The seaside crofters

Emma Perring, Ewen Thomson and Martha Thomson

For many people, a home-life nuisance might involve noisy neighbours, questionable parking, perhaps an errant bin man. At Channerwick, a beautiful little bay on the road to Shetland’s southern tip, the local disturbance comes in the form of two orphaned new-born “caddy” lambs called Rosemary and Mint.

“Yes, they’re adorable,” concedes Emma Perring, who lives in a beautiful new house overlooking the water with her violin-maker partner, Ewen Thomson. “But, when they’re hungry, they follow you everywhere, and they seem to be able to escape from anywhere you put them. And it’s a problem when they get near my cabbages.”

Given Ewen’s profession, it might be tempting to reach for the tiny violins here. Because life at Channerwick, in the only house on the bay, can seem more like a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall reverie than an actual existence. When Ewen isn’t upstairs, hand-making his beautiful creations for local and worldwide export, he and Emma manage the family croft, which includes 36 breeding ewes, kept in a nearby field and fed mainly feed grown at Channerwick. Like their sheep, the family are almost entirely self-sustained: their meat comes from their own livestock, and they grow all their own vegetables, mostly in Emma’s greenhouse up from the bay.

When there’s “weather”, in local parlance, the family will head out fishing in their newly-painted yoal, a traditional Shetland rowing boat. At weekends, that includes Martha Thomson, recently qualified in zoology from Glasgow University, who spends her weekdays as an RSPB warden on the remote northern isle of Fetlar, where she spends many of her days monitoring the island’s small but important colony of rare red-necked phalaropes.

Martha’s at home on the sunny May day we meet, though her brother Harry is still off at university, studying mechanical engineering, also at Glasgow. Settled on the sofa, in the sun-dappled living room, with a wall of books behind them and an unbroken view out to sea, the three of them start to talk about their life in Shetland.

Emma comes from the Southeast of England, and was studying at Cambridge when she came to Fair Isle in the summer of 1993. “It was so appealing seeing a community working so closely together to keep themselves going,” she says of the tiny island, 26 miles south of the Shetland mainland, which today has a population of just 55. “Just seeing peoples’ connection with the place they lived, the pride they took in all of that, and how welcoming they were... Coming from the Southeast of England, that had gone.”

Ewen first heard of Emma from his uncle, who declared one day that a lass from England had arrived on the mailboat on the mailboat. The rest is history; Emma’s three-week trip became a whole summer, and she moved up a year later. “I was welcomed into something really special,” she says.

Ewen grew up in a crofting family on Fair Isle. His grandfather made wooden spinning wheels and his father made straw-backed chairs. Like the rest of the family, Ewen played the fiddle, and it made sense to him to bring the two family traditions together. For his woodwork O-Grade, at Lerwick’s Anderson High School (pupils from Shetland’s outlying islands can spend weeks at a time on the Mainland), he made a fiddle case; for his Higher, he graduated to an actual fiddle, which was rudimentary but enough to make him the youngest person, at 16, ever accepted at School of Violin Making in Newark-on-Trent.

I don’t think I missed out on anything when I was young. We did have the music, we did have the cinema, we had loads of activities when we were younger: drama, music, athletics, coasteering. It’s unbelievable how lucky we were to have what we had.

Ewen set up a workshop on Fair Isle in 1991, and has been making and repairing Italian-style violins out of spruce and maple ever since, selling and repairing fiddles for a “very loyal local market” and exporting them around the world. Each violin takes three months to make, and each one is a thing of carefully crafted beauty, even if soft-spoken Ewen is largely too modest to say so.

The family moved to the Shetland Mainland 16 years ago. The house, which they built in 2007, has been a labour of love, and Emma jokes that Ewen could happily not leave the bay—aside from making fiddles, there are sheep to tend to, boats to paint, dry-stain dykes to work on. Ewen plays in a few highly respected local folk bands, including Haltadans, who have toured Europe—nevertheless, band practice often happens at Channerwick. Ewen is Shetland through and through, and seems simply at peace here. “I’ve never felt any real need to be anywhere else,” he says. “There’s always been a pull back to Shetland, and home.”

But for Emma, this life has been an active choice: first, the decision to move to Fair Isle, and then to move the family to the Shetland Mainland, where she could be closer to Lerwick, and work, while she and Ewen could still run a family croft. For the 16 years since moving from Fair Isle, she has worked for the Shetland Islands Council in Lerwick, with a focus on inequality and social exclusion. While home life revolves around lambs, sea views and homegrown vegetables, she’s professionally aware that not everyone in Shetland is quite so fortunate.

