Happy campers

The camps provide a supply of slave-labour for six weeks of the summer. For the price of a bowl of s

On Wednesday, after an unscheduled overnight stay in Shetland due to the weather, the first of this year’s work camps arrived in Fair Isle.

Most years there are three work camps that come to the island during the summer. Two are “Thistle Camps”, organised by the National Trust for Scotland, and the third is run by the International Voluntary Service (IVS). The groups come (as the name implies) to work – helping out on the crofts, clipping sheep, building fences, gardening, painting, and any other jobs that need done at the time. Sometimes they will be involved in large-scale projects that require the extra hands, and sometimes they will be working on their own with the crofter. The work can be hard, physical labour; it can also be dull, repetitive and menial.

Why, you might well ask, would anyone want to come on a holiday like that? And what’s more, why would they pay for the privilege?

Most of the people who come to the camps do not live in the countryside. Many of them come from big cities; they work in offices, banks, shops. They have little or no experience of life in a remote place, and so they come to get a taste of a place that is very much different from their own home. The trips are certainly not laidback or relaxing (I suspect many people feel like they need another holiday by the time they return home) but they must be truly enlightening to some of the people who come, and who suddenly discover that there is a completely different way of life that they had never considered before.

Of course, there are others who do know what to expect, and who come for that very reason. There are a few hardy work campers who return year after year because they love the work, or the island, or possibly even the people. I have noticed from comments left on some of my previous blogs that quite a few people reading these articles regularly are previous work camp visitors, who clearly have retained an interest in the island, and a desire to keep up to date with life here. Not every place can have that kind of effect on people.

Part of this effect, I guess, must be the result of working so closely with the people here, and being able to feel a part of the community, if only for a short time. Each day the workers go to one or other of the crofts to spend the day with islanders – working, eating and speaking with them. While they are here there is usually a dance and a barbeque organised, so the groups also have the opportunity to socialise with Fair Islanders. All of these things must add to the uniqueness of the experience.

The benefit to the island of the work camps is, in a way, very similar. For a place that is as geographically isolated as Fair Isle, the groups are a wonderful opportunity to meet new people, and, with the IVS groups in particular, to find out about other places. There have even been some relationships (and marriages) between work campers and islanders over the years.

But the main benefit, of course, is that the camps provide a supply of slave-labour for six weeks of the summer. For the price of a bowl of soup you can have someone weed your garden, clip your sheep or even paint your house. Which is exactly what I did last year, when four work campers and I managed to whitewash the outside of my house in just a day and half – a job that would have taken me a week on my own. And for that help I will always be grateful. Thanks guys!