THE harsh realities of life on the UK’s remotest inhabited island is being brought to life in a new novel which claims its strong community spirit stopped it from suffering the same fate as that of St Kilda.
Despite mass emigration in the 19th century – declining from almost 400 to under 100 – Fair Isle, a tiny island situated in the rough seas between Shetland and Orkney, and famous for its knitting and seabirds, survived.
The new book, Fair Isle Ghosts, is a mixture of fiction and real-life events, which author Carol Tweedie hopes will show how such a small island population coped with Victorian life.
Set between the years 1851 and 1897, the story follows the fortunes of two families - the Wilsons from Taft and the Quoy Irvines.
Through maritime tragedies, hard winters, births, deaths and marriages, the families struggle to survive.
The author, a descendent of one of the families who researched their history, said: “They knit, they tend their beasts, and they fish in the unforgiving seas. But when offered the choice to leave Fair Isle forever, will they stay, or will they face the unknown?
“Very few books have ever been written about Fair Isle. This story serves as a rare insight into the lives of a vibrant people, almost forgotten.”
Following years of research into family geneaology, Tweedie discovered a lost world of photographs, artefacts, and amazing stories of her family, and realised that what she had uncovered was only the tip of the iceberg.
She said: “I wrote it because I was frustrated with the lack of literature about the island, about which everyone has heard but few can place on a map, far less tell you much about it.
“The island’s history is just as interesting as that of St Kilda, which boasts large numbers of books.
“Fair Isle was also under pressure to undertake mass emigration, but thanks to a few hardy souls this was resisted and thus it remains populated today, the UKs most remote community, a tiny island separated by 25 miles from its nearest landfall.”
She added: “The book covers the years 1851 to 1897, witnessing great changes and improvements, but also desperate times.
“Yet life on Fair Isle was probably better than that of some city dwellers, providing a blanket of support and community involvement that was nigh on impossible to replicate elsewhere.
“Perhaps it was this that encouraged so many of those who did leave to congregate close to one another.
“Edinburgh and Leith are prime examples, with one community building up at Leith, close to the docks, while another emerged around McVitie’s biscuit factory at Slateford, where the owner had intimated a preference for Fair Isle workers.” Emigration had always been the norm, since the islanders tended to have an average of 10 children, a surprising number of whom lived, while the land is only three and a half miles by one and a quarter - and half of that is moorland.
The author continued: “Trying to imagine how it was to live there in 1861 when the population was 380 still defeats me. “The book is written as a historical novel,focussing on two families, one that stayed and one that left.
“I felt that an understanding of the pain of emigration was not conveyed by a simple historical text.
“The novel format also made it easier to convey some of the tensions that will always exist in any small, isolated community.”
To encourage others to research their past and save their stories and photographs, she has set up a website intended to encourage emigrants to research their families and contribute their photos and stories.
She added: “I could never have imagined that my journey would lead to writing a book. But once I knew the stories of these remarkable people from our past, I wanted to share them, and encourage others to tell their stories and find out more about their own history.”
Fair Isle Ghosts by Carol Tweedie is published by The Shetland Times at £13.99.