The other day, I was chatting with my colleagues about the weirdest places we’ve ever been. Here’s the story I told them about the time I went to the Shetland Islands in 2014, spent a couple of days in a remote hotel, and was assaulted by a pony.
When I came across the Call for Papers for The Supernatural in Literature and Film conference, I’d almost skipped over it. I didn’t have any particular research interest in the topic (although I did love fantasy TV series like Buffy and Supernatural), and I’d figured that any networking opportunities would be wasted because the presenters were not likely to be in my discipline. But then I saw the location. The Shetland Islands? As in Shetland ponies? I did a quick Google search and discovered that, yes, Shetland ponies had originated from Shetland, in the UK, where they were bred for the size and strength necessary to squeeze into mineshafts and pull tonne after tonne of coal out of the darkness. Well, that settled it then. Before I knew it, I’d written an abstract and had sent it along.
It was about fairies in Torchwood, in case you’re wondering.
I should point out that the Shetland Islands are not particularly difficult to get to. Planes leave from Aberdeen fairly regularly and nothing but the worst weather will ground them. There are also ferries if you like being tossed around in the North Sea for half a day.
The trick is navigating the Islands once you get there. The public transport is sporadic at best, hire cars are in short supply, and everything is so spread out and isolated that walking anywhere is just plain impossible.
Arriving in the windy, freezing Shetland airport, I found a tiny tourist shop with a notice telling me that I’d missed the bus into Lerwick by about five minutes. The next bus would be in an hour.
I must have looked a little lost standing beneath the lamp post with the bus times printed on it, clutching my bag and shivering beneath my scarf, because an older lady with round hips and wispy white hair called out from across the carpark if I wanted a lift into town.
The words STRANGER DANGER were still ringing in my ears from primary school, so I politely declined her offer.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this sort of casual kindness to strangers is second nature to Shetlanders. I’ve never met a group of people more determined to help one another out. Later that morning, a coffee shop owner would open her doors early so that I could come in from the cold. The museum café waitress let me sit for hours without buying more than a cup of coffee because it was raining outside, and the cab driver who I eventually hired to get me into town spent most of the trip pointing out the houses where his relatives lived and explaining that hardly anyone locked their doors in this area.
“So you don’t get a lot of crime here, then?” I asked, wondering if he gave this sort of personal information to every stranger he met.
He laughed. “Not really,” he said. “Everyone knows everyone here, love. If you rob someone in the morning, you’ll probably see them at the pub later that night.”
When we reached the capitol city of Lerwick (population 7,500), he scrawled his home phone number onto a business card and told me to contact him if I needed help while I was there.
The Lerwick locals were generally astonished when I told them that I was in town for a conference. They were even more astonished when I told them that the conference was in Unst, a remote town in the north. Lerwick, they could understand – that was where most of the population was concentrated – but Unst?
That was a bit far to go for some fancy talks about fairies.
Unst is the most northerly town in the United Kingdom. It used to be an army outpost; now it’s mostly farmers and fishermen. The town centre has three buildings: a post office, a small convenience store, and a petrol station with a single lonely petrol bowser set in the middle of the road as if it needed to remind people that it was there.
When I visited, none of these facilities was open.
The conference delegates needed to be bussed to our destination because public transport is a rarity in that part of the world. Many of us were PhD candidates in various fields who’d been drawn to the conference by the novelty of its location.
I sat next to a friendly Dutch woman on the bus who spoke with an American accent and was studying in the UK. I made friends with an Indian woman who’d brought her whole family to conference and was particularly interested in Australian indigenous poetry; a professional storyteller who, when the conference ended, would take me on a guided tour of Aberdeen and tell me horrific ghost stories; and a woman who, it turned out, worked at the same university where I was doing my semester abroad – I just hadn’t met her until we were crammed onto a tiny bus bound for the end of the world.
“Small world,” she said, offering me a wry smile and a tip of the cap.
We joked about how this is how a horror movie would start: a group of charmingly erudite young men and women are taken to a remote location only to be ritualistically murdered by a madman living in the heather. The hotel didn’t inspire much confidence. It was a grey brick slab smack in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but rolling hills to one side and wide ocean to the other. There were small cabins dotted around – these, we were told, were for us. It was looking more and more like a bloody murder waiting to happen.
The poor, unfortunate hotel receptionists were nearly run off their feet with the sudden influx of winter tourists. They tried to put us through one at a time, but the reception wasn’t even big enough to hold us all. After a day of intense travel, I was ready to kill a man to get a good night’s sleep – even if it meant sleeping in one of the dodgy cabins.
“Excuse me?” I said, pushing my way to the front of the queue. “Is there a way we can streamline this?”
The receptionists looked suspiciously at me and didn’t seem to want to answer.
“How about this –” I went on. “– you guys do the keys and directions, we’ll do the forms. That’ll speed it up.”
And without waiting for an answer, I picked up the stack of forms and started divvying them up among my fellow delegates.
An American couple named me the group’s handler and unfortunately that moniker stuck.
That first night wasn’t as windy or cold as I’d expected. I tried to ignore my feelings of doomed isolation as I gazed out to the desolate country-side, slipped into my fluffiest pyjamas, and settled in to a surprisingly deep sleep.
I woke up much earlier than usual the next morning. Once I was satisfied that none of my limbs had been chewed off by rural cannibals during the night, I went outside in time to see the sunrise over the hills and a soft, dewy fog lingering over the grass.
The air was so clean and crisp, and the area so isolated, that I felt like I’d been transported back in time. Back to when cars hadn’t thickened our atmosphere, back to when people would rise with the sun to feed their livestock before tending to their crops, back to the days when you needed an early start because you had to walk to school. There were no trees, no street lights, the terrain was utterly, fantastically alien. Feeling fresher and lighter than I had in months, I started walking in the direction of town.
Shetland is famous for its ponies. They are some of the tiniest and strongest creatures we humans have ever developed – bred to suffer the cramped and crumbling mines and drag up to a tonne of precious coal and crude oil back to the surface. I understand that most of them technically belong to somebody, but the fields are so big and the ponies so self-possessed that they seem to run wild over the hills.
I met one such pony on my walk. She was a lovely, deep brown colour, with a coarse mane that fell in dull waves over her shoulders. She saw me approach from the distance, and trotted up to meet me. I reached out to run a hand along her mane, cursing my lack of foresight – I hadn’t brought my camera, I didn’t think I would need it – and imagining how I would tell the delegates about my Snow White moment over breakfast.
The pony leant forward, bared her teeth, and nipped my finger.
Shrieking, I fell back onto a patch of grass which was just wet enough to feel through my jeans. The pony pawed at the rusted fence, shoving her forehead against the wire as if she wanted to barge through the barrier which separated us. Scrambling backward, I watched in horror as she paused, tossed her head with disdain and pranced away, like a land-bound kelpie who was denied a morsel she hadn’t really wanted in the first place.
“Wow,” I said to no one, once I’d gotten my heart rate back down to a reasonable level. “What a bitch.”