Happy campers

The camps provide a supply of slave-labour for six weeks of the summer. For the price of a bowl of s

On Wednesday, after an unscheduled overnight stay in Shetland due to the weather, the first of this year’s work camps arrived in Fair Isle.

Most years there are three work camps that come to the island during the summer. Two are “Thistle Camps”, organised by the National Trust for Scotland, and the third is run by the International Voluntary Service (IVS). The groups come (as the name implies) to work – helping out on the crofts, clipping sheep, building fences, gardening, painting, and any other jobs that need done at the time. Sometimes they will be involved in large-scale projects that require the extra hands, and sometimes they will be working on their own with the crofter. The work can be hard, physical labour; it can also be dull, repetitive and menial.

Why, you might well ask, would anyone want to come on a holiday like that? And what’s more, why would they pay for the privilege?

Most of the people who come to the camps do not live in the countryside. Many of them come from big cities; they work in offices, banks, shops. They have little or no experience of life in a remote place, and so they come to get a taste of a place that is very much different from their own home. The trips are certainly not laidback or relaxing (I suspect many people feel like they need another holiday by the time they return home) but they must be truly enlightening to some of the people who come, and who suddenly discover that there is a completely different way of life that they had never considered before.

Of course, there are others who do know what to expect, and who come for that very reason. There are a few hardy work campers who return year after year because they love the work, or the island, or possibly even the people. I have noticed from comments left on some of my previous blogs that quite a few people reading these articles regularly are previous work camp visitors, who clearly have retained an interest in the island, and a desire to keep up to date with life here. Not every place can have that kind of effect on people.

Part of this effect, I guess, must be the result of working so closely with the people here, and being able to feel a part of the community, if only for a short time. Each day the workers go to one or other of the crofts to spend the day with islanders – working, eating and speaking with them. While they are here there is usually a dance and a barbeque organised, so the groups also have the opportunity to socialise with Fair Islanders. All of these things must add to the uniqueness of the experience.

The benefit to the island of the work camps is, in a way, very similar. For a place that is as geographically isolated as Fair Isle, the groups are a wonderful opportunity to meet new people, and, with the IVS groups in particular, to find out about other places. There have even been some relationships (and marriages) between work campers and islanders over the years.

But the main benefit, of course, is that the camps provide a supply of slave-labour for six weeks of the summer. For the price of a bowl of soup you can have someone weed your garden, clip your sheep or even paint your house. Which is exactly what I did last year, when four work campers and I managed to whitewash the outside of my house in just a day and half – a job that would have taken me a week on my own. And for that help I will always be grateful. Thanks guys!

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496