At the same time, she’s also part of the safety net that exists here, where oil money has contributed to some of the best-funded public services in the UK. “It is my job to help make sure that everyone in Shetland can access the brilliant opportunities that we have,” she says. “And my own job is an example of the opportunities here. There are a lot of jobs, especially within the council and the NHS. I never thought I’d end up working for a council, but it gives me this immense job satisfaction.”

On a personal level, Emma still has a very clear sense of what makes Shetland different from other places, particularly the corner of England where she’s from. “These things that can seem quite contrived elsewhere—going to the woodland or the food market, going to see the band or the play—here, it’s just living,” she says. “It feels like other parts of the UK are trying to reconnect with something that has been broken, whereas Shetland never lost it.”

There are a lot of reasons for that, one of which, historically, has been simple survival. “Even as recently as the 1970s, Ewen’s life was very different to mine,” she says. “You needed that knowledge of the land to thrive, and you needed to pass it through generations. It feels like the tide has turned a bit, and the world is valuing that more again.”

All that may partly explain why, as Emma says, there’s been a sea change in how Shetland sees itself in recent years. “When I first worked at the council 16 years ago, it felt like some peoples’ aspirations for their children would be that they moved away,” she says. “But that has shifted. Lots of people in their 20s and 30s are coming back, and I think there’s a new pride about the place.”

Martha is one of the new generation of Shetlanders, and she paints an idyllic picture of growing up at Channerwick—not just of playing on the beach, finding eels in the burn and cutting hay in the summer, but of the cultural opportunities available. “I don’t think I missed out on anything growing up here,” she says. “We had music, we had the cinema, we had loads of activities: drama, music, athletics, coasteering. It’s unbelievable how lucky we were.”

Like her father and great-grandfather, who played the fiddle until he was 94, Martha grew up with the instrument. If music was a necessary form of self-made entertainment back on Fair Isle, it’s very much a choice for the young Shetlanders who are re-adopting and re-imagining Shetland folk music. Martha plays in a young all-girl group called Herkja, who played their first gig at this year’s Shetland Folk Festival, one of the islands’ many community-driven cultural festivals. Before going to Glasgow to study zoology, she’d been on the first ever music course at Mareel, the Lerwick arts centre that has a cinema and gig venue as well as state-of-the-art facilities for arts students, from film to music.

“When I was at school, traditional music wasn’t that popular in terms of the young folk,” says Ewen. “I certainly wouldn’t have been showing my fiddle case around. Now, though, some of these cases are like shrines, with all the stickers. Young folk love to be seen to be playing the fiddle now.”

When Ewen was younger, the way of life in 70s very different to mine, dependent on that knowledge of the land for survival. In a way, Shetland’s been really lucky because we’re shifting back to recognising the skills and knowledge of people that have been lost. But it never has in Shetland. So the tide’s turned and we still have that, which makes it such an attractive place.

Martha is keen to point out, though, that it isn’t just traditional folk music that’s in rude health. “You can come to Shetland and find any kind of music, from classical to jazz, blues and heavy metal,” she says. “There are bands coming up every week, and you’ve got DJs playing funk and soul on a Friday night. Then you’ve got the fact that you can be in a pub and people will just pick up instruments and start playing. It’s actually really diverse.”

Like her brother, who has also gone away to study, Martha always planned to return home after her studies. For her, that is partly down to her decision to making a career protecting Shetland’s bird population. While Shetland is arguably the best place in the UK for birdwatchers, man has had an effect—notably, the 1970s fishery that dredged up sand eels, with serious knock-on effects for populations kittiwakes, guillemots and other seabirds. “When you’re here, you see how fragile the ecosystem is,” she says. “You realise what an impact humans have, and how much we need to protect the rich life we have here.”

At Channerwick, everything ultimately comes back to nature, the sea and the outdoors. “The other day, somebody up from Inverness asked me, Why do you live here?” says Emma. “And I said: It’s the sort of place where you can be sitting at your desk and a killer whale will go past. Or you can look out to sea at night, and see it totally lit up by the full moon. There are just these magic moments, and you never know when they’re going to happen.”

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It’s a maritime community, it’s always been used to welcoming people and looking out to the broader world. It’s not an insular place at all.
Emma Perring

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