Monday, July 22, 2013

Debacle in Shetland: Fair Isle

As the MV Hjaltland passed by Sumburgh Head, the RGU professor and I were eagerly searching for Fair Isle. Fair Isle is considered the "most remote location in the United Kingdom", although "most remote location in the British Isles" might be more apt since the United Kingdom technically includes overseas territories like Tristan da Cunha (the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world), among others. That said, Fair Isle is pretty remote since regular travel there requires one to get to Shetland first, which is already a chore in and of itself. Anyway, we spotted an island in the distance, west of Sumburgh Head, but neither of us had a map available so we weren't able to figure out what island we were actually looking at. We were disappointed that the island in question was so far away.

In fact, the island we had been looking at was Foula. About two hours into the passage, the 1MC announced that we would be passing by Fair Isle shortly. It turned out that the ship had been pointed almost directly at Fair Isle, and although it should have been visible, our view from the stern observation deck was blocked by the ship's bridge. Once we approached Fair Isle, we were only a few hundred yards off its west coast - so close that once we reached the south end, we could see individual houses within the island's only community, and could have seen its inhabitants if any of them had cared to come out and wave at the ferry. (The ferry passes by daily, so I assume that they're sort of over it by now.) Fair Isle is known for its woolen goods and its bird observatory, which apparently attracts a bunch of transient volunteer workers. You can have an overhead look here.

Like Orkney and Shetland, Fair Isle was settled by the Vikings. In all honesty, as we were passing by and I was taking pictures, all I could think about - probably informed by my bizarre experiences in Shetland - was how only a mongrel idiot would sail past Fair Isle and think to themself, "Hey, that looks like a great place to establish a colony!" It sort of makes you wonder whether the colonists were volunteers, or voluntold. The island apparently enjoys fairly mild temperatures, but having experienced the extreme wind you can get through Orkney, I can only imagine what it's like to live on a little scrap of rock in the North Sea with absolutely no shelter from the wind and the rain. I love remote, sparsely inhabited locations, and Fair Isle is too remote and sparsely inhabited even for my tastes. That said, I was thrilled at the opportunity to pass by it - honestly, how many people can say that they've seen Fair Isle with their own eyes? - and can add it to the list of things that I can brag about, but that I'll never feel obligated to do again, ever.

My adventure was almost finished, but not quite. There was one last treat in store...

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