THE REMOTE Shetland community of Skerries has just been left even more isolated after air operator Direct Flight removed the island from its winter timetable.
As of last Thursday there will be no flights in or out of the small archipelago off Shetland’s east coast, as the islanders are unable to guarantee fire cover.
The crisis has been caused by Skerries losing its main employer, forcing several fire crew volunteers off the island to find work.
The biggest immediate impact will be the local doctor being unable to reach the island from neighbouring Whalsay.
Shetland Islands Council has been negotiating with NHS Shetland to find ways around this issue to allow a GP to visit without having to stay on the island for an entire day, as would be dicated by the current ferry timetable.
Skerries has been on a downward slide after losing its permanent fire crew three years ago due to training issues.
Until recently the island has managed to maintain a population of more than 70 people, but that has now declined to around 40 people living there full time.
Two years ago Shetland Islands Council voted to close the island’s tiny secondary school, but the biggest blow came this year when the local salmon farm ceased operating forcing people off Skerries to seek employment.
Former fire watch officer Alice Arthur said: “We used to have a good fire crew and then the school went and then the salmon went and then the families went and so now there’s hardly anybody here.
“Skerries has gone down this past year at a terrible rate and this is another nail in the coffin.
“I think there’s a possibility we can turn this around but we can’t afford to lose any more folk.”
While Skerries has managed to retain five volunteers to serve as a fire and rescue crew for the airport, it is unable to guarantee at least two of them will be available to meet every flight.
For the past six months Direct Flight has maintained a skeleton service of two flights per week on the basis that the situation would improve, but that has now been abandoned.
SIC transport manager Michael Craigie said he was “entirely satisfied” Direct Flight had done all they could to maintain a Skerries service for as long as they could.
But he said it was no longer possible to keep the service going due to the risks attached to flying in and out of Scotland’s shortest runway, with the sea, cliffs and hills at either end.
Islanders see the answer to their current woes coming with the council basing the Skerries ferry on the island, instead of Whalsay, providing the employment they need to sustain a population.
“Having a ferry based on the Skerries would certainly change the dynamic on the island significantly,” Craigie admitted.
The council is currently drawing up a long term plan to look at ways of achieving this, but their options are limited by the existing ferry Filla, which is deemed too large to safely berth in Skerries small harbour.
Meanwhile, Craigie said, the air service could be reinstated immediately as soon as Skerries is able to guarantee a fire crew that could meet even one plane a week.
The SIC is currently consulting with community councils on the future of its entire inter island transport network to prepare it for detailed negotiations with the Scottish government on ferries, flights and fixed links.