When you’ve met Hollie Shaw, you’ve met about 2% of the population of Fair Isle. This 3-square-mile, Scottish island in the North Sea supports 55 residents, and we meet a goodly number of them in their community center on this unusually sunny June day.
Shaw is manning the Made in Fair Isle booth where she sells the Shetland wool clothing that has made the island famous. Scarves, hats and leg warmers feature intricate, unique patterns designed by Shaw and six other Fair Isle women. From creating the patterns to the finished product, the women expend dozens of hours on each item.
Shaw, the mother of four (ages 26 to 15) started the business in 2011 after leaving her job at the local bird observatory.
“At first it was just me and my neighbor, Triona, who taught me to knit, and we just made small things to sell to cruise ships,” she said. “Then it got busier and more folks joined. We are an eclectic mix of women — some very good friends. We all work different amounts on the knitting, as we fit it around all our other jobs.”
For Shaw, that includes working 10 hours a week for both the local school (three students) and a nature-tour company. She and husband Deryk also are crofters (farmers) who care for “70 breeding ewes, two rams, 20 hill sheep, 20 hens, two dogs and a cat.”
The Shaws’ farm land is owned by the National Trust for Scotland which, since 1955, has worked to keep the remote island occupied and productive. One way to do that is to provide a full-time nurse practitioner, who also happens to be a knitter.
“If we need more medical care — like when my son broke his arm and needed surgery,” Shaw said “they fly us north to Lerwick (on Mainland, the Shetlands’ largest island; population 7,000).”
Kids also leave Fair Isle after seventh grade (age 11 or 12) for boarding school in Lerwick. Shaw’s 15-year-old is there and comes home every third weekend.
Except for having to send her kids off the island for school, Fair Isle “must be one of the best places in the world to raise children,” Shaw says. “It’s safe, secure … and has a real connection with the land, nature, weather and the sea.”
Shaw, raised mostly in South England, and her husband, who is from southwest Scotland, moved to Fair Isle to run the bird observatory in 1999. Besides caring for the farm, his jobs include deck hand on the island ferry, firefighter, member of the coast guard and lighthouse keeper.
Fair Isle was not on our original itinerary, but changes happen when you travel with Adventure Canada, a family-owned tour business based in Toronto. When it was apparent that the weather was not going to cooperate, the expedition leader went to Plan B, and that meant that Fair Isle residents had to hustle.
“I was away for one night in Lerwick when Matthew (Swan, the expedition leader) called,” Shaw said, “so I had to phone round the catering team, drivers, museum guide and all the stall holders to check they were all on board. Everyone was happy to help. Drivers (for those who couldn’t walk distances) were in short supply, but luckily two of the Fair Isle ferry crew (including my husband) agreed to drive once they finished their 10-hour shift.”
So thanks to the behind-the-scenes scramble, the 170 passengers of the Ocean Endeavour were able to invade this speck-of-an-island and enjoy the expansive verdant scenery, curious land forms, dramatic coastal cliffs, friendly people, 5,000 years of history, and thousands of birds, including our favorites — puffins.
The residents welcomed us at the community center with arts, crafts and a long table of pastries and tea. Then, on our return hike to the beach to board the Zodiacs that will return us to the Ocean Endeavour, we pass what looks like a sizable chunk of metal in a far-off field. We learn from a nearby sign that the metal is the remains of a World War II airplane.
In January 1941, a German Heinkel 111 was shot down by allied aircraft. Three crew members survived and were arrested by Fair Isle citizens. After several delays, a boat finally arrived to take the crew into custody. It happened to be the 21st birthday of the pilot, Karl Heinz Thurz.
In 1981, Thurz revisited Fair Isle to meet those who had arrested him. He made several return visits and made lifelong friends.
Top: North Atlantic puffins can be seen by the thousands throughout the Scottish Isles. These birds reside on Fair Isle and take tourists in stride; they allow visitors to come close. Photo by Jerry Ondash