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

Ruth Little

Caspian Stonechat on Fair Isle

Caspian Stonechat on Fair Isle


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 the all-weather birders who migrate regularly to this tiny and beautiful upheaval of cliff, stac, moor and grazing land at the confluence of the Atlantic and the North Sea, 40 miles from Shetland’s South Mainland. ‘Most of the things that land here are lost.’ He walks away to peer over a wall at a female Bluethroat, and the rest of us are left to ponder the philosophical implications of his comment.

Fair Isle is the most remote of the British Isles, and one of the most remote islands in Europe. But remote from what, exactly? From regular and predictable transport links to the rest of Scotland, certainly. Artists Deirdre Nelson and Jennifer Wilcox have been waiting for 2 days to cross those 40 miles of sea, shunting to and from the little airport at Tingwall, as the fog for which these islands are famous settles and spills, lifts briefly, tantalizingly, and descends again. No flights, no ferries, and nothing to be done about it. Remote too from the insistence of phone and email, with faltering signal and limited wifi.

So visitors and residents look out more than in, at the tangible world, at its constant changes, at how things are, not how they might be. In the Bird Observatory guests sit by the windows, intent on wings flickering in the garden, or talk to one another about the day’s ‘five star’ sightings. Down at the community hall, musician-singer Inge Thomson is rehearsing a new music collection, Da Fishing Hands, with her band. We came over with them on the Good Shepherd, ushered out of Shetland’s southern waters by three magnificent orcas, before the fog and the yawing and rolling of the boat took away the will to live.

Fair Isle is remote from a constant power supply; the kind that floods our lives with electricity from unimagined sources. Only one of the island’s two wind turbines works; the Observatory draws most of its power from a diesel generator, and weather, intermittency or a coincidence of washing cycles can plunge the island into temporary blackness. There’s no such thing as stand-by here: equipment is on when it’s in use, off when it’s not. Nothing is mediated, expedited, sexed-up, dumbed down or spun – except wool, straight from the sheep’s back. ATMs, cafes, fast food, advertising – Fair Isle’s remote from them all.

Or rather, they’re remote from Fair Isle. And when the clamour of impatience and habit die down, when the phone’s been turned off and the debit cards jettisoned, Netflix pushed to the back of the mind and the laptop replaced with a manually-operated paper notebook and pencil, then it’s the systematic wanting that seems remote, the breathless timeliness, the sat-naving of our coordinated lives. The thought of being lost is so terrifying that we perpetually try to find ourselves in space and time, pinpoint our own whereabouts, take high-altitude selfies. But Fair Isle isn’t remote from itself; from light, sky, wind, weather, tide, change, community, ecology, from the passage of hundreds of species of birds, from the full passage of lives lived on and with the island in direct relationship with its human and non-human species.

Fair Isle is a place of bearing, of orientation, where the connectedness of all things makes all things relevant. ‘Isolated’ derives from the Latin insulatus: ‘made into an island’. But islands aren’t isolated; they’re amongst it all, threshold places of constant change and exchange, where nothing is wasted and so nothing is lost. Insularity and disorientation are urban phenomena, when the fear of being misplaced in the complexity of days, of being milled into dust by a globalized economy, separate us from our context and our conversation with one another, and replace them with neurotic self-assertion: I’m here, I’ve checked, I matter, I’m being tracked, everything’s ok.

‘To converse’ once meant to ‘live amongst’, to be intimate with. In our sophisticated metropolitan model of living, we’re losing the skill of ‘keeping company’ – the abiding still practised and passed down on Fair Isle and in oral cultures around the world. ‘Living amongst’ gives us our bearings, and means learning, or re-learning, the reality and rhythms of interdependence – person to person, person to place, place to climate, climate to person. Unlike the Caspian Stonechat, we migrants can make our way home when the weather allows, but we’ll take with us the understanding that being ‘at home’ in the world is an active state of living amongst and conversing with, of orientation through multiple points of direct connection with our living context. That’s what we’ve learned from a small bird on a wire, and from a small island in conversation with the world.

Ruth Little

Inge Thomson

Inge Thomson

Inge Thomson’s Da Fishing Hands, created with and in memory of Lise Sinclair, and performed with Fraser Fifield, Steven Polwart, Sarah Hayes and Graeme Smillie premieres on Fair Isle (23 May) and tours to Hillswick (24 May) and Mareel Shetland (25 May): http://www.mareel.org/listen/events/da-fishing-hands/ – .U33Lta1dUWw


Da Fishing Hands was commissioned as part of Creative Scotland’s  Year of Natural Scotland, in partnership with EventScotland and Scottish Natural Heritage.

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








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