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

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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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