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My life in Fair Isle

by Promote Shetland -

Ever wondered what it's like to up sticks and follow your island dream? Rachel Challoner did just that when she moved from Lincolnshire to take over a croft on the island of Fair Isle.

Rachel is one of around 60 people who live on Fair Isle, the southernmost Shetland island, which is located 24 miles from the Mainland. She runs Barkland Croft and recently appeared on BBC's Landward series. She's also been busy sharing videos on her YouTube channel on life on Fair Isle during lockdown.

We caught up with her to hear her Shetland story...

What attracted you to Fair Isle?

I first came to Fair Isle in 2014 when I came to work for a season as Assistant Cook at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. I wasn't specifically looking for an island location – at the time it was really a question of needing a job! That said, I'd visited quite a lot of the Scottish islands over the years, enjoying spending my holidays there camping, walking and climbing, and had yet to visit Shetland so, when I saw the opportunity on Fair Isle, it immediately stood out.

How easy was it to find a home on the island?

All the housing stock on Fair Isle is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, so the Trust is essentially our (absentee) landlord. As such, you can't buy property here and renting isn't like anywhere else where you find a property you like, pay a deposit and that's you in. Property here becomes vacant very infrequently and, in the first instance, will be advertised by the National Trust for Scotland on their website.

You make an initial application to the Trust and shortlisted applications are then passed to the Housing Forum on Fair Isle, which selects those applicants they feel will best benefit the isle in terms of their age, skills, children, what they can contribute to the community, and so on. The final shortlist is then passed back to the Trust and, I believe, it is they who have the final say in which application is ultimately successful.

You run Barkland Croft. Did you have previous crofting experience?

Not a thing! I knew what it was, but that was it. I'd worked with horses before but never with sheep and the only animals I'd ever owned were dogs.

What is living on the croft like? Can you describe a typical day?

I hate to be a cliché but there really is no such thing as a typical day! It very much depends on what time of year it is, how many hours of daylight we have (or don't have), whether something like baling is taking place – when, for about three weeks, as soon as there's good weather you're called to help. I have 65 sheep, three dogs, three cats and three hens.

I'm just coming to the end of lambing so there's a kind of routine to each day at least:

  • 6am check all ewes and lambs
  • 6.30am coffee and social media catch-up
  • 8am feed all animals including caddy
  • 9am muck out any stalls and re-bed for next inhabitants, top up water buckets, silage etc
  • 10am check all ewes and lambs
  • 10.30am admin work for Shetland Nature
  • 12pm feed caddy
  • 2pm check all ewes and lambs
  • 4pm feed caddy
  • 6pm feed all animals and check all ewes and lambs
  • 8pm feed caddy
  • 10pm check all ewes and lambs
  • 2am check all ewes and lambs.

Then there are things like walking the dogs, collecting my weekly order from the shop, any maintenance work that needs doing, hill rota [where the residents take turns at checking the island's flock], unloading at the boat if I have any supplies coming in and so on.

How easy was it to integrate into the Fair Isle community?

The Fair Isle community has always been an incredibly welcoming and generous community – nowadays it's only about 25% of residents who are 'from' the isle and I think Fair Isle has always recognised that it needs "incomers", for want of a better word, to safeguard and sustain the future of the isle. I think if you're hard-working and happy to muck-in wherever needed then you won't find integrating an issue.

Is it easy to socialise? Do people get together often?

Aside from going for a coffee with neighbours (which, obviously, hasn't happened for quite a while now!) there isn't a huge amount of regular socialising, in terms of organised events at least. That said, ordinarily there would be Chapel on a Sunday. I'm part of a band which normally rehearses once a week, and things like unloading the boat down at the pier and even going to the shop can be quite sociable events.

We have an annual Harvest Festival, a pantomime and dance at Christmas, guizing at Hogmanay and usually there would be cruise ship visits throughout the summer months where vendors get together at the hall. Occasionally, we get musical ensembles visiting who put on concerts which are well attended.

Activities in the crofting calendar such as baling and Sheep Hill (when we caa the sheep off the northern half of the island) are also big community events where all hands are needed. During the winter months there is keep fit twice a week and men's darts once a week. There is also some informal, regular socialising that takes place.

