The Shetlanders: the seaside crofters

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, including 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.

The family moved to the Shetland Mainland 16 years ago. The house, which they rebuilt 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, working to combat 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. Shetland has probably higher than full-time employment, so 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.”