‘We had to play Stornoway in the Western Isles. We took a 14-hour ferry, a six-hour bus ride and then another three-hour ferry. We lost. It wasn’t even a tour, just another league game. We’d left on Thursday night and got back to Shetland on Tuesday morning.’
Our plane is roughly the size of a Pringle can and, in high winds, appears to drop onto an airstrip that didn’t seem to be there a second ago. As we approached the island, falling lower and lower from the sky and ever-closer to the ground, the wait to see a bit of land vaguely resembling tarmac was endless. The gale force winds had already buffeted our intimate propeller plane (small enough to be able to see out of both windows without moving and perhaps, with a bit of a stretch, touch both sides) enough to make us regret the greasy sausage square we’d wolfed down at the last airport. With no small amount of skill on the part of the pilot, we land safely, seemingly stopping within metres of the trolley-sized wheels touching the ground (well, maybe not trolley-sized, but small nonetheless). No sooner are we stepping on to the runway and we get our first welcome, but it’s not a warm one. It’s the sub-zero, icy chill that’s a permanent resident in these parts at this time of the year. Shetland isn’t the place to warm the cockles in January. Quite the opposite in fact. Luckily, I packed the long johns.
This was our second flight of the day. The first took us from London to Aberdeen in an adult-sized plane, and now we’re a short drive – literally, across the runway, only a red light warns you that a plane might be coming in before you cross – to our destination, Lerwick, the capital. Capital makes it sound big, but with a population of 7,000 or so, elsewhere, it’d be a good-sized village.
We’re here to join Shetland RFC for what has to be the UK’s most epic away trip. For 12 games a year, the rugby side boards a ferry on a Friday evening for a 12-13-hour crossing back to the mainland. The next morning, bleary-eyed, they land in Aberdeen and catch a bus to the match. Sometimes flights, taxis and trains are involved too – that’s before you start thinking about a diverted route that takes them back to Shetland via another ferry to Orkney.
This weekend they’re playing Garioch. A comparatively easy one, this is just a couple of hours bus time on the other side – so out Friday, back Sunday. Easy. If things go to plan. Which they often don’t. Which is why we’ve chosen a weekend when their women’s side is also playing – at home, against their closest neighbours Orkney. That one’s sure to go ahead, we’ve been assured, the salt air never lets the snow hang around – even snow can’t stand that icy chill it seems.
First, some background. Where exactly are we, for starters?
As far north as Anchorage, Alaska or St Petersburg, Russia and only a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. Draw a line between the Faroe Islands in the west, Bergen, Norway in the east and the Scottish mainland to the south and, in the middle, you’ll find Shetland and its archipelago of about 300 pieces. It’s basically almost as close to elsewhere as it is to Scotland. The biggest bit of Shetland is the mainland of 374 square miles, actually not a bad size as islands go, but many are just specks in the ocean. Only 16 of them are home to islanders of the walking, talking, two-legged variety and instead are frequented by the rare species of birds or passing killer whales and myriad sea mammals that attract nature lovers the world over.
Power is at the heart of everything, Shetland has mastered and managed many kinds of it – and in vast volumes. Oil and gas are the most famous (pumping around £100m into the economy every year), but tidal and wind are the future favourites. Power has fuelled many things, literally and metaphorically, for years in Shetland. It’s helped rugby too. Workers from Sull0m Voe oil terminal, both local and from overseas, have played for the only club on the island for decades. And, thanks to a genius ‘cost per barrel’ deal done by Shetland with the oil companies back in the day – in which the outsiders vastly underestimated the amount of fossil fuel lying beneath – local sports facilities are ridiculously good. Leisure centres are virtually at every turn. Given the amount of turns and twists on the island – albeit mostly along one main road that takes you right from the bottom of the mainland to the very top – that’s saying something. “We have the most leisure centres per square mile than anywhere else in Britain,” we’re told regularly while there.
Which is lucky, because for the first time this season men’s training has been forced inside to the nearby hall, complete with 4G. This is where we meet both the senior sides for the first time as they prepare for the weekend’s fixtures. “It’s not looking good for tomorrow,” we’re warned by Jon Pulley, club captain, referring to the Garioch game. “The weather’s pretty bad on the mainland and we have to cancel in enough time because of the SRU funding.”