The Fair Isle community has always been an incredibly welcoming and generous community

What are the best things about living on Fair Isle?

The autonomy that you can have, to a certain extent, to be your own boss. Yes, there are some jobs that require you working at set hours, but a lot can fit in around other things, such as running the croft. I think also the amazing scenery and environment we have here. We are so lucky that during lockdown we can step out of our front door and go for a walk and not see a single soul.

We get such a variety of birds here, sometimes including very rare ones that get blown off-course during migration. It is also a place that offers opportunities that you might not think of taking elsewhere. For example, I've been the Chapel organist for the past couple of years, I'm a volunteer at the museum, Deputy Station Officer for the Coastguard, and am on both the Grazings and Hall committees.

How often do you take the ferry or plane to the Shetland Mainland?

​Living on my own and running the croft by myself it's really hard to take time away from the isle, as I need to rely on already busy people to look after my sheep, dogs, hens and cats for me. I'm incredibly fortunate that two of my neighbours, Amy and Andrew, are kind enough to do this and allow me time off isle. I get off-isle maybe twice a year.

We are so lucky that during lockdown we can step out of our front door and go for a walk and not see a single soul

Are there other challenges?

​The weather for maybe eight months of the year can be challenging! You can wrap up warm and dry against the rain/snow/hail but there's nothing you can do about the wind. Trying to roll bales of silage, single-handedly, 100m through 6 inches of mud in 70mph winds and horizontal rain isn't much fun, but you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it!

I can't say I really miss any facilities or amenities, but it would be nice to eat a meal that I haven't had to prepare and cook myself once in a while! Probably browsing through charity shops is the only commercial activity that I miss, but there are several in Lerwick at least.

Is there anything you miss about Lincolnshire?

​I really miss the wildlife! Where I used to live I had hares, foxes, badgers, voles and deer on my doorstep, plus birds such as pheasants and owls. I have seen a long-eared owl on Fair Isle though!

I also enjoyed visiting the nearest small town to where I used to live, Louth, as it has charity shops, a great butcher and an independent cheese shop. Being able to walk in woodland too is something I miss!

Have things changed for you since Scotland went into lockdown?

​In one respect no, my day-to-day life hasn't been impacted much by the restrictions of lockdown. I live alone and work from home anyway, so those aspects haven't changed or affected me.

On the other hand, I now email the shop with an order once a week which I then go and collect, whereas normally I'd just pop down whenever I needed something. Whenever the boat sails I'd always go to the pier to help unload but now we're only permitted to go if we have supplies coming in that we need to collect. There's no Chapel now, no coffee at friends' houses, no weekly band rehearsal, so things like that have changed.

I'm fortunate in that I've always been happy in my own company and can read or knit or play the piano if I have some spare time, so I don't feel the impact of lockdown maybe as much as people who are very used to being around other folk as part of their day-to-day lives.

We've been enjoying your Youtube series Fair Isle through a lens. What prompted you to set it up?

I work for Shetland Nature, a wildlife tour company based in Shetland, taking bookings and doing admin. And, after we had to cancel all our holidays for this year, I was having a lot of correspondence with our guests – quite a few of whom had said they were so disappointed not only being able to visit Shetland.

This, coupled with the loss of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory last year has meant that I get a lot of comments on my social media from people saying that Fair Isle had been on their 'bucket list' and they are sad not to be able to visit. I thought that by putting a few videos on YouTube it might be a way of bringing Fair Isle into people's homes and, hopefully, inspiring them to visit once lockdown is over and the Observatory is rebuilt.

My intention was to combine walks around various parts of the isle with aspects of isle life that people might not have seen – even if they've visited before – such as the boat going down the slip ready to go to sea. I managed to get filming done in the Chapel and Kirk before lockdown and had been hoping to film several episodes in the museum, but that will have to wait until after lockdown now.

My most recent episodes have been filmed while I've been out on hill rota - checking the sheep in the north of the isle, so people have been able to 'walk along' with me round the coastline. I also put an episode up about my croft, introducing folk to the sheep and the lambs, which people really seemed to enjoy!

To find out more about Rachel's adventures in Fair Isle, you can follow her on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.

Posted in: Community

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