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.