Catching the wind

How the irregular energy supply on Fair Isle can leave you feeling like you're in a "very slow and i

For newcomers to this island there are some things that take just a bit of getting used to; power, for example.

When I arrived in Fair Isle I had, like most people, always enjoyed a reliable and consistent source of electricity. When I woke in the morning I could turn on a light, listen to a CD, heat my porridge in the microwave (though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that method). And if I wanted to stay up all night doing these things, all I needed was the will.

Here things are slight different. Our electricity comes from two sources: diesel-burning generators and wind power. We have two aerogenerators (that’s windmills to the uninitiated) – a 60kw mill and a 100kw. When the wind is sufficient to provide power to all the houses on the island then that is what happens; when the wind drops, the diesel generators take over. There is, however, a gap of between 10 and 30 seconds for the changeover, meaning that some evenings feel rather like being in a very slow and irritating disco, as the lights go on and off every few minutes.

Wind power is by far the preferable option. Not only is it greener, it is also cheaper, and it’s available for 24 hours a day. The diesel generators, on the other hand, are switched off between 11.30pm and 7.30am, meaning that all-night parties are restricted to breezy nights. This is an inconvenience that is quickly adjusted to, and in fact I have come to rather enjoy reading by candlelight.

I have written before that Shetland is a windy place, and so it is. A very windy place. This weekend, like much of the UK, these islands have been battered by severe gales, with winds reaching to almost hurricane force early on Sunday morning. Wind is an abundant, renewable energy source, unlike diesel, which, along with heating oil and gas for cooking, must be shipped into the island in barrels and canisters on an all-too-regular basis.

The first Fair Isle windmill was put up in 1981, making it the earliest such project in the UK. Both the mills and the generators are owned and maintained by the Fair Isle Electricity Company, which is run entirely by islanders. It is a local, community solution to our energy needs. It is unfortunate that, at this time, diesel is still required to power the island for a good proportion of the time, but when another option becomes available I’m sure it will be taken.

Necessity breeds innovation, and it is in places like Fair Isle where necessity is most keenly felt. Perhaps that explains why the move towards renewable energy has been so slow in the UK. You flick the switch and there is light; if you want gas then it will come through a pipe straight to the cooker; power cuts are a rare inconvenience. Why would you want to rock the boat? People are so disconnected from the production of what they consume, whether that be food, goods or power, that they come to see it as almost a kind of magic: beyond their comprehension or concern.

Human beings are incredibly good at ignoring reality. If the weatherman says rain then the umbrella comes out, no matter how blue the sky. And equally, when all the evidence points towards the fact that we must, must, change our attitudes towards energy consumption and waste, it is met with collective shoulder-shrugging and grumbles at increased fuel tax. But if we all wait until no other option is available before we change our bad habits, it will, perhaps, be too late.

Photos by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear