By Laurie GoodladMarch 9th 2021
Laurie Goodlad

In January, Heather and Norman Humphrey, five dogs and a cat all arrived on Fetlar – Shetland’s remotest North Isle – to begin a new life. Laurie Goodlad caught up with them seven weeks after their arrival to find out what island life has been like so far...

For most people, moving to a remote island in the middle of winter during a pandemic would seem like a crazy idea, but to Heather and Norman their move to Fetlar was nothing short of a dream come true.

Fetlar, known endearingly as ‘the garden of Shetland’, is a two-ferry hop from the Shetland Mainland and home to just over 60 permanent residents. The couple moved from Buckinghamshire in the south of England, looking for a slower pace of life.

“Buckinghamshire was becoming overcrowded, every piece of ground is now being built on, and there are very few green belts left any more,” explains Norman. “They’re building a massive new railway system [HS2] straight through the middle of the countryside.”

“It was just becoming a bit overwhelming living there,” adds Heather. “There’s very little sense of community any more. We knew we needed to move.

“Initially we wanted to move to Wales, but I was watching Whisky Galore, and I know it’s not Shetland, but I said to Norman, ‘Do you fancy moving to Shetland?’, and he said ‘Why not.’”

Inspired by the 1949 British comedy, the couple began to plan their move north and look for a quiet place to live. Initially focusing on the island of Unst, they eventually found their dream home a ferry-hop away on the neighbouring island of Fetlar.

Selling their two-bed Buckinghamshire semi, they upsized to a four-bedroom detached house that was originally built in 1930 and served as the island’s shop. Despite needing a little TLC, the couple are very happy with their choice.

“It wasn't a difficult decision,” says Heather. “The house in Buckinghamshire sold quickly and allowed us to buy our dream house.”

Heather, originally from a small town in Ayrshire, had no intentions of returning up north as she had made a life in the south, but the couple agrees that Shetland feels far-removed from the rest of Scotland.

“I affiliate Shetland more with Scandinavia. It’s an independent and self-sufficient set of islands with a strong heritage.”

Norman previously worked as a police officer for the Metropolitan Police, with a daily four-hour commute in and out of London, while Heather worked as a self-employed dog groomer. They both agree that leaving their hectic lives behind has been good for their mental and physical health – despite having to deal with a few teething issues.

Since arriving in Fetlar, they have been living without heating and with buckets catching the water coming in through the front windows when the wind and rain are blowing in the wrong direction.

On the day I interviewed them, plumbers were in fitting a new heating system, the windows were on order, and plans to renovate and repaint the exterior was afoot. Their excitement at getting a little warmth back into the heaters again was palpable.

Despite having shivered through the coldest spell Shetland has had in a long time, they remain optimistic and cheerful about their future on the island.

Unphased by the prospect of a long renovation and with packing boxes forming a fortress around the rooms outer walls, Heather says:

“I think when moving here, you have to have an open mind and be prepared to lead a different life. You can’t bring your previous lifestyle to Shetland. We came here with a really open mind, and we knew things would involve more planning ahead.”

With only one small shop on the island with limited opening hours, islanders have to be prepared. Heather says: “You can’t just pop down the road to the garage. I did my research before we moved here, and I arrived with three freezers!”

It is hard not to be swept away by their enthusiasm and Heather’s infectious laugh.

Getting to Shetland was a long journey. It took two days, 12 hours by car and another 12 hours on the ferrry. They arrived in Fetlar in the January darkness after another long drive and a further two inter-island ferries.

Following a breakdown and various hold-ups, their belongings arrived on the island three days later. Despite this, the local community rallied and residents made sure they had a bed to sleep on, a couple of chairs and the basics in the kitchen. The kettle was especially welcome after the long journey north!

The Humphreys’ new home overlooks the stunning bay at Houbie (see main banner image).

“Our views are picture postcards, and at night it looks like someone has just thrown a handful of diamonds in the sky,” says Heather. “We feel so lucky to be able to wake up to this view every morning – it is what most people would dream of.”

Having visited Shetland twice before, Heather says they loved the islands and prospect of a slower pace of life: “The wildlife here is indescribable. The inner calm these islands have given us is something that we can't put into words.”

Although they’ve yet to visit the South Mainland, they look forward to exploring the rest of Shetland in the near future. The couple do however make a monthly adventure to the supermarket in Lerwick, which, because of Fetlar's restrictive ferry timetable requires careful planning.

“It’s a nine-hour round trip to go to Tesco,” laughs Heather “, so we don’t have much time for much else.”

Living on a small island like Fetlar is at times isolating and it carries with it its own set of challenges. Finding work, for example, is difficult. Heather was keen to work in a bakery on the neighbouring island of Yell, but with a 7am start and the first ferry only leaving Fetlar at 6.55am, it just wasn’t possible. “This is the hardest thing we’ve faced really and it would be easier if the ferries were more frequent,” she says.

Arriving in winter and a lockdown has been tricky, but once restrictions ease, they are keen to get involved in the community, meet people and find some part time work .

There have been mixed feelings in the Shetland community about whether people should be allowed to travel in and out of the isles for non-essential purposes during the pandemic. However, currently there are no restrictions on house moves in Scotland or England and they are allowed, if carried out safely. Heather and Norman isolated both before moving and on arriving in Fetlar and were tested before travelling to ensure they were Covid-free.

The Fetlar community has been friendly and welcoming, and they’re looking forward to getting to know their neighbours a bit better when household visits are allowed again.

Fetlar has long been encouraging people to move into the isle, and it’s always a boost to small island communities when people commit to moving in. Heather and Norman are clearly happy to be in Fetlar, and, as I depart, they tell me to come back and visit again soon. There is no doubt, they're in it for the long haul.

Find out more about the island of Fetlar