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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage