A week of white-outs and black-outs

Rural Shetland has been reflecting on how people coped before electricity arrived, says Tom Angus
Click to follow
The Independent Online
CUNNINGSBURGH - Friday 29 December. It is a brilliantly sunny day. Peat smoke drifts in a light northerly wind; voices of children sledging, and of crofters feeding sheep, carry a long way. "A day between weathers," the old folk would say, and a Met forecast of more snow to come would seem to bear out the saying.

After a week of white-outs, power cuts and an invasion of media folk from the mainland, the thought of more snow appals most people up here in Shetland. After the great snowfall and gales on Christmas Eve, all roads were blocked. Some people were without electricity - and thus without heating - for five days.

Various life-threatening situations were averted by helicopter ambulance flights or by less-publicised practical community efforts. Neighbours' fires thawed the chilled, and small generators, carried through drifts, powered central heating pumps on a rota basis. Rural water supplies, relying largely on diesel pumps, dried up when operatives were unable to refuel tanks. Lifeboats, fishing vessels, tractors and four-wheel drive vehicles fetched essential supplies.

With terrestrial television and VHF radio out of action, our news has been beamed all week by satellite or via medium-wave radio. Unable to get about, we had no idea how things were over the hill, but thanks to satellite - once the power came on - we could watch, on our screens, a local crofter feeding sheep. It felt unreal. You sat and watched a neat young chap who'd travelled hundreds of miles from his TV base interviewing a parka-clad snowbound couple and wondered which trouble spot he'd be covering the next day. But it has been, by and large, a miserable week, not improved by the fact that Christmas dinners had to be abandoned or postponed.

It could be argued that much of the week's hardship was caused by over- reliance on electricity. When the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board inaugurated rural electrification schemes in the 1950s it was hailed as the bringer of a splendid amenity. In the euphoria of the time, the Shetland weather factor, featuring savage winds, was forgotten and so men laboured at digging holes for wooden poles to hold up the wires to carry this marvellous unseen power source from a diesel generating station in Lerwick all over the islands.

These overhead power lines are, however, subjected to terrific tempest. The sturdiest creosote-soaked pole can stand just so much. Many poles stand in soft peat, which makes ideal fuel but provides a poor base for a power line. Poles are blown over, the line falls down and what has become for many people a lifeline is broken.

The coming of North Sea oil and a massive rise in Shetlands population - from 17,000 to 23,000 within a few years - led to a housing boom. Many houses, whole estates in some cases, including sheltered housing, rely on electric heating. For many people, hypothermia is kept at bay by a thin wire stretching many miles over the type of wild, exposed terrain much admired by tourists. The Hydro repair linesmen we class along with lifeboat and rescue helicopter crews; but they can do only so much to combat the forces of nature. When you live in the country you must expect power cuts and do what you can to look after yourself.

There would have been very little to report in the way of emergency stories before rural Shetland got mains electricity. Country dwellers were largely self-sufficient. Every household used peat as a heat source for cooking and heating. Winter saw food stores laid in for animals and humans: salted and dried fish and mutton, home-grown potatoes and vegetables (including the hardy Shetland cabbage), sacks of oatmeal and flour and so on, meant that there was plenty to eat even after weeks of isolation.

For lighting, there were paraffin lamps, with the Tilley variety lighting the house wonderfully and giving off a fair heat, too. Fastened to the chimneys of some houses were wind-driven dynamos, used for charging the batteries essential for radio reception. People listened to the news, the weather forecast and, on Saturday evenings, to the Scottish dance music programme.

Never mind the comparison between pre- and post-war days. What we're all pondering this week is the future. And the talk is of generators. A little one would be a most acceptable present. Even peat or other solid- fuel central heating relies on electricity to work the water circulation pump; but a small generator could power this pump, light your house and keep freezer and fridge in action. At present, there is a big run on generators on the island, and the word is that they are sold out.

Whether those who are swearing to acquire this lifesaver will keep their vows is another matter. Some probably will, only to let their generator lie for months in a garage, unstarted, unserviced and out of fuel.

One thing is certain: we have not had our last power cut. The sooner folk accept that fact the sooner they can be persuaded to provide for the inevitable, and we could be thinking of others who cannot help themselves. Up here, we have a multi- million pound special fund built up from oil revenues, which has financed, among other things, a series of leisure centres complete with swimming pools. Splashing out on back- up generators for our care centres and sheltered housing would be money well spent.

The writer is a retired teacher.