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This is difficult, because up to now I’ve tried very hard to keep Nibon a secret. ‘How do I get to Nibon?’ people sometimes say. ‘Never heard of it,’ I reply. ‘Are you sure you don’t mean Kneebone? Kneebone, Arizona? Which is many miles thataway.’ And here I point vaguely westward. And anyway, the Republic of Nibon (formerly the People’s Republic, when there were people here) seceded from Northmavine long ago. Trust me on this one – there are documents.
But if you are willing to accept there is such a place as Nibon, and for the purpose of this treatise let’s assume it could exist, we’d better get the pronunciation right, or you won’t get past the frontier guards. It doesn’t rhyme with ‘ribbon’; it rhymes with ‘reebin’. I know there’s no such word, but in the circumstances that seems fitting.
So, if you must visit Nibon, turn off the main road at the Nibon/Gunnister sign. On your left is the splendidly named Johnny Mann’s Loch. Apparently, Johnny Mann (pronounced ‘Joaniman’ – they must have spoken quickly in the olden days) was a sheep thief who tried to cross the frozen loch carrying what must have been a very plump Nibon sheep or three. Then the ice gave way.
But an earlier Nibon visitor was discovered near the loch in 1951 by two men digging peats. He had been there for two hundred years and the peat had preserved his clothes, possessions, hair and some bones. Was he a clerk or merchant? Was he the Laird of Eshaness? A Dutch captain, on the run? Or was he a tourist, like you? (Gunnister Man photo © The National Museum of Scotland)
At the top of the road you’ll pass another loch – Trolladale, or ‘Trowie’, Water. It doesn’t look, nor feel, particularly ‘trowie’, although I’m not sure what ‘trowie’ would feel like. Perhaps a kind of half-shiver down the spine, and a desire to keep looking over your shoulder. I haven’t seen any trows here, but I did find a Turner Prize-shortlisted crow’s nest nearby, containing sheep bones arranged runicly so as to spell out a warning in Norn (Shetland’s ancient language, still spoken in Nibon at weekends) and topped with a pair of outrageously fashionable sunglasses – well, fashionable in the sixties, that is. I’m wearing them now. But then, maybe it wasn’t a crow’s nest. Maybe it wasn’t sheep’s bones. Maybe the eyes were still attached to those sunglasses…
From now on it gets a bit Brigadoon, a bit Twilight Zone, a bit Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
So if you’re still on board, head down the Daal, the little valley past the loch. Ahead, and across Gunnister Voe, you’ll see Enisfirth, and below that, the ruins of Saeter. The view along the voe is stunning, especially of an evening when the sun ignites the pinky-red granite – hewn from rocks, geologists tell me. You can’t take your eyes off it, which makes driving on this stretch of road, well, suicidal. Still time to turn back, and set off for, say, Woodwick – I’ve heard it’s nice there.
Or you could nip down to Gunnister and walk out to Saeter, carry on out past the headland, and try to find the six intact otter traps, looking for all the world like miniature chambered cairns. The hares in this area are strangely swarthy, for some reason.
The road from now on is a roller-coaster. There are blind corners. It is unfeasibly narrow. Yes, that is the sea down there, a steering wheel slip away. And the verge really is just an inch wide. Are you sure you want to continue? You’ll see several ruined houses on your right as you drive. Let this be a warning to you. The old Hall, lying aslant and athwart the roadside closed down due to lack of interest and is now a luxury sheep-food store. I hope you’re getting the mood music, as they say.
At the top of the brae that allegedly leads down to Nibon you can see, on a fine day, the Vee Skerries – a sort of smudge on the horizon – and Papa Stour, with Foula, reassuringly solid, lying behind it.
And finally, here is Nibon: the land that time forgot to remember to forget, as the song has it, and gloriously unspoiled – in fact, the only spoiled things in Nibon are my children. Only joking, poppets.
Nibon, then. Shetland’s answer to Adlestrop. Nothing much here, is there? A beach, an island, a magnificently appointed chalet (tourists welcome, apparently), absolute tranquillity. Who needs it? Better to carry on towards Mangaster. You can go as the crow flies – that’ll take about twenty minutes – or follow the coast – the serrated way – and add another hour. Great cliff scenery, and inland, as George Mackay Brown memorably put it, ‘A great squandering of bog and heather…’
Gunnister Man photo © The National Museum of Scotland, others © Fiona Cope