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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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.