Extensive travel time isn’t Shetland rugby’s biggest problem – that prize goes to weather, impacting on ferry crossings and pitches, for playing and training.
Training is challenge enough. “It’s why we have 60/40 [the name of the 4G indoor pitch] booked here,” explains Jackie Murray, the club’s travel secretary and women’s captain. “Otherwise you can guarantee three or four nights in a month would be cancelled for training because it’s horizontal.
“We’ll be out there in a force seven,” she continues. “It needs to be above an eight and below five degrees to stop the girls, because then the wind chill takes it down to -1 and then we can’t do it. To be honest, no exaggeration, it’s usually down to the point when we can’t hear each other and we’re standing only a couple of feet apart.”
If any fixture secretaries out there find it tough, spare a thought for Jackie, who has the unenviable task of organising travel for both the men’s and women’s senior sides. “It is a little bit of a nightmare,” she admits before explaining a system of booking ferry tickets for six months at a time, organising and applying discount codes, that would befuddle many. “Then there’s buses to organise to and from venues,” she continues. “If they’re going to Ross Sutherland then it’s a single bus trip to Invergordon, but then I need to get another bus company to pick them up from Invergordon. But because there’s no ferry from Scrabster, I need to get them on the pentolina to St Magarets Hope and then they’ll need a taxi from there to Kirkwall. But then they’ll go for a beer, forget and I’ll have to get them another taxi to the terminal and come home that way instead.”
Unless you have encyclopaedic knowledge of the train, ferry and bus timetables of northern Scotland, it’s unlikely you’ll have understood much of the above – but that’s the point. It’s complicated.
The men’s away game to Garioch has been cancelled. Given that we’re in Shetland to experience one of the rugby club’s epic away journeys, this is far from ideal. But we’ve still got the women’s island derby with Orkney on Sunday.
Softening the blow further, Jon, the club captain, has invited us to the brewery to find out more about the club. John Roy Nicholson, the club stalwart and coach, still playing at the ripe old age of 57, joins us. “The club started in the 1880s,” explains John Roy, “there were a lot of builders from the mainland working on a new hotel and we put a side out to play them.”
Workers either in gas, oil or the military have often provided opposition. The first Shetland Sevens festival back in the 1980s featured sides from BP Sullom Voe and two different RAF camps (Saxa Vord and Buchan). With a population of just 23,000, you have to make the most of any opportunities. “When I started playing in the 80s, I was the only Shetlander,” says John Roy. “It was mostly workers coming in and bringing new ideas, but now most of us are local.”
Aside from the sevens tournament, which regularly attracts mainland sides, opposition had always been hard to come by with the RAF bases the most regular opposition. “We joined the leagues in 2004 and we had a probationary season, but it was before North Links [the daily ferry service] had started so it was P&O and they only had one boat, three sailings a week, so we had to fly down. We’d fly down on Saturday, stay over in Aberdeen, and fly back Sunday. It cost a fortune, £10,000 for the season at least. We got some money [from the SRU] but had to do a lot of fund-raising.”
And that wasn’t the worst of it. Even when the daily ferries kicked in, one away trip lasted five days. “The first time we played Stornoway – in the Western Isles – we took the ferry to Aberdeen; then a bus up to Ullapool; a ferry to Stornaway and then back,” explains John Roy. “That year,” adds Jon, “we left on a Thursday night and got home on the Tuesday morning. It wasn’t even a tour, it was a league game. And we lost: 30 something to 15, I think. It was a good game though.
“We take a flight part of the way now so we leave on Friday and get back on Sunday, so it’s just two nights away and it’s not as bad – it’s just the same as the other games.”
With ferry bookings and Jackie’s intricate planning to consider, games are called early on the mainland, but there are occasions when things change. “We had a cup game in Duns, which is very far south in the Scottish borders, it’s only about 15 miles north of the border,” says John Roy. “The boys had come down on Friday and we had a really early start to drive down 200 miles or so and get the game played. We got to the pitch at Duns only to find it frozen and the club calling around trying to find a venue to host the game, in the end our round of the Scottish cup was played in England in Berwick. We’d travelled the full length of Scotland and then across the border and we got hammered, 60-9. A good pasting. They laid on a good function though.”
