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Community / Plenty of positivity in Fair Isle – but a new ferry still missing

Preparatory work is underway on the new bird observatory after 2019’s devastating fire – and a fibre broadband cable for the island is being brought ashore

The fibre cable being brought ashore to Fair Isle. Photo: Jen Stout

THERE is plenty of positivity in Fair Isle just now as ground work gets underway on a new bird observatory – while at the same time a subsea fibre broadband cable is being brought ashore.

The cable means the remote island, which is located between Shetland and Orkney and has a population of around 40, will be hooked up with fibre broadband for the first time.

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It is part of the Scottish Government’s R100 project to bring superfast broadband to all in the country. In Shetland cables are also being laid to Whalsay, Yell and Unst.

Meanwhile the groundwork getting underway on a new Fair Isle Bird Observatory should provide a further boost to the community.

The previous building burned down in 2019 and planning permission was recently granted for its replacement.

Over the years it has provided accommodation for visitors, as well as a source of employment.

Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust chairman Douglas Barr said the next big milestone will be the building’s modular units arriving in Fair Isle in August.

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They are going on some journey: the units, which will arrive in Fair Isle nearly complete, are being made by IDMH in a factory in Sheffield, before being taken by lorry to Grimsby.

From there they will sail to Kirkwall, and from Kirkwall to Fair Isle.

Barr said the work could be completed in November and the building could open in the spring. The budget was set at £7.4 million but with the cost of fuel increasing for example the bill is likely to rise.

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“We’ve still got some things to iron out, but there will no doubt be increases,” Barr said. “They will filter their way through.

Groundworks are getting underway on the new Fair Isle Bird Observatory. Photo: Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust

“You’ve got this almighty perfect storm – you’ve got Brexit, a global pandemic, a war in Ukraine, and inflation going through the roof. 

“Of course, things will go up. But the main thing is that the building will get constructed and erected on Fair Isle this year.”

As it is a modular construction, like the last bird observatory, there will not be as many workers needed compared to other construction projects.

Those working on the project are set to be housed in local accommodation, while the ‘Puffin’ building used by island owners National Trust for Scotland has been refurbished and will also take in staff.

Local resident Eileen Thomson said things were looking “very positive” for the isle at the moment.

Speaking about broadband, she added anything which will improve connectivity on the isle is welcome.

“We are very lucky because we have 4G here, but that only works if your house is in sight of a communications mast,” the islander said.

Thomson – whose partner works online – added that the word on the island is that all properties will be able to connect to fibre.

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“Anything that can help connection is a help for folk here,” she said.

Photo: Jen Stout

The cable – which joins to a new link between Sumburgh and Orkney – has been hauled up into the island’s harbour, and the work has piqued the interest of locals.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the work is planned to finish soon, subject to currents and weather conditions.

“This installation work demonstrates the Scottish Government’s commitment to extending access to faster broadband to all areas of Scotland,” they added.

“Once connected, future-proofed broadband will make it easier for islanders to keep in touch, work remotely and access services online.

“It will also benefit visitors and promote greater regional business productivity in line with our National Strategy for Economic Transformation.”

But not all in Fair Isle are planning to take advantage of the fibre broadband.

Rachel Challoner – who operates an online knitwear shop in addition running a croft – currently accesses the internet through 4G mobile data, and this provides all she needs.

“What I currently have works fine for me so to upgrade to the new broadband is just an unnecessary, and unaffordable expense,” she said.

“I’ve never had any problems with my current 4G set-up – my website runs fine, I can stream films and programmes with no bother, video call my family in Australia.”

Challoner felt that the new broadband may only make a difference for busy households with a number of people needing to stream video, for example.

But while the island looks ahead to enhanced internet connectivity and a new bird observatory, there remains something of an elephant in the room – the ferry.

There has been clamour to replace the ageing, 12-passenger Good Shepherd for years, and a second funding bid is going into the UK Government.

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Shetland Islands Council hopes to attract Levelling Up funding for a new Fair Isle ferry. Photo: Ronnie Robertson

Thomson said there have been times when the island has gone months without the Good Shepherd due to maintenance, while weather also affects sailings.

She praised local councillors for fighting their corner, but quipped that decision makers down south should take the two and a half hour trip on the Good Shepherd – not known to be the comfiest ride – to see what it is like for themselves.

Thomson said a new ferry would make a “whole lot of difference” to the island.

Loganair also previously ran flights from Orkney to Fair Isle and Barr said there could be potential for talks over the service when the bird observatory is open again.

“I think it’s probably a conversation we will have once we’re able to say ‘the building has gone up, we’ll be open next year’,” he said.

“Obviously you had Covid, but the fact was there was a lack of tourist facilities to accommodate that number of people. But I would imagine it is something that would be explored again.

“That’s one of the main things with the observatory is there is tourism, and it can facilitate it.”

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