The labours of Malachy

How Fair Isle is a community at work - which can mean having several jobs at once

Working life used to be so simple. Before I moved to Fair Isle I was a reporter at Shetland Times newspaper for six months or so. Before that I taught English in Prague. And before that I was a student, so avoided work as much as I possibly could.

I came to Fair Isle without any job organised, only promises from various people that there was “plenty to do”. And as it turned out, they were right. There is plenty to do. I probably have more jobs at this moment than I have previously held in my entire life before now. If I were someone inclined to define myself by my work, I would no doubt be schizophrenic by now.

Some days I work on the roads: digging ditches, tarring, gritting when the snow comes. It can be tough work at times; it can also be infuriating (note to boss: I hate gritting!). But it can also be extremely satisfying. And working outside is certainly more enjoyable than sitting in front of a computer all day, particularly in the summer months.

On other days I am a classroom assistant at the island primary school, acting treasurer of the knitwear co-operative over the winter months, and somewhere along the way I became editor of a monthly magazine, Shetland Life, which takes up more of my time than I care to count. These jobs are in addition to the various other roles and tasks that come up during the year – looking after sheep (we have only a handful, fortunately), silage baling, killing and cutting up lambs, being a director of the island electricity company.

In a place like Fair Isle, a single job is not really an option for most of the population. Island existence is sustained by sharing out, as equally as possible, all of the work that needs to be done.

Our ferry must be crewed; our shop has to be run; the fire service needs members, the coastguard volunteers; the roads must be kept in good condition; the school and nursery need to be staffed; the post must be delivered; the water supply maintained; houses must be looked after and repaired; the electricity service, provided by windmills and generators on the isle, has to keep going; plus a myriad of other jobs, big and small, need doing throughout the year. All of these are essential tasks. There is no question of if they will be done; it is just a matter of who will do them. And with a working population of less than 50, multiple-employment is a necessity, on both an individual, and a collective level. If you wish to be a part of the community, you must work for the community.

There are many who would be repelled by this feeling of duty or obligation towards your neighbours. But to acknowledge a sense of responsibility and to be steered by it can be a rewarding, even liberating experience. The commitment to self and to material greed that drives our national economy should not be mistaken for freedom. Freedom never comes without its responsibilities.

Many visitors to Fair Isle are impressed with the sense of community that they find here – a quality that has been lost in most of Britain over the last half century or so. But a sense of community is not a spontaneous thing. It is not simply the result of smiling at your neighbours or turning up at social events; nor is it endemic to all small places. Community spirit is born from an awareness of mutual dependency; it is born of respect, and yes, it is born of duty.

Photographs: Dave Wheeler