Saturday 19 December 2015


The trip to Eshaness took us north from Lerwick through Tingwall, see-, and past the turns to Nesting, Weisdale, Vidlin and Voe, branching on to Brae where the road heads west up to Mavis Grind at the Co-op store. 'Grind' in Shetland dialect is gate. This narrow neck of land acts as a gateway to northwest Mainland. It is the only link between this region called Northmavine and the rest of Mainland Shetland. This tiny strip of land connects terrafirma as it separates the waters of Sullom Voe from the Atlantic Ocean. It was here that legend has it that the Vikings pulled their longships overland to save themselves the time-consuming journey around the northern tip of Mainland along the full length of Yell Sound.

Northmavine in red


Typical Northmavine road

Once one has seen a longship and appreciated its size and mass, one has to be skeptical about this story. The logic on the distance saved makes sense, but would the effort to mobilise the boat on land be worth it? Could a vessel of this scale, size and weight ever be pulled overland like a canoe, on any number of rollers by its crew? The re-enactment for a TV programme some years ago proved more than difficult, in spite of the theory. The first attempt by a group larger than any crew, pulled the front off the boat. The second attempt with the rope wrapped around the stern of the vessel, did manage to move the longship a little, but the process was awkward and the impediments unpassable. If the Vikings really did manage this feat, the terrain in this location must have been very different to what it is today. Did the Vikings dig a channel through? Was the water higher? Mavis Grind is not a low, sandy isthmus; it is a rugged chunk of a land link that introduces one into the different character of the northwest.

Mavis Grind

Mavis Grind

For us the journey north over Mavis Grind was much simpler than dragging a boat overland. As one drove the road along the narrow neck of land, the country changed. The crass, Hollywood-style sign, large letters on a hill, told us that we had entered the northwest - 'NORTHMAVINE': we were elsewhere, somewhere different. The landscape immediately became more rugged and more red. Granite cuttings and outcrops could be seen everywhere. The road soon changed from a sweeping two-lane highway into a narrow single-lane track with occasional passing places shaped like aneurysms. If one was in no hurry, the journey could be said to be charming – rustic, romantic, idyllic - just as seen in the old photographs of Shetland when walking was the main method of travel, and a pony carriage was a luxury. Even today one can see individuals who walk everywhere to get around, thinking nothing of a three-kilometre stroll to go to the shop; but this is unusual in this mechanized era.

Typical track

Road to Ure, Eshaness

The slender road continued twisting over, around and between the hills. It passed the turn to Ollaberry on the right, and Nibon on the left to arrive at Urafirth. Here the track turned around a loch to lead south to Hillswick. Just after passing the Hillswick school and hall, there was a sign pointing to the right - Eshaness. The settlement of Hillswick was straight ahead.


Hillswick (Shetland Archives)

Hotel guests (Shetland Archives)

Hillswick is an interesting place remembered for its once grand hotel, classically recorded as stark black and white in the images of old. It was indeed once a white building with contrasting black trims. The steamer from south sailed up the west coast of Scotland and Shetland to take posh tourists directly into Hillswick to shoot, to fish, and to socialise. The images of these times reveal the smartly dressed huntsmen and fishermen in their full country outfit of tweed suits, caps and leather leggings while carrying a rod or a gun, sometimes standing proudly with their catch – fish and/or birds. The visitors' book of the hotel has all the names of the guests over these years for one to to peruse, including Maggie Thatcher's. It was the place to be, and to be seen in; but the 'Iron Lady' hardly appears to fit the mould of the recreational huntsman or fisherman - well, anything recreational.

Hillswick Hotel (Shetland Archives)

Hillswick Hotel

This region was fashionable and prestigious: it no longer is. There is no steamer or any alternative ferry link to Scotland, or any other part of Shetland today. Hillswick is accessible only through Lerwick and Brae. It is almost a backwater. The hotel was allowed to run down. A few years ago it was purchased by a descendant of an earlier owner and is slowly being done up. It looks like a struggle. Sadly it seems unlikely that the hotel will never reach the grandeur or prestige of the past. The interiors still suggest what this was, and also highlight the demise with its large, empty, unused voids.

