Britain's most northerly man and otter stories

Malachy reflects on the vulnerability of rural communities during a visit to Unst and meets some of

I am currently in Unst, Britain’s most northerly island, proud home to Britain’s most northerly shop, house, church, chocolate factory, brewery and person (which, at some point this weekend, was quite possibly me). The island has also been home, since January, to my brother, Rory.

Reaching Unst is something of a trek. From Lerwick it is nearly an hour’s drive, then a 15-minute ferry journey to the island of Yell, a further 20-minute drive across Yell, and a final, 10-minute ferry ride to Unst. Beyond this island there is nothing except water – a lot of water – and then ice. The Arctic Circle is only about 400 miles north of here, not much more than the distance from London to Glasgow.

Unst, like most of Shetland’s outer islands, and indeed like rural areas all over Britain, has suffered from depopulation and a lack of employment opportunities over recent decades. In Shetland, as elsewhere, people tend to gravitate towards the largest centres of population – in our case, Lerwick – and this inevitably makes it difficult to retain employment, and to attract new people to live and work in more remote areas.

Here though the problem has been made even more severe by the recent closure of the RAF base, Saxaford, and the subsequent loss of jobs and families from the island. Although the closure was carried out in a gradual process over a number of years, the change has been dramatic all the same. In the last decade the population has decreased from around 700 to 500 people – a serious dent by any standard.

Rural communities are vulnerable to any changes in population and employment, and they can feel seriously threatened when problems occur. Much thought has gone in to finding a sustainable way forward for Unst, and the desire to create opportunities for young people and newcomers is paramount. Here, as in other remote parts of Shetland, many people are looking to tourism to provide the answers, and certainly a healthy supply of visitors is important for any area. But I am not convinced that the tourist industry, fickle as it can be, is where the solution should be sought. A community must first serve itself before it should begin to serve others.

* * *

Rory and I spent most of Saturday driving through Unst and Yell in the rain with no particular place to go. We had rather optimistically taken fishing rods with us, though the weather didn’t look too promising. I had also been hoping to see an otter or two while I was here. They are relatively common in the North Isles, although, as we stopped to look out at one empty shoreline after another, Rory was quick to explain that “You never see them when you’re looking for them”.

As evening approached we headed back towards his house in the north of the island. The rain had eased considerably by then and we decided to take the rods and try a few casts from the beach beside the house. Rory had caught a good sea trout here the day before I arrived, so we were fairly hopeful of our chances.

Down at the beach, we had hardly begun to fish when out of the water appeared a pair of otters, just 100 yards to our right. Entirely unbothered by our presence the pair lollopped slowly up the sand, pausing here and there to examine items of interest along the way. We watched until they disappeared into the grass above the beach, and then returned to our fishing, as the light rain became a steady downpour.

Postscript: Sunday 4th March
Driving back to the ferry this morning in wonderful sunshine, we passed a family of otters swimming in the sea beside the road. As we watched, the mother came out of the water and up onto the road in front of us. She looked over at us for a moment and then, perhaps hearing the cries of her cubs, retreated to the sea again.

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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.