Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Crime and a fitting punishment

Full circle, back to the press bench of Lerwick Sheriff Court, where I cut my journalistic incisors a dozen years ago, and the distilled essence of human existence. With the accent on the distillates. Over three days, case after case reveals wretched half-lives fought out in a rancid bog of booze and prescription drugs. Men hammer their wives in front of screaming children; but they were severely depressed as well as severely pissed. Mitigation.

One such telephones to ask for his name to be kept out of the paper. He had punched and kicked his wife, dragged her up the fire stairs of a basement disco, then committed a breach of the peace at his home.

He will be told the cardinal rule at the Shetland Times: all court cases with fines of £50 or over are reported in full, unless there is a space crisis. But anyone found guilty of a crime who asks for anonymity will automatically have their story printed. In a small community, court reporters are the agents of public vengeance.

There are moments of humour as well. In a court where the local Norse-Scots dialect is in everyday use, confusion can arise and much has to be ascertained from body language. So one witness who referred to a woman as having had a peerie bit to drink shrugged in a Francophonic way as she said it, meaning that the person concerned was only slightly the worse for wear. Moments later, though, the intake of breath and sideways movement of the head as she declared that a man had had a grain odrink indicated extreme inebriation.

Then there was the question of whelks. Or winkles. Gastropods both, in standard English, a whelk usually refers to buccinum undatum, known in Shetlandic as a buckie. But in Shetland, a periwinkle (littorina littorea) is a whelk, pronounced wilk. Which comes directly from the Old English winewinclan, a whelk.

Anyway, whelk-gathering is a favourite income-supplementing activity for the young, the unemployed or those on invalidity benefit. You can make up to £300 a week if you can handle the back-breaking work along the whelk ebb - the low tide that exposes the creatures. The wholesale price of whelks has gone up, ostensibly because multinational pharmaceutical companies are buying the things to extract potent fishy essences therefrom. And recently, we had a case of whelk-rustling before the court. Five sacks of the things had been swiped, apparently as a practical joke against a local whelk-dealer.

As the procurator fiscal put it, prosecuting, it might have been funny if the whelks had been released into the whelk-dealer's bath, presumably while he was in it. The solicitor defending considered this beyond a joke, but the sheriff was distinctly amused at the idea.

Sadly, a defence strategy involving the release of the whelks into the wild as a form of animal rights activism did not rear its gastropodic head. Perhaps next time. If somebody adopts each whelk and gives them names, they could eventually be seen as valid creatures with moral rights. Including, presumably, anonymity. Just not in the Shetland Times, should they get done for assault on an innocent cockle.