Scottish Daily Mail

we’re very close knit!

By Emma Cowing


eVEN on the Shipping Forecast, it exerts a magical pull. Fair Isle (south westerly, veering five or six) is Britain’s most remote inhabited island, a tiny speck in the North Sea just three miles long and oneand-a-half miles wide.

Lashed by waves and battered by storms, it is a world away from the frenetic pace of modern life, a place with no street lights and no pub, where front doors are left open, and everyone lends a hand to stock the one island shop when the ship arrives with supplies.

Just 57 souls inhabit Fair Isle, halfway between the Shetland Isles and the Orkney Islands, and every ablebodied member of the community holds down several jobs ranging from nurse to firefighte­r, teacher to minister. All croft their own land, grow vegetables, and keep chickens and sheep.

Imagine the Good Life relocated to the middle of a howling gale in the North Sea and you’ll have some idea of the atmosphere.

In a new two-part BBC Scotland documentar­y, the stark life on Scotland’s most inaccessib­le island is laid bare, following the fortunes of its islanders as they face down a harsh winter and struggle for survival in a dwindling community whose entire way of life is under threat.

When Venezuelan architect Mati Ventrillon relocated to Fair Isle nine years ago with her partner and newborn baby, she’d never managed to keep so much as a house plant alive.

Now she farms animals, grows her own food, and thinks nothing of going out lambing in the middle of a thundersto­rm.

‘I had never been to the island, I had no family link, I had no experience in farming,’ she says.

‘But I was living in London and beginning to realise that raising a child there wasn’t the best thing to do. My partner came home one day with an applicatio­n form to live on the island and I thought, “where on earth is Fair Isle?”

‘I had to Google it. But it looked amazing. The community looked incredible.’

Arriving in 2007, she soon realised that life on Fair Isle was far from glamorous.

‘If you want to go out with your girlfriend­s and go shopping and you are a person who enjoys going out and dressing nicely then don’t bother,’ she says.

‘It’s not going to happen here. You need to be someone who is comfortabl­e throughout the year in a really raw environmen­t. If you don’t like animals and wearing wellies every single day it’s not for you.’

Mati’s family, scattered between Venezuela and Canada, were shocked she’d chosen such a remote part of the world to make a home.

‘They worried about me being an architect, moving to an island where I could not practise after all those years of studying. It was a concern for them. But I think they thought as long as I was happy then it would be fine.’

Until arriving on Fair Isle, she had only ever knitted for fun, but joining a co-operative of six other women who all made the distinctiv­e Fair Isle jumpers, she became entranced by the craft. Today, with a successful home studio and a client base that stretches around the world, her designs are internatio­nally recognised.

‘For four years all I did was learn,’ she says. ‘I didn’t try to invent anything, I wasn’t being creative, I just practised again and again and again.’

Women have been knitting on Fair Isle since the 1600s, when the knitwear was used to barter with sailors on passing boats.

In 1927, a wide-eyed American reporter for the Chicago Daily News described the island as a place where ‘waiting wives knit their souls into woollen masterpiec­es’. Today, Fair Isle knitwear is eminently fashionabl­e. In 2010, Italian design house

Dolce & Gabbana devoted an entire collection to the knitwear, and it has been seen on celebritie­s as diverse as Victoria Beckham and Rihanna.

‘I became increasing­ly curious about the history, about how it happened that such a small place created something so important,’ says Ventrillon. ‘I started researchin­g, asking questions, listening to stories, trying to piece all those things together to understand the heritage.’

AFTER four years learning the craft she struck out on her own, running her own business online and creating modern takes on the traditiona­l Fair Isle knit which she sells for around £200 a time. But being fashionabl­e has its drawbacks.

In December last year she was astonished to discover that French fashion house Chanel’s latest Metier d’Art Collection featured a piece which was a direct copy of her own, a distinctiv­e black and white tank top featuring the unmistakab­le Fair Isle style. The piece was worn by a male model sauntering down the catwalk next to legendary Chanel fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

‘At first I thought “Oh God, it really looks good!”’ she admits. ‘But then I thought: “OK, what do I do now?”.’

The plagiarism caused an internatio­nal scandal, garnering headlines in the New York Times, Vogue magazine and the Economist. Chanel eventually apologised and offered Mati work with them, fulfilling orders herself that came in to the designer for the top. She turned it down however, her remote, tiny studio and labour intensive hand knitting process meaning she would have been unable to cope with demand.

‘I don’t really care about the money, it’s about awareness,’ she says. ‘It’s about knowing that there is a heritage here, a rich Scottish heritage. I have had people who looked at my site and said is that a place? And I say, “Yes it is an island. And that’s where those patterns originated”.’

Although it is perhaps most famous for its knitwear, Fair Isle is also home to a bird observator­y and two lighthouse­s. Around 600 twitchers flock from across the world to stay at the observator­y each year, clogging up the island’s one road in their cagoules and binoculars and bringing muchneeded income to the island.

‘They keep us viable and we keep them viable,’ remarks one islander, Ian Best.

Bought in 1954 by the National Trust for Scotland, Fair Isle holds the distinctio­n of being the only National Trust property that is inhabited.

Yet maintenanc­e is a constant struggle, with some crofts rundown and uninhabita­ble, and hundreds of thousands of pounds needed for renovation.

The island was once home to a population of more than 400, but with just a seventh of those numbers left the National Trust is concerned that without new blood coming in, the island will struggle to survive.

‘If we lose two or three more families the population crashes,’ says Alexander Bennet, area manager for the National Trust for Scotland. ‘And that would be an utter disaster for a place like this.’

Amongst others the documentar­y follows the fortunes of Shaun Milner and Rachel Challoner, an English ex-military couple who, after just ten months together decided to up sticks to Fair Isle from the Home Counties to take over an abandoned croft with 25 acres of land and 24 sheep.

In their late 30s and with plans to start a family they seem the ideal choice for new islanders.

‘I think moving to Fair Isle offers us the opportunit­y to grow our own veg, I’d like to have chickens, I’d like pigs. There is that sense of community that hasn’t been around since our grandparen­ts’ day,’ says Challoner.

Milner adds: ‘It’s the old-style community where people look out and help each other and generally care about each other.’

But cameras soon show the couple bickering and falling out as the pair struggle to adapt to life in such a harsh, and at times claustroph­obic environmen­t. Indeed Fair Isle – a place where there are no long lies, nowhere to go when you need a break and where everyone knows your business – is notoriousl­y tough on personal relationsh­ips. ‘Fair isle is a testing ground for marriage,’ says Mati, who split from her partner David, with whom she came to the island, and is now with a new partner, Joseph. David still lives on the island, and they share childcare of their two children, Sebastian and Saskia.

tHEIRS is not the only break-up on the island. Tommy Hyndman, an American who arrived on the island in 2005 with his wife Liz and son Henry, has also split from his wife. He has remained on the island, while his ex now lives in Shetland.

As for Rachel and Shaun, well, viewers will have to watch to find out if their relationsh­ip lasts the distance. ‘Because Fair Isle is so small you realise very quickly that you have a direct impact on anything that happens on the island,’ says Ventrillon, who when she’s not crofting, knitting or raising children also works as one of the island’s six firefighte­rs.

‘Sometimes that’s quite difficult to cope with. I lived in cities all my life and there you don’t see the impact. You don’t see how you affect others. It’s really important for people who come to Fair Isle to be able to empathise, to have good social skills.’

The intimate personal relationsh­ips are, perhaps, easier for those born and bred on the island.

‘It’s a splendid place to be yourself because you can’t really pretend to be anything else because everybody knows you,’ says Neil Thomson, whose family have lived on Fair Isle for 400 years. ‘How many people do you know really, really well? I know all these people really well.’

As one birdwatche­r remarked: ‘I love it here, but my wife would hate it. If she can’t go to John Lewis with a friend… If I won the lottery I might come and build a John Lewis here.’

For the children born on the island, who spend their summers pony trekking and crabbing under blue skies, there is also a price to pay. With no high school on Fair Isle they are sent away to board on Shetland mainland, only able to return on occasional weekends when there is a break in the weather for a tiny aircraft, or the irregular ferry service, to make the journey.

For mother Hollie Shaw, who is shown sending the youngest of her three children off to the mainland at the age of 11, it’s hard.

‘Sending them at 15 would be great but it’s not an option,’ she says.

‘Everyone has a choice. We made a choice to live here. No one’s forced us. And there are lots and lots of upsides to our situation. We get to live in this amazing place.

‘My children don’t know anywhere else – this is their home here. And going away to school, this is their rite of passage.’

Despite the hardships, the lack of a John Lewis or even a Spar, most islanders say they wouldn’t swap it for the world.

‘It’s a very simple way of life but it brings so much to you,’ says Ventrillon.

‘You realise that the people around you, we are all in it together here. We have to survive. So we help each other, whether we like it or not.’

Fair Isle: Living on the Edge starts Monday, November 28, 9pm on BBC One Scotland.

 ??  ?? Harsh environmen­t: The South Lighthouse on tiny Fair Isle’s wind and wavelashed rocky coastline
Harsh environmen­t: The South Lighthouse on tiny Fair Isle’s wind and wavelashed rocky coastline
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 ??  ?? Multi-tasking: Mati Ventrillon in her knitting workshop at home. Left: She and Fiona Mitchell are two of the island’s six firefighte­rs
Multi-tasking: Mati Ventrillon in her knitting workshop at home. Left: She and Fiona Mitchell are two of the island’s six firefighte­rs

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