Shetland star's video plea to bring world-leading bird observatory back to life

The star and creator of the BBC crime drama Shetland are spearheading efforts to bring a world-leading bird observatory on a remote island back to life after it was destroyed in a huge blaze.

Douglas Henshall plays Detective Jimmy Perez, who hails from Fair Isle, in the BBC Scotland crime drama Shetland. Picture: Mark Mainz

Douglas Henshall, who has made five series of the show in the Shetland Islands, has recorded a special video message to help kickstart a new £650,000 global fundraising campaign to create a new Fair Isle Bird Observatory.

It is hoped work will get under way next year on the £7.4 million project, which received planning permission earlier this year.

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Fair Isle, which is located roughly half-way between the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos, is one of Scotland’s most remote inhabited islands, and has a population of around 55.

It is internationally renowned for the scientific research into seabirds and bird migration which is carried out on the island, which has been home to an observatory since 1948.

Fair Isle is the native island of Henshall’s character in Shetland, Jimmy Perez,

Ann Cleeves, the author of the series of novels which were adapted for the first few series of the BBC Scotland show, worked as a cook in the bird observatory after dropping out of university.

Cleeves, who has agreed to be patron of the fundraising campaign, has recorded her own video appeal.

In his message, Henshall says: “The bird observatory was at the very heart of the community in Fair Isle.

“It was a world-famous facility which attracted visitors from all over the world.

“They came for the extraordinary birdlife, both resident and migratory, that Fair Isle is famous for.

“Tragically, however, in March 2019, the observatory was destroyed in a fire. The good news is that a new building is to be resurrected from the ashes in 2021.

Ann Cleeves, author of the Jimmy Perez novels set on Shetland, worked in the observatory kitchen more than 40 years ago.

“In order, however, to make that possible, the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust is seeking financial help. They’re asking for donations, however large or small, to help with the construction. Please give if you can.”

Recalling her first visit to Fair Isle’s observatory, Cleeves said: “I first went there more than 40 years ago to work in the kitchen.“Even then, I understood how important the observatory was to the island and the islanders.

“Fair Isle is a thriving community that keeps alive its traditions while being open-minded and open-hearted to visiting strangers.

“The loss of the building to fire was a tragedy, given its central role in supporting employment and providing a place where islanders and visitors can meet to share stories and expertise.

A visualisation of what the new Fair Isle Bird Observatory will look like if the campaign is successful. Image: ICA

“We now hope to replace it with a building that is even more relevant to the island’s future and hope that you can help us in any way you can.”

Roy Dennis, president of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust, said: “I was appalled when I saw the flames destroying our famous bird observatory in March 2019, but I knew then, immediately, that we would build a new one in exactly the same place – like a ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’.

“Our trustees have worked hard, and even with the difficulties of the pandemic, new designs and plans are ready, but we have a very worrying shortfall in funding.

“We now need the sympathies of last year turned into generous donations, so that the observatory can be rebuilt.”

The association between Fair Isle and migrant birds dates back to a visit by Dr William Eagle Clarke in the autumn of 1905, which led to other eminent ornithologists arriving on the island, including Mary, Duchess of Bedford, and Surgeon Rear Admiral John Hutton Stenhouse, plus Harry Witherby, Phil Hollom and George Waterston. Waterston bought the island in 1948 and co-founded the first observatory.

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