Fair Isle’s South Lighthouse

After All: Crashing out on the island of happy shipwrecks

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

In the final column on his recent expedition to the Scottish islands, Vitali focuses on history, life and technologies of Fair Isle – ‘a jewel in the ocean’.

I am often asked what my favourite place in the world is; not an easy question for someone who has travelled in over 70 countries. The fact is that I have not one but a handful of favourite destinations, from Alaska and the Falklands to Tasmania and Montreuil-sur-Mer, a beautiful old town in the north of France.

I am happy to say the recent expedition to the Scottish islands on MV Greg Mortimer - some aspects of which I have described in recent columns - added one more place to my favourites list: Fair Isle (population 60), situated roughly halfway between Shetland and the Orkneys. Nicknamed ‘the jewel in the ocean’, it is officially Britain’s most isolated island.

One of the aims of my MV Greg Mortimer voyage was gathering material for my next book on Britain’s utopian (meaning ‘ideal’, or ‘dream-like’) settlements, some of which used to exist (and still do) on several Scottish islands. That comes as no surprise, for Thomas More’s original ‘Utopia’ itself was but a crescent-shaped island!

Of all the islands I visited this time, the best-known utopian settlement had existed on St Kilda, where I wandered among the stone remains of the small community, which had thrived there in total obscurity and isolation from the rest of the world for about 2,000 years, until the remaining 30 or so of its members were resettled on mainland Scotland in 1930.

All St Kildans enjoyed equal rights and knew nothing about money. They lived off seabirds, fish, crops and sheep. Rent was paid to a distant landowner with puffins and feathers. Making ropes out of horsehair, using fulmar oil for their lamps and obtaining fishing hooks from the stomachs of gannets, which had devoured the fish escaped from the lines of fishermen in Scottish and English waters, were among the unique and truly utopian St Kilda ‘technologies’. The island had no crime and was ruled by a democratic little ‘parliament’. But that Thomas More-style utopia was no more.

The moment I stepped out of the Zodiac shuttle boat onto the rugged shore of Fair Isle, I felt a gentle touch of freedom and happiness, the source of which was hard to comprehend initially.

One of the locals, former skipper Neil Thomson, volunteered to drive me around the island: from the pier to the North and South lighthouses.

With an area of just eight square miles, Fair Isle gave an impression of vastness, probably due to open spaces, invariably culminating with stunning sea views.

As we drove, myriads of noisy sea birds kept circling above our heads. Neil pointed out a particularly vociferous one. “It is an Arctic skua,” he said. I looked up worriedly, remembering my time in the Faroes, where they warned birdwatchers of the dangers of being attacked by an Arctic skua – a bird who defends its eggs and young by dashing at any potential threat, including humans. They told me there that the best way to protect yourself was to carry a chair leg above your head: if the bird attacked, it would be the leg, not your head, that would get the bashing. With no chair leg in my shoulder bag, I hoped that the roof of Neil’s battered car was enough shelter.

Lighthouses have always been essential for the island, situated in the notoriously rough seas, with merciless rocks and perilous tides – the cause of hundreds of shipwrecks throughout the years. The South Lighthouse, now fully automated, looked particularly impressive, with its cylindrical tower, balcony and lantern. During the Second World War, it was a target for German air raids; in 1941 the wife of an assistant keeper was killed, and his daughter injured.

Now, it is all peace and quiet on Fair Isle, with most of its 60 residents living in crofts – peculiar Scottish small landholdings, held in tenancy, with houses that never get locked. There is one school, with four pupils and one teacher, one shop and one nurse. The evening-only bar in the bird observatory is closed following a fire.

Fair Isle produces its own electricity using a combination of diesel and wind power. The first 60kW wind turbine, like most other innovations on the island, went up in 1982 as a community effort. Fair Isle then made history by having the first commercially operated wind energy scheme in Europe.

Yet, the island’s biggest claim to international fame is the so-called ‘Fair Isle sweater phenomenon’ going back to the early 20th century, when the world’s golf-playing nobility and beau monde began sporting the Fair Isle-knitted V-necked pullovers in geometric banded patterns. It became a global fashion statement for casual wear that has survived the test of time, with traditional technologies of hand-spinning, weaving and hand-dyeing still being used in the island’s knitting workshops.

Neil took me to the community hall, where knitted sweaters, hats, gloves, mittens etc, were being sold by a handful of local women, all of whom had open happy faces, with a shiny and somewhat mischievous sparkle in their eyes. “What is it?” I asked one of the women, a newly arrived schoolteacher from Glasgow, who had, miraculously, already acquired the sparkle too. “It is contentment,” she smiled.

In the tiny island’s museum, run by Neil’s sister Eileen, I picked up a brochure – ‘Standing into Danger. Shipwrecks of Fair Isle’ by Anne Sinclair – chronicling the most significant of the hundreds of catastrophes near the island’s shores. Reading it when back on board the Greg Mortimer, I noticed a strange tendency: most of the featured disasters seemed to have happy endings. The crews and passengers of the wrecked ships and the pilots of the crashed planes would normally survive and stay on Fair Island to recover, looked after by the islanders, who, in their turn, would benefit from the shipwrecks which supplied them with precious timber, invaluable on an island with no trees – a 100 per cent utopian scenario!

Needless to say, MV Greg Mortimer, with its cutting-edge navigating equipment, had negotiated the rough seas around Fair Isle without incident. Yet, in my heart I still carry a faint hope that one day I may – not crash-land (God forbid) – but simply crash out for a few days on that utopian island – a real ‘jewel in the ocean’.

Vitali was a guest of Aurora Expeditions

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles