Death by water

Now, as in the past, the sea functions as both giver and taker of life

Early on Sunday morning, a Polish yacht with seven crew was rescued 30 miles to the west of Orkney. It had been due to arrive in Aberdeen the previous day, but had lost radio contact and had not been heard of since Monday, shortly after leaving Keflavik in Iceland.

The yacht had been suffering engine trouble, but finally managed to restore communications late on Saturday evening. Coastguard stations in Iceland, Faroe, Shetland and the Western Isles had all tried to contact the vessel unsuccessfully, and the alarm had been raised for all vessels to keep watch for her.

The crew of the Syrenka were very lucky. Finding a vessel in the North Atlantic with no clues as to its whereabouts would be near impossible without the ship’s emergency beacon being activated. The ending of this story could so easily have been a tragic one.

For me the events were a reminder, as if one were needed, of just how vulnerable human beings are out on the sea. If technology fails, as it can and inevitably sometimes will, or if the weather turns against you, the relationship between the sailor and the sea becomes something altogether different – more threatening, and more honest, perhaps.

Living on an island means, of course, that your world is defined, in a physical sense, by the sea. But that world does not end at the shore. The sea itself is a part of island life, no less than the land upon which you live.

For as long as people have been here, the sea has provided food for them – a livelihood. It has also been their connection to the rest of the world, their highway to other places and other people. It is not a barrier, but a provider of opportunity.


That opportunity, though, can come with a high price. Death at sea has always been a familiar occurrence. The waters around Fair Isle are littered with the wrecks of ships from years past. The most famous of these wrecks is the Gran Grifon, part of the Spanish Armada, which went aground here in September 1588. On that occasion none of the ship’s 300 men were killed, though in the seven weeks that they were marooned on the island, 50 or so died from starvation.

Countless other vessels have met their ends in these waters too, and sometimes it has been islanders themselves that have been the victims. In September 1897, four island boats found themselves in danger after a north-westerly storm blew up unexpectedly. Two made it home safely, another was found the following day with four of its seven crew dead. The other boat was never recovered. Eight men were lost in total, leaving four widows, and 27 children without fathers.

People took those kinds of risks not simply because they had to. The risks were a part of their bond with the sea – a part of the bargain, you might say. There was an element, too, of the old Norse acceptance of Fate, which manifested itself in a refusal by many Shetland seagoers to learn to swim – something that continued until quite recently.

Safety today is taken extremely seriously, and accidents are far rarer than in the past. But every year in Scotland lives are lost by people on the sea, and fishing remains the UK’s most dangerous profession. The bond that people feel with the water that surrounds them is a strong one though, unbreakable even. People will always make their livings from the sea, and as long as they do, there will always be those who are lost.

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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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.