The facility on Britain’s most remote inhabited island has been at the heart of internationally-significant research into seabirds and bird migration for more than seven decades. It is also a major tourist attraction which forms the backbone of the Shetland island’s fragile economy, drawing hundreds of visitors and researchers every year.
The multimillion pound centre was completely destroyed by the fire, which broke out at around 11.20am on Sunday. It is understood the blaze began in the building’s roof space, before spreading to its timber cladding. No one was injured.
The observatory was founded in 1948 by George Waterston, the then owner of Fair Isle, as a public trust. A bespoke new £4m building was completed in 2010.
The directors of the observatory said last night they were “extremely saddened,” but had been “overwhelmed with outpouring of support” from around the world.
The fire has left the family of the current warden, David Parnaby, temporarily homeless. He has lived and worked at the observatory since 2011 with his wife, Susannah, the observatory’s administrator, and their two daughters, Grace and Freyja. They are staying with friends on the island while the observatory directors work with the National Trust for Scotland and other parties to find a long a term solution.
The observatory has comprehensive insurance in place and there are no plans as yet to launch a fundraising campaign towards the observatory’s reconstruction. Roy Dennis, honorary president of the Fair Isle Observatory Trust, himself a former warden of the observtory, hopes it can be rebuilt over the coming year.
In a statement, the observatory directors said: “There will inevitably be elements where the full cost of the disaster will not be fully covered by insurance, and once the situation becomes clearer we may launch future appeals for help to replace specific items.”
They added that they hoped to support Mr Parnaby and his colleagues to “continue with as much ornithological census research work as is feasible in the circumstances,” explaining: “We are all still in a state of shock but are committed to rebuilding and continuing the important work of the bird observatory.”
While the observatory’s precious census data - widely cited in international scientific research - had been digitised, Mr Waterston’s handwritten diaries are among those artefacts tto have perished in the fire.
Patrick Duffy, chief operating officer of the National Trust for Scotland, which ownes the vast majority of the island, said: “We were deeply sorry to hear of the destruction caused by the fire at the Fair Isle bird observatory. However, we are relieved to have confirmation that no-one was hurt as a result. The trust is ready and willing to help in any way we can.”
RSPB Scotland said: “We are devastated to hear the news of the Fair Isle bird observatory, it is a tragedy to lose such a special place.
“We are relieved to hear no one was injured, and we give our heartfelt thanks to the islanders and emergency services who worked so hard to try and tackle the fire.”