“So where exactly is Fair Isle then?”
It’s a sensible enough question really, and one that I’ve been asked more than a few times since I moved here, just over a year ago. Folk can be forgiven for not knowing. It’s a small place after all.
I try my best to explain. “It’s an island about halfway between Shetland and Orkney” I say. “A little dot on the map, between two groups of slightly bigger dots. It’s three miles long by one mile wide, and it’s the most remote inhabited island in Britain – 25 miles away from the closest land.”
“Why on earth would you want to live there?” is the standard follow-up. And again, it’s a pretty reasonable question.
“Well . . .” At this point I usually begin to get carried away, reeling off an impressive list of things that Fair Isle has going for it. Everything I know about this island is employed in my impromptu advertisement: beautiful scenery, peace and quiet, a sense of community, wildlife, puffins (particularly puffins) knitwear, sheep (sheep???). All kinds of things come to mind.
It is no surprise really when a look of regret passes over the face of the person I’m speaking at. “Why did I ask him?” the look says. “Why, oh why did I ask?” Their eyes begin to glaze over around now, and this is when I realise it’s time to stop.
The correct answer to the first question should have been “Far, far away.” And to the second? Well I still don’t know quite how to answer the second question. I am trying to work it out though.
* * *
The good folk of Fair Isle are about 70 in number. Many are crofters, but nearly everyone has more than one job. Some, like me, are newcomers, incomers, however you want to put it. Others have lived here all their lives, and come from families that have existed on the island for centuries.
It is a mixture that works through necessity, and it has always been that way. Without new people a population this small cannot survive for long. And there have been times when it looked like it wouldn’t.
But things are pretty healthy here at the moment. In the last 18 months or so, four families have moved to the island. That’s eight adults and five children (plus another one on the way). And there seems to be no trouble attracting more.
When two houses were advertised for rent by the National Trust for Scotland (who owns the island) in 2005, hundreds of applications and expressions of interest were received, and most of them were from America. The idea of a distant, island home obviously appealed to a lot of people.
One of those houses was offered to my girlfriend and I. She was brought up in Fair Isle, and wanted to return home. I am from Shetland, just across the water, so the move was not too daunting for me.
The other house went to Tom Hyndman and Liz Musser and their son Henry, from Saratoga Springs, New York State. Tom is a hat designer and artist, Liz was a photographer, journalist, and, most recently, a full-time mother.
After a long and complicated visa application process, the family finally reached their new home two months ago.
The media have, quite naturally, been delighted with the tale. Television crews and newspaper reporters have all been to visit the brand new Fair Islanders, and as usual myths have been repeated and facts gleefully invented. But in the end, they all came to find out the same thing: “Why on earth would you want to live here?” I hope some of them went away with the answer.