‘An eye to the Windward’: Sea Change on Fair Isle

Ruth Little

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 19.06.45

Anne Sinclair points at a narrow yellow pine door leaning against a wall in the Fair Isle Museum: ‘When I was growing up, nearly all the internal doors in people’s houses were from shipwrecks.’ Fair Isle may be largely treeless, but there’s wood to be had. Over some 5000 years of settlement here, the sea has thrown up timber for lining walls, building furniture and making children’s toys; it has also provided sacks of flour, lead, crockery and chinaware. And fish, of course – plenty of fish.

Flotsam, jetsam

Flotsam, jetsam

Fishing has been a significant part of the small island’s economy throughout its long history. When a group of artists and scientists sailed here with Cape Farewell on the Swan in 2013, we carried a small cargo of copies of White Below: Poems and Stories from Shetland’s Fishing Industry (Hansel Press, Orkney), which contains beautiful dialect poems by Fair Islander Lise Sinclair about the local fishing tradition, passed down by her grandmothers. Storytelling, fishing, spinning, knitting, crofting and singing are all intimately connected to one another and are inseparably part of the island’s living tradition – and all of it, all of this work of the hands, mediated by new technologies and interwoven with the wider conversations that the outward-looking islanders are part of – all of it comes from and returns to the sea.

Now Lise is gone, far, far too soon, following an illness last year, and we are back with filmmakers Andy Crabb and Peter Cutts, photographer Jen Wilcox and textile artist Deirdre Nelson, to mark her profound and palpable influence on this island, its culture and its aspirations, in the premiere performance of Da Fishing Hands at the Fair Isle Community Hall. Da Fishing Hands, with lyrics by Lise and music by Inge Thomson, is a collection of songs inspired by the traditional method of recording the position of abundant fishing grounds. This involved extending a line through two sets of two landmarks (‘meids’ in Shetland) and taking the boat to their precise meeting point. ‘Da Skeo o’Buness an da Skeo o’Brecks o’Leogh’; ‘Da Burrian an da Apron o’Heelie Stack’; ‘Da Muckle Keel in da Slack o’Uren an da Rock’: the phrases are rigorous tracking devices, but they’re also incantations, unintended poems to a people and their place. The performance of Da Fishing Hands, on a still and foggy night, was a mesmerizing and moving love song to the sea, and an ardent statement of the interdependence of the island’s human culture and its marine ecology.

Da Fishing Hands of Fair Isle

Da Fishing Hands of Fair Isle

Every member of Fair Isle’s community – including the children – has signed up to support an application led by ecologist Nick Riddiford through the Fair Isle Marine Environment Initiative (FIMETI) for Fair Isle’s local waters to be designated a (Demonstration and Research) Marine Protected Area by the Scottish Government. The scale and strength of community support, of which Da Fishing Hands was a striking example, is understandable. There are so many good reasons for the designation that Nick hardly knows where to begin. ‘We just cannot afford to lose this resource…This is a very good place for looking at change. It could be a model for Scotland, which needs a test site for trialing sustainable methods.’ Fair Isle holds exceptionally long runs of data on weather, sea conditions, seabird ecology, cetaceans, plankton and archeology – the community includes individuals, such as Nick and meteorologist Dave Wheeler, with expert knowledge of these fields. The world-renowned Fair Isle Bird Observatory (Britain’s most northerly) was established on the island in 1948; thousands of birders come here in spring and autumn every year to contribute to the monitoring of native, ‘blow-in’ and migratory species which underpins wider research into the impacts of climate and environmental change on the island’s biodiversity.



And there’s an onus on Government too, not just on the people of Fair Isle, to support good stewardship of the island’s resources. Fair Isle is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and should therefore (under EU Habitats and Birds Directives) be protected by Government from the deterioration of natural and species habitats. The island was awarded a rare Council of Europe Diploma in 1985 (one of only 2 in Scotland) for exemplary management of its outstanding natural and cultural values. Future renewal of the Diploma is subject to the creation of a protected marine area by the UK and Scottish Governments.

