instead the slow, golden hairst at the summer’s close, vegetables after a late spring finally coming to ripeness, roses blooming right into November; then a week of indigo shadows. A scant leaf-fall from willow and Rosa rugosa. Then the fright of the first winter storm. Here, heavy violet petals spout and sag from colchichums. James leads me through a plantation of larch; a heron barks and lifts from a pond. Agapanthus and red-hot pokers are going off like fireworks. A wall of pallets retains, just, a mighty compost heap. The Lea Gardens trees are a quantum thing, changing, if not the nature of time, the nature of the Shetland seasons.

I too loved at first sight the deep, broad views, which came to me like a relief. You could relax your gaze across the sea. To snooze on the cropped grass of the banks in summer, amongst over-stuffed tussocks of banksflooer, or in a streaming mirage of spring squill, is to rest upon the hide of a huge, tolerant, sweet-smelling mammal. You can look far and wide, and close and deep, right down to the glittering eyelashes of the round-leaved sundew. Walking the headlands, I visit rocks, rest on and with rocks, learn from rocks. There is, for example, in the scree and shatter north of Virda, a smooth blade of glittering schist with a raised spine, aligned east–west like a compass needle. Like a tiger on a branch, I rub my cheek against it. At Gössigarth, thick veins of pure quartz run through the rock like coconut meat. Either side of South Voe stands a menhir big enough to dwarf me:

Everything juicy –
August night of rain –
the succulent ancient
cactus of the stone

Who knows how deeply rooted they are, how long they’ve yielded to the battering flanns of wind that roll off Mid Field? Is there, in standing stones’ deep-rootedness and resilience, some likeness to trees? What is it that they’re giving us?

A friend in Orkney is enraged by the tourist habit of piling flat beach stones into towers. They’re soon dismantled by wind and sea – but I’m interested in what leads folk to build them. I wonder if these columnar cairns are, like the Inuit’s inuksuit, a way of leaving part of yourself on the beach, a kind of stony avatar. As another friend offered: after we pile, soaked, frozen, elated and exhausted, into the car after a winter walk, the big stones stay out there on the hill, mitigating our regret at leaving. They also predate and succeed us. James tells me he remembers reading The Lord of the Rings and visiting a stand of stately beeches in Surrey. The beeches, with their smooth grey boles, he said, were more Ent-like than the Ents in the film. In the taxonomic forest of our relationships, we’ve parents, and grandparents, then, somewhere between grandparents and gods, trees and stones. Losing our reverence for ancestors, and our families becoming more and more dispersed, we lack them especially.

I asked James if he thought he’d surrogated anything else for trees, and this set him off on sphagnum moss. A rootless plant, sphagnum is over 90 per cent water. Jelly-like, it knits the delicate bog together, staunching it after heavy rain. As its subterranean layers rot, they turn into peat. Forming at a rate of a millimetre a year, peat two metres deep with a crown of living sphagnum could easily represent an organism 2,000 years old. Its antibiotic qualities are well-documented. The Vikings used to preserve fish in it. The peat is important too, as a ‘carbon sink’, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Perhaps, proposes James, in the absence of trees to absorb CO2, Nature finds ways to compensate. At present, an experimental conservation project is underway in the fragile and much maligned valleys and hills of the Lang Kames. It involves sowing bog-cotton and sphagnum, blocking the gullies of damaged peat, sandbagging its leaking pools. At the mouth of the same valley is the Halfway Hoose, an old whitewashed pile where cattle auctions used to be held, and latterly, epic parties. Pulling out plaster and lathe, its present householder discovered the walls were packed with sphagnum. The moss would’ve acted as both insulant and, with its prodigal thirst, a damp course. A resilient, useful and delicate organism, but can sphagnum moss fill the spiritual need that trees seem to? What does James see when he considers it? His face shines with a deep pleasure. ‘I think it’s like living jewels.’


We are climbing a boulevard of balsam poplars, past the sheathed blades and tarry pods of a huge New Zealand flax. It’s as big as those I saw on Kapiti Island, where thickets of the saw-like leaves were beset with hungry, green kakariki, prising seeds from the greasy, black husks. At the house, the fierce gaze of the Inuit spirit Talelayu, made of whelks, violet mussel shells and bottle-ends pressed into the gaevel’s rendering; then, after a fork in the path, the South American garden. Fuchsia species, Lomatia, Chiliotrichum (a relative of the daisy bush that grows in Patagonia, Southern Chile, Southern Argentina and the Falkland Islands), Drimys winteri and Crinodendron flourish in a waxy, green gloom. All along, James sings the song-line of the garden. ‘This is Crinodendron, which has little lovely crimson bell flowers on it … but the best of the lot is this one here, Embothrium coccineum [Chilean Fire Bush] which has red spider flowers on it of scarlet intensity … they just come out in these tentacles.’

James has been experimenting with these species at Lea Gardens since a visit to the Faroe Islands in 1993. Rationalising that the far-South American climate had much in common with the North Atlantic, being windy, salty and cloudy, the Faroese forestry service had made collection and research trips to Tierra del Fuego. On a similar trip to the Norwegian Arboretum, James and Rosa filled their Berlingo with Southern Chilean species. Nothing could be more typical of Shetland than this dispersal of seed across the oceans, this global web of horticultural correspondences: throughout the winter, Shetlanders search the beaches for drift seeds – plump, polished tokens of dimpled leather – from the rainforests of South America.

‘That’s another of my favourite trees,’ James says, pausing at a lissom ash, ‘Yggdrasil, the tree that supported the universe … Some people think it was maybe a yew tree because it was actually supposed to be evergreen, which of course an ash isn’t … And they actually grow here just as well as sycamore. They can have female flowers one year and male flowers the next: they can kind of change sex, which is clever, and you can also burn the wood green … if you had a sickly child, there was an old belief that if you cleft an ash tree in the middle and slipped the child through … if the tree healed itself it would mean the child would heal.’ Now he reaches for the cone of a noble fir, as big as a hedgehog, with a pineapple’s bloated spines. I’m dizzy with light and lore and the strong linctus scent of the garden. The surrounding hills are gold and russet, the bay of Tresta brilliantly corrugated by a south-westerly. The world-tree is growing in a hidden garden in the centre of Shetland.

A Sunday in December. Big, new, polished cars seem to cross the bridge almost constantly. Under it, the Burn of Crookadale, as black as sump oil, pours noisily into a gully. The rocks are ice-glazed, the mounds of water-hoarding sphagnum frozen solid, and dark red, like rumpsteak. I lie on my belly at the overhang. The relict hazel, and a true wild rose, its hips ice-blown, jut from the rockface on stems as thick as plumbing. A rowan wand yearns skyward. Like a pencil, it’s been whittled and scraped against the rock until all that remains is a flat, living wound, like a scab peeled from skin, but somehow still growing. The curved twigs are like bolts of frozen iron. It’s hard to imagine life in them. The stems are so wrinkled they look like they’re wincing. But the tree is aureoled in buds like flames, like statues of the Hindu Lord of Dance, Shiva Nataraja. The Rosa canina is a slow kindling across the rockface. Surrounded by a stock-proof fence, the hazel is about to broach the safety of the gulley. This is the work of the Woodlands Team.

This hazel, the rose and rowan are, with a scattering of other trees, what remains of the isles’ native woodland. They’re referred to as Shetland’s relict trees, and each one is recorded in S.C. Jay’s report, Shetlands Native Trees of 1995. One of the two last Malus sylvestris, or wild crab apple, hangs, in this report, at the literal brink of local extinction, on a cliff face subject to rockfalls and pounded by winter seas and winds. The ecology of these cliffs, ravines, holms on lochs may look desperate, but they can also be fantastical and perversely lush. I’ve wandered the frost-shattered fellfield of Ronas Hill, with its tiny arctic species, such as Alpine Ladies’ Mantle and Mountain Azalea, in an underlit haze of fog, looking for Boletus edulis. Also known as pennybuns, ceps, and porcini mushrooms, these grow, like lumps of Wonderland furniture, wildly out of proportion with their hosts, the vein-thin roots of Salix herbacea, the least willow. At Beorgs of Housetter, a bonsai rowan grows thickly from a sheltering fissure, tangled with wild honeysuckle. Halfway up an inland cliff at Too Brekk, its roots apparently drinking the rock itself, hovers a kind of arboreal Yoda: a wrinkled, twisted aspen with multiple stout, silvery leaders and unstinting buds. Like Yoda, it’s almost impossible to hazard a guess at its age.

