It is easy to miss Fair Isle. I was on the way from Lossiemouth in northeast Scotland to the Shetland Islands because I keep going round them, but the only time I ever landed was in a rescue helicopter (but that is another story).
The plotter was telling me I would arrive at 2300 – which didn’t matter because there would still be full daylight up at 590 56’N but on the other hand, if I put into Fair Isle, I could be snugged down for the night in time for dinner.
And why not? I wasn’t in a hurry, and the only time I had visited this small lump of rock between the Orkneys and the Shetlands had been in 2018, sheltering from a forecast Force 9 – and then the weather had been so foul, I didn’t go ashore.
So I tweaked the reins of the Aries and put into North Haven (South Haven is no haven at all). In the morning, with my walking boots and my walking poles, I set out to look at the place.
Fair Isle is a small island – a very small island. Also, it is Scotland’s most remote inhabited island. Less than three miles long, it is home to just 50 people. It was an hour before I saw any of them. I had to step off the road to let a car pass since all the roads are single track and with no more than a dozen cars, there’s not much call for passing places. Anyway, nobody goes very fast because the sheep roam free.
Sheep are a big thing on Fair Isle – where do you think all those Fair Isle sweaters come from?
I made for the lighthouse. It had been my first sighting of the island through the mist – and that was where life on a very small island began to reveal itself. There was a picture of Princess Anne visiting in 1998 to celebrate Automation Day – this was the last of all Scotland’s lighthouses to dispense with keepers.
It was progress, of course. But, as the adjacent plaque explained, Fair Isle had two lighthouses (the 19thCentury German Government was most insistent about that; it was their ships that kept getting wrecked). Anyway, these lighthouses necessitated a total of six keepers and, of course, their families. When they left, “such a fall in population was a great loss to the community”.
It makes you think. It certainly made me think as I wandered round the cemetery and found that an extraordinary proportion of the gravestones bore the name of Stout.
“Oh yes, there were lots of Stouts,” said Eileen Thomson, who showed me round the tiny museum in the old community hall. “In fact, the records show us that there were two families of Stouts each with five children and all the five siblings from one family married the five siblings from the other.”
Then she said: “But there weren’t related”.
“Well, not closely.”
You don’t like to delve into these things too obviously, so it was a relief when she volunteered: “Well, when they researched the history of the island, I think they found there just weren’t enough grandparents to go round. But what could people do? It’s a small place.”
It certainly is. Her own grandfather was a lighthouse keeper who came from Unst in the Shetlands and married a local girl. But, can you imagine the culture shock for her own mother, a London meteorologist, who had to adapt to a life where there was no electricity unless you ran a cable to someone who had a generator.
Even when the island did get mains power, it was only from seven in the morning until eleven at night. Now they have three wind turbines and a miniature solar farm next to the school. The combination of long daylight hours in the summer and more than enough wind in the winter makes running the washing machine cheaper than anywhere else in Britain.
But it does make for a close-knit community. When someone dies, every able-bodied man helps to dig the grave.
There was something else too – which I discovered walking the surprisingly long way back to the boat: Beside the road was a plaque describing the events of January 17TH 1941: A German weather reconnaissance plane, pursued by two Hurricanes crash-landed on the island. Three of the five-man crew survived and were met by a small group of islanders, led by George Stout, who made a citizen’s arrest.
An RAF rescue launch was sent to collect the prisoners but ran aground in South Haven (I told you about South Haven). So an armed trawler was sent from Orkney but that too ran aground in the same place.
Eventually, the Lerwick lifeboat finished the job – they knew what they were doing in these waters.
Of course, it didn’t stop the rest of the Luftwaffe attacking both lighthouses a number of times after that. Among the casualties, the wife of the keeper of the south lighthouse, machine-gunned at her kitchen sink.
It says a lot for the hospitality of this tiny place that, after war, the pilot of the crashed reconnaissance plane, one Karl-Heinz Thurz, returned twice to the island to see his old friends.
You could argue that it was the least he could do, since it was the Germans who wanted the lighthouses in the first place.