Everything here is connected: phytoplankton supports zooplankton which feeds sandeels which sustain seabirds and the fishery; the seabirds, sea fishing and local biodiversity are woven into local culture, which, along with them, sustains environmentally-engaged tourism, and this in turn supports local culture and local stewardship of precious resources. Close-knit, is how you might describe the interrelation of human culture and marine ecology on this island of knitters. The greatest risk here is the risk of this beautiful fabric unraveling.

Fair Isle knitter and designer Mati Ventrillon

Fair Isle knitter and designer Mati Ventrillon

And change there is – some of it incremental and barely noticeable, some of it, like the decline of kittiwake, shag and arctic tern breeding populations of late, catastrophic. Some of it is taking place underwater, with change marked by absences where there was once abundance – of sand eel, ling, cod and halibut, and of lobster which once filled the creels of local fishermen but have been overfished by commercial boats from outwith Shetland’s islands. ‘White below’ once described a hold full of valuable fish. White above was the seabird guano staining cliffs and stacs around the coast. Now local fishermen come back almost empty-handed, and more and more of the stacs are dark and quiet.

Toothed wrack, shipwrack

Toothed wrack, shipwrack

The wind and waves have wracked and wrecked boats and people here for hundreds of years; and they’ve thrown unexpected gifts on Fair Isle’s shores. A nineteenth-century newspaper described Fair Isle immigrants to Nova Scotia as having ‘an eye to the windward’. Change isn’t always for the worse: Fair Islanders have always looked for opportunity while blessing what they have. Multi-skilled, multi-tasking, with long horizons and deep and broad roots in land and water, they are the best, the true custodians of this environment, and they deserve our support and respect for their tireless efforts to maintain its health for the common good.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 19.08.30

Ruth Little


Fair Isle Marine Environment & Tourism Initiative (FIMETI) website and on Facebook

 Twelve reasons for a Demonstration and Research MPA in Fair Isle waters 

 Marine Protected Areas in Scotland’s Seas 

 Inge Thomson @IngeThomson

Fair Isle Bird Observatory  @FI_Obs



Deirdre Nelson, Inge Thomson. Sleeping Starfish @ The Glad Cafe as part of Luminate, with Fraser Fifield, Kerri Whiteside

Glad Cafe, Glasgow. 15 October, 7.30 pm. £5

Surrounded by a relentless sea, Fair Isle is an island of strong traditions and fierce beauty. Celebrating this, and running in support of the island’s bid for marine protected status, two artists are knitting together waves of sound and yarn, stories and starfish. Sleeping Starfish is both a work of environmental advocacy and a portrait... Read More ›

Working the Map: Islanders and a Changing Environment

A portrait of the Northern Isles with art work by John Cumming

Beautiful artists’ book by John Cumming: Working the Map – islanders and a changing environment Available from just £9.99 http://www.capefarewell.com/art/media/working-the-map-book.html Shetland/Orkney artist and Sea Change commissioned artist John Cumming has created and edited an artists’ book documenting social and ecological change across the Northern Isles. Produced in partnership with Orkney Nature Festival, the book includes... Read More ›

Andy Crabb’s film portrait of Inge Thomson’s Da Fishing Hands

May 2014

In 2014, Sea Change artists Andy Crabb, Deirdre Nelson and Jennifer Wilcox, with filmmaker Peter Cutts, returned to Fair Isle with Inge Thomson and her band to record the premiere of Inge’s song cycle, Da Fishing Hands. The first performance took place in Fair Isle’s community hall in May 2014, and Da Fishing Hands has... Read More ›

James Brady. though everything was gone, we would stay

‘The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light’ George Mackay Brown See the film here: though everything was gone, we would stay Artist and curator James Brady joined the 2013 Northern Isles expedition, sailing from Orkney to Shetland via Fair Isle on Shetland community-owned... Read More ›

Deirdre Nelson’s The Kildas project returns to the Glad Cafe Glasgow, with Jason Singh, Inge Thomson, Hanna Tuulikki, Mischa Macpherson and Borderline Theatre

