The Trust and us

The National Trust for Scotland saved Fair Isle in the 1950s but things have moved on in the interve


Fair Isle stands out among Shetland’s 17 inhabited islands for a number of reasons. One of these is that the island, along with the vast majority of the houses, is owned by a single landlord: The National Trust for Scotland.

The relationship between the National Trust and the island is often cited as reason for Fair Isle’s continuing success as a community, and historically there is much to be said for the part that they have played in this success.

The trust purchased Fair Isle in 1954 from its then owner, George Waterston. Waterston had only been landlord for six years, but had found himself unable to muster the financial strength required to protect the island from the threats that it faced. And these threats were very real. In the 1950s houses here did not have electricity, running water was by no means universal, and depopulation had reached such a level that evacuation was being openly discussed. Things clearly needed to be done, and done quickly, in order to save the fragile community.

In the years after the transfer, improvements were steadily implemented. Modernisation of housing and the provision of amenities were high priorities, as were improvements to the island’s connections with the outside world. Flights to Shetland began in the late sixties, and then became a regular service in the mid-seventies, by which stage Fair Isle had become a very different place.

Since then these improvements have continued. Housing on the island is now of a very high standard, and this ongoing process has helped to create not only a sustainable place to live but also a confident and optimistic community. The 'partnership' that has developed over the years also means that islanders now have, in theory, a much greater say in the running of the island than ever before. Forums and committees, made up usually of elected residents, meet to discuss all of the issues that are important to the community, and in some cases, such as housing and “forward planning”, to make their feelings known to the trust.

The truth is, though, that the island no longer really needs the National Trust. The conditions under which the current arrangement were a necessity have long since passed, and at times that arrangement can now seem like an anachronism, or worse, a barrier to real progress. But while everyone expresses their annoyance at the trust sometimes, many argue that this is better than the alternative: expressing it at each other, which is always a danger in a small place.

If ever there was an island for which community ownership seemed ideally suited, then Fair Isle is it. Yet unlike other islands in the west of Scotland, that is not a route that people here have chosen to take. For me, the benefits of such a move are quite clear: it would give islanders the freedom to pursue whatever ideas they felt would be of benefit to them, and not require them to rely on the trust’s approval; it would remove the potential for a 'dependency culture', where begging to the landlord replaces getting things done; it would also remove the need to deal with a slow and unwieldy organisation, which has a thousand other interests and pressures on both its time and its budget. That said, there are many others – people who have lived in Fair Isle far longer than I – who would passionately disagree. The trust has seen us through the past half century, they would say, so why seek to change what still works? It is a question for which there are no simple, or immediate, answers.

Photo by Dave Wheeler: Jimmy Stout, skipper of the Good Shepherd, with Angus Jack of the National Trust for Scotland, in front of a plaque, recently unveiled at the community hall

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear