The great outdoors

Tarring, hoeing, dyking... it's all in a day's work

In recent months I have spent far too much time sitting in front of my computer.

There are several problems with this situation. One is that there are many, many things I would rather be doing, and most of them involve being outside the house. Another is that it is far too easy to waste time on the computer and this time-wasting just exacerbates the whole situation.

I can’t do anything else until my work is done, and somehow I just can’t seem to get myself in the right gear to do it. So I am stranded with the laptop for yet longer. And because of the bright screen and my chronically bad posture, each day ends with sore eyes and an aching back.

I am aware, of course, that wasting time is just as easy while outside, but time wasted in the open air is never really wasted, and it certainly doesn’t leave you with that hollow feeling that computer-use inevitably produces.

Tarring is not my favourite job. In fact it ranks pretty low on an increasingly lengthy list of current and previous occupations. But it requires being outside (obviously), and interacting with people, which makes it 10 times better than numbing my brain in front of a screen. So I was delighted to be out on the roads at the beginning of the week, getting myself covered in the filthy sticky black stuff.

Filling in potholes is a fairly regular task. It involves, firstly, heating a barrel of tar over an open fire (probably not the textbook method), then rolling it a quarter of a mile down the road, to try and make it as smooth and lump-free as possible. This is often the most entertaining part of the day – chasing after the barrel as it sails merrily down the road towards... well, you never quite know until you get there.

Once that’s done it’s just a case of filling in all the holes in the road with chips (stone, rather than potato) and covering them in tar, poured from an old metal watering can. Simple. Only the intervention of wind, other traffic or lumps in the tar (“turds” is the technical name) can get in the way. Which they do. Often.

At the end of the day I usually have to scrub my hands and face with rough sandpaper and wash my hair in diesel just to return to a normal state of cleanliness.

Thursday was spent rather less messily, mending two large holes in the Hill Dyke – the tall, dry stone wall that separates the northern and southern parts of the isle.

There is an art to dry stone dyking, but, as this was my first attempt at the job, I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t have it. My skills were more on the level of say, doodling – acceptable in private, but hardly desirable for public display. I enjoyed myself immensely though, so all was well. Between four of us we filled both holes by the end of the afternoon. And with the warm sun beating down, I could hardly think of a better way to spend a day.

Yesterday, feeling guilty about ignoring our garden for so long, I went down to try and tackle some of the weeds that have been making themselves at home there. With a dogged enthusiasm that I have never before felt for the task, I hoed myself almost senseless, filling fishbox after fishbox with weeds. I returned home, six hours later, with my back aching and my eyes sore, and immediately switched on the computer.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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