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.
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad