Lost in time and space

Wel­come to the most re­mote in­hab­ited is­land in Bri­tain

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Inside Property Liftout: - GAVIN BELL

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

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