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Reviews / BBC’s Fair Isle documentary: a fine balance of emotional and environmental extremes

Monday night saw the screening of the first episode of BBC1 Scotland's Fair Isle documentary. Image courtesy of BBC.

HOW LONG should you wait before moving in together? It’s a question all couples face when they cruise into the ‘going steady’ zone, writes Jordan Ogg.

Six months to a year is the general consensus amongst online advice columnists. But what if you’re relocating to the UK’s most remote inhabited island to run a croft that you have absolutely no experience or qualifications for? Here the advice is, well, non-existent.

Enter Shaun and Rachel. Both in their 30s, they’ve been together for 10 months and, along with their two dogs, they’re moving from Lincolnshire to Fair Isle.

They’re after the good life. They want to settle down in a place where people look out for one another. With a population of 55, Fair Isle seems a good bet.

To their undoubtable advantage, Shaun and Rachel are not strangers to the island. They fell in love when they met as seasonal workers at the Bird Observatory, so they understand that a special kind of dedication is required from everyone in the community to keep it alive.

Perhaps this is why they seem remarkably calm as they settle into their new life. Running the croft is just one of many roles they’re stepping into. Shaun’s also helping out on the ferry and Rachel is soon called on to reprise her role as cook at the Bird Observatory.

The overall atmosphere is one of quiet charm. The islanders we meet are generous and relaxed in being interviewed. They’re seen working together to unload the ferry, clip sheep and bale silage, and always in good cheer.

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

When the camera is trained away from individuals, the incredible beauty of the island abounds. There are views of puffins skipping around the cliffs, the Northern Lights reflecting in the sea, and violet sunsets reaching into the troposphere.

Being this far north, of course, is not all bliss. The weather is frequently merciless, resulting in travel disruption for young islanders keen to get back home from being away at the school hostel on mainland Shetland.

As much as storms are predictable, so too is the inevitable need for children to leave the island to progress their education. Watching eleven-year-old Ivan packing his bag and saying goodbye to his parents is nothing short of heartbreaking.

The programme maintains a fine balance of both environmental and emotional extremes, each illuminating the fragile nature of the community’s survival. 

Sometimes relationships flounder, as in the case of New Yorker Tommy Hyndman, who runs the island guesthouse. He arrived with his wife ten years ago, but she has since left for the Shetland mainland. Tommy’s son is now away for long periods as he attends the high school in Lerwick.

In a community reliant upon families for its very survival, the unpredictable aspects of domestic life have the potential to bring benefits and losses. The story of Shaun and Rachel’s family life in Fair Isle is just beginning. As work mounts up and winter approaches, they’re going need strength to face the winds that are about to set upon their home and their hearts.

Jordan Ogg