Life on Fair Isle

Marin Sinclair (Amsterdam) describes life on an island with only sixty inhabitants


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All photography: Tommy Hyndman

Between the rough waters of two clashing oceans, a small island stands fierce. It bears the name Fair Isle, and just so happens to be my home. I was born there, but grew up in the Netherlands. I always joke that I lead a double life; one in Amsterdam and one in Fair Isle. This gives me a privileged position to compare life as an islander to life in the city.  There is something about that place that always stays with you, something magical about breathing its air and taking in its sounds.

Fair Isle is three by one and a half miles, with its southern half inhabited by around sixty people. Some families, including mine, have been there for generations. There is a shop, a post office, and a museum. The Northern half has an airfield, lighthouse, heaven, hostel and bird observatory. From the heaven, it takes 3 hours by boat to reach Shetland, which is not even mainland Scotland.

When I tell people that that’s where I will be spending my summer break, I am often met with confusion. Why would I go somewhere eight hours away from the nearest H&M? But they don’t know the freedom seclusion brings.

There are a lot of misconceptions about living on a small island, and islanders have to deal with these throughout their lives. Living on an island of 2 by 4 miles with only sixty other people is very different from city life, especially when you think of how this place has 33 times less inhabitants than even the smallest city in the UK. . I have never been able to fully explain what it’s like.  Firstly, because I am myself biased, as there are a lot of people who live there that I care deeply about. Secondly, one really has to go there oneself to understand. I want to try to give some insight on life on a small island and address some of these misconceptions.

It might technically be in the UK, but it can be really difficult to get there. You have to either take a seven passenger plane or a boat from Lerwick. It’s a gamble every time, especially in winter, due to the rough seas, mist, and winds that reach speeds of up to a hundred miles per hour. If a two-hour delay at the airport frustrates you, I would not recommend even attempting the journey. This Christmas, I spent eight days waiting in Lerwick because all transport was cancelled due to the unreliable weather.

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There is often an assumption that people from an island are closed minded and that they never leave the island. As my grandma put it, it’s like going to London and assuming that you will get your purse stolen. In actual fact, my grandparents are incredibly well travelled. They just recently visited Peru. The island has hundreds of visitors a year, from countries as far as Japan and South America, who bring their cultures with them.

For groceries, one simply goes to the shop as one would in any other town. Yes, there is only one shop. But it’s like the purse you take on a night out: it looks small but contains everything you need for everyday life. You do have to calculate big events beforehand; special ingredients need to be ordered in in advance. Considering the temperamental weather, there are times when the boat and plane don’t go and no new products are brought in for several days. Many people prepare for such situations by storing milk in the freezer, a practise that I have always found very strange.

I often get asked how I don’t get bored out of my mind when I’m there. Let me tell you, I haven’t had one uneventful day in nineteen summers there. It’s just so beautiful. In one day one could go fishing, cliff climbing, hiking, visit the museum, go to one of many beaches, see puffins, visit people, go swimming in water with an average temperature of fourteen degrees in summer, and always hear inspiring stories. There is a Hall for events, sports, and dances. Besides that, there are two churches for services, funerals and weddings.

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If I do find myself sitting on my ass doing nothing, there’ll always be someone to find me something to do. Every summer I’ll find myself standing on top of a cliff, running after the sheep that reside there, trying to get them all to the clipping area, whilst being attacked by birds – yes, that’s a thing – and shouted at by old men. It is more fun than it sounds.

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Island life is incredibly hard work. Most people juggle multiple jobs. The land needs to be kept, cattle maintained, the island run. My uncle is boatbuilder, firefighter, crofter, council member, as well as a dad and an excellent cook. This brings me to another question I’m often asked: how do people make a living? Crofting, crafts, and odd jobs are the main source of income. Some people have jobs they can do from home, such as in IT. Tourism is another source of income, as so many people visit the island for its nature and birds.

Young children go to the Fair Isle primary school where there’s one class of around five people of different ages. In addition to their ‘normal’ classes, they also go on field trips, have guest speakers and crafting workshops. After primary school, children attend a boarding school in Shetland. Everyone I speak to is really happy to have grown up there, in spite of its challenges. Some young adults go into crafts, some music, others end up at university. My cousin, for example, is a badass blacksmith in Norway.

There are some other striking differences between Island life and City life. There are no streetlights on the island, which has meant I’ve found myself walking back to my grandparents with only the light of the lighthouse and a torch at four in the afternoon in winter. This also means that we can see the stars, and if lucky, the northern lights, that always feel like they are the only thing in the world at that moment.

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The internet is slow and incredibly frustrating. Loading a 3-minute YouTube video takes about an hour, and don’t even think about attempting to watch a TV series on your phone. I discovered this trying the watch Teen Wolf and I got so frustrated that I threw my phone on the floor.

Houses have names, not numbers. This is a relic from Fair Isle’s Scandinavian history. Everything, cliffs, beaches, and places, have names, though they’re unpronounceable for most visitors. My great grandfather knows almost all of them of course.

Electricity comes from windmills, which supplies sufficient energy but does mean the occasional cold shower. You have to be really careful about how much electricity you consume. Most houses do not have dishwashers, something that I sympathise with, as a student.

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My grandmother tells me that tolerance is the key to living on an island. In the words of my wise great grandmother: it’s all very well to speak your mind, but it takes a lot more brainpower to know when to hold your tongue.

I’m taking a course on community right now. When we were asked to imagine what this term means, I just said “Fair Isle”. It’s an extraordinary community, bound by music, dialect, traditions, a love of the island and a fierce determinationto keep it up and running. Think of it as a small town, with its own unwritten norms and values.

I still feel like an outsider sometimes. I didn’t grow up there. I don’t know all the customs, forget certain words and place names, and I am not used to working on a croft. They are familiar to me, but I still sometimes feel like the “Dutch girl”.

When I’m away, I miss the sensations; the sounds, the food, and the people. It is so much more than just another bit of land in the ocean. Putting Fair Isle on paper is no mean feat. If you truly want to find out what it’s like, go and see it for yourself. 

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Marin Sinclair (Amsterdam)

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