Preparing for winter

Malachy Tallack muses on the beauty and brutality of a Fair Isle winter


Traditional cultures have always sought, and found, balance within the natural world, and in their relationship to the lands and landscapes that have sustained them. And winter, it seems to me, is the time when we are reminded most forcefully of that balance.

Here in Fair Isle, as in other northern places, winter is the most animate and aggressive of seasons. To imagine it as lifeless or inert is to have failed, somehow, to experience it at all.

Where spring and summer are times of advancing into the world – of planting and tending, and the intrusions of agriculture – autumn and winter are times of retreat.

Many visitors to Fair Isle speak enviously of our lifestyle, and the environment in which we live. A part of them wishes that they too could exist somewhere like this. “But”, they say, “I couldn’t cope with the long winters”.

In some ways this attitude is understandable. The winters here are long: they can last, in practice, up to five or six months. Sometimes it seems much longer. The weather is poor too. Strong winds are the norm, making the cold air feel even colder. And the days are short. At the moment the sun rises around nine o’clock in the morning and sets again about three. There is a lingering twilight for much of the time in between, and it can often feel as though there has been no day at all.

Working outside at this time of year can therefore be difficult. The lack of daylight hours, and the even greater lack of suitable weather, means that opportunities must be grasped whenever they come along. Most of the time is spent inside, sheltered and protected from the world. And with the curtains and doors closed, it can be easy to feel detached or disconnected from what lies outside. But that is misleading.

This rhythm of advance and retreat, of warmth and cold, summer and winter, has been part of the natural cycle of human life since people first migrated beyond the equatorial regions. For those peoples that moved further still, into northern Europe, Asia and America, it is a rhythm that is deeply ingrained into our cultures and our psyche. The ebb and flow of each year affects us in ways that we cannot begin to understand; it balances us within our environment and within ourselves.

While we may shut the doors and block out the darkness, the winter itself does not end outside our homes. It reaches in and touches us, changes us. We must not imagine ourselves immune to the seasons.

Many people find winter a depressing time. It can induce feelings of loneliness, even despair. Others find hope and comfort in the recognition of change and return – of cyclical, seasonal movement. It can be exhilarating as well as exhausting.

This afternoon, as it grew dark, I drew the curtains and lit the fire. The room filled with warmth. Generations of people have done the same thing, within this house, on this island. It was a natural reaction – an interaction with the world outside. And I watched as the flames leapt and danced in the grate.

Photographs by Dave Wheeler