With no truly close neighbours, rivalries were found elsewhere. “Lochaber in Fort William is a four or five-hour bus journey from Aberdeen,” explains Jon. “We stay overnight and travel back Sunday – it’s a good rivalry, hard-fought times.” “Dirty at times,” chips in John Roy. “One time we had a 30-man brawl – including their coach who’d come on and punched one of our players to ignite the whole thing. It was always a fun game.”
“It was a fun night afterwards,” adds John Roy. “Everything was left on the pitch and it’s a stunning location, too, with Ben Nevis in the distance. And we had a rum bus on the way back – that’s when every player has a bottle of rum that had to be finished by Aberdeen.”
Resilience is mentioned more than once in describing Shetlanders. “There’s an attitude that you do what has to be done,” says Jon. “You keep going and going until you get done what you’ve got to get done.”
“We’ve been to the mainland with understrength teams a lot of times,” says John Roy, “and we’ve been on the receiving end of 80-90 points and heads never, ever go down, they just play, play and play.”
“The guys do stick together,” agrees Jon. “They have to, there’s too few of us to have cliques. They give up a lot for it too, it’s basically our social life. We’re a close-knit team, and we’ll spend time together away from rugby – it becomes your core friend group. Mostly what we do involves drinking because there’s not a lot else to do in Shetland.”
Except for Up Helly Aa that it is.
Shetlanders are Vikings. Every year they spend four months building a 36-foot intricately detailed wooden Viking galley – only to burn it at the end of a firelit procession with 1,000 paraffin-soaked torches. This is Up Helly Aa, the biggest night of the Shetland year bar none. Jon has been one of the many locals helping to build the galley “It’s very important,” Jon says of Shetland’s Viking heritage. “It’s what makes us different from the rest of Scotland.”
We’re talking in a shed filled with men putting the finishing touches to the seriously impressive Viking boat. With Jon as our guide, we’re stopping en route to second row Adrian’s house. The players are helping him and his partner move home and will then start the Saturday night social there. If we’re lucky, a trip to Posers Nightclub at the Grand Hotel could be on the cards.
A man called Ryan is showing us around the boat shed that doubles as something of a Viking museum in summer months. “We’ve got about a dozen people doing four hours a night, two nights a week, for four months,” he explains. “Then we have the same for the boys making the torches – it’s a lot of work.
“Only one place name in Shetland is Pictish [the people wiped out by the Vikings], the rest are Norse,” continues Ryan. “The Vikings basically used Shetland and Orkney as bases from which to invade Scotland and Ireland.”
The festival’s origins seem murky, even the name people aren’t sure of, but they do know that there’s been a ‘Jarl’ [meaning Viking chief] leading the procession since the 1800s.
“This year’s is a guy called Stuart who used to play rugby,” says Jon. “He used to be second row or flanker but since he was set to become Jarl, he stepped back from the game.” A common story.
After leaving the galley, we head to Adrian’s where the Up Helly Aa thread continues. “After the torchlight procession, the men break up into squads,” says Jon. “Only the Jarl’s squad of 50 are dressed as Vikings, all the others choose a theme and then go and perform an act at the 11 local halls, one after the other.”
With close to 50 squads of 20 or more men, that’s a lot of acts. Which explains why – with drinking and dancing thrown in at every hall – they rarely finish much before 6am. “We once dressed as the Pussycat Dolls – 25 guys dressed in PVC,” offers Jake Watt, the club’s player-coach, before adding, “There was a Rampant Rabbit squad one year too.”
“It was a giant six-foot dildo spinning around in the middle of the hall,” chips in Adrian’s fellow lock Joe Unsworth. “It just had all these guys dressed as rabbits hopping around it. We wore two-man giraffe suits one year as well – we were about 11ft tall.”
“Then you just get the normal ones,” says Jake, “like Storm Troopers and Bananas in Pyjamas.”
“There’s a lot of dance acts,” says Joe. “And magic acts. We had one guy in a giant balloon who would pop it and every time he did, he changed clothes.”
The living room of Adrian’s new home is filling fast. Word has spread through the Whatsapp group and we’ve soon met every player. No sooner have we been introduced and they’ve handed us either another beer, a miniature sombrero full of tequila, a bottle of port, or a glass of neat gin. It’s pure rugby hospitality. The kind you only get when there’s no game to be had the next day. “Before the game it’s a strict no beers policy,” says Jake. “Well, you have one or two,” adds Adrian, “but you won’t go all out on the boat. You’re drained from the trip as it is – 12 hours on a boat, you don’t get the best sleep. Even when you get ashore, you still feel like you’re walking on the boat and then you’ve got about an hour to adjust before you have to play rugby.”
