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.
David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.