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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser