By Ted Harrison, Special to ASSIST News Service
UNST, SCOTLAND (ANS – April 29,2016) — After years chasing ratings with action packed programmes, British television is discovering the appeal of slow television. The latest surprise hit from the BBC has been the gentlest of documentary series. Focussed on the island of Unst, Britain’s most northern community, “An Island Parish” has been observing the lives of the minister, the Rev David Cooper, and his congregation.
The island is nearer Norway than mainland Scotland and is a place of stark beauty. Through the summer months it enjoys almost 24 hours of sunlight a day. The six-part series was filmed last summer and followed several story lines. There was the couple preparing a Shetland pony for the local show; Mother Mary, an Orthodox nun living on the island, with drill and sander in hand turning on old cottage into a hermitage; Twins Bertie and Charlie cutting peat as a winter fuel; to give just a few examples of the glimpses of island life.
The life of the Church of Scotland on the island was shown. Harvest Festival at St John’s and a special service held at the boat museum to commemorate those in the community who had died at sea. For despite the programme showing an idyllic and idealised picture of life on the island, there is a harsh side too. The winters can be stormy and, over the years, families have regularly lost fathers, husbands and brothers involved in fishing in the dangerous waters of the North Sea and Atlantic.
One of the island’s most quirky tourist attractions is Bobby’s bus shelter. It is a plain council shelter that has been elaborately decorated with pictures, flowers, armchairs and a television. It is much photographed by visitors, but never vandalised. Despite there being no regular police presence on the island the crime rate is almost minimal.
Perhaps the attraction of the series has been that it shows a way of life that has been lost in so many places elsewhere. It is a place where the community is strong, where everyone shares in everyone else joys and sorrows. It is somewhere where all the generations mix and the elderly are not marginalised. The islanders often enjoy a meal together in one of the community halls and every winter they celebrate their Viking heritage with a spectacular fire festival known as Up Hellya Aa.
The population is 600, having fallen by over two thirds since its peak in the 19th century. Then there were several churches on the island with lively and disputatious congregations. Now only the Church of Scotland and the Methodists are left. Unst is not a demonstrably religious place, but as the series showed ostentatious displays of piety are unnecessary when true respect for one’s neighbour is at the root of the community’s culture and values.
Photo captions: 1) A calm midnight in June. It never gets completely dark during what is called “the simmer dim”. 2) A boat is pulled ashore after the annual fishing competition featured in the television programme. 3) Ted Harrison.
About the author: Ted Harrison is a writer and artist dividing his life between homes in Wales and Shetland, UK. He is a former BBC Religious Affairs correspondent. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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