Seeing the light

Fair Isle's two lighthouses have been central to the commmunity for the last 116 years

During these long winter nights, one of the things I find myself noticing more are the island’s lighthouses. Fair Isle’s South Lighthouse is less than half a mile from my house, and lying in bed I can see the beam against the walls: four flashes, one after the other, repeated every 30 seconds.

There are two lighthouses on the island, one at the north end and one the south, just about three miles apart. The north light covers the water between Fair Isle and Shetland, and the south covers that between here and Orkney. These are both very dangerous stretches of sea, and the lights have undoubtedly saved many lives over the years.

The south lighthouse was first lit about 116 years ago, in January 1892, and the north light later that year. They were both designed by the brothers David and Charles Stevenson, cousins of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, and part of the renowned family of lighthouse engineers. They are noticeably different in size – the tower at the south is 26 metres high, while that at the north is just 14. But sitting atop 200 foot cliffs it is well elevated above sea level. Both lighthouses also had fog horns for warning ships in poor weather.

The construction of the lighthouses in Fair Isle had been suggested decades before they were eventually built, but it took many more ships (and lives) to be lost before the plans eventually came to fruition. An incredible number of vessels ended their days on the rocks around the island, often several ships in a single year. And while the islanders did their best to rescue sailors, they did so at considerable risk to themselves, and were not always successful.

It is true though that wrecks did provide a valuable source of timber to the island, and many lost cargoes found their way into people’s homes. There were also occasional rewards for the rescue of stricken mariners, including £100 that was sent to the islanders after they assisted and helped to repair the Copenhagen ship, Dronning Louise, in 1884. When the lighthouses began their work, this source of wood and other goods was drastically reduced.

One of the great benefits of the lighthouses was that they brought extra people in to the community. For much of the twentieth century, three keepers and their families lived at each light – a substantial boost to the population.

This, though, has changed. The north light was automated in 1983, with engineers at the south providing cover when needed. Then, 15 years later, the south light too was automated. It was the last Scottish lighthouse to be manned. Since then part of the south light building has been converted into two flats by the National Trust, so once again people are living there.

In more recent years, another part of the lighthouse story has ended. The foghorns – once familiar sounds to everyone on the island – have been switched off. For those people living in the lighthouse flats, it was, perhaps, a relief.

The lights themselves have changed too. The beam has been altered to make it less bright as it passes over the land. Until recently, folk were able to find their way home in the dark, taking steps only as the bright light swept across their path. Now it is less conspicuous, less direct, but still there all the same.

In some peculiar way the light is rather comforting. It comes and goes against the wall, steady and familiar. I am glad to see it there.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.