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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.