Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Loss at sea and grief on land

Their feet were horribly burnt. As her wheelhouse blazed, the steel deck of the fishing boat Be Ready, from Burra Isle in Shetland, became intolerably hot. The five crewmen, some having tumbled from their bunks barefoot, clustered in the bow, as far as possible from the brutal heat and acrid smoke, unable to reach their life rafts and inaccessible to the coastguard rescue helicopter hovering overhead.

Despite the fire, a force-nine gale and huge seas, all five crewmen were rescued, thanks to the brilliant seamanship of David Robertson, skipper of another Burra boat, the Mizpah. Robertson somehow brought his vessel bow-to-bow, and for a micro- second level with the Be Ready, a line on board was thrown to the desperate fishermen, and one of the Mizpah's life rafts slid over. Within minutes, the helicopter was able to winch up the Be Ready's crew from the pitching plastic coracle.

This happened a few days ago off Orkney. It could have turned out very differently, and Shetland is no stranger to death at sea. Not far from my house is Fethaland, one of the so-called Haaf fishing stations where men would, until the late 19th century, remain all summer in tiny stone shacks, fishing nightly in the open, six-oared, square-sailed boats known as Sixareens. Over the years, hundreds of men died in the sudden storms that could rip such a vulnerable fishing fleet to shreds. They were, in that dreadful phrase, lost at sea. Or as they say even more simply here, lost.

Shetland fishermen are now equipped with some of the biggest and most modern fishing machines in the world. But death still stalks the harvesters, some would say pirates, of the sea's bounty. And yet never, even in inshore tragedies, have I come across a Shetland mother, father or wife demanding the return of a lost loved one's body.

Should the sea give up its victim - in weeks, months, sometimes years - well and good. But in this ocean-girt environment, it is acknowledged that, someday, an appalling price may have to be paid. And no one else should be put at risk in an attempt to appease the sentiments of the bereaved.

In religious fishing communities, biblical fundamentalism once provided a flinty comfort. When Christ returned, the sea would give up its dead, and all believers would be reunited in Him.

Now, however, and especially since the strange and sad salvage of the Sapphire, the physical has utterly usurped the spiritual, and grief cannot be completed until there is a body to be buried on land. Closure.

Except in the case of that Peterhead boat, the wounds are open and suppurating, with horrific accusations levelled at the one surviving crew member. This is a community not just bereft, but blaming and bitterly divided.

It is a last raging act of defiance against the sea, the cruel sea that has taken away the lover, the husband and the son. Any cost will be paid, any risk taken with other men's lives, to obtain some slight relief from the agony of loss. Flowers will be left at harbour sides, gigantic wreaths purchased. Grief has to be obvious, visual and essentially corporeal. For despite the church's tenuous presence, there is no soul, no spirit, no eternal hope.

As I write, an Aberdeen salvage vessel is heading for the Isle of Man to attempt, at a cost of £1 million, to raise the sunken Solway Harvester and - it is hoped - the bodies of her crew, which may or may not be inside the sunken scallop boat. The money is not important; the undoubted risk to divers is. The selfishness of grief will consume all, if it is allowed to. Religion once prevented that.

In Shetland, which is still a remarkably pagan society, it is a much more elemental faith than Christianity that regards the sea with an affectionate, respectful fatalism. The ocean has always taken, and this is a place where life is still a tenuous business, carried out between hurricanes and flood tides, on or in the fishing grounds of a peat-streaked, treeless rock where survival cannot be taken for granted.

Never out of sight of water, here you live by the sea's arbitrary rules. There's no arguing. The sea gives and takes. It gave the crew of the Be Ready another chance, and nothing will stop them limping back to sea on their blistered soles. It took the crew of the Solway Harvester, and this desperate effort to reclaim their remains is a kind of tragic blasphemy.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control