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Features / Fair Isle Times – keeping the remote community and beyond informed since 1978

Fair IsleFair Isle from the sky.

“We’ve got readers from all over the place,” Fair Isle’s Eileen Thomson says, with some amount of pride.

“It’s not just in the isle – there’s friends and family of folk in the isle, and people who visited, and people with connections going way back still get their Fair Isle Times, and absolutely love it.

“We get lovely messages from folk saying it’s the highlight of their week and they’ll print it out, sit and read it.”

Since 1978 the Fair Isle Times has been keeping the remote community, which has a population of around 48, connected, informed and entertained each week.

More of a newsletter than a paper, it is produced with the help of local schoolchildren and it can include community notices alongside nuggets of news, history, bird reports and just about everything else related to Fair Isle – as well as the regular weather report and cartoon strip.

At the moment Eileen edits the Fair Isle Times alongside Hollie Shaw, while headteacher Ruth Stout and husband Iain focus more on the behind the scenes work.

Its genesis stems back to the 1970s, when the then headteacher looked to start the newsletter as a school project.

“We’re very lucky to have a lot of people who are really good writers and will come up with interesting bits and pieces,” Eileen says.

“It’s really helpful, as it’s useful for isles notices. We have quarterly community association meetings, and notices about if the rubbish collection is changing, or the flight timetable is changing.”

Schoolchildren will get involved in the making of the newsletter, while local folk take turns in designing the header.

It is another example of the steely self-sufficiency underpinning the Fair Isle community, but when you are marooned miles between Shetland and Orkney, you kind of have to do things your own way.

Eileen grew up in Fair Isle before leaving and later being drawn back, family in tow, and the newsletter was an integral part of her school term as a youngster.

“I grew up writing in it as a bairn at the school, and mum was involved in helping making it when we were young, and obviously dad does the cartoon in it,” she says.

“It was always part of your weekly work at school, and the older ones would help to edit it. Friday morning was when we’d print it, and take the copies to the shop.

“I think it’s a really important thing and I feel very proud of it and I think it’s something we need to endeavour to carry on. It’s a useful record.”

Steadfast as it may be, the Fair Isle Times was not immune to the coronavirus pandemic. While it used to be printed out physically, restrictions on interaction has meant it has gone online for the time being.

Pre-Covid it was printed in someone’s backroom, Eileen explains, but restrictions imposed on going in other people’s homes meant things had to be done differently.

“At that point it went online. But we stuck to hard copies for Christmas – we used do a bigger one for Christmas.”

There is an annual subscription fee to help with the costs – this year it is £10 – and non-islanders are traditionally given a different rate.

The magnetic personality of Fair Isle, meanwhile, means that the Times enjoys subscribers from far beyond the island who are keen to keep tabs on life in one of the UK’s most remote communities.

But locally it helps to anchor residents’ week, with the Fair Isle Times an important feature of Fridays, and its ability to bring folk together has never been more important.

“It’s more of a newsletter than actual news, but it definitely serves an important role, for keeping folk informed,” Eileen reflects.

“Especially this past year, there are some folk who have been shielding who haven’t been out and haven’t seen anybody…it can be quite important, because at least through that they are keeping a bit of an update of what’s going on, and just feeling like they are in contact with folk.”

Fair Isle. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

Paddy Peat lives in Edmonton in Canada, thousands of miles away on the other side of the world, but she eagerly receives every issue of the Fair Isles Times.

“Reading the Fair Isle Times is the highlight of my week. Just for a moment, I can escape from ‘city life’ and read about the daily lives of islanders and their families who choose to live on a remote island in the UK,” she says.

“Life on Fair Isle certainly has its challenges, yet I find it so refreshing to read the articles written by the adults and children who are happy and content living there. I do envy them.”

Her association with Fair Isle stems back to the 1980s after she read an article in a woman’s magazine – thought to be Good Housekeeping – about people living on remote islands in the UK.

Interest piqued by having a Fair Isle jumper as a child, she wrote to an address given in the article, and Florrie Stout replied – beginning years of long-distance friendship with the family.

Paddy visited Shetland in 1986 to spend time with the Stouts in person, before returning a few years later to take the Good Shepherd ferry to Fair Isle.

She says she “immediately fell in love with the island” and particularly enjoyed visiting the local museum and the south lighthouse, and attending church services. Her last visit to Fair Isle was in 2002.

“After the first visit, my Christmas present from Florrie and Jimmy [Stout] was a subscription to the Fair Isle Times,” Paddy adds.

“This gift continues to this day, even though the format has changed from receiving paper copies in the mail to receiving an electronic copy. I look forward to receiving each week’s news.

“The Covid pandemic has affected everyone, and I don’t think travellers will have the same opportunities or freedom to travel like they once did.

“I would love to visit Fair Isle again but, living in Canada, wonder if it will be possible. Until this happens, I will be content with my memories and continue to look forward to receiving each week’s issue of the Fair Isle Times.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021