Choosing your neighbours

Malachy feels the loss at the departure of a family from Fair Isle and looks ahead to the selection

This week our next-door neighbours left Fair Isle. After more than ten years on the island they have decided to make a new start elsewhere.

Departures like this affect everybody to some degree. People lose friends, colleagues and, in this case, the school has lost two of its pupils.

The past couple of years have seen some fairly major comings and going on the island, with several individuals and families choosing to leave, and others arriving to take their place. In total, 16 new people have moved to Fair Isle since the summer of 2005 – the most recent arrivals moved into a flat in the South Lighthouse only a few weeks ago – which, in a population of just over 70, is a pretty significant number.

Next-door has already been advertised to let in the Fair Isle Times (yes, we have our own weekly paper) and may be advertised more widely if necessary. The house, like the vast majority of properties on the island, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and potential residents will go through a fairly unusual application process to decide on the successful candidate.

Although the decision rests ultimately with the National Trust, a group of five elected islanders, known as the Housing Forum, meet to discuss all applications, and to assess the suitability of each applicant. The forum then makes their recommendation to the trust.

The process for selecting new residents has attracted considerable attention in the past; even leading Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, to suggest basing a “reality TV” series on it. Needless to say, the suggestion was rejected.

Those with a connection to the island, particularly a family connection, are generally given high priority. People with skills that are needed on the isle, or those can carry out available jobs, are preferred, and families are usually favoured over individuals. If a croft is connected to the property, as it is in this case, then agricultural experience would be a definite advantage. Applicants are sometimes also asked to provide a business plan, to show how they intend to make a living and to demonstrate that they have a realistic understanding of what life on a remote island involves.

This selection process, which is invariably described by the press as a “competition”, has been criticised in the past as being a form of “social engineering”, and, in a sense, that is exactly what it is. But the necessity of such a system is obvious.

In other places, where houses are sold to the highest bidder, young people from the area often cannot afford to stay. Because of this, essential skills are lost and families are separated. At that stage, a community is well on the way to being destroyed.

One of the reasons, perhaps the most significant reason, Fair Isle has managed to sustain its community so successfully, is this issue of housing. Were houses to become available for sale, the island would quickly fill up with holiday homes and rich retirees. And that would be the end of everything that makes this place special.

So, for the moment, until new tenants can be found, my girlfriend and I will be croft-sitting. That means taking care of a muddy field full of miserable-looking sheep, only a month away from lambing, plus one grumpy ram, a handful of year-old lambs, and a dozen hens. I suspect we’ll soon be begging the Housing Forum to hurry up and make a decision. Or, you never know, perhaps we’ll want a croft of our own.

Which reminds me: I must go and feed the chickens.

Photograph: David Wheeler

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