FROM mid-May almost through to August, it barely gets dark on the island of Unst, in Shetland — which is where my wife and I would have been this summer, had it not been for the pandemic. When the lockdown took effect, we were in the south; and, since then, travel to our home in the far north has been out of the question.
Our sacrifice compared with many others’ is small. Of course, we are missing our island friends and the community life, but that is small hardship compared with the loneliness and enforced isolation experienced by thousands of others. We can keep in touch with life on Unst via social media, video calls, and telephone, but one thing is impossible to replicate electronically or experience vicariously: the light — the summer daylight of the far north, which lights the skies 24 hours a day.
Last year, at 11 o’clock one night, I remember walking in broad daylight from our house to the pier, and, while musing on life in the tranquillity of the moment, a sentence that is normally associated with funerals came into my mind: “Eternal rest grant to her, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon her.”
At more than 60 degrees north, light perpetual is what we experience through the weeks of midsummer. Admittedly, the sun sets for a short while, but such is the long twilight that, while the light fades, it never vanishes. At midnight on 21 June, it is possible to read a book outside — and even play golf. Shetlanders have a word for this time of year: it is the “Simmer Dim”.
The summer solstice is marked throughout Britain. From south to north, there are traditions of feasting and lighting bonfires. These celebrations, probably pagan in origin, have been Christianised and linked to the feast day marking the birth of St John the Baptist. According to the biblical narrative, the Baptist was born six months before Christ; so his Nativity falls exactly half a year before Christmas. The Cornish name for the festival is “Golowan” (“Gol” in old Cornish, meaning “feast”, and “Jowan” being “John”).
At more southern latitudes, midsummer consists of long days and short nights. Darkness falls in the normal way, though for a shorter period. It is noticeable that, when a “Johnsmas Foy” is held in the northern isles, it barely gets dark at all.
OVER and over again in the Bible, light is used as a metaphor for good, as opposed to darkness, which represents the opposite: evil. Light reveals, whereas darkness conceals. Light equates to life; darkness to death. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In his canticle, the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon says of the baby Jesus that he is to be “a light to lighten the Gentiles”.
In the church, at Easter, through Advent, and at baptisms in particular, the lighting of candles symbolises the coming again of the light of the world in Christ. Candles provide an immediate and accessible illustration of how light can emerge from darkness.
In the beginning, Genesis says, the earth was formless, empty, and dark, and God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. But he also ordained that on earth the light was to alternate with darkness. “God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’.”
In the earthly context, it is as if we human creatures can truly recognise the light only if we experience it in contrast to the dark. Indeed, some people find unrelenting light quite disconcerting. It is a well-tried tactic of torturers to keep their prisoners under unrelenting bright lights, never permitting them a moment to hide and rest in the comfort of the dark.
Many visitors to Shetland find that their sleep patterns are disturbed by the constant daylight. At bedtime, they draw their curtains tight to keep out the light. Even I admit to finding it strange when I travel further north to the Arctic Circle and see the sun above the horizon at midnight.
Of course, as one nears the polar extremes, there is a price to pay for the summer daylight. The winter nights are long and harsh. At midwinter in Shetland, the sun rises in the late morning and starts to set shortly after lunch. The long twilight gives us some extra daytime, but, for several months of the year, children both go to school and travel home again in the dark.
I recall, one winter’s afternoon, walking along a Shetland road in total darkness. It was literally pitch black — no moon, no street-light — and I had no torch. Without light to reveal them, I could not see my way, or the view, or the wildlife that I knew was there. Neither was I able to see danger; I was ignorant of any hazards. I groped my way through the darkness, feeling the grass verge with a walking stick, and taking slow careful steps.
LIGHT reveals what otherwise cannot be seen. When the light of truth shines, we become aware not only of the splendours of creation but of human suffering around us. We are able to sense the light of God here on earth, but we have to be prepared to suffer the darkness as well. During our earthly lifetime, we may need times of respite from the glare of reality, and when night falls we welcome sleep, “perchance to dream”.
In the next life, when all is revealed, we will be able to rest in peace and spend eternity bathed in the light perpetual — knowing that there will be no more unseen dangers on the journey. We will have arrived, and will have no further need to fear what we might encounter ahead of us.
Ted Harrison is a journalist and artist.