Data and culture rich

Deirdre Nelson

misty sheep

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 us. It was wonderful to be on Fair Isle at last after hearing so much about the island and people from Inge and friends. On arrival I realise I have a lot to learn from the people, culture, craft and landscape on this beautiful island.

On our first evening at the Bird Observatory, Nick Riddiford gave a talk on the island’s current work to secure Fair Isle as a Marine Protected Area. 35 kilometres from the nearest island and tourism- dependent, the Fair Isle community cannot afford to lose such a ‘superb natural resource and flow of visitors’. The community directly observe what is going on and island support for an MPA is 100%.  The island is data rich with an accumulation of facts and figures on weather, sea conditions and seabird ecology. Data and culture rich, the island has so much to teach us about the sea.

‘A tiny island where oceans meet, Fair Isle has a fascinating and very cosmopolitan history. Inhabited over a thousand years, the Isle has been open to many cultures and influences because of its geographical position. Shipping en route from such as Dundee to the Carolinas, the Mediterranean to the Baltic or Denmark to Greenland frequently set course through the Fair Isle Channel. The Isle’s men became famous for their daring rescues of shipwrecked mariners and for the distances they rowed and sailed to trade with passing vessels.

Added to their skill as seafarers was the ability to form wood and straw into furniture, containers, and, most vital of all, boats suitable for the particular sea conditions surrounding the isle.

At the same time the women were developing skill in coloured and patterned knitting. How long ago, or from what direction knitting was introduced to the island, is unknown, but with a limited colour palette available, the use of fairly specific design shapes, and what can only have been limited output because of the size of the community, knitwear from Fair Isle became so famous that ‘Fair Isle’ has become the generic term for coloured and patterned knitwear worldwide.’  

Anne Sinclair, Handwork.

The sea not only offered migratory patterns in the form of knit but also much of the wood on the island which became a well-worn part of islanders homes. The sea was, and still is, a crucial part of the development of craft on the island, with precious materials washing up on shore and many knitted items travelling across the seas beyond this tiny island today. Recycling and repurposing both pattern and materials are not only a thing of the past.

 ‘From a cultural point of view the sea has always been a life giver to the island. It is so important we look after our marine resources for future generations.” Inge Thomson, Interview Folk radio UK.

Authentic Hand Knit Fair Isle Fisherman’s Keps Auctioned for Museum Fund 2011

I have also much to learn about Da Fishing Hands, the subject of a body of new work by Inge Thomson and Lise Sinclair

‘The fishing hands of Fair Isle have developed over the centuries and continue to do so, as a means for the fishermen to re-find particularly good fishing areas. They consist of a phrase usually indicating an alignment of two sets of two landmarks, taking the boat to the exact position required, time and again. These landmarks must be visible in various sea and weather conditions, and include rocks, cliffs and man-made features.’ 

Emma Perring, Da Fishing Hands o’ Fair Isle, 2000 .  Published in aid of the George Waterson Memorial Centre, Fair Isle


“The initial idea for the project was conceived while looking at the maps of fishing grounds (known as ‘fishing hands’) around Fair Isle, which were compiled as a resource for FIMETI (Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative). The maps themselves are things of beauty with lines denoting triangulation points connecting visible landmarks and sea stacks and the contour lines of the ocean topography. This then got me thinking about the cultural significance of this information which had previously been passed down in the oral tradition, and how the changes in our marine environment are affecting all aspects of island life. After receiving funding from Creative Scotland, FIMETI commissioned us to write a body of work which highlights the more personal effects of the degeneration of our marine resources and hopefully to give a less political voice to their cause, which is to raise awareness of the island’s plight, their bid to be granted marine protected status and ultimately re-instate a 5km commercial fishing limit.”

Inge Thomson interview for Folk Radio UK. Read further HERE

On Friday evening the community hall began to fill with the local Fair Isle community. This was peppered with blow-ins such as our team from Cape Farewell and a variety of birder types and we were all made to feel welcome. We had definitely blown in to a most special and intimate event and I felt a sense of privilege in witnessing the premier of Da Fishing Hands in the very place that had inspired it.  Inge and her band performed beautiful music and song, with words by Lise Sinclair.  Each note, word and sound seemed to come out of the sea and travel through each and every audience member. Lise was as a poet and musician and her untimely passing in 2013 is a huge loss, not only to the Fair Isle community but beyond. Although I had not met Lise Sinclair I felt that her presence was very much there through words, song and the many islanders who came to witness Da Fishing Hands.  Da Fishing hands blended both melancholy and a joyous uplifiting positivity for the future of the Fair Isle seas.


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




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deirdre nelson

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XX Commonwealth Games

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