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12 February 2007

Getting to know Fair Isle

Some history and geography of the island including its norths/south divide

By Malachy Tallack

Fair Isle was first inhabited around 5000 years ago. Situated halfway between Orkney and Shetland, the island provided a vital stepping stone for the early Britons as they moved northwards, migrating towards the furthest corners of their world.

Evidence of prehistoric settlement is scattered all around this island. The remains of stone walls, houses, and burnt mounds, together with more recent Norse and early Christian sites, point towards a continuous period of settlement lasting right through the intervening years.

Today though, Fair Isle is an island divided, quite literally, across the middle. Apart from the bird observatory, which is home to a warden and his family, the northern half is uninhabited. All of the crofts and houses are situated in the south, where the land is fertile and reasonably flat.

The north is a wild place (or perhaps undomesticated is a better word). Low, stooping hills lie swathed in heather, and sharp-edged valleys draw frantic water towards the sea. The land rolls and falls steeply, rising to a modest crescendo at Ward Hill (217m), the island’s highest point.

A layer of peat blankets this part of the island. Until fairly recently it was used in every home as fuel, but few people now make the effort to harvest it. In several places the peat banks lie open like wounds, slowly healing. Generations of islanders have come here to dig, and to tear ‘dark squares’, as George Mackay Brown called them: ‘thick pages / From the Book of Fire’. Now though, it is too easy to measure our time in money. We feed our boilers with oil and our fires with coal: it is cheaper and simpler. We have no need to dig, and so, perhaps, a connection is lost.

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Up here the land does not reach gently down to meet the water: it comes to an abrupt end. Cliffs, some almost 200 metres tall, surround much of the island, and some of the most spectacular are in the north. In the summer the rock faces are laden with seabirds, and the air is fraught with their calling. Things are certainly quieter in the winter, but still far from lifeless. The rough moorland in the north provides communal grazing for several hundred Shetland sheep – small and hardy enough to survive the harsh weather unassisted. They live as though wild, and have very little contact with humans. In the summer they are rounded up (caad) and clipped, and then again in the autumn, when the lambs are taken to provide food for the coming year.

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The crofts themselves are separated from the communal land by a fence and high stone wall, which crosses the island around the middle. There are about 20 crofts in total, spreading southwards towards the sea, and this part of the isle is crisscrossed by boundaries and fences. The land is more fertile and valuable here, for both the crofters and the animals. In summer it is a bright, intense green, but at this time of year, the south too looks a little bleak.

Much of the land is brown and wet now, and flocks of greylag geese spend the winter flitting from one muddy field to the next. In spring they will fly north again, to their breeding grounds in Iceland, and the seabirds and migrants will arrive to take their place. With them will come the longer, warmer days; the island will once again return to green, and the fires will not need to be lit.

Photograph: Dave Wheeler