Thursday 26 January 2015, 7pm

DStitch presents: The Kildas + Seachange Thursday 26 February @ The Glad Cafe, Glasgow In partnership with Cape Farewell, the Kildas project will present an evening at Glad Café,  26th February 2015 7pm. Cost £5 The evening will partner the remote islands of St Kilda and Fair Isle in an evening of islands, songs and loops... Read More ›

Inge Thomson’s Da Fishing Hands in Celtic Connections

23 January 2015

‘Some of the finest music and poetry ever to have emerged from these fair isles’. Fair Isle musician/singer/composer (Fair Isle is full of multi-taskers) Inge Thomson brings her haunting and mesmerising Da Fishing Hands to the Tron Theatre, Gladgow, during Celtic Connections in January 2015. Written with Fair Isle poet and singer Lise Sinclair, Da... Read More ›

Julie Fowlis Band win Scots Trad Music Award

13 December 2014

Congratulations to Julie Fowlis and her band, who have won best group of the year at the Scots Trad Music Awards 2014. Julie was recently the first Gaelic singer to be honoured with a ‘Tartan Clef’ Scottish Music Award. Julie sailed on the 2011 Sea Change Western Isles expedition. See the full list of awards... Read More ›

Away with the Birds returns to Canna: Review

Hanna Tuulikki

Click here to read the Away With The Birds Review from The Scotsman  › Costumes by Deirdre Nelson Read More ›

Mathematics, making and birding

Deirdre Nelson

  Fair Isle bird made by Tommy H Hyndman At Da Fishin’ Hands premiere at the community hall I noticed a beautiful Fair Isle jumper in shades of mossy green and later discovered that the wearer was Inges grandfather Stewart, a retired Light House Keeper, fiddle player, spinner and spinning wheel maker.  His wife Annie... Read More ›

Fair Isle treasures

deirdre nelson

  On Saturday morning we made our way to  the rock pool at at Muckle Uri Geo. Ready and waiting were a group of young islanders armed with small fishing nets alongside Nick Riddiford, a passionate Fair Isle ecologist.  As they dispersed on their mission, Nick told us about the area and the many species... Read More ›

‘An eye to the Windward’: Sea Change on Fair Isle

Ruth Little

Anne Sinclair points at a narrow yellow pine door leaning against a wall in the Fair Isle Museum: ‘When I was growing up, nearly all the internal doors in people’s houses were from shipwrecks.’ Fair Isle may be largely treeless, but there’s wood to be had. Over some 5000 years of settlement here, the sea... Read More ›

Data and culture rich

Deirdre Nelson

Due to a rather atmospheric blanket of fog I arrived into Fair Isle two days and 1 hour late.  From my first glimpses of the island from the ferry, it was well worth the wait, and Inge Thompson, on a break during rehearsals and preparations for her performance Da Fishing Hands, was there to greet... Read More ›

Lost Birds and Fishing Hands: Getting our Bearings on Fair Isle

Ruth Little

  It’s a Caspian Stonechat, and it’s lost. Its feathers are spiked with rain, and it seems to have a hacking cough. It’s been on Fair Isle for a month, and the word around the island is that it’s unlikely to see the Caspian Sea again. ‘Blown off course, all of them’, says one of... Read More ›

Skye Loneragan and Q-Poetics: Culture 2014

XX Commonwealth Games

Poet/performer Skye Loneragan took part with Cape Farewell in Glasgow’s Merchant City Festival at the Ramshorn Theatre, hosted by GalGael in 2013. Skye is Q-Poet at the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014. Q-Poetics is a Culture 2014 project placing poets and poetry in places and spaces of of waiting. See Skye’s video-poems at http://qpoetics.com/ Skye Loneragan is... Read More ›

