In July at North Roe in the Shetland Islands, I rented a one-bedroom chalet from crofters Iwona and Neil Charleson. The Charlesons raise sheep, cows, and chickens on their farm, Toam; heat their croft home with peat; and rig rows of garlic, broccoli, and potatoes-their garden willow-lined to break the wind. On the first night’s stay, the Charleson’s make dinner, a roast leg of their lamb and home-brewed beer. During dinner, Iwona points out the window to a side yard, and says how in the spring she heard a sheep wailing outside, just under the sill. She ran out that day, saw the ewe presenting breech, and stood fixed. But she then quickly slipped her hand into the birth canal, pushed her arm and hand up further to grab the lamb and turned it. No training for the moment. And now in July they anticipated a calving crisis.
Beth the Cow, sent out to visit a neighboring bull during the seasonal meet-up, did not come home pregnant. She was later artificially inseminated and was now pregnant long into the summer, grazing on too rich grass cover. The calf could grow far too big to birth, Iwona said, but added, in a crisis she could call on neighbor Douglas Murray.
Enter Douglas and Bertha Murray’s stone home, Isbister, and you have to double-over just to get in the door. Unfold on the inside and you’re in the ben, the sitting space, and don’t know where to focus first. There’s a wall of red and blue and green prize ribbons-first, second, third prizes in sheep competitions. On a far wall, several pairs of jeans hang over the oil-burning Rayburn stove, drying. Look up-a rifle is propped across a timber-for firing at rabbits gnawing the cabbage.
The Murrays are lifelong Shetlanders. Douglas has lived and worked Isbister, the last croft before Fethaland, the most northerly point of Shetland’s north mainland, since 1944-Bertha since 1962. Each day, either Douglas or Bertha drives their 12-passenger van for two morning runs and one return run in the evening-down and back from North Roe to Hillswick. They stop at neighbors’ doors-picking up children on their way to school and others on their way to jobs in Brae and Lerwick-to meet up with the regular city bus run south. Then there’s getting the feed out for the cows, chickens, sheep, and ponies-the short Shetland breed with long hair blowing over their eyes, kept now more for nostalgia.
I called Douglas and Bertha this week, and he said that the air is still and clear, the view “like a mirror, like a piece of glass.” But wind is forecast for Thursday, Douglas says. He will then have to determine its direction to decide which of two sets of doors on either end of the livestock shed to close, to block one end from the onslaught and allow for shelter. Douglas is the go-to guy in a livestock crisis. The nearest veterinarian is 40 miles away in one direction, 30 in another.
On the last day of my July stay in North Roe, I met up with Bertha as she stood in her turnip field-turning the ground, her scarf tied tight to block the ever-blowing wind. She bent down to pull out, individually, the stubborn weeds, then stopped, stood up, leaned, hands crossed over with the rake, and took a breath. “The men don’t like this work,” she says. “No.”