Roll up, roll up for Fair Isle wool

Malachy recounts the challenges of getting all the Fair Isle sheep into one place for shearing. Mili

A military-style operation has been carried out in Fair Isle this week - albeit one in which quite a few of the participants had no idea of either the goal or the method.

Rounding up the sheep from the common grazing began with our orders, which we received at the start of the week: Meet on Wednesday morning at 8.30. And don’t be late!

It is true that many of those who take part in this event (known as the caa) have never seen such a thing before, let alone been involved. They have come to the island as part of the work camps, or to stay at the bird observatory, and it must be daunting for them to find themselves caught in the middle of something so complicated, and so important. It probably doesn’t help then that the morning does not begin with any kind of explanation or ‘plan of action’. At 8.30, when everyone has gathered, islanders simply move off in various directions, some in vehicles, and some on foot. Everyone else just picks someone to follow.

The point of the operation is to gather all of the sheep and lambs from the common grazing, which makes up just over half of the island, into the crü (pen). There are more than 300 sheep in total – around 20 for each croft – plus all of the lambs. Which is a lot of sheep.

The basic plan is to move the sheep southwards towards the hill dyke. Once there, they will be forced along the wall towards the crü, and the gate shut behind them. Simple as that. Or it would be if the sheep all stuck together. Which they don’t. Or if they always moved the way you want them to move. Which they don’t.

The way it is done (in theory) is to create a series of lines of people, equally spaced, all walking in the right direction. Gradually the different lines will join together, until everyone reaches the hill dyke at (roughly) the same time, with all of the sheep in front of them.

I have become convinced, however, that if you asked every person on the island how it is meant to work, you would receive a different answer from each of them. But it does work, and that, I suppose, is the important thing. While a few wily sheep manage to slip through the lines or hide down cliffs, the vast majority end up in the right place.

The caa is done three times during the year. Twice for clipping and worming the ewes, and once to take the lambs away for the freezer. This was the first caa of the year, so the main job of the day was shearing.

Clipping in Fair Isle is still done by non-electrical means – basically with giant scissors – and for those, like me, who are still fairly new to it, it can be a slow, back-breaking job. It was improved on Wednesday though by glorious sunshine, which lasted, remarkably, throughout the day, meaning that, by Thursday, everybody was both aching and burnt.

Wool these days is not a valuable product. Despite the fact that Shetland wool is world-renowned for its qualities, the money we get will not even pay for the time spent cutting it. So this year I have decided to try a different sales route. Some of my fleeces will be going for sale on the internet over the next few days; so if there’s any knitters, spinners and dyers amongst you, check out eBay for your authentic Fair Isle wool.

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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Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I’m leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.