THEY call Fetlar the “Garden of Shetland” – a verdant and fertile island which, two centuries ago, was home to almost 800 men, women and children.
It sits to the north-west of Shetland’s Mainland, and like most of Scotland’s islands, the past 200 years have featured the depopulation of the land. Only four years ago, Fetlar’s community was fighting for survival after the population of the island fell to a record low population of fewer than 50 following an exodus of families looking for a new life elsewhere, forcing the local primary school to close.
For long-term residents like James Rendall, who lives near the ferry terminal at Hamars Ness, it was a worrying time. When the remaining population considers a diminished future, it is inevitable others will question the island’s continued viability. The loss can build up a momentum that is difficult to halt.
But last year Rendall witnessed a remarkable turn-around in Fetlar’s fortunes as the population soared again to 79 residents, allowing the school to reopen its doors. As the good times rolled, the spirit of regeneration was demonstrated by the arrival last summer of a couple from Birmingham, along with their four children.
And this month Fetlar Developments Limited, the local enterprise agency, appointed a tourism development officer who will spearhead a fresh drive to promote Fetlar as a holiday destination.
It’s a fragile process, growing an island’s population, and no-one would want to rock the boat on this particular journey. But the good people of Fetlar have become worried by more than just a rocking of the boat recently. They fear for the boat itself, because proposals by Shetland Islands Council could reduce lifeline ferry services to the outer islands in a bid to combat a growing financial crisis and the need to make £3 million in cuts.
Island councillors will meet later this month to discuss proposals that include cutting one of the two ferries on the route from Fetlar with the neighbouring islands of Yell and Unst on the Bluemell Sound run. Islanders say that the loss of one of their two ferries will have a “significant negative” impact on the island’s future – at the very moment that Fetlar’s survival seems to have been finally secured. Only last month the island community had gathered together to celebrate the official opening of a new 235-metre breakwater and new small pier for Fetlar – a vital facility for which the community had been campaigning for almost a century.
Rendall, 55, the chairman of Fetlar community council and an engineer on one of the two ferries serving the island, warns that the removal of a ferry could have a devastating impact on island life. “That would be the end to it,” he predicts. “It would mean we wouldn’t have a ferry from 11am until 5pm. It would affect everyone who lives on the island and our visitors. It’s real cloud on the horizon.” The threat to the ferry services, he said, could not have come at a more pivotal time for the island – just as it was making plans to capitalise on the remarkable transformation in its fortunes.
Rendall, a former resident of Lerwick on Mainland, who crofted on Fetlar before joining the ferry crew, says: “At our lowest point we had only 48 folk left on the island in 2009 – the lowest population there had ever been. The school had closed for a year because there were no pupils. Now we have 79 residents in total and seven children at the school. It’s been an amazing turnabout. We advertised for folk to come to Fetlar and they basically came.”
Fetlar’s battle for survival began four years ago when Shetland Islands Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise established a special task force, dedicated to reversing the exodus from the island.
Three years ago the island was awarded a major grant from the European Regional Development Fund to help build the community’s first pier at Hamars Ness, at the north of the island. And in December the £2.25 million scheme, principally funded by Shetland Islands Council, was completed with the formal opening of the new breakwater facility.
Rendall says: “The ferry used to be based in Yell and we had to travel in and out, but since they built the new ferry terminal in 2004 we have been able to tie the ferry up in Fetlar in fine weather. And now that we have the breakwater we can anchor the ferry here any time. I believe we now have one of the best harbours for a sheltered berth anywhere on Shetland.
“The new facility could also give us chance to start a wee fishing industry here on Fetlar and certainly one of the local boys is thinking about it. On Fetlar you are five minutes steaming time to the grounds you would want to fish.”
He says the islanders have also recruited a local youth to work for a year developing he island’s tourism potential.
“The idea is too promote ourselves. We have quite a short tourism season from mid April until the schools go back, although we get one or two birdwatchers in September. Fetlar is a real hidden secret and until now it has been poorly marketed. We hope we can get more folk to come. Working on the ferry, you see plenty of bus trips going to Unst and Yell, but you rarely get them coming to Fetlar. But, as long as we can keep the ferries, I believe they will come.”
The ferry crews and the islanders, he says, have already put forward alternative proposals to the council for a different shift pattern, which could save money but still guarantee a two-ferry service. “We are hoping for the best,” he adds.
Robert Thomson, a Fetlar Development worker, also voices his concerns about the possible cutting of one of the two ferries: “There are two ferries which run between the three isles of Yell, Unst and Fetlar. One boat is crewed from Yell and one crewed mainly from Fetlar and both do the main Yell-Unst run and also at times come out to Fetlar, depending on the schedule.
“The worst-case scenario is that the boat which is currently crewed on Fetlar will be removed totally. Some members of the local ferry crew also do a bit of crofting, but they would have to look at what their options were if the council cuts the service. They could be offered a relocation package – and the possibility they could leave is obviously a concern. If Fetlar was reduced to just one ferry it would have a pretty significant negative effect. We have capital projects we are looking at which would be affected by this. I am not saying they couldn’t go ahead but it would make it more difficult.
“The reduced level of traffic couldn’t sustain even the level of tourism we have at the present time. The current level of service we get with two ferries is fundamental to achieving all the aims for the island we have. There are a lot of things which are really positive for the island just now and it would be really disappointing if the ferries weren’t able to assist us to grow.”
Fetlar’s latest population boost is thanks to the arrival in the late summer of Mike Fogarty, 57, a retired university lecturer, his partner Marie Painter, 45, and their children Theresa, 11, Shane, ten, Joshua, eight and Aaron, five, from their home at Stourton, near Birmingham. “We had been thinking about moving for about three years,” says Mr Fogarty. “I went to the Queen Victoria School in Dunblane and my mother is from Edinburgh and a bit of me wanted to return to Scotland for a quiet life when I retired.
“We looked at Fetlar online and researched it, made contact and then came up in February last year to have a look around and meet people. We thought we would come up in winter and see Fetlar at its worst and fell in love with the place. And we moved here at the end of September. It is down to the people on the island that we made up our minds to come. They were frank and open with us. It wasn’t portrayed as being all rosy. And they urged us to put in for social housing and come up and stay for 12 months and then make a final decision.
“But we have already more or less made up our minds that we are staying. We are here for the long haul. The kids have already told us they don’t want to go back to Stourton. Fetlar is now home to them. The lifestyle here is fantastic.
“If I was still working then the threat to the ferry service might have affected our decision to come here. But I am retired. There are, however, ways we could be affected that concern us about the ferries. The leisure facilities are on Unst and Yell and, if they cut the service, it is going to reduce the chances of going to places like that. And, at the moment, my eldest daughter when she starts secondary, has the choice of going to Baltasound junior secondary on Unst or Anderson High School at Lerwick. Obviously, if the ferries are affected it might have some impact on her schooling. But I have no regrets about moving to Fetlar. To be honest, I wish we had done it before.”
A spokeswoman for Shetland Islands Co-uncil said: “The SIC’s review of Shetland’s ferry services began in February 2012, initially with a target of saving £1.7million. Since that time, the financial constraints facing the Council have significantly increased, and that target has risen to around £3million.
“Two rounds of public meetings have been held around the isles. That extensive period of consultation has come to an end, and a significant volume of feedback has been received from individuals, communities and businesses. In addition, the review will include traffic modelling and economic studies, and a wider socioeconomic study of the council’s overall proposals.”
The people of Fetlar have to hope that others will also see their link to the mainland as worth more than a figure on a balance sheet.