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