What became of these aspens and crab apples, the many species of willow, the rowans, junipers, hazels and birches? Traces of fossilised pollen suggest up to a third of Shetland might once have been covered in such species. In addition to a marked deterioration in climate, the main culprit may have been the advent of agriculture. Some survived only because they were sited on holms in lochs too deep for sheep to cross. In species that reproduce sexually, the sexes are estranged, or too stunted to produce seed. I don’t think I’m imagining a current of emotion in Jay’s report under the latinate names, co-ordinates and scientific patter. ‘This is a very important site [that is] very vulnerable to sheep gaining access in the winter, as proved the case in early 1994 when a sheep was stranded for some weeks on the holm. It was removed on 4.5.94 after committing severe damage to the willows.’

But recently, it’s been possible to propagate plant material from some of Shetland’s relict trees using tissue-culture techniques. In a greenhouse in the Staneyhill Industrial Estate, December strawberries are ripening very, very slowly. A nugget of sphagnum establishes itself in a cup of agar in a sterile cabinet. It looks like one of the exotic shots that will give you a ruinous hangover in any of Shetland’s pubs. Outside, blueish junipers scramble across each other in raised beds. Suckers probe James’ thick white hair and beard, as he reaches to show me plant labels: after hundreds of hours of propagation, the benches, coldframes and cabinets proliferate with the children of Shetland’s ghost forest. James draws my attention to a tray of healthy young ginkgos too. Twenty-five seeds from a tree that survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima were gifted to the Shetland Islands Council, a member of Mayors for Peace. Ginkgos, James tells me, may do well in Shetland, given the right soil and shelter conditions.

Shetland’s ‘treelessness’ is inseparable from the pervasive conception of the isles as ‘bleak’, ‘lonely’, ‘remote’ and ‘impoverished’ – a sort of Edge of Darkness. Does it matter? If places of the mind are projected over the true topography like holograms, can’t they be dispelled? If we know a highly creative community of outward-looking, well-travelled folk, cliffs shimmering with squill and tormentil, fields of gentian and ragged robin, bogs of butterwort, grass of parnassus, luckie-minnie’s oo and orchid, does it matter, really, if others, suffering from what Robert Macfarlane usefully terms ‘attention deficit’, imagine a depopulated rock, denuded of vegetation, in the middle of the North Sea? Writing about Pingok Island, Barry Lopez warned, ‘It is in a place like this that we would unthinkingly store poisons or test weapons, land like the deserts to which we once banished our heretics and where we once loosed scapegoats with the burden of our transgressions.’

Almost exactly this paradigm is explored by Macfarlane in Landmarks. AMEC proposed to build Europe’s biggest windfarm on The Brindled Moor in Lewis, which was perceived to be, and promoted as, ‘barren’ and ‘remote’; a ‘wasteland’, a ‘wilderness’. Capitalism creates and then exploits this perverse kind of commodification, where places are marketed in terms of their proposed worthlessness. After a campaign of creative protest challenging how the moor was perceived, and taking into account its protective designations, the Scottish Government rejected AMEC’s application. They did not, though, reject Viking Energy’s application to erect 103 turbines of 145 metres on and around the Lang Kames in Shetland, with just as much attendant and largely permanent infrastructure. The land on which Viking proposes to excavate its quarries, to build roads the width of runways and install the windmills’ massive, permanent concrete founds, is fragile. The ‘development’, visible from most of Shetland, includes a high-voltage subsea cable to export energy to mainland Scotland, making further such projects financially compelling. The Viking Project is opposed by Sustainable Shetland, which raised nearly £200,000 to appeal the Scottish Government’s decision in the courts. Public opinion on the project is characteristically (for Shetland) polarised, but there has never been a referendum seeking the community’s views, despite Viking describing the windfarm as a ‘community’ project.

With Sustainable Shetland, I believe in the right alternative energies in the right place. Few of us are opposed to the use of wind turbines in Shetland, if they’re scaled down to benefit the communities that live with them and, ideally, own them. In this context I’m content to be accused of nimbyism: though I hope this pejorative term may become outdated in the growing hunger for devolution on all levels. We must cherish the world-tree in our back yards, be it an ash, a yew, a rash of ancient crab apple on a cliff face, or a bed of sphagnum two metres deep.


Jen Hadfield is a poet whose collections include Almanacs (Bloodaxe), Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe) and Byssus (Picador). Jen’ s work has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize and in 2008 won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. Jen is writer-in-residence at Glasgow University. 


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