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Features / BBC’s intimate portrait of life in Fair Isle

The crew of the Fair Isle ferry Good Shepherd IV - Kenny Stout, Neil Thomson, Shaun Milner and Ian Best. Photo courtesy of BBC Scotland.

THE REMOTE community of Fair Isle will enjoy prime-time national exposure on BBC One when a new two-part series examining what life is like for the island’s 55 inhabitants is screened next week.

Part one of Fair Isle: Living on the Edge, narrated by well-known Shetland actor Steven Robertson, will be broadcast at 9pm next Monday (28 November).

BBC Scotland said the intimate series captured a “critical period in the island’s life”, with the National Trust for Scotland-managed island’s population having shrunk from a high of 400 to a “perilously low” level.

Ferry skipper Neil Thomson, whose ancestors have lived on the island for over 400 years, welcomes new people who have moved to Fair Isle. More than half of the 27 households are held by incomers.

But he pointedly says: “Some people have come here to try to get away from life… but what happens here is that life is very much in your face. There’s nowhere to hide.”

The series begins with the arrival of a new couple – Shaun Milner and Rachel Challoner – the first incomers to the isle in five years.

The ex-military thirty-somethings take on several jobs and learn how to manage their 25-acre croft and 24 sheep as they adapt to their new life together on the island.

Also featured in the first episode are Hollie and Deryk Shaw, who have lived in Fair Isle for 15 years and raised a family of four. The programme looks at how the family – like many others in outlying islands in Shetland – had to contend with the children leaving the island to board in Lerwick after finishing primary school.

The first episode looks at the arrival of the first couple to move to Fair Isle in five years. Image courtesy of BBC Scotland.

Despite that, their love of Fair Isle meant the Shaws wanted to stay even as their youngest son Ythan prepared to leave home.

A BBC Scotland spokeswoman said the show served to highlight many of the facets of everyday life that sets Fair Isle apart – from its low population and limited facilities to being completely at the mercy of the weather – but it is “the islanders’ personal stories which drive this compelling series”.

Scotsman journalist Martyn McLaughlin, whose wife Gemma was the last of the Wilson family born in the island, worked as a researcher for the series.

He talks of the “hard existence” of life in Fair Isle, and how – while most visitors only know the long summer days – the approaching winter will inevitably see the Good Shepherd IV ferry and the eight-seater Islander aircraft cut off for days or even weeks at a time.

“The few who bear witness to this cycle embrace its challenges and rewards,” he says. “It is a special place, an island apart but never adrift.”

Shortly after he and Gemma married, Martyn arranged a surprise holiday to the island and he remembers how “our first evening spilled freely into our first morning, soundtracked by song and laughter”.

The couple gave some thought to moving back to the place of Gemma’s origins when their daughter was six months old, though “the clincher was the admission that if I could barely change a plug, what hope would I have of running a working croft?”

But Martyn spoke with islanders, with the NTS and the BBC, and the end result was this documentary series.

He said the project “could not have worked without the patience, trust and generosity of the community, nor the skill and empathy of Louise Lockwood, the producer-director who spent months at a time chronicling the rhythms of Fair Isle life”.

While its spectacular birdlife – the island is home to a gleaming bird observatory where visitors can stay – mean filmmakers regularly come to capture its migrants, but Martyn said the island’s people are “unquestionably its greatest asset”.

“Our efforts, we hope, offer a portrait altogether different,” he says. “Something more intimate.”