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Reviews / A love affair with the natural wonders of this northern outpost

Local naturalist Brydon Thomason’s new book Wild Shetland through the seasons has received rave reviews since it was published at the end of last year. Here wildlife broadcaster Simon King, well known to the Shetland audience, offers his take on a book that can be marvelled at over and over again.

Simon King.

THE SHETLAND Isles hold a special place in the hearts of many – my own included.

Having lived on the isles for a couple of years and visited to watch, photograph and film its wildlife many times subsequently, I feel a visceral connection to many of the bays and cliffs that grace this world of sea and skies.

That said, I know only too well the challenge presented when trying to convey the sometimes subtle beauty and majesty of the islands and their wild inhabitants.

Often one is asked what there is to see in a land with no great mountains to boast, no ancient oak woods to explore. In response I have often referred to the splendour in the detail of the land and sea and in the lives of the creatures here, many of which are an echo of Arctic spirits.

Now though, I can simply say ‘take a look at Brydon Thomason’s book – that’ll tell you everything you need to know’.

Within these pages you will find a heartfelt collection of images and words that truly capture the energy, charm, drama and magic of Shetland’s wildlife, sea and landscapes.

The cast of players in this northern outpost of the British Isles is somewhat limited, but many of those that grace the shores – either as residents or visitors – are exotic rarities when compared to the rest of Britain and Ireland.

Phalaropes, skuas, otters, orcas, puffins and more are all present in numbers not seen elsewhere. Brydon has applied his extensive field skills, artist’s eye and dogged perseverance to capturing images of these and other island spirits which truly encapsulate not just a record of their being, but a slice of their character.

Many of the images are taken from a perspective which reflects (sometimes literally on still water) the subject at its own level, however diminutive. Red-necked phalaropes are rare, tiny wading birds that spend their brief summer feeding and breeding on and close to small lochans.

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A humpback whale in Colgrave Sound.

Many an image exists of phalaropes from a traditionally human height, stealing the heart from this astonishing world traveller. Brydon takes you in to their world – lies you down in the marshy margins to peer through rushes at this balletic, restless avian sprite. He does the same with many of the aquatic and marine creatures he has sought and photographed.

A red-necked phalarope.

Red-throated divers are met by their mirror image on the featureless page of an inland loch. You, the reader, are nestled among the rocks and seaweed to gaze upon the intimate details of otter family life.

His attention to light – the essence of photography – is acute. No flat illustrations here. Every image seeks the contrast of light and shade that can be found with a deeply reflected cliff in shadow or the mystical sparkle of the setting sun.

Puffins.

Guided as we are through the book by the seasons, both the images and accompanying text are an ode to a love affair that does great justice to the focus of Brydon’s ardour. Peppered with very personal reflective and often informative text and a smattering of the poetic Shetland dialect, one is taken by the hand through the dramatic shifts of wind, rain and light that span the year.

Particularly poignant is the description of a summer’s evening – the Simmer Dim – when the wind has dropped to a whisper, the mist has couched in the folds of the land, and the voices of the wild ring out throughout the red-skied hesitation between sunset and sunrise. I could feel the air on my face, and recall the goose bumps raised by the haunting calls of red-throated divers and curlew on similar nights I have had the great good fortune to witness first hand.

Whether you know Shetland well and are looking for a time capsule to preserve your own observations and memories, have visited once or twice or simply wish to pour over and marvel at the wonders this sub-Arctic outpost of the British Isles has to offer – this is the book for you.

Brydon Thomason’s Wild Shetland through the seasons, with forewords by Dennis Coutts and lolo Williams, is published by Shetland Times, priced £36.99. It can be bought online here.

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