On the waterfront of Bressay Sound lies the little town of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. On a windy Lerwick point with a view to the bay stands a marker. On this oft overlooked marker are the words Dutchman's Leap.
Relatively quiet on all days except Up Helly Aa, a few hundred years ago Lerwick bustled with Dutch fishermen and the bay brimmed with their vessels. Each summer these tall, lithe, blue-eyed men arrived to seek mischief and to get their shore legs back beneath them. In the 1600s, Lerwick, an ocean frontier, hosted what some historians describe as disorderly and lawless activities on the outskirts of civilization.
But others would argue that the Dutch fishermen only wanted what every human does: Respite from toil and entertainment to go with it. Yet the prospects for entertainment were slim, so they made their own, using the resources at hand. A place known as The Knab witnessed the ingenuity of these sea-weary men.
The Knab juts out sharply due south into Bressay Sound. Violent whitecaps hurl from the deep against its steep cliffs. Green grass windswept to a silky slant flows down to the very edge and belies the depth of the drop off and fierceness of the crags. Juxtaposed against grey, The Knab beguilingly lulls the man unaccustomed to steady ground into believing that upon the rock no footing can fault.
Damp, blustery, overcast Lerwick summer days coupled with the break from the rolling waves emboldened the fiery Dutchmen to rent Shetland ponies and ride the nags up Bullet Lon to The Knab and back.
Ponies came prepped in all manner of tack from halters fashioned out of fishing nets to burlap-sack saddles. The Dutchmen made do, hiking their long Scandinavian legs into stirrups or dangling them loosely, toes up, when no stirrups were to be had. They held tight to make-shift reins while the ponies' clipped gates jostled them up, down, front-to-back, side-to-side.
As with all endeavors of this type, however, the repetition lost its appeal. No longer was it refreshing to trot the loop atop a pony for two pence. The ante had to be upped. The gauntlet had to be thrown down. The turning point had to be turned.
Thus, on an infamous 17th-century Lerwick summer day, twenty Dutch fishermen fresh from the catch and eager for engagement entered into competition. They laid out a race to The Knab, considering it a natural finish line. Gunfire signaled the start and each short-legged Shetland pony beneath the weight of an enthusiastic Dutchman dug its hooves deep into the turf, heaving its body and rider onward toward The Knab, picking up speed as whoops and hollers swirled. The ponies' eyes were wide and their efforts were mighty.
Yet, the Dutchmen fast discovered that a half-mile track fades quickly to yards and dwindles even faster to feet. But, unlike the Dutchmen, the ponies, snorting wildly through flared nostrils and moving forward with great momentum, had no notion of The Knab as a natural finish line. Reckless whoops transformed to panicked whoa-s.
Fervent and feverish working of reins ensued amongst the twenty competitors. Nineteen stopped.
And scratched their heads, uncertain if the twentieth man had won or lost.
Because, there's more than one way to avoid plummeting off of a cliff on the back of a pony. A tall man could even put his feet down and stand up! Somewhere at the bottom of Dutchman's Leap lies a lesson.