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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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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