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.
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.