One dark morning, I was standing on a hill in a howling gale in the Outer Hebrides, when I was surprised to see a police car in the distance. What did a police officer do in small, remote islands? What does policing look like when communities are small, scattered and separated by sea? Would police work be affected by the wind and rain that were then battering me? And why, after many years thinking about police work, didn’t I know?
This moment set in train an extended ethnography of policing in Shetland, the most peripheral archipelago in the UK. I wanted to explore how the historical preoccupation of criminology with the city had limited our imagination. If our foundational research on policing had been conducted in remote islands rather than cities, what would we think was important in thinking about crime and its control? What would we notice that we currently do not see?
I soon discovered that one of the phenomena remote islands make inescapable is the dark: the visceral, overwhelming, sensory experience of immersion in darkness, and its effects on the exercise of state power.
Shetland is located over 200 miles north of the Scottish mainland in the centre of a ‘crossroads’ between Iceland, the Faroes, Scotland and Norway. Its main connection with the UK mainland is by a 12 hour ferry from the Northeast of Scotland, though notoriously rough seas mean the journey can often take twice that. It can also be reached by propeller planes from Scottish airports, though the storms, 70mph winds and thick fog that batter the islands make this an unpredictable form of transport: Flybe, the airline which served Shetland during my research, was known locally as ‘Fly Maybe’.
So, in mid-December, armed with a suitcase full of seasickness tablets and some sturdy boots, I joined the young oil workers eating enormous plates of chips on the boat heading for Lerwick. Twelve hours later, I stepped out onto the deck in roaring winds, beside myself with excitement at my first glimpse of Shetland.
I saw nothing.
Instead, I found myself enveloped in darkness, the quality of which I had never experienced before. It was impossible to tell where the land, sea and sky began or ended: the occasional tiny pinpricks of light which fleetingly appeared could have been from boats, houses or stars. This was my first experience of what islanders called ‘black dark’: an absence of light so profound that, as a police officer said, ‘you can’t let your dog off the lead as you’ll never find her again’. Or as a former mainland officer put it, ‘you don’t know darkness until you’ve lived here. Here, there is nothing’.
Yet while darkness may have been described in its absence – as ‘nothing’ – this was not how it was experienced. Instead, as I discovered, darkness is an acutely sensory experience. It is active, physical and alarming.
Light and darkness are central to the experience of life in remote Northern islands. Shetland experiences dramatic changes of light with continual light in midsummer (the Shetland phrase ‘simmer dim’ describes the brief dip in the light at the summer solstice) and in mid-winter, the time of my first arrival, only a few hours of watery grey daylight. Nights were not always dark: without clouds, auroras, stars and full moons lit up the sky making it possible to drive without headlights. The extraordinary experience of night illumination was so disorienting that one island police station had a list of full moon dates pinned to their front office to predict when people would ‘go crazy’.
However, more frequently, winter storms blacked out the moon and stars bringing immersion in darkness. Staying in a little house at the end of a dark track next to a bay, I found myself overwhelmed by darkness. My fieldnotes describe tiredness, disorientation, and insomnia; feeling unable to leave my house, ‘hemmed in’ by a darkness that was ‘oppressive and total’. To my astonishment, being submerged in darkness also brought with it a sense of creeping fear that was both existential and visceral. For the first time since a small child, I was afraid of the dark.
I soon realised these experiences were shared by the police officers navigating dark islands. All officers talked about darkness. They described how it interfered with their work: feeling exhausted and disoriented, getting lost, and not knowing in which direction they were driving. One officer came back from an unsuccessful house inquiry explaining: ‘There are no streetlights. It’s pitch black. It’s the darkest place I’ve ever been. I couldn’t find the bastard house.’
Yet darkness also affected officers more profoundly. It shaped the way they perceived the islands, and how they felt and moved within them.
In the light islands were playgrounds for exploration. The starkness of the Shetland landscape became exciting: we drove to remote cliffs to spot seals, orcas and otters on clear days, or to see shooting stars, red moons and auroras on clear nights. Officers described the colours of the land and sea, the sunsets they had seen, the wildlife and boats that passed.
In the dark, however, islands became places of vulnerability. Officers described them as empty, lonely, barren places: ‘bleak’, ‘desolate’, depressing’, ‘shit’, ‘grey’. Yet darkness wasn’t simply experienced as absence – of light, colour or pleasure. Instead, it was active, oppressive and visceral. Dark islands were hostile places. Just as I felt ‘hemmed in’ in my house, officers described being crushed or consumed by darkness. It was penetrating, ‘claustrophobic’, ‘oppressive’; they described ‘sinking’ into the landscape.
Phenomenological research helps illuminate why darkness seems to generate this bodily sense of vulnerability. Shaw (2015, p586) argues that in light, vision holds objects at a distance, becoming a ‘protective field’ which delineates the self from the world. In darkness, the boundaries between the body and environment are eroded (also Edensor 2013, Merleau-Ponty 1962, Morris 2011). Bodies become porous, leaving us open and vulnerable to the world outside. Or, as one officer described it, in darkness ‘I felt I was being swallowed by the island’.
For island officers, immersion in darkness was profoundly unsettling. As a result, officers drove quickly through dark places or avoided them entirely. Instead they headed to the comfort of the police station, or circulated around populated places with the safety of illuminated light. As one officer put it, when cloud cover at night meant there was no light at all, ‘that’s when you return to the station’. Islands became mapped through the light and the dark, structuring where officers went and what they did.
Where the police go, where they focus their attention, directly affects the use of state power. Research in dark islands suggest that their sensory experience of the environment, and the darkness and light in which they are submerged, is crucial to how police officers think, feel and move through the areas they police, and consequently what they do and who they encounter. So why have these phenomena been overlooked in police scholarship? As I have argued elsewhere (Souhami 2023), the consistency of the urban context of police research seems to have led us to overlook the physical environment of police work altogether. Remote Northern islands reveal that there is more to criminology than our preoccupations suggest. We should not be afraid of the dark.
For more on this research, see:
Souhami, A (2023): “Weather, Light and Darkness in Remote Island Policing: Expanding the Horizons of the Criminological Imagination”. The British Journal of Criminology. 63 (3) pp 634–650, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azac052
You may also be interested in the ‘Just Humans’ podcast ‘Darkness: Dr Anna Souhami’ produced by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research: https://www.sccjr.ac.uk/podcast/darkness-dr-anna-souhami/
Edensor, T (2013): ‘Reconnecting with Darkness: Gloomy landscapes, lightless places’. Social and cultural geography 14, 446-65
Merleau-Ponty (1962): Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by C Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Morris, NJ (2011): ‘Night walking: darkness and sensory perception in a night-time landscape installation’. Cultural Geographies 18 (3), 315-342
Shaw, R (2015): ‘Controlling darkness: self, dark and the domestic night’. Cultural Geographies 22 (4), 585-600