In 2005 American Liz Musser was driving from her work in Albany to her home in Saratoga Springs, New York, when she first heard about Fair Isle, a remote island in northern Scotland.
A piece on National Public Radio described a tenancy offered by the National Trust for Scotland, which owns Fair Isle, at the Auld Haa, meaning “Old Hall”, the former laird’s house, a two-storey, whitewashed stone structure dating back to about 1700.
“I was intrigued,” says Musser, who was then working full-time as an educational video producer. “I suppose a lot of people have dreamt at some point in their lives about getting away from it all, and I was no different.”
Fair Isle is getting away from it all, and then some: situated midway between Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland archipelagos, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic, this windswept island, barely four miles long and two miles across at its widest point, is home to about 70 people. There is a small primary school (but no pub) and the Shetland mainland is a two-and-a-half hour boat journey away across seas that are often so rough that Shetlanders joke that even the skipper gets sick.
“We made an application, explaining our plans to run the Auld Haa as a guest house,” says Musser. “I heard more than 1,000 people applied, so I was certainly a bit surprised – although happy – when we were invited by the National Trust for Scotland to visit the island,” says Musser.
Musser now runs the Auld Haa with her American husband Tommy Hyndman, who finds time on Fair Isle to be an artist, photographer and hat-maker, as well as helping to care for the island’s six-hole golf course. Henry, the couple’s son, was five when the family moved to Fair Isle and is in his last year at the island’s school. The rent for the four-bedroom Auld Haa (two of these are used as guest rooms) is slightly less than £500 a year.
Musser’s romantic notion of island living was nearly dispelled on the family’s first visit to Fair Isle during a stormy period in March 2006.
“We arrived in the winter long before the arrival of the seabirds, one of the things that Fair Isle is known for internationally. There were also no lambs on the hills – it was too early in the year. It looked pretty bleak.
“We couldn’t fly back because of bad weather,” she adds. “But we were there with a couple of musicians who had come from London and who were also stuck. They got out their clarinet and double bass and it seemed like the whole island came to listen. So we met everyone.”
Six years after moving to Fair Isle, it is the sense of community that gives Musser the greatest satisfaction.
“On New Year’s eve everyone dresses up to go ‘guising’, rushing from one house to the next and being invited in for a dram in each one.”
In spring, islanders get together for the “caa”, or driving of sheep, to check the health of newborn lambs. “Everyone gets their proper share of the lambs. It’s a nice thing to work together with your neighbours. Getting sheep to move where you want them to isn’t easy but it can be fun.”
Although misunderstandings do occur in such a small community, Musser says that islanders make an effort to get along. “An island like Fair Isle needs a critical mass of residents. If just a couple of families left, it would make a difference, so we all have an interest in encouraging our neighbours to stay. Perhaps that partly explains the generosity of the people here. For instance, we went away for a holiday in the summer and returned to find our lawn had been mowed for us.”
The evacuation of Fair Isle has been debated in the past, but the discovery of oil off Shetland in 1971 has brought unprecedented wealth to the archipelago, home to about 22,500 people.
Part of the oil dividend has been used to help the island: the local Shetland Islands Council subsidises sea and air links to Fair Isle and the Shetland Charitable Trust provides social care for the elderly and funds arts projects. Pupils at the island school are routinely flown to a sports centre in Lerwick, the diminutive capital of Shetland, for their swimming lessons.
The fishing industry is also important in Shetland, which is famous for its wildlife: in spring and summer the cliffs of Fair Isle teem with birdlife.
What Musser calls the “strong sense of place” on Fair Isle is exemplified by the island’s famously colourful knitwear, produced on hand-frame machines. The bright designs are strikingly different from the more muted brown and grey shades generally prevalent in the rest of Shetland; today as in past centuries, most adult women on the island know how to knit.
Bringing up a child in an unspoilt environment brings its pleasures, too.
“There are countless rock pools for children to play in and edible wild mushrooms to pick in season,” says Musser. “You see dolphins, minke whales and orcas. Once we saw a pod of whales teaching their young how to hunt seals. They circled a seal perched on a rock, making waves to try to knock it off into the water.”
Musser says she has no plans to leave Fair Isle but much depends on how son Henry settles into life as a boarder at secondary school in Lerwick, starting in September 2013.
Musser has produced short films on Fair Isle life and its land and seascapes but the unreliability of travel to and from the island is a limiting factor. “It’s great to have more time to spend with the family after previously working from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon every day. But sometimes I get the opportunity to do some work in the States and then I remember that it can take three days to get back to North America. You can end up sitting at the airfield all day hoping for a weather window.”
Tenancies in properties on Fair Isle are offered by the National Trust for Scotland infrequently but a property market exists in much of the rest of Shetland. The legacy of crofting (crofts are a traditional system of tenanted smallholdings in Scotland’s Highlands and islands) means that new-build homes are tightly regulated outside Lerwick and a handful of Shetland’s larger villages.
Land has to be “de-crofted” by application to the Crofting Commission in Inverness, which approves plots for new-build homes of about 0.1 hectares. High-end homes are in any case rare in Shetland, where the top end of the property market for a single-family home is about £400,000 to £500,000.
● Shetland has a crime detection rate of 69 per cent, one of the highest in the UK
● The island has an unemployment rate of 1.5 per cent
● Travel to and from the island is difficult
● Crofting legacy means very strict building regulations
What you can buy for ...
£100,000 A two-bedroom terraced house in Lerwick or a three-bedroom home in a rural location, both in need of modernisation
£500,000 A detached five-bedroom family house in Lerwick with a garden