Coontin kin

Cousins, second cousins, third, fourth, fifth cousins, eight times removed: an intricate web of conn

This weekend the population of Fair Isle has swelled to more than double, as a ruby wedding anniversary celebration has brought family and friends to the island from all over the country.

A celebratory meal was held in the community hall on Saturday night for around 140 islanders and invited guests, who were joined later in the evening by others – work campers, bird observatory seasonal staff and guests, and anyone else who happened to be on the island – for a dance. A band came in from Shetland especially for the occasion.

Dances are among the most important social occasions in the Fair Isle calendar, and there are usually several throughout the summer. This one though was particularly special, and the floor was full the entire night as people worked off their meals with Boston two-steps, eightsome reels, quadrilles, lancers and hesitation waltzes.

Visitors are often surprised to find that young people in Shetland are still taught these dances in school. Admittedly many of them will be forgotten almost instantly, but dancing has long been considered a vital part of Shetland culture. There are unique variations of some of the traditional dances here, and others that exist nowhere else.

I can well recall the torment of being paired up in P.E. classes in high school to go through the steps of the St. Bernard’s waltz and others, to prepare for our end-of-year dance. At the time I would rather have been doing anything else, but I am very glad now that I can still just about remember what I’m doing. In Fair Isle, while not exactly compulsory, dancing is certainly a mass-participation activity, and it is not considered an embarrassing or humiliating experience by the children, either.

An event like this, in a small, isolated place such as Fair Isle, requires extensive planning, and every household was involved in some way with preparing food and decorating the hall. A banquet for 140 people is not an easy thing to organise when all food and supplies have to be ordered well in advance and shipped in on the ferry. Any unfortunate oversights or miscalculations could not be solved with a last-minute trip to the supermarket. It was miraculous then, perhaps, that everything went smoothly and successfully. So far as I could tell, anyway. The only problem for me being that I ate too much too early, so didn’t allow enough room for cake.

Any mass gathering of Fair Isle or Shetland families like this will always provide the opportunity for that most popular of island sports – reddin up kin. This involves working out exactly how you are related to any or all of the people in the room.

My girlfriend Rachel is a third (or fourth?) cousin to the ruby groom, through both his father and his mother. Our neighbours at the dining table, whom we had never met before, were related to the ruby bride. But their mother had shared a surname with Rachel, so were probably also related to both her and the groom, though apparently no-one had ever been able to discover exactly how that connection worked because the historical records were incomplete.

And so it went on. Cousins, second cousins, third, fourth, fifth cousins, eight times removed: an intricate web of connections that was enough to make anyone feel a bit dizzy. I am certainly relieved at such times that I don’t have to worry about these things.

My family come from England on one side and Ireland on the other, so unless there is some very bizarre coincidence, I am unlikely to ever be related to anyone. It makes life so much easier that way.

Photo by Dave Wheeler