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Review: Thoughtful & beautiful documentary

Knitwear designer Mati Ventrillon. Image courtesy of BBC Scotland. Knitwear designer Mati Ventrillon. Image courtesy of BBC Scotland. JUST five months after moving to Fair Isle in search of the good life, Shaun and Rachel, a young couple from Lincolnshire, are preparing to face their first winter on the island, writes Jordan Ogg.

It’s not looking good. They’ve spent their entire life savings getting here and now they’re struggling to manage the cost of keeping the house warm and the sheep fed.

When asked how things are going, their responses (or rather Rachel’s, for Shaun doesn’t have much to say) are negative by default.

They have their “ups and downs”. “It’s difficult”. “There’s no escape”; “nowhere to go” and they “can’t afford to leave”.

In other circumstances, you would just pack the car and go. But that isn’t possible in Fair Isle – especially at this time of year when the ferry rarely runs to schedule.

By the time Christmas has come and gone they’re sleeping in separate bedrooms. Meanwhile the wind and rain batters against their freezing home.

It’s tempting to pin the couple’s problems on the shock of their new environment, whereas in reality it seems their biggest issue is dealing with each other.

More new arrivals appear, this time migratory birds and the men who spend thousands of pounds coming to see them. The Fair Isle Bird Observatory has been around for more than 60 years, and as islander Ian Best notes, its presence is symbiotic with that of the community: “it keeps us going; we keep it going”. Birders gathered trying to capture photos of some of Fair Isles feathered migrant visitors. Photo courtesy of BBC Scotland. Birders gathered trying to capture photos of some of Fair Isles feathered migrant visitors. Photo courtesy of BBC Scotland.

As the only landmass for miles, Fair Isle is a breeding ground or stop-off point for many a rare feathered species. It’s a delightful situation for the 600 or so human visitors who stay each year, as attested by the twitching disciples we see hanging off a sodden cliff, trying to catch a glimpse of a bluetail.

At knitter Mati Ventrillon’s house, talk turns to how far the acceptance of new arrivals can go. She wants to install an industrial knitting machine on the island to help develop her business and provide employment opportunities.

Other island knitters worry about the intrinsic nature of the handiwork which distinguishes the native knitwear being harmed by mass production. Notable is the absence of any voices in support of Mati’s plan. In a community as small as Fair Isle, the nature of compromise has to take many forms.

It’s not right to have favourites, but the Shaw kids are hard not to adore. They miss their home when away on mainland Shetland; they don’t mind their mum cutting their hair; they’re lovely to each other all the time; and they’ve got hip names like Raven and Lachlan. It must be a Fair Isle thing.

It’ll be interesting to see if baby Luca turns out the same. Her mum is Eileen Thomson and, together with her husband, she’s about to move back to her childhood home from Edinburgh.

Eileen’s dad, the sage-like skipper of the ferry, Neil Thomson, couldn’t look more delighted. And so he should. It’s a fitting end to a thoughtful and often beautiful documentary. 

Jordan Ogg

Review of episode one: 'A fine balance of emotional and environmental extremes'