Black and white Hillswick hotel

Hillswick Hotel today

So Hillswick has its partially refurbished hotel. The task of renewal appears to be a part-time, an ad hoc process of improvement; but little else happens here. There are fewer customers today, with very different tastes. The television was flicked on by the manager to display a raunchy programme that was quickly turned off. 'The boys' were not yet in for their drinking session. Indeed, we were the only customers, sitting at tables that were still scattered with last night's empties near a velvet curtain that covered unfinished window trims. It was a depressing sight in a space that was freezing, unheated; the service did not improve matters. As well as this hotel, Hillswick also has a 'jack of all sales' shop that shows what all shops used to be in other eras: truly general stores that carried everything needed by the locals, and more. There is a scattering of houses around the little lane that the shop fronts. It is hardly a village; perhaps the description of it as 'a small settlement' might be more accurate. Only the lane leading to the waterfront holds a special, typically narrow 'village' character of intimate civic place. The remainder of the area has more of an random rural appearance, feeling a little neglected.

Brae Wick

Camping at Braewick

Granite cliffs

The Drinking Horse

The road back took us to the left turn to Eshaness, where the pavement narrows again as it twists west, meandering as a lane across open hillsides. Finally, after passing a graveyard, sheep, and more sheep, one reaches the Braewick cafe. This place is a pleasant location for a good break, either for coffee and a snack, or to camp for a day or two. The wide windows of the restaurant area frame the red western cliffs around Brae Wick and make an attractive vista for campers. Moving along the track west, up and down, left and right, across the slopes, on a path that is even slenderer still, views of Atlantic water and the Drinking Horse open up. The track branches at the sign that points one way to the Tangwick Haa Museum, the other to the lighthouse. The road to the latter rises high into a brilliant sky; then one sees the building, perched firmly on the clifftop in the distance.

Eshaness Lighthouse (Shetland Archives)

Eshaness lighthouse from the air

The lighthouse building is initially a disappointment. There is no great height to this form. Standing on the western cliffs is enough elevation for this light that caps a tower that is square in plan, rising only slightly higher than the associated buildings that have a similar, somewhat Mondrianesque character. Everything is rectangular and ninety-degrees angular. The building has no need to worry about the impact of the seas in the same way as other lighthouses like the Bell Rock lighthouse.

Bell Rock Lighthouse, Firth of Forth
The more one moves around and views this place, the more it is appreciated. It is a Stevenson design, as are most lighthouses in Shetland: see -  The structure has a character similar to the lighthouse at Sumburgh, but is smaller: a set of cubic forms with rectangular openings on high land, with a squat tower, uniquely square. It is through the lens of the camera that one discovers more of this place, how its compositional rectangles relate as a pattern of rectangles within rectangles, all of different sizes and proportions. It is a simple set of subdivisions, as masses fragment into smaller offsets, each with its own arrangement of other elements - openings, pipes, grilles. The whole is an organised interplay of pieces. It is an intriguing building, all nicely, self-consciously detailed for its extreme exposure. Although located on high cliffs, the oceans sometimes break over the cliff tops bringing with them the boulders that one has too step around and over as one circumnavigates this clustered set of building forms. Viewed in one way, the lighthouse is a symphony of openings, each framed in a pale salmon as part of this celebration of purpose.

The cliffs at Eshaness

Previous visits to this lovely dramatic area of Shetland must only have been in the summer, autumn and spring months. The surprise occurred on this winter visit. We arrived at three o'clock in the dim light to the surprise: the light was on. Of course it should be. We had not expected this. The order of the rotational flashes entranced. The mysterious beauty of the building was revealed. Oddly, the light appeared higher than before. It held a true authority. One could not take one's eyes off it. Even when leaving, the light had to be viewed in the rear vision mirror. It got higher and higher as we departed downhill, continuously flashing its identity to a regular rhythm. It held one in awe; it mesmerized.

Rona's Hill on the road from Eshaness

Looking back

It was astonishing how such a simple structure could capture one's imagination. There
was no guile here; no aesthetic effort, merely the rational rigour of the engineer. The building was pure fact as function; simple necessity. It held an austerity that could delight in the effortlessness of its being there because it had to be, needed to be. It was prominent as all lighthouses must be, but modest in this context that held a grandeur in its geology - in the nearby rugged, ocean-blasted cliffs of red granite that opened up to the infinity of the horizon, now ablaze both above and below. As the sun broke through from behind the clouds, the waters glowed with a sparkling brilliance, a blinding light that recalled St Paul's road-to-Damascus experience of the ineffable; and renaissance paintings too, with the angels displaying their purity and holiness in golden rays streaming goodness through the exuberant glow of floating fluffy clouds. Here, seen as light over Foula, Eshaness is indeed a wonderful place; a special place of utter extremes.

