‘So, what do you do here for excitement?’


One of my favorite means of travel is by ferry, especially around one of my favorite locations — the Scottish Islands. Strung out in the Atlantic off the northeast coast of Scotland, they are remote places of stark natural beauty where economics, history and rock-ribbed traditions have ensured that their intriguing charm has been relatively unchanged over the centuries.  

This particular trip of which I write was undertaken there for my usual reasons – ferry-hopping and shopping: to Harris for hand-woven tweeds and to Islay to order a generous supply of single malt whiskies. This time however, never one to miss an opportunity to do something weirdly exciting in a small aircraft – a typical Fogg failing — I decided to fly out from Shetland to Fair Isle, a green and brown tufted rock famous for its birds and hand-knitted multi-colored sweaters.  This was a chance not only to land uphill (landing instructions warn of moss growth on the dirt runway making it slippery when wet), but even more fun — taking off downhill and swooping off a cliff and out to sea at the end of the runway. 

Once on the ground at Fair Isle, the landing in the high-wing Islander everything I had hoped for, after a look-around I was soon being measured at one of the Fair Isle knitwear locations, picking out my color and pattern.  I also got to meet the person who would knit the actual garment. And it was then, with her, that I stumbled into one of the strangest and disturbing conversations I’ve ever had.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Having completed most of my island touring among the Inner and Outer Hebrides, my tweeds and whiskey ordered, the RoRo ferry now snugly docked at Shetland, I had driven my rented Land Rover down the ramp at Lerwick right into one of the island’s annual Up Helly Aa festivals, an ancient Norse celebration that literally has to be seen to be believed.  For me this mostly consisted of drinking in a pub sardined between axe-toting bearded men wearing chest plates and helmets with horns sticking off either side, all the while flirting with the local island lassies that were pissed at them for excluding females from the processions.  Surviving that, it was on to the main event on this wind-swept island: burning a full-size Viking Longship in a gigantic nautical bonfire, showering a sparkling cloud of floating embers over the spectators while phalanxes of the same horned helmet-wearing, torch-waving would-be Vikings marched past, bellowing Norse chants into the night air.  And that just was the pre-party!    

Leaving with a mild case of the shakes — half hangover, half PTSD – I was now on my way to Scapa Flow at Orkney, to dive on the almost pristine wrecks of the Imperial German High Seas Fleet of World War One, which had been scuttled there in 1919.  Standing at the rail of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry with its distinctive red stack, watching the treeless hills of the Hebrides glide by, once again that conversation on Fair Isle rose up toward me from the depths like the Great White Whale coming for Ahab.

My knitter that day was a tall, big-boned woman, with long, wild blonde hair.  As she took my measurements, I asked in my wittiest manner: “So, what do you do here for excitement?”

“Well,” she replied, “I wave at the cruise ships.”

“You what?”

“You know,” she explained, her eyes fixed on me, “in the afternoons, in good weather, I lean on the wall outside the hut out of the wind, and when the ships go by, I wave at them.  But the old man inside yells at me. 

“I couldn’t stop now: “  What old man? Why does he yell?

“The husband’s father.  He doesn’t like me waving.  Says it’s bold. He sits in the kitchen and yells out the window that I’m shaming them.”  

Hoo boy . . . tension on Fair Isle.       

*  * *  * * 

Advantage Spitfire 

‘ . . . the technician opened his attaché case, took out a pair of snips . . .’

Some years ago, I was having an after-work drink with a colleague when we were joined by his father, who, after a couple of pints, got on to the topic of his time flying Spitfires in the battle of Britain. Both sides were continually seeking to gain any advantage, however slight, as the smallest difference could  affect the outcome of a dogfight. At the time in question, the Spitfires, as configured, had a slight performance edge on the ME 109s flown by their main opponents.

One day they found  that the Luftwaffe had modified the ME 109s and the slight advantage the RAF had enjoyed now lay with the opposition.  Good pilots were getting shot down in circumstances that they would previously have found relatively secure.

Urgent enquiries went up the chain of command, and before too long, a technician arrived from Rolls Royce, the maker of the Merlin V-12 engines powering the Spitfires. This fellow, dressed in a three-piece suit, and wearing a bowler hat, drove up in an open-top, single-seat Morgan racer with the handbrake out on the running board. British racing green, of course. He spoke to the squadron commander and cautioned him that the alteration he was about to make would void the warranty and asked if he was sure the squadron commander wanted to proceed. The incredulous officer remarked that the manufacturer’s warranty was pretty low among his pilots’ priorities, so the technician opened his attaché case, took out a pair of snips, and proceeded to cut the governor wire, which restricted the movement of the throttle on each aircraft.

“There,” he said, “that should do it.”

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