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1 Nov 2019

A passage to Fair Isle

Written by Nick Spurling
View from the inside of a small plane to an island surrounded by sea
A front seat view for the descent to Fair Isle
We’ve all heard it – the shipping forecast with those mysterious-sounding area names – South-East Iceland, Faeroes, Fair Isle, North Utsire, South Utsire, etc. Where are they all? To me, Fair Isle always conjured up a sort of magical place in my mind.

I was about to find out as I clicked ‘yes’ to an email sent to me by the National Trust for Scotland offering me a place on one of their working holidays. Just getting to Fair Isle can be a bit of an adventure in itself – not surprising when it’s described as the remotest inhabited island in the UK!

The overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick in the Shetland Isles was very rough. Thankfully we all survived but our group of nine couldn’t proceed further on the boat, Good Shepherd, to Fair Isle, as the weather continued to be bad. After a night’s stay in a very good local hostel the weather improved but by now we had elected to take a plane. This proved to be a real privilege and pleasure for me as I was selected by the ground staff at the airport to have the seat next to the pilot. After take-off in the small twin-engined aircraft, Fair Isle soon came into view – just 3 miles long by 1 mile wide – with the lighthouse at the northern tip of the island showing up first.

Five people standing nest to a drystone dyke in a barren landscape
Thistle Camp volunteers

On arrival at the tiny airstrip, we were met by several local people in cars and driven off down a winding single track road to our accommodation at ‘The Puffin’, a restored single-storey stone building at the other end of the island. Thus began our two-week holiday repairing stone walls, or dykes. We had some expert help from dyking instructor and ex-marine Billy, who soon made sure we knew the outlines of the job. This was a first for me although some of the others had done it before. Put simply, large blocks form the outside of the wall with smaller pieces (harting) going in the middle. All went well for the first few days, with blue skies and a gentle breeze, but the inevitable rain did turn up and work was cut short.

Several people repairing a drystone dyke with the sea in the background
Repairing the dykes

The holiday wasn’t all work and no play. In fact, having completed the wall repairs, some of us also had a go at clipping sheep and clearing beaches of rubbish. We also had a party at the weekend, and this was a fantastic chance to meet some of the 55-odd island inhabitants. They turned out to be old and young, some with family ties going back many generations and some newcomers, including a young couple with two small children. One of the islanders, Steven Wilson, had a Covenanter ancestor, who came here in the 1600s to escape prosecution and possible execution! Occupations are various, but sheep crofting is the main one with several people involved in making the woollen knitwear for which the island is famous. Migrant birds are also one of the island’s chief ‘commodities’ and we met Nick Riddiford an ex-manager of the Bird Observatory (which sadly burnt down this year), who took us on an evening bird watch. We also had a guided tour of the South Lighthouse, the last to be automated in the British Isles in 1998.

White lighthouse and another building enclosed by a wall, with sheep in a field nearby
The South Lighthouse

On a day off, when it was too wet to work, I was lucky enough to interview and take photographs of one of only two men on the island to make traditional Fair Isle chairs, 72-year-old Stewart Thomson. ‘You’ll know the way’, he said on the phone, ‘it’s the only house partly painted yellow.’ There are only two roads on the island and of course I took the wrong one!

I found the house eventually, but not before knocking on the door of another nearby, whose owner kindly let me cross his croft to the house next door. Stewart answered the door and I recognised him as the man who had given us a lift to the Puffin when we arrived. Entering the living room, I noticed one of his chairs in a corner. I had already seen one made by his grandfather when we were taken on a conducted tour of the museum by his sister, Anne Sinclair. Ironically, he sat down on a modern one with a bundle of oat straw at his feet. This is a long, primitive Shetland variety that he grows on his croft, which is used to make the back of the chair. The chair itself is made of oak and ash, with most of the wood being imported as there are no trees on the island. Occasionally, though, he has used material salvaged from shipwrecks on the island.

Single-storey white building near the coast with cliffs in the background and sheep in a field next to the building
The Puffin

After taking down a few notes it soon became apparent that Stewart is not only a chair maker but someone with a multitude of talents. He’s undertaken many diverse activities since his arrival on the island with his parents at the age of 10, including telephone engineer, painter and lighthouse keeper. In 1970 he helped bring up several cannon when he was among the divers exploring the Spanish Armada ship, the El Gran Grifon, which was wrecked on the island in September 1588.

His family, too, are remarkable. His late father, also Stewart, made more than a hundred spinning wheels and his wife Catriona has been a Fair Isle knitter for more than 50 years. Their son makes violins and a daughter is a professional musician and composer.

Man in a workshop making a wooden chair
Stewart Thomson making a traditional Fair Isle chair

After a while we went into to his workshop where he was working on a chair. Stewart has already made 80, with two more in the pipeline. They have found their way all over the world, from Denmark and Switzerland to Australia and the USA. Stewart is the fourth generation of his family to make these traditional chairs – ‘I’ll keep making them as long as I can’, he said.

But Stewart needn’t worry that the tradition will die out when he is no longer able to make them. He has an ‘apprentice’ islander, Bob Worrall, who is married to the island’s nurse. Bob already has two orders, one for the island and one for Germany, and he is also making spinning wheels. 

A man in hi-vis orange and yellow overalls standing next to a traditional wooden chair with a woven back
Bob Worrall with his traditional Fair Isle chair

Fridarey is the Viking word for Fair Isle, meaning calm or peaceful, but I was rapidly finding out that it is a place full of activity and far from somewhere to put your feet up as you might suppose. The island is very beautiful, the coastline especially so, but don’t be seduced too much by its undoubtedly romantic atmosphere. However tempting it might be to want to come and live here, to be successful you must be prepared to be practical and learn to muck in and help your neighbours.

Robert Louis Stevenson, who didn’t seem to enjoy his visit with his father Thomas in 1869 (his family built the two lighthouses) thought the isle ‘an unhomely rugged turret-top of submarine sierras’. I, on the other hand, had a great time there volunteering for the National Trust for Scotland, and having the chance not only to appreciate its wonderful landscape and wildlife but also to meet some of the amazing people who live there. I have no doubt I shall be back!

A man standing outside holding sheep clippings
Nick with his sheep clippings

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