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Beachcombing in Shetland: I’ve travelled the world with out leaving house | Journey



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Before I had youngsters, my work as a analysis scientist meant frequent journey. I specialised in nature conservation and found that I used to be pregnant with my first baby on a go to to an Ethiopian colleague’s discipline web site within the Bale Mountains. The motherhood penalty in academia is excessive, and when my husband was supplied a submit in Shetland, I handed in my discover within the hope of discovering a brand new job that will permit a greater work-life steadiness.

We relocated north on the in a single day ferry from Aberdeen, and regardless of a tough voyage and sea illness, I used to be instantly smitten. Shetland is an archipelago of greater than 100 islands, 16 of that are inhabited. Climate strikes quick right here and there’s a fixed play of sunshine on a sea scattered with islands. I used to be excited to reside in a spot the place there may be all the time an opportunity of seeing a pod of orcas.


The primary yr of residing in Shetland was marred by two miscarriages, however the subsequent being pregnant held and my daughter was born. When the excessive value of childcare locked me out of employment, I began to lose my sense of self. To maintain my thoughts busy, I got here up with a plan to stroll Shetland’s shoreline, all 1,679 rugged miles of it, part by part, when my husband may take care of our kids. I pored over maps and imagined strolling alongside wild cliffs and discovering hidden seashores. I couldn’t wait to get began.

Nevertheless it was to not be. My physique behaved unusually within the months after the beginning. Being pregnant had triggered the onset of rheumatoid arthritis and broken the joints between my pelvis and backbone. Ache and fatigue made it tough to take care of my younger youngsters when my husband was at work. I grew to become remoted, and melancholy set in.

A message in a bottle present in Shetland. {Photograph}: Sally Huband

It’s unusual to put in writing this now, however I discovered my approach ahead by counting lifeless seabirds. Together with a lot marine litter, tides wash the our bodies of stricken seabirds ashore. When my daughter was nonetheless a child, I volunteered to observe two seashores. I may park proper subsequent to every seaside and stroll slowly alongside the strandlines. My job was to rely every hen, notice the species and test its plumage for oil to gather information for a survey initiated within the late Nineteen Seventies following the development of Shetland’s oil and fuel terminal.


My first survey was on a bitterly chilly February day. The particular person coaching me paused to pluck a chunk of plastic from the strandline. He handed it to me and defined that it was a lobster entice tag from Newfoundland or Labrador. I returned house with a pocket filled with seaside treasure and the sensation {that a} door had opened. I quickly spent all of my spare time beachcombing, looking the shore for the unusual and curious issues that the tide leaves behind.

Beachcombing obtained me outdoors in all weathers and my psychological well being improved. I whiled away darkish winter evenings researching the issues I had discovered, some extra pure than others. I started to share my “treasure” with a neighborhood of beachcombers on-line, from Shetland locals to individuals residing on extra distant shores. And due to the information shared by fellow lovers, I’d quickly compiled my very own wishlist of dream finds: messages in bottles, birch bark and beaver-gnawed wooden from North America, uncommon eggcases (mermaid’s purses) and beneficial ambergris from a sperm whale’s abdomen.


Prime of my checklist was a fortunate sea bean, the drift seed of a tropical vine. I’d seen one in a neighborhood museum. It regarded carved from brown wooden and flippantly polished – a plump and smooth-edged disc. A small notch interrupted its neat circumference, and I noticed why they’re typically referred to as sea hearts. It was so gentle that I barely felt it within the palm of my hand. My thumbnail made no impression on its laborious floor.

The shoreline and cliffs at Braewick. {Photograph}: Nirian/Getty

I purchased a discipline information to float seeds and skim that they’ve advanced to be buoyant and dispersed by water. Their robust and impermeable outer layer protects them as they float on the ocean’s floor. Some wash up on heat shores, the place they will germinate, however others arrive in chilly northern locations like Shetland the place they can’t naturally develop.

I’d assumed that sea beans had been fortunate finds as a result of they’re so uncommon. I’ve met native beachcombers who had by no means been fortunate, others who’ve discovered multiple. However then I realized that they’ve been used as protecting charms because the instances of the Pagan Norse. They had been stated to maintain girls secure in childbirth and males secure from drowning. After I realized {that a} Shetland lady, Katherine Jonesdochter, was executed for witchcraft in 1616 and that her sea bean was used as proof of her crime, I grew to become much more obsessive about discovering one in all my very own.


I’d lie awake at evening in ache and picture an island within the Caribbean with a large seed pod hanging over a forest stream. I’d image the pod splitting and a sea bean falling into the water and being carried to a river and out to sea. It was a consolation to think about a resilient sea bean drifting on the floor of the ocean.

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Beachcombing isn’t essentially a type of escapism. Paying shut consideration to jetsam and flotsam means confronting a lot that’s mistaken with the world. Simply as tracing Katherine Jonesdochter’s story deepened my understanding of misogyny, proof of colonial racism will be discovered within the strandlines of Shetland too. My assortment of lobster entice tags from North America exceeds 100, however solely 5 had been issued to Indigenous fishers. It’s nearly as if the ocean is showcasing white complacency, our slowness to attach the capitalist dots between types of social oppression and environmental destruction.

A ‘fortunate’ sea bean. {Photograph}: Alamy

I like to gather lobster entice tags however they’re nonetheless litter, and every winter, storms heap staggering quantities of plastic on to the shores of those islands. Plastic additionally comes ashore hidden within the stomachs of lifeless fulmars – lovely seabirds that nest on Shetland’s cliffs. I’m glad of storms as a result of they convey a lot ashore, however I concern for a future by which they change into extra frequent and extra violent.

Our island life means we regularly need to journey to the Scottish mainland for medical therapy and, in some circumstances, to present beginning. I can foresee a future by which we’ll as soon as once more search consolation in protecting charms.


It took me years of looking earlier than I discovered a sea bean of my very own. It lay among the many pebbles, nonetheless moist from the tide and gleaming in a low winter solar. Euphoric moments like these are uncommon, however beachcombing is commonly absorbing sufficient to distract me from ache. Looking for sea glass one winter’s day, I failed to note a pod of orcas swimming proper by me, only a few metres offshore. It took the explosive exhalation of a whale to drag me out of my deeply meditative state.

Beachcombing has seen me by means of some difficult instances and has taught me find out how to maintain hope. It has given me an unimagined intimacy with these astonishing islands and with the methods of the ocean. I’ve realized to journey the world with out ever leaving house.

Sally Huband is the writer of Sea Bean (Penguin), printed in paperback on 4 April. To purchase a duplicate for £9.67 go to

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