New Times,
New Thinking.

19 February 2007

A glimpse of spring

Why Fair Isle's children have to be sent to school 50 miles away and the birth of this year's first

By Malachy Tallack

I write this on Saturday 17th February, looking out of the window at an unseasonably blue sky. This morning we drank our coffee in the garden for the first time since the autumn, and all over the isle people were outside, working, walking, and enjoying the sunshine.

For a couple of weeks now the first crocuses have been bravely opening up, one by one, around the garden: bright yellow and violet splashes amidst the brown grass. They have looked rather sad, regretful even, as persistent strong winds, rain and salt spray have clattered across the island, rattling slates on the roof and turning the fields into swamps. But today their optimism seems, briefly, justified.

It is doubly fortunate that the sunshine has chosen this weekend to make an appearance. For one thing, I was getting pretty fed up of winter, and was beginning to consider emigration to more sociable climes if it didn’t stop raining. And for another, this is the weekend the children are home from high school.

There are many benefits to living somewhere like Fair Isle for parents. Few places can offer the safety and security of a community like this, where fear of strangers simply does not play a part. And a small school (eight pupils at the moment), in which each child can enjoy the attention of their teacher, is a great boost to learning.

But there is a serious downside for parents here – one that many families would not wish to deal with – and that is that Fair Isle has only a primary school. This means that once the children reach secondary school age they must leave to attend the Anderson High School in Lerwick, 50 miles away. There they stay at a hostel especially for kids from the outer isles, and return home for only one weekend each month, as well as for holidays.

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Even for parents who have gone through the experience themselves, sending your children away to school must be a traumatic event. No parent (or very few, anyway) wishes to be separated from their children at such a young age, but unless you choose to leave the island, as some have done in the past, or to educate them at home, there is no other option.

For the kids too, the move can be hard. After eleven years at home, in a community that is, in many ways, sheltered from the dangers and temptations of the modern world, even a small town like Lerwick can seem a big place. And while most relish the freedom and responsibility of living away from home, not all of them adjust well to life in “the hostel”.

At present there are eight high school pupils from Fair Isle, and after the summer another two will join them. Once a month they fly home on a Friday afternoon, and then back to school again on a Monday morning. With such a short time to enjoy the comforts of home, bad weather can waste a precious weekend. So they, like everyone else, will be making the most of the sunshine today.

Looking out of the window now at the fading sky, and the sun falling reluctantly to the horizon, you forget the downsides of island life. Sunshine is a great eraser. These days may be rare, but they are all the more special for it.

Postscript: Sunday 18th February

Yesterday, as if to confirm the rumour of spring approaching, the first lamb of the year was born in Fair Isle. While most of the island’s sheep will not lamb for another seven or eight weeks, pure-bred Texels, of which there are just a handful, begin early. Two more expectant mothers are in the byre now, waiting their turn.

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