On the edge of the Atlantic, facing America somewhere over the horizon, Stevenson's lighthouse stands like the cliffs, bold and rigorous, alone in this harsh but lovely place, remote and sparse like a desert; but instead of the silence of sand and dunes, here there is the raging energy of the weight of water, waves and wind. It is always the wind that greets one first on the cliff tops of one of Shetland's most western mainland promontories.

Bleak vista from car parking area adjacent to the lighthouse

Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, Shetland

While being isolated in its own way, the site offered none of the challenges of Muckle Flugga. This is another story. Here Stevenson wrote a report saying that it was impossible to build a lighthouse on this most northerly rock of Britain. He was told to do it; he did. This was the substance and determination behind Eshaness; the drive that built it. It shows through even today, after so many years. It is a worthy building that holds a tough beauty in its operational necessity. One can learn from this place. It has the character of great cities where the ad hoc creates a rigorous interplay of wonder gathered in a sharing of communal effort, care and concern for place.

The lighthouse at Eshaness stands as a beacon for an 'engineered' architecture and design best exemplified in the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Here form is fabricated from function, that of material and purpose, and is manufactured likewise. The design ethic echoes right through into the facts and fantasies of promotion, packaging and sales. Architecture has a lot to learn from rigour in purpose. It is just too easy to be fanciful with form today. Our technologies allow this random playfulness rather than imposing a strict coherence to possibility and outcome. Now it is up to individuals to control and manage outcomes in this world where nearly everything has become possible. Design requires greater responsibility than ever before. One might say that it is a little like the chocolate milk drink story.

Charles and Ray Eames lounge chair and ottoman

A tasty indulgence

Once upon a time, this tasty, sugared cocoa product was made just to be sold at the annual show. It was indeed a special treat, available for about ten days a year at the 'Exhibition,' the name for the Brisbane show, colloquially known as 'The Ekka,' a term that seems to be derived from the much grander, more iconic events once held in cities around the world. As production and promotions made possible, this drink became more available. Now it is a standard item on the supermarket shelves, there every day, every minute, available whenever one chooses to pick it up.

Just how this instant delight is managed is up to every individual, in the same way as all possibilities in architecture have to be controlled. This is the architect's new responsibility. It involves a different rigour to that in the past where place had to be made from limited choices and technologies. With the whole world available to us, along with the ability to achieve great complexities, a different set of choices has to be made in the approach to all design work. Each individual has to establish parameters within an ethical field of one's own determination. Traditionally this was defined precisely. The designer of the Eshaness lighthouse was never challenged in this way. Today method in design becomes a personal matter, not in the sense of individual expression, and what this might be, but in the limits, the boundaries that are established for thought, action and reaction. Without this guide, we will be left spinning, doing whatever and however, just because it can be done. We need better than this if our art and architecture is to help us comprehend and cope with this enigmatic world.

Of course, this is a judgement itself. The other possibility is to continue with the random and ad hoc, with anything expressive, interesting, uniquely different and cleverly smart, that seeks to explore and expose what individuals might themselves smugly choose to arrogantly identify as 'personal genius.' An 'engineered' architecture would involve much more that calculated facts, but it might help avoid silly fictions. We must not forget the challenge of Ruskin's words that placed decoration as the most important matter in architecture. We have much to contemplate. What is decoration?

The light flashes white every twelve seconds and can be seen for 25 nautical miles (46 km)

Eshaness Lighthouse
built by David Alan Stevenson between 1925 - 1929

Note the corner detail that accommodates the fall in the roof and maintains the rectangular 'flat/no roof' image.

Note the corner detail that accommodates the fall in the roof and maintains the rectangular 'flat/no roof' image.

Eshaness Lighthouse
built by David Alan Stevenson between 1925 - 1929

 Le Corbusier Pavillion de l'Espirt Nouveau, Paris, 1924

Piet Mondrian, 1925

Bauhausbűcher 1, Walter Gropius, 1925

Groupe scolaire Condorcet à Maison-Alfort André Dubreuil et Roger Hummel, 1934