Comings and goings

Two new arrivals to the island inspire memories of the past

This week, yet another television crew were visiting the island. Throughout the year a steady trickle of journalists, documentary makers and other media types come here to film, record or write about some aspect of life in Fair Isle.

Very often the subject matter is the island’s bird-life, and such publicity is very helpful in attracting much-needed visitors, particularly to the bird observatory. But sometimes the subject is the people themselves, and that can be a little more complicated.

While public interest in the island is, to some extent, understandable and inevitable, to be treated like zoo animals by the media is not. It is very easy in a small place to feel that your own space and privacy is being intruded upon, and so it was this week.

The “story” that brought them here was not really news at all. It was an update on the life of Tommy and Liz, the couple who moved here from New York State about nine months ago. The footage they shot will, I presume, become a short, light-hearted piece to fill the “and finally . . .” space at the end of a news bulletin.

There is an interesting story to be told here though, but I don’t imagine it will find its way into this particular television piece. The story I see is of the fascinating symmetry between Liz and Tommy’s move to Fair Isle, and the reverse westward move of so many Fair Islanders of the past.

Fair Isle, like much of rural Britain and Europe, lost large numbers of people during the peak emigration years, particularly during the latter part of the 19th century. The reasons were many: poor fishing seasons, crop failure, terrible living conditions, and, perhaps most significantly, massive overcrowding.

In the 1861 census there were 380 people living in Fair Isle. This, remember, on an island that now supports just over 70. It was clearly an unsustainable number, and the following year, on a boat called the No Joke, 135 people left the isle in a single day. Their journey would take them via Orkney, Leith and Glasgow, finally reaching New Brunswick in Canada five weeks later. It is said that on the day they left Fair Isle not a single fire went out; such was the level of overcrowding that every vacant home was filled immediately by those who were left behind.

Although that was the greatest single movement of people away from the isle, emigration continued, and by the turn of the century the population had fallen to less that 150 people. It continued to drop during the first half of the 20th century as well, eventually reaching such a low level that abandoning the island completely became, for a while at least, a very real possibility.

But that was not to be. The intervention of ornithologist George Waterston, who bought the island in 1948 and established the Fair Isle Bird Observatory, was to prove a turning point, not only opening the island up to visitors but also bringing enthusiasm and ideas that would help guarantee the continuation of life in Fair Isle.

Later, the National Trust for Scotland became the landlords, and they have also worked hard with the islanders to try to ensure that the population remains at a sustainable level. For some years now it has stayed at around 70, and finding willing islanders is no longer the problem it once was.

For Tommy and Liz to be emigrating from the United States to Fair Isle may be a quirky tale, but it also says much about the journey this island has made in the past 150 years. That is the real story.

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