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Why Shetlanders love ‘da simmer dim’

by Laurie Goodlad -

I was recently asked why midsummer and da simmer dim (summer twilight) means so much to Shetlanders and it’s a question that I had never really given much thought. So let’s explore it.

For as long as I can remember we have marked the passing of the longest day; whether it be a midnight walk to the top of a hill to watch the sun set and then rise again, or a camping trip in a quiet valley listening to the call of the birds and watching the mist roll over the hills like frosting.

Midsummer is the time around the summer solstice, generally held here on the 21 June, but there are variations in the date across the northern hemisphere. Celebrations on this date are not new; we have been celebrating solstices around the world long before the advent of Christianity.

At the heart of midsummer, like other observed days such as Beltane (1 May), is growth and light. Light produces growth, and at 60° North, light is cherished and celebrated for lifting us out of winter, removing us from the dark, and providing abundant autumn harvests.

To the Norse settlers in Shetland, midsummer was about Baldur, the god of light and son of Odin and Frigg who is celebrated as one of the best-loved gods of Asgard. The celebrations marked his death and observed the height of the sun’s power. Today we still celebrate the power of the sun, although thoughts of Baldur have mostly been forgotten as Christian traditions replaced the Norse influence.

The arrival of Christianity brought a whole new host of doctrines and religious observances to the isles including Johnsmas on the 24 June. J.R. Nicolson wrote that Johnsmas “contained much of the Old Norse practices of midsummer, although it had become Christianized by being dedicated to St John the Baptist.” On this night, bonfires would have blazed on hilltops as people celebrated the light and all that it gives.

In Unst, folklorist Jessie Saxby describes the midsummer celebrations of the Simmermill Foy [party]:

“This festival was one of the most important, and seems to have been what nowadays would be styled as a thanksgiving ceremony. The folk gave thanks for small, as well as great mercies. ‘Never ye mind,’ they would say if the fishing had been scanty, ‘da Lord will send some other kind o’ blessing some day’. Rogues of stones were piled, and on these were cast bones of fish and animals, peats, straw, seaweed, flowers, feathers, even a tet o’ oo [tuft of wool]. To these would be added the ormals [broken remains] of any household article with pells [rags]. On top of all was set a small wooden kapp containing a little fish oil. A glorious blaze would rise from that bonfire, and it burning to the foundation without any replenishment meant the best of all good luck.”

Johnsmas also marked the beginning of the summer herring fishery which saw hundreds of Dutch boats rendezvousing in Bressay Sound before the commencement of the summer fishery on 24 June. William Aberdeen describes between eight or nine hundred Dutch vessels on his 1766 map – a staggering number for such a small community.

J.R. Nicolson, who wrote an indispensable guide to Shetland Folklore, also describes a delightful tradition between courting youngsters. It says that a lad and lass would each pick a stalk of ribwort plantain, remove the tiny florets and wrap them in a dock leaf hidden under a stone. This ritual was always done in secret, at sunset. If the florets reappeared before the stocks withered, it was a sign that the couple would marry.

'Da simmer dim', according to John J Graham's Shetland Dictionary, doesn't actually mean 'midsummer'. It translates as 'the twilight of a Shetland summer evening'. This means that da simmer dim lasts beyond one day. Being so far north, we can expect to see 19 hours of daylight as the sun merely dips its head below the horizon before rising again; this is a polar opposite to the six of hours we can expect at midwinter. This interim period gives a milky white light, soft and pure, bathing the landscape in a quiet, subdued cloak. At this time, the birds’ lull and the approaching night hangs, as if suspended, and the whole world stops-in-motion, waiting for the sun to lift again.

There’s something bittersweet about midsummer. For me, I feel that the whole year has been leading up to this point; the anticipation of the lightest day and the life it brings, and then, just like that, the coin flips, the switch is turned, and we’re looking down the barrel into the dark. When you live in a land of extremes, of dark and light, the passing of midsummer means that it’s time to psyche ourselves up for the approach of the darker days as the summer slips away.

But first, let’s not get maudlin, let’s hang onto it for a little bit longer, and bask in the milky twilights as time hangs suspended over Shetland’s simmer dim.

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