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  • How We Got Our Summer Scars

Shetland Isles: my 5 yr old's fight

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

After Sumburgh, we drifted north to our campsite near Hillswick. The empty road took us through rolling grassy hills and past white cottages with wide views of cobalt seas.

Signs for the Croft House Museum caught our eye. Inside, the museum guide had a peat fire to ward off the damp. There were two rooms, the 'Ben end' (bedroom) and 'But end' (kitchen), but under the same roof was also the barn for tools and supplies and the byre for cows, which meant the farmer could access his work no matter how cruel the weather. Smart thinking. How many times have our city friends begged for a covered garage.

At the Croft House Museum

Even though someone still lived in the croft until the 1960s, there was no sign of modern life. The house and contents were made entirely from things collected on the island. The guide showed us how the women crocheted woolen lace shawls on looms in beautiful Shetland patterns. We tested out the beds, completely enclosed in wooden boxes to keep out drafts, and had fun grinding barley flour in the hand mill. I did not know that peat is supposed to be hand-cut in tapered blocks to promote slow heat. Machine-cut blocks are too symmetrical so burn too fast. So much wisdom in a tiny house.

When we found our campsite at last, Braewick Café and Caravan Park, the cafe was closed. We parked in our quiet spot and made our first hot supper in the Puffin Express. I got out the bottle of wine from the ferry and prepared my family for a night of silly story telling under the famous Scottish skies. As we were making up our beds, a stream of cars screeched into the back parking lot, radios blaring. A thousand kids leapt out and started running around our van. We felt invaded and closed our curtains. But hiding felt ridiculous. I wanted to be the one shrieking around someone's van!

Kids playing asphalt games at 11 o'clock at night

My youngest, always the social magnet, hopped out to make some friends. My girls soon leapt into the frey. Soon they were romping with the Shetland gang, screaming just as loudly as the locals. One of the mothers came to introduce herself. "It's our annual celebration. School's finally out. Sorry if we're a bit loud. Let me know if the kids bother you." And off she marched back to her guitar and beer circle.

So she didn't invite me to join them. I didn't care. I dragged my chair to the edge of the grass to try out my new adult coloring book (no adult content just fancy patterns). Back in Brooklyn, adult coloring books are quite the fashion, part of the Slow Movement, a cultural revolution against the maxim that faster is always better. I debated which green coloring pencil to use for a bird's wing. Teal green? Pine green? Apple green? Neon green?

As I anguished over no Racing Green or Sherwood Forest Green, an old saying swam into my thoughts: "Stop the world I want to get off.” Sometimes I want to jam the emergency brake in the oddest moments, like when I'm hunting for the right jam in the supermarket, fully aware my parking meter has already expired and I'm about to get a nasty parking ticket. I don't care. Because as everyone knows, Sarabeth's raspberry jam isn't simply boiled sugar and fruit, but a full scale rebellion against fast living. You can't get rebellion in any old glass jar, no, you have to read the label on the back for a looong time and then compare the sugar content of different Sarabeth jams and even ponder the pros of mixed berries versus single fruit as if it's a malt whiskey. This is all with children in tow who are racing supermarket trollies up and down the egg aisle. While New Yorkers sweat over a two minute subway delay, I brace for an epic battle: how slow dare I go?

That night, the sky was beautiful. The light was pale, watery, stretching across the bay, pulling the clouds into thin purple strips, making the land almost glow. Night slunk in with a whisper. No one noticed. Shrieks and bellows of laughter echoed into vast night sky. I sunk deeper into my chair and admired the view.

Youngest romping with Shetland boys

By 10pm, an elderly couple in a tiny tent grumbled about the noise. But the boisterous games leapt into full swing. At sundown, 11:30pm, the man came out in his pyjamas, his hair wild, his jaw set, and shouted at the kids to be considerate, told them to "go play on the play set". But the grass by his tent was perfect for rolling and tussling so they ignored him. The old man lost his cool. The other parents didn't have a clue. I shooed my kids away, but the local kids didn't care. He stormed back into his tent. Finally around 1:30am a soft dim light settled over the camp. Sunrise would be at 3am, but since the Shetlands lie 60N, close to the Arctic Circle at 66N, it would never get dark. I urged my kids to bed. Early the next morning, the couple's tent had gone. I felt bad, but hey, you can't control Shetland spirits.

The next day another mother lent me a detailed map of the island. I had a longing to see wild landscapes. We started out for Eshaness Lighthouse. The skies were overcast and the wind so fierce we were frightened of being blown off the craggy cliffs. Before we leapt back into our cozy home, we raced our NorthLink cardboard boats on a pond.

Immediate capsize!

My middle child's boat won, sliding into harbor upside down. She danced a jig. The other boats were too soggy to sail.

We decided to head back south and stopped at St. Ninian's Isle. A tiny strip of beach connected the island to the mainland. The water was turquoise but cold. Despite the gusting wind and icy water, we spent all day on the beach. We searched for starfish in the rock pools and imagined mermaids hiding in the lagoon. An aggressive seagull stole the little one's sandwich. Seagulls are really Beach Wolves. They always get our picnics no matter how well we hide everything under blankets.

Searching for starfish in rock pools
Huge white bull

A huge white bull was guarding his ladies as we strolled through his field. Why did we walk through a bull's field?

We headed back to the campsite windswept and sticky from salt air.

Our son joined the Shetland boys in games while I made supper. The girls found their friends. Another long night of games, but this time no interfering adults. I discovered coloring books were too slow for me.

The next morning was our last day in Shetlands. I packed up our stuff as the kids snuck in one last game with their new friends. I could tell they were tired from two late nights.

At some point I saw my littlest curled in a ball on the bank, his head in his hands. He looked so forlorn. I rushed out to him. He was crying. I tried to sweep him up, but he shoved me angrily away. Blood covered his hands and chin.

My baby is hurt? What happened?

The girls told me the story. A seven year old boy, A had been teasing and bugging my five year old. We don't know why. At some point, my son wanted to be left alone but A wouldn't listen. So when A leered in my child's face, my son punched him in the mouth, to 'take his teeth out.' A then jumped on my little one who knocked his chin on an outdoor faucet. 'An accident.'

Blood dripped on his shirt collar, but my boy was calm. I rushed him to the cafe for first aid. They only had bandaids. A was sent to apologize. He was tearful. My son apologized too. The boys hugged. The mother hovered by us, worried, but assured me it was only a "wee cut."

Actually, it looked bad. Blood soaked through the tissues. He needed stitches, so I packed the kids in the Puffin Express and we sped off to the nearest NHS health clinic in Hillswick. The nurse was a sweetheart. She put paper butterfly stitches on his chin and reassured me she saw "plenty o' little boys in here after a fight. Not many girls, some aie, but plenty o' boys." My younger daughter gave me a wink, counting herself part of the minority.

The nurse and I laughed. Throwing the first punch in a Shetland crew was pretty darn daft. Secretly, I was very proud of my child. The little bruiser!

Enjoying a lollipop as he got paper stitches

Butterfly stitches

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