“That small cabin too,” says Jon. “Three other people and one of them is always snoring. I try and avoid John Roy – he snores a lot.”
Hough (first name Andrew), a prop, arrives and quickly warms to the topic. “This is the calmest you’ll ever seen Sheltand,” he says. “We have a steady force 5, 6 or 7 regularly and you would go away and wouldn’t sleep, you couldn’t sleep. I remember some of those trips and you lie in that bloody bunk and swear you’re going a foot up the bed and a foot down every time the boat rolls. John Tait [former second row] was that big that when he breathed in it created a vacuum. I don’t know if anyone snores like that anymore.”
Recording nights like this helps, especially when you see the bottom of that little sombrero hat far too often. Even when there’s no rugby to discuss, there’s plenty of interest. Like the Shetland’s fleet of gargantuan pelagic fishing boats: 75-metres in length, costing about £25m to build and able to bring in some 2,000 tonnes of fish at a time. It seems the little island of Whalsay is home to seven of the eight-strong fleet, hence the locals were able to build their own golf course. Google it. It’s a good read.
The women’s game has been cancelled. The snow-covered pitch isn’t just a light dusting, it’s topped with a thick layer on ice that shows no sign of relenting. Nonetheless, a healthy squad of 16 players turn out for an impromptu training session. “We have been known to run up and down the pitch with the opposition to break the ice before,” says Eloise Smith, another second rower. “And we played against Inverness last April in a snow storm – we’re tough northerners, aren’t we? We can deal with it. The referee wasn’t so keen though, he was an Englishman so he said, ‘maybe girls we cut 20 minutes from the game because I’m starting to lose sight of people on the pitch’.”
Women’s rugby is still in its infancy in Shetland with the side playing in a development league against Orkney, Inverness and Banff. “When I first started out about three years ago there was about five to six girls turning up,” says Eloise. “They were real diehards and we weren’t ever sure how we were going to get more people, but we have just built and built, and now we’ve now got about 35-40 players –more than the men.”
Unlike the men who only get part funding, the women’s league is fully supported, with the SRU picking up the whole tab for the three away trips, which probably gives little change from £3,000. Women’s head coach Neil Murray, who doubles up as club president [and, incidentally, is also married to Jackie], admits finance is the trickiest issue – especially for the men. “If you’re looking at a typical boat cost,” he says, “it could be close to £2,000. Buses take it to £3,000, an overnight is another £700, so it could be £4,000. Probably on average though it’s closer to £3,000 and with 11 games, it’s not far off £40,000 a season.”
That money is made up by the SRU [about £10,000, says Neil], sponsors, such as local car hire company Star and Jewson, and any events the club can put together – which has in the past included tyre-flipping across the island from east coast to west coast.
No doubt like the seven miles of tyre flipping, it’s a struggle, but the club do it and every week they hope their next fixture won’t fall foul of the weather like the seven already postponed by the time they’d reached Christmas.
The women’s game moving to summer in Scotland is a solution for them, but the men aren’t so lucky. Not that weather or long weekends away are ever going to stop some of them.
There may be boats, flights and taxis being missed, bus drivers too drunk to drive, players stranded in Orkney for days – all of this happened and probably will do again. But they’re still here and despite some serious drubbings this year, including an eye-watering 107-7 and an 88-3 reverse, they’re going to push on. Thanks to people like Jake, who’s only too aware of the task ahead of him. “Going away once a fortnight you really have to be a proper team,” he says. “You have to be 15-22 guys that will be there for each other. You train Tuesday and Thursday and are away together Friday night into Sunday – you’re with these guys more than your girlfriend, so it’s challenging.”
Luckily, he can apply basic maths and equations in ‘annoyance multiplied by person’ to inspire his lads to put rugby first. “The way I see is that you’ve only got one wife or girlfriend, but you’ve got 14 team-mates,” he says. “So, if they’re all going to be equally disappointed in you, then you might as well go away.”
Words by: Alex Mead
Pictures by: Christopher Kennedy