Grounded (Freumhaichte/Wadlu-Gnana). Judith Parrott

An Lanntair, Stornoway: 13 September - 11 October

Grounded is an exhibition of photographic prints, audiovisual, sound and prose, resulting from residencies with Gaelic speaking communities of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and with Wangkangurru, Arrarnta and Arrernte people of the Central Australian Desert. The exhibition was launched at XX Commonwealth Games, Glasgow 2014. Follow Judith’s Grounded blog at http://judithparrott.wordpress.com/ Arriving in Steòrnabhagh (Stornoway) The... Read More ›

Andy Crabb’s short film Sea Changes

Part 1 documents the Orkney Expedition

Sea Changes, part 1 featuring Karine Polwart from Andy Crabb on Vimeo. Filmmaker and SAMS artist-in-residence Andy Crabb joined Cape Farewell’s Northern Isles expedition in August/September and reflects here on the first days of sailing in Orkney waters. Sea Changes is the first part of a film about Cape Farewell’s Northern Isles expedition, on board... Read More ›

Karine Polwart sings Freedom Come All Ye in Orkney’s Italian Chapel

http://vimeo.com/73406037   Read More ›

The Swan Northern Isles Expedition

See the 2013 Expedition site

In August 2013, Sea Change set sail with two crews of artists and scientists from Orkney to Shetland via Fair Isle. Sailing on 113-year-old community owned Shetland Fyfie The Swan, the journey took us around Scotland’s most northerly coasts and islands. Click here for Expedition site >   Read More ›

Sexy Peat / Tìr mo Rùin. Highland Print Studio/Cape Farewell: Year of Natural Scotland 2013

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery 8 March - 5 April 2014

Following the success of Sexy Peat/Tìr mo Rùin as part of Sea Change at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, the exhibition transfers to Inverness Museum and Art Gallery in March-April 2014, before returning to its island of origin at An Lanntair, Lewis. Sexy Peat/Tìr mo Rùin artists: Anne Campbell: http://www.annecampbellart.co.uk/ Jon Macleod: http://www.jonmacleod.com/ Kacper Kowalski:... Read More ›

Things Unspoken / Things Unseen. Andrea Roe, Anne Bevan

Book launch 20 August 2013 at Pier Arts Centre, Orkney

Things Unspoken Things Unseen by Anne Bevan and Andrea Roe 2 volume artist book Things Unspoken Things Unseen, by Anne Bevan and Andrea Roe, was launched with Cape Farewell’s 2013 Swan expedition at the Pier Arts Centre in August 2013.  Including contributions by Janice Galloway, Jen Hadfield, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Alan Jamieson and Alan Spence,... Read More ›

Air falbh leis na h-eòin – Away with the Birds: Culture 2014

Isle of Canna, August 2014

Hanna Tuulikki’s body of work exploring the mimesis of bird sounds in Gaelic song was described as ‘heartbreakingly gorgeous’ on BBC Radio Scotland’s The Culture Show in January 2014. Performed in collaboration with vocal artists, field recorder Geoff Sample, filmmaker Daniel Warren, Gaelic singer Mary Smith, textile artist Deirdre Nelson and choreographer Rosalind Masson, the... Read More ›

Air falbh leis na h-eòin – Away with the Birds

Hanna Tuulikki's Complete Audio Diary

28 June 2013 Listen here to an extract from Hanna’s diary: Voices at Dusk https://archive.capefarewell.com/seachange/wp-content/uploads/canna-diary-extract-13.mp3   29 May 2013 Listen here to an extract from Hanna’s diary: Tracing Lines https://archive.capefarewell.com/seachange/wp-content/uploads/canna-diary-extract-121.mp3 19 April 2013 The creation of Air falbh leis na h-eòin: Hanna on tumblr 14 January 2013 Listen here to an extract from Hanna’s diary:... Read More ›

Mapping the Sea: Barra. Stephen Hurrel

Timespan, Helmsdale. 5 - 29 July 2014

Stephen Hurrel’s Sea Change commission, Mapping the Sea: Barra, will feature in an installation at Timespan Museum and Art Gallery, Helmsdale. Stephen is one of the artists for Generation – Scotland’s largest ever art show –  involving 100 artists in 60 venues, coinciding with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Generation is produced by Glasgow Life and... Read More ›