New Year in disguise

Strange guizers see in 2008 on Fair Isle

As I write this, Fair Isle has been cut off from mainland Shetland for about ten days: no boats, no planes. In part this has been due to a festive break for the ferry and flight staff, but the weather has also done its bit, serving up a severe easterly gale that lasted several days, and which made off with my neighbours’ poly-tunnel, among other thing.

I was lucky. Having spent Christmas with my brother out in Shetland, I got home without any delays on the last flight to reach the island, on December 28th. Others are less fortunate though, and several people are stuck here this weekend, waiting patiently for a chance to get away, back home, back to work, and back to normality.

Unlike the last few days, the evening of the 31st December itself was beautiful – flat calm and cloudless skies; perfect weather for a Fair Isle New Year.

Throughout most of Shetland, New Year’s Eve (or, in some areas, Christmas Eve) has traditionally been a time for guizing, though Fair Isle is now one of the few places that still keeps up the custom. Essentially, guizing means dressing up in fancy dress or a disguise of some sort, or, in the most northerly isles of Shetland, a skekler’s suit, made entirely of straw. Guizers will go out during the evening, usually in ‘squads’, and visit their neighbours, performing a humorous sketch or act for them. The hosts must then try to guess who each guizer is, before offering them a drink, some food, and their best wishes for the New Year. Then it’s off to the next house.

The sketches usually revolve around some story from the past year, an island event, or local politics. The trick is to perform the act well while managing to keep your identity hidden. This year, three squads of adults were out guizing, plus a group of teenagers and one of younger children. We each had ten houses to visit during the night, so an early start was essential.

My own squad’s act was based around the extraordinary hat-making skills of Tommy Hyndman, our American neighbour, complete with a Harry Potter-style ‘sorting hat’ to help find new homes for islanders. I was Tommy, dressed in a set of his own clothes, which were surreptitiously smuggled out of his house earlier in the day by his wife. Despite what I thought was a reasonably convincing American accent (and a somewhat less convincing mask) I was guessed correctly in most houses. Tommy himself had the pleasure of watching my impersonation of him in our final house of the evening. He took it very well, and didn’t seem even slightly concerned as to how I had managed to obtain his clothes for the part.

Once guizing is finished, most people return to their own homes to see in the New Year with their family. Then, after midnight, one household will host a party, which everyone who hasn’t yet retired to bed will attend.

Christmas and New Year are a good time here in Fair Isle. It is perhaps the only time of the year when everybody can relax and take a break from work. People eat together and socialise most evenings with neighbours, friends and family. It is a time when the dark, the cold and the terrible weather seem much less important than the warmth and the light inside each house. It is easy to remember what these midwinter celebrations are really all about, and why they have always been so important.

Photos by Dave Wheeler

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
Show Hide image

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.