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The simmer dim

The importance of light to the residents of Fair Isle

Midsummer in Shetland is a time of light. Although the Arctic Circle, at 66° north, marks the southernmost reaches of 24 hour sunshine, here at 60° we can still enjoy light throughout the day.

At the moment the sun sets around 10.30 in the evening, and rises again about 3.30am. The five hours in between are a time of prolonged dusk, known in Shetland as the simmer dim. If the sky is clear then it remains light enough to read outside for the entire night.

For those not used to this lingering twilight, it can be a little disconcerting. Waking patterns are affected by changes in the length of the day, and some people find it difficult to sleep without the comfort of darkness.

Traditionally, the summer solstice has always been a time of celebration. For the Norse pagans it marked the height of the sun’s power, and was associated with Baldur, the God of light. In more recent times, large bonfires would be lit on hills around Orkney and Shetland to mark the event. For people living in these northern islands, where winter is dominated by darkness, the power of light is of crucial importance.

The period around midsummer has been significant for other reasons, too. Traditionally 24 June, known as Johnsmas, marked the beginning of the herring fishing season. From the mid-15th century, Dutch fishing vessels began to travel north to Shetland to catch herring. Legally they could not begin fishing until the 24th, and so they waited, making use of the shelter available in the bay between the island of Bressay and the mainland. During the 17th century, trading between Shetlanders and the gathered Dutch boats increased and became more formalised. A temporary settlement around the bay gradually became a permanent one, and eventually it grew to become a town: Lerwick, now Shetland’s capital. The fishing industry remained, until the arrival of oil, the heart of Shetland’s economy.

It is said that the relationship between the Shetlanders and the Dutch amounted to far more than simply trading goods. For the young town, the influx of fishermen would no doubt have meant quite considerable festivities in the days leading up to the 24th: drinking, dancing and general debauchery would have been the order of the day.

A few years back, it was decided to revive the custom of a midsummer party in Lerwick. The Johnsmas Foy, based around the town’s Victoria Pier, is a three-day event, with music, food and cultural activities, as well as exhibitions celebrating the islands’ fishing heritage (not to mention drinking, dancing and debauchery). In other parts of Shetland there are similar events, and the tradition of celebrating the middle of summer seems once again to be becoming important.

Here in Fair Isle we had our midsummer party on Saturday night. A barbeque at the North Haven beach, with islanders and visitors, was mercifully uninterrupted by rain or wind. Although music was provided only by a small stereo attached to a very long lead, the large bonfire of driftwood on the beach was a more traditional touch. There was also, at one point, a mammoth tug-of-war between virtually everyone in attendance. It began as a battle of the sexes – men against women – though some shuffling was done to try to even out the teams. It must have been a pretty fair contest in the end, as the rope we were using snapped before either side managed to gain a decisive victory. So both teams finished up on their backsides in the sand.

We returned home after midnight – the sky above us still paled with light.

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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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.