A history of the Fair Isle crofters

25 January 2016
imports_CESC_104-0739-24952_86229.jpg A history of the Fair Isle crofters
Author Carol Tweedie explores the harsh realities of life on Fair Isle, Scotland's most isolated, populated island, in the 19th century. ...

Think Orkney. Think Shetland. Now think about the fifty-mile space between the two and there it is, Fair Isle, Scotland’s most isolated, populated island.
It’s tiny, just over three miles by one, a lump of Devonian sandstone roughly eroded round the edges by the voracious sea. Mankind has existed here since ancient times: fishing, crofting, struggling to survive. Regularly, the wind asserts its mastery, sweeping across the Atlantic, taking salt spray up and over northern moorland and southern crofts. Elsewhere, grass is vertical, but here it is so often horizontal. In so many ways, this little world dances to its own tune.
It can be an exquisitely haunting refrain, this Fair Isle melody. The stunning landscape is beautiful, as is the often tempestuous sea, and the sense of community is difficult to replicate elsewhere. That is why families struggled so hard to stay during the latter half of the 19th century, when economics increasingly pressurised them to leave. The book 'Fair Isle Ghosts' tells their story.

People had always left. Emigration was a necessity in such a small place, one with a knack for raising large families. Sometimes they left in groups, as in 1862 when 137 souls left for Canada, but often people just dribbled away, as young couples struggled to improve their lot. Eldest sons might inherit the croft, but younger ones must find their way too. The old dreaded this regular fragmentation of relationships, and illness was another fear, for here there was little opportunity to build up herd immunity.
Two branches of Christianity saw people meeting in different churches and marrying within their own denomination, a fact that caused some tension in a small community.

This was not Brigadoon. People were flawed. They were real.

Sometimes they made mistakes. The 19th century saw progress, new houses, roads, oxen, a new school and protective parliamentary legislation, but economics remained a relentless enemy.
The Northern Isles were ruled by Scottish lairds, who made large profits from poor tenants. Men paid their rent in fish. Where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, the waters are often turbulent so this was a dangerous occupation, the annual laird’s reckoning often showing little surplus. Periodic disasters reminded fishermen about who was boss, but they never hesitated to risk their lives to save the litany of passing sailors who floundered on the island’s rocks. Scaling cliffs for birds and their eggs was another skill that threatened life and limb.

The women too were heroic. Fair Isle wives had large families, regularly 10 or 12 children. Until the 1880s they inhabited two-roomed homes with one window, no chimney and a peat fire for heat, light and cooking. The byre led off the main door, beasts separated by a partition wall at best. Women washed, cleaned, cooked and cared for families, but they also worked like beasts in the fields, gathered and prepared bait for the men’s fishing, raised peats and roo’ed wool from sheep. Then they began cleaning, dying, carding, spinning and finally “makkin” the famous Fair Isle patterns, as well as ordinary garments for sale or barter.
Fair Isle Ghosts follows the fortunes of our two island families, Wilsons and Irvines, who lived different lives in different crofts. One family is large, relatively successful and educated, the other small, with fewer attributes to protect them from life’s vicissitudes. Through their struggles we examine crofting life between 1851 and 1897 and watch to see who will survive into the next century.
Fair Isle Ghosts by Carol Tweedie (£13.99) is available from The Shetland Times, or Amazon.

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