Lost in time and space
Welcome to the most remote inhabited island in Britain
ON the loneliest island in Britain there is a man with flaxen hair who builds beautiful wooden boats to the design of Viking ancestors.
There are women who knit brightly patterned pullovers that have been worn on Antarctic and Everest expeditions, and an old man who crafts spinning wheels from driftwood.
One of his sons is the island mailboat skipper, whose idea of a good time is battling through huge waves in winter storms.
This hotchpotch of characters lives happily on barely 13sq km of windblown rock in the North Sea, memorably described by Robert Louis Stevenson as ‘‘an unhomely, rugged turret-top of submarine sierras’’. Its coast of cliffs rising sheer from heavy seas was the ‘‘wildest and most unpitying’’ he had seen.
There are times when Fair Isle, marooned between northern Scotland’s Orkney Islands and Shetland, seems lost in time and space. When it battens down under howling gales or disappears in sea mists, the most remote inhabited island in Britain is a world apart.
Yet it has a rugged grandeur that draws hundreds of visitors a year. Most come to observe a kaleidoscope of itinerant birds that use the island as a flight path service station, to rest and refuel on annual migrations. In spring and autumn it is an ornithologist’s cloud nine, with the likes of rare great snipe and yellow-breasted bunting posing in the heather for batteries of telescopic lenses.
It is a birdwatching friend who alerts meto a new bird observatory guest lodge on the island and revives a childhood fancy to discover the mysterious, faraway dot on a school atlas.
Which is how I find myself in a seven-seat aircraft, droning at barely 1000 feet above the sea from the main island of Shetland towards a dark shape that looks like a whale with a harpoon in its back. On closer inspection the harpoon is a communications mast, which we fly around before banking low over fearsome cliffs and scrunching to a halt on a grass and gravel runway.
When the clatter of the propeller dies away, there is a profound sense of peace and freedom in the crofting land and peat moors that support about 70 people plus a scattering of sheep, goats, cows, pigs, ducks and friendly dogs, and countless seabirds nesting noisily on the cliffs. The air is filled with the sounds of the sea, the wind and the cries of gulls. There is only one single-track road; it never runs far from the sea surging against a ship’s graveyard of skerries and rock-stacks like monstrous broken teeth.
After lunch I stroll about 1.5km from the observatory to the crofting township. I know nothing of birds but am captivated by the graceful flight of fulmars gliding around me, apparently for the fun of it, and the sweet trilling of unseen skylarks. Passing the first house, I am welcomed enthusiastically by a couple of young Shetland collies that become firm friends.
The road forms a loop around the crofts, winding through fertile land bounded by dry-stone walls and down to a Stevenson lighthouse that was the last in Britain to be manned. On the way I pop into Stackhoull Stores, the only shop, where there is a notice advertising the lighthouse golf course. It is described as an ‘‘adventurous’’ six holes, with greens maintained mostly by sheep and the weather. Golfers are advised to bring plenty of spare balls.
It could all have been very different. In the 1950s, when the island was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland, the population had fallen to 45 and half of those were planning to leave. Having survived war, famine, disease and extreme poverty over centuries, the island seemed doomed to suffer the fate of St Kilda, the previously most remote community in Britain, which was abandoned in 1930.
Annie Thomson, 89, remembers the days when Fair Isle almost died. ‘‘Some people thought the place was finished and went away, but not everybody. We had a weekly boat, which St Kilda never had, so there was plenty of coming and going. If we hadn’t had a boat, the island would have emptied.’’
The skipper of the present-day ferry, Good Shepherd IV, is her son Neil, who also rings the church bell on Sundays and plays guitar in the island band. Neil is proud of his boat, which has carried everything from washing machines to crickets for a pet lizard, but admits it’s ‘‘awfy rolly’’. In fact the boat rolls so much in heavy seas that the 12 passenger seats are fitted with seatbelts and sick bags.
Thankfully we are chatting on the bridge while Good Shepherd IV is wedged into a dry land berth where it lies in stormy weather.
He recalls with a grin that he once had an Admiral of the Fleet aboard who had been around the world four times and his passage to Fair Isle was the first time he had been seasick. ‘‘The joke is we get to know our passengers inside out,’’ he says.
Under National Trust stewardship, Fair Isle’s fortunes have been revived with a mix of native islanders and adventurous spirits drawn by the appeal of life far from madd- ing crowds. One of them is Tommy Hyndman, a burly and bearded American artist with ruddy cheeks who came from New York State five years ago with his wife and young son after the National Trust invited applications to rent a vacant croft.
They were eventually chosen from more than 2000 applicants and now live in the Auld Haa (old hall), the oldest house on the island, where Walter Scott dined during a brief visit in 1814.
‘‘We came, we saw, we loved it,’’ he says. ‘‘Just after we arrived there was a big gale and we were stranded for five days. All around us was this big sky, waves and wind, the power of nature. We liked the whole idea.’’
On the face of it, there isn’t much for visitors to do on Fair Isle. There are no pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres or leisure centres, unless you count a tidal rock pool near the south lighthouse.
But there is the drama of wild land and seas ever changing with the weather, and a friendly community of crofters, artists and artisans adept in spinning, knitting, crafting traditional Shetland chairs and driving sheep off the landing strip with a fire engine.
There is a community hall where they display their wares when cruise ships call, and a band made up mostly from Annie Thomson’s family that performs at the bird observatory with fiddle, accordion, guitar, mandolin, flute and any other instrument that comes to hand.
Its leader is Annie’s husband, Stuart, 87, the spinning wheel maker, who plays a lively fiddle. ‘‘He couldn’t find a band for himself, so he bred one,’’ says Annie.
The observatory lodge serves scrumptious home cooking and has a bar well stocked with Shetland ales, and leather sofas by picture windows for gazing at the scenery, reading or dozing off.
There is a church with beautiful stained-glass windows inspired by island scenes, and a small museum where curator Anne Sinclair relates the lives and turbulent times of her forebears, whom she traces back to the 1690s.
When they have the time, locals lead walks to talk about crofting life and the wildflowers, history and archeology of their island. I opt for a stroll with observatory ranger Carrie Gunn to view a colony of puffins nesting on Malcolm’s Head, a headland sweeping majestically to vertiginous cliffs.
Puffins are the stand-up comics of the bird world, strutting around with multicoloured beaks and bemused expressions, and we are given a command performance as clouds of kittiwakes and guillemots wheel and cry overhead.
Elena Mera-Long, an incomer from England who is the resident district nurse, knitter for Fair Isle Crafts and church organist, says it is an exciting place to live. ‘‘People say, ‘What do you do all day on such a small island?’ They must be joking.
‘‘Everybody on Fair Isle works like beavers and there’s never a dull moment. It’s a model for a good community. I doubt if there’s a more harmonious one anywhere.’’ It is a view widely shared.
Jane Wheeler, who arrived with her meteorologist husband, Dave, after a five-year stint in South Georgia, says the island is like an extended family where children are encouraged to talk to strangers. I experience this the next day when two little ragamuffins in tartan skirts run out of a house as I’m walking by and take me by the hand, eager to show me their new pet lamb.
For all its community spirit, Fair Isle is a place of lone figures. You see them everywhere, crofters working the land and birdwatchers etched against the skyline on moors and headlands. But whenever they meet, locals or visitors, there is a cheery word or wave.
The island that refused to die offers solitude and good company in equal measure. fairisle.org.uk fairislebirdobs.co.uk
Fair Isle, between Scotland’s Orkney Islands and Shetland, has a rugged grandeur; traditional fishermen’s ‘keps’ or hats, knitted by locals, below