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A Londoner’s take on Fair Isle

What is it about Fair Isle that, in one short visit, has captivated me so totally?

I’ve been trying to analyse it and this is the best I can come up with: that things make most sense when contrasted with their opposites. I live in London, and for me to arrive in a place where drivers give you a friendly wave while you’re hiking, crofters let you come in and use their loo without a hint of suspicion, and the airport is a hut with a windsock outside… well, to this born-and-bred city girl, it seems like the end of a quest.

Actually, Fair Isle has long intrigued me. For a start, the name sounds like something from a fantasy novel (although admittedly less twee than Tennyson’s “Elfland”). Then there’s the geography. I would often gaze at the location on a map, this tiny point halfway between Orkney and Shetland, imagining moors and heather and clifftops and lighthouses.

And of course, names which are inextricably linked with Radio 4’s shipping forecast possess their own kind of poetry. Years ago I had a friend who always listened to the programme because, as he explained, “I like to know that the sea is still there”. (This would probably have made more sense had we not been living in St Andrews at the time, with the sea a five-minute walk away.) But now I totally get what he meant. I’m not convinced that even the announcers understand the arcana, but it’s so evocative that you can almost taste the salt and hear the shouts of seafarers.

On a philosophical level, we often find ourselves sucked into a system that forces us to be money-obsessed wage slaves despite our most idealistic intentions. The necessities of survival -tax, rent/mortgage, utility bills- suppress, strangle and suffocate. I’m not naive enough to think that life on Fair Isle is immune to this. And yet… somehow it seems that the more isolated an area, the less powerful the system’s grip. Its tentacles can only stretch so far- at least where the psyche is concerned. You can’t feel in the grip of anything much when you’re standing on a clifftop, breathing years of filth out of your lungs and enjoying the relentless sound of crashing waves and noisy sheep. (Actually, I did succumb to the grip of a particularly boggy field which I’d mistaken for springy hiking terrain- but apart from very wet feet and filthy shoes I didn’t suffer excessively.)

In such a small community, there is little room for London-style solipsism. Even the cats are friendlier. One long-haired ginger feline seemed reluctant to let me go, trotting along beside me as I wandered down to the sea. (London cats tend to glare at you suspiciously before darting out of sight- it takes a long, long time to win their trust.)

I was, admittedly, fortunate with the weather: it was gentle and blue-skied, and I concede that when it’s overhung with heavily pregnant rainclouds the island possibly looks as grotty as anywhere else. But there are places where overcast skies bestow another, more stark kind of beauty- and I suspect that Fair Isle is one of those.

I say, half-jokingly, that I would like to stick two fingers up at city life, pack up all my worldly goods (the ones that matter, that is) and devote my life to sheep, crops and the welfare of a community. I probably don’t have the tenacity to follow it through. But I have the greatest of admiration for those who do- and Fair Isle remains one of the few places I’ve visited which calls me back so powerfully.

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