Thursday 5 January 2012

Wind and the Willows

Christmas Day might never be quite as exciting again.

The day started windy, a storm force ten was forecast and by midday the waves on Mid Yell Voe had white crests. By 2pm the wind was whipping the water into clouds of salt laden mist that raced across the water and smacked into the front of the house. Large pieces of driftwood lifted into the air and a neighbour’s caravan decided to give up the struggle and let the wind push it over. The howling in the chimney was unforgettable as the Queen told us, in her annual address, of the natural disasters that had happened in her far flung “colonies” in 2011. Shortly afterwards the lights started to flicker and by 4.30pm everything went dark as the power went off. We lit the 'peerie' Mørso Squirrel with some willow prunings which then provided us with heating and the means of cooking for the next 24 hours when, thanks to men working in dangerous and very difficult conditions, the volts raced back along the wires. We now know that the wind had hit 105mph which is defined as hurricane force.

In other parts of the world hurricanes are given girls names and occupy hours of national television, yet Shetland storms are barely noticed by the rest of the British Isles and certainly not christened. Perhaps it’s because the islands aren't quite on the television weather maps or perhaps it is the relative lack of physical damage that renders them non-news worthy. People expect the wind to blow hard here and so they build accordingly. Two roofs, some garden fencing and £2million pounds worth of salmon in their cages, last seen heading towards Orkney, seem to have been the major casualties this time.

Whilst the thought of the roof being ripped off your home in the dark with the cold rain drenching everything is too horrible to contemplate the loss of some salmon cages appeared, at first, to be good news for the fish. Apparently though the cages were not in themselves damaged and so the fish would have been unable to escape and thousands of mature salmon are thought to have died of starvation, as they are used to being fed regularly. Either that or they began to eat each other when their dinner failed to arrive! Neither is a happy scenario.

Perhaps another reason for the relatively small amount of physical damage here is because there are very few trees on the islands and it is trees close to buildings that often cause the most damage in hurricanes elsewhere. Trees can, however, absorb a considerable amount of wind energy and ironically if there were more trees in Shetland there would also be less wind. There is plenty of space to grow trees well away from buildings here.

There is a generally held notion, amongst outsiders, that trees cannot grow here but there is evidence to the contrary. Samuel Lewis in his 1846 Topographical Dictionary of Scotland described the island of Yell as having “extensive peat mosses in which are found large trees”. In fact the peat that now clothes the island of Yell is the rotted remains of the birch and oak forests that once covered the land. The other main cause cited for a lack of trees is the sheep which were, until recently, allowed to roam at will and being partial to a bit of variety in their diet they are accused of having eaten all emerging tree seedlings.

But I feel there is something deeper going on here as every so often there are tales in the newspaper of 'tree stealing'. James Mackenzie of the Shetland Amenity Trust also alerted me to the sad tale of Thomas Irvines' plantation. Thomas was the owner of the Haa of Midbrake at Cullivoe on Yell in 1815. It was the house that my grandmother was born in many years later, so it was of particular interest to me to learn that he had planted  some 3,500 trees and shrubs including willows there. He had hoped they would be of benefit to the community but, apparently, the locals stole the lot!  Sometimes I think that somewhere along the line the relationship between Shetland folk and trees went sour as there seems to be only a half-hearted desire to plant and nurture them here now!

The previous owner of this house was not from Shetland and she created a beautiful garden filled with trees and shrubs including willows of many varieties thus creating a micro climate for flora and fauna. Unusually there is a resident robin, wren and blackbird as well as the more common crows, with their grisly nests full of sheep and bird bones, starlings and the occasional 'blow in' - a 'European Bee Eater' took refuge here a couple of years ago. This little copse also harbours hedgehogs and frogs and according to my neighbour John Tonner, who is very knowledgeable about these things, one of the best collections of snails on the island.

But wonderful as this all is there is another, and far more vital reason for growing willow here and it isn't for basket making. Rather it is as a quick and cheap alternative source of energy to the electricity which is predominant here. Each year I prune the willows to encourage root growth to make sturdy plants that are better able to withstand the winter winds but also, I have to admit, to some extent because I feel obliged to cut them for basket making. In the end, however, I use very little of it for making anything. I have realised that I prefer willow living or freshly cut, and once it is dry I seldom feel as excited by it, perhaps simply because it is dead and requires a lot of resuscitation to bring it back to life! Most of these annual prunings therefore end up being cut to short lengths and stacked to dry for use in the stove or made into faggots for the open fire. Driftwood, though plentiful here, is apparently not good for stoves or open fires as it is laden with salt but these mini willow logs have proved their weight in gold this year.

When the wind stops blowing I will go out and do the annual pruning and plant as many more willows as I can. If anyone in Shetland is reading this and would like some of these cuttings to plant their own little bio-mass copse, or osier holt, please get in touch with me and with our combined efforts, perhaps, in twenty years there will be a little bit less wind in the willows!