The story of Lukki Minnie

Malachy shares a piece of Fair Isle folklore introducing us to the Trow.

For centuries – perhaps even for millennia, no-one is entirely sure – Shetland has been home to a very special creature. It is rarely seen these days, but it nevertheless inhabits a special place in Shetland culture and history. It is the trow.

Similar in many ways to Scandinavian trolls or Irish leprechauns, the most significant difference between Shetland trows and their folkloric cousins is that trows really exist.

Most places in Shetland have their own trow stories, but while many of them involve trickery, mischievous behaviour, and even the occasional kidnapping, few are quite as sinister as the tale of Fair Isle’s most famous trow: Lukki Minnie.

The story of Lukki Minnie’s downfall is known to all Fair Islanders, and although everybody’s version differs slightly, the essence of all of them is the same. As I remember it, the story goes like this . . .

A young boy – possibly named Willie – was out playing one afternoon on the hill called Malcolm’s Head, in the south-west of the island. He was rolling a large bannock (similar to a scone) that his mother had baked, pushing it down the steep slope and racing after it towards home.

Suddenly, the bannock disappeared, and the boy stopped dead. He saw at once that it had fallen down a hole, but he wasn’t quite sure what kind of hole it was. It was bigger than a rabbit hole, but was well hidden amongst the grass and heather. In fact, it was just big enough for him to squeeze through, which is exactly what he did. But he very quickly regretted it.

Something had grabbed hold of his shoulders and was hauling him in. He tried to pull himself back out again but he couldn’t manage, and all at once he found himself lying on the floor of a small dark room, like a cave. The only light in the room came from a peat fire in the centre, but even in that flickering gloom he could see at once that the horrible creature in front of him was Lukki Minnie.

He wanted to run but there was nowhere to go. He wanted to shout but there was no-one to hear him. He was completely stuck.

Lucki Minnie grabbed hold of the boy and she stuffed him roughly inside a sack, which she then hung up close to the fire. He could feel the heat of the flames as he hung there, and he knew she was planning to eat him.

Later that night, when everything was quiet, Willie took his chance to escape. He drew his penknife out from his pocket and quickly cut through the sack. He climbed out and ran towards the hole in the ceiling, through which he’d first arrived. But before he could get away, he heard Lukki Minnie returning home. He had to think quickly.

Willie grabbed hold of the little dog which had been sleeping by the fire, and he shoved it inside the sack, along with some crockery from the sideboard. He tied it up and hung it on the hook again, and then hid behind the door to wait.

Lukki Minnie came in with her pockets filled with potatoes and carrots. She was ready for her dinner.

“A’m gyaan ta aet dee noo” she shouted. “Bit furst A’m gyaan ta mak dee gud and saft.”

She took out a big, heavy stick from beside the fire and started to beat the sack as hard as she could. The plates inside began to crack.

“Ah can hear dy banes brackin,” she shouted.

Behind the door the boy was giggling quietly to himself. Inside the bag, the dog was yelping.

“Ah can hear dee yowlin, boy” said the trow, with a big grin on her face.

Willie was so pleased with his trick that he couldn’t help himself. He laughed and laughed so loudly that Lukki Minnie finally heard him. She spun around, her eyes blazing with anger. She knew at once what had happened.

Willie recovered quickly and darted up and out of the hole, back on to the hill he knew so well. In the pale light of the evening he could still make out the shape of his house, less than half a mile away. But the trow was close behind.

“A’m gyaan ta git dee” she screamed, as he fled down the hill towards safety. He didn’t dare to turn around.

When he reached the burn that runs along the bottom of Malcolm’s Head, Willie jumped. He sailed through the air and landed on the opposite bank, panting heavily. A second later, Lukki Minnie jumped after him. But trows’ legs are short, and she didn’t make it.

Lukki Minnie landed in the burn and was swept downstream towards the sea at Hesti Geo. Willie stood and watched her disappear, until he was sure she was gone. Then he turned and ran back home to tell the tale.

Today, when the wind blows strong from the south-west, Hesti Geo fills with thick, dirty-white scum, that blows up and over the land at the bottom of the hill. “Lukki Minnie’s still in there, churning her butter,” people say. And perhaps she is.

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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.