Most people in Shetland live and work within sight and sound of the sea. On clear summer days – almost 20 hours long, in June – it lies flat out to a distant horizon and children play on great wide beaches; from the cliff-tops, fish and diving birds are clearly visible even several metres below the surface.
It’s not like that now. At this time of year and into the winter, during the great gales that sweep across the Atlantic, the sea climbs steeply into the howling wind as it hits land, and sheets of spray sweep across our fields and moors. Driving home on black, tortured winter nights, when streaming wet gusts thud into the side of the car like a boxer laying into a heavy bag, rain and sea are all mixed up, one and the same.
For those of us working on land, it’s not something we think about very much. Just like everyone else, we have taxes, electricity bills and kids who haven’t done their homework. But we sleep to the muffled pulse of the sea just outside our doors and wake to salt spray hissing on our windows, and it would be a sad, dull specimen who remained entirely unaffected by it.
Well before doors and windows, when protection from the elements amounted to heaps of stones, the first Shetlanders would have been huddled out there on the hillsides, waiting out bad weather with the glum forbearance of a sheep or pony. But then the sea was why people came here in the first place. It might be windswept, and a long way from anywhere else, but there has always been something to eat: seafood, and especially fish.
Plenty of fish. Plot British catches on a map and you’ll find that the 100 nautical miles around Shetland account for almost half of the total; more finfish are landed in Shetland than in the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. The seafood industry still dominates the local economy, and provides precious jobs in other sectors, from transport to marine engineering, science, marketing and our port infrastructure. It is a big part of why Shetland works, and keeps hold of one of the youngest populations in Scotland.
But then the islands have precious little else, and generation after generation have kept their families alive by “going to the fishing”. They didn’t always keep themselves alive, though. Fishing was traditionally a backbreaking, appallingly dangerous occupation, with men rowing out into an unpredictable ocean in heavy wooden boats, sometimes well out of sight of land. A memorial at Gloup, on the island of Yell, reminds us that 58 fishermen were lost from ten such boats all at once in a storm in July 1881. Fishing vessels have become much safer since, but those losses were by no means unprecedented and certainly not the last.
“Lost at sea” is a frighteningly common inscription on Shetland tombstones, just as it is in stone-walled graveyards from Eyemouth to Skye. Other places have motorbike accidents; we have lost at sea. Half a dozen a year from UK vessels, 13 in a particularly bleak 2009, and on it goes. A moment’s inattention on a poor day, a snapped cable whipping head-high through the dark, an arm caught in a flying rope, and it’s into the icy water with just minutes to live. This is an industry and a tradition built through sweat and blood; the tears have never been far away, either.
Which brings me back to the impending winter, with the mackerel starting to appear in massive numbers in our waters as part of their annual migration. This is Shetland’s single most valuable catch, as it is for the UK as a whole, and this is the best time of year to catch it. Most of the vessels involved – from Shetland, mainland Scotland and a dozen other nations – are midwater trawlers, up to 80 metres long, fast, modern and with a minuscule carbon footprint. They catch a lot of fish quickly and safely and bring it back to port in prime condition, even when the sea starts to pile up and the rest of us lie in our beds and listen to the wind.
Incredibly, insanely, voices in snug offices many miles away continue to advocate the removal of fishing quotas from large boats to small ones, so that we can return to the good old days. Shetland is proud of its small boats too, more than 100 of them engaged inother sorts of fishing, but we wonder what kind of idiot would want to take one into the Atlantic on the sorts of nights we have had in the past week or so.
The point is that we have the sizes of boats we do because of the fishing and the fearsome sea conditions we have to contend with, not because big boats have bullied the little ones out of the way. That is not to say that there are serious issues of this sort in many parts of the world, and Shetlanders have a natural and obvious affinity with other communities struggling to hold on to their traditional fishing rights against illegal or unfair competition. But from where I’m sitting, with the wind threatening to tear the roof off and a furious sea battering at the harbour wall, Shetland’s big boats, owned and crewed by local families, are vital to who we are and what we do.
l Simon Collins is executive officer of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association