Martyn McLaughlin: A voyage of remembrance for Shetland's wartime 'bus' service

ONLY a handful of people bore witness to the MK Andholmen's gentle putter into Scalloway harbour, as she recently completed a journey last made more than six decades ago. The attentive among them, however, knew the significance of the flags fluttering upon her mast; one a saltire, the other bearing the cross of Norway.

Having visited my girlfriend's homeland of Shetland earlier this summer, we made a point of visiting a small but poignant memorial that looks out on the ancient capital's bay. Atop a pile of rocks and a plaque bearing the names of 44 men, a small sculpture depicts the same boat riding high on the waves.

The story of the Shetland Bus is one that appears to have slipped quietly from the compendium of great wartime daring deeds, but it is a stirring tale of ordinary young men and forgotten heroes which, we thought that morning, deserves the ear of a wider public.

It began in 1940, when thousands of young Norwegians sought escape from their German-occupied homelands. Having secured passage across the North Sea's perilous waters aboard the Andholmen and other small fishing vessels, they arrived in Shetland carrying their dead and wounded.

The boats, however, were not used for evacuations alone. As the war waged on, a British spy base was established in Scalloway and Lunna, and scores of the vessels shipped young Norwegian men, British agents, and equipment to Norway to help train the underground resistance.

The boats' crews disguised themselves as fishermen, their guns secured out of sight in barrels. In all, 205 crossings were made as German submarines carried out their patrols. The enemy's mines, air attacks, and the fierce weather conditions combined to sink ten boats and claim the lives of many of the so-called Shetland Gang – or Shetlandsgjengen, as they are known in Norway.

After the war, the Andholmen fell into disrepair for many years, but in the mid- 1990s, she was discovered languishing in northern Norway. Lavished with a caring restoration by a group of enthusiasts, she was reinvented as a floating museum and one of the few tangible reminders of the Shetland Bus operation. Last month, she and seven of her crew made an emotional return to Shetland, with Magne Stensland, a retired submarine captain who is now the boat's skipper, describing how she "danced on the sea".

It was an event which passed by everyone bar the Shetland press. Those in attendance at Scalloway harbour did not seem put out, however. For them, the trip to Scalloway offered a simple opportunity to remember, with the group then laying a wreath at the kirkyard where some of their fellow countrymen are buried.

They did not crave a wider audience, or reams of coverage. The most poignant tribute they could pay had already been achieved – that one last safe crossing.

Fancy a cruise? Jump on board – but not really abroad

IT IS a rare occurrence for major organisations to abandon all sense of reason, but when such instances coincide with a press release, I give thanks to the Great Unknown.

With a third of Scots pensioners unable to afford a foreign holiday in the past five years, Bupa, one of Britain's largest residential nursing home providers, has devised a solution altruistic in intent, but crude indeed in its execution.

"We're really excited about Cannes and can't wait to get started," the firm enthuses.

"The cruise is a perfect way to explore cultures and customs of different countries, and the residents will have a great day aboard."

Alas, Bupa is not footing the bill for its customers to sail off to the Cte d'Azur. Instead, it has created "virtual cruises", where nursing home staff will dress up, can-can dance and play boules to conjure up the decadent atmosphere of the Croixette.

The company may have noble motives, but the idea seems to me an unintentionally cruel reminder of its residents' penury.

• SHAME on the three hypersensitive residents of the Aegean island of Lesbos, who demanded that the Greek courts ban the word "lesbian" when describing gay women, having claimed it causes incalculable damage to their identity.

The authorities in Athens rightly threw out the request, ruling that the word in question did not specifically define the islanders as such, but was rather a reference used by gay groups.

Lesbos, birthplace of Sappho, the ancient poetess whose love poems inspired the L word, is an enclave popular with gay women from all over the world. Would the insulted trio rather their idyll be renamed Yobbos so they might experience the calibre of tourists that other, less fortunate Greek islands must contend with?