What’s life like on the most remote inhabited island of the United Kingdom? What does it mean if 55 people share an entire world? Florian Sturm (words) and Xiomara Bender (photography) went there to find out.

Fair Isle is a unique, and magical place. And, at the same time, it's not. Life there cannot be compared to what we, in the rest of the world, are used to. Yet, if you get to spend some time on this tiny patch of land, you'll realise that, in some unexpected way, it’s not that different to modern day-to-day business in a rural community at all. But what will certainly strike you, once you set foot on Britain’s most remote inhabited island, is a subtle and warm feeling of: I’ve found it.

Fair Isle, officially part of Scotland and located halfway between Orkney and Shetland, is home to 55 permanent residents. It once had 360. But those peak times were back in 1861. Since then, the population of Fair Isle has seen an almost continuous decline. In 1973, when the head count was only at 42, chances were that the remaining people had to leave as well. After all, running an island is a hell of a job. And one that needs many hands.

Someone has to look after the water scheme, the electricity system and the roads. The shop, ferry, airstrip and school need staff, the Fair Isle Bird Observatory is doing a census of migrating and sea birds all year round. There's a nurse, a building company, various knitters, a weather station, B&Bs and the large majority of properties are crofts which need looking after.

That's why every adult out here holds various jobs at the same time. Not necessarily because they want to, but because some things just need to get done. Fiona Mitchell, 56, for example, runs the local shop and the post office with her husband Robert. She gives art instruction at the primary school and is the Watch Manager for Fair Isle's unit of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. On top of that, Fiona's a trained aircraft fire fighter for the licenced aerodrome, works as a community councillor, is member of various boards on the island and, as most women out here, also does some knitting. “For us, no day is the same and there's always something to do”, says Fiona, who was ten years old when she first came to the island. “In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions people have about living on Fair Isle is that they think we must be bored in the evenings or especially in winter.”

Truth be told, boredom is a concept which does not exist in the lives of the islanders. Even though, no – precisely because of the fact that Fair Isle is so remote. Almost everything here must be built, repaired, serviced and maintained by the locals themselves. Once you live here, you (have to) become a problem-solver and acquire new skills. After all, getting outside help and materials is not only expensive, it just might not arrive. The phrase ‘weather permitting’ is one you will hear a lot whilst being on Fair Isle. As it is situated right where the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea meet, getting on and off the island is highly dependent on the weather.

Generally speaking, you can either catch a tiny plane from Kirkwall (Orkney) or Tingwall (Shetland) and enjoy, at best, a half-hour scenic flight before touching down at what probably qualifies as one of the smallest airports in the Western world. The airstrip can be described as a huge gravel road and the terminal building a little stone house, two small rooms and a toilet, which could certainly do with some refurbishment. In summer, there are fourteen planes scheduled per week. In winter, this number stands at ten. Weather permitting, of course.

The other option is to board the Good Shepherd IV. The ship with its bright blue hull has been in service since 1986 and is the fourth-generation-ferry. The first one started operating in 1921. The Good Shepherd is the second life-line for the island. It runs to Grutness on Shetland mainland thrice a week. The ride takes about 2,5 hours and, because of the often times rough sea and the small size of the boat, is only seen as a last resort to many people. Even some of the crew members still get sea-sick on it. Every second Saturday, the Good Shepherd aims for the port in Lerwick – which doubles the traveling time to about 5 hours and doesn’t make the trip any more comfortable.

Even though ferry rides are not held in high esteem, they are vital for the community. Food, fresh fruit and vegetables, building materials, household goods, even cars are brought to Fair Isle by boat. Tuesday's usually the day when the Good Shepherd toots its horn and arrives at North Haven pier, its hold filled with cargo for the island. “Every time we are greeted by a large part of the community waiting for the boat to arrive, so they can start to help unloading. No matter if it's blazing sunshine or raining cats and dogs, we’re never alone”, says Ian Best, skipper of the Good Shepherd. “This strong sense of community and the support between each other is something that you probably wouldn't find anywhere on the mainland”, adds Fiona, Ian's brother. That opinion is actually shared by all islanders and it's certainly something which contributes to why many think Fair Isle is the best place to live.

However, just because you are part of a small community, does not mean, that you're automatically friends with everybody. Yes, everybody helps out and nobody is left alone on Fair Isle, but the small size of the island – regarding population and geography – also means that any tensions will surface more quickly and oftentimes also accentuate. And here, on Fair Isle, you cannot run or hide, neither from your neighbours, nor yourself.

David King and Mati Ventrillon have experienced those difficulties first hand. They moved to the island in 2007. Living and working in London at the time, they came across an ad for a property on Fair Isle. Because almost all houses are owned and managed by the National Trust Scotland (NTS), successfully applying for a vacant house is more or less the only way to move to the island permanently. Which is what David and Mati tried. Their application was shortlisted straight away, which came as a bit of a surprise to the three Londoners. After all, they didn’t have any relatives on Fair Isle, no skills in crofting nor any experience in living in a rural area, let alone on a tiny and remote island not successful. “I think we got shortlisted because we had a child and the community desperately needs them in order to keep the primary school running”, Mati says. As ultimately, another family was chosen, Mati and David decided to take some time off work and go on a six-months cycling trip from London to Greece with their son Sebastian, who was two years old at the time. “We kept in touch with the NTS, though, and told them to contact us should any other property come up”, she says. So it happened and their second application was successful. Having lived on the bare minimum for half a year, coming to Fair isle was not such a big difference in terms material possessions: “We already had a minimalist lifestyle so the transition wasn’t very difficult”, she adds.

The trio arrived on Fair Isle in February 2007 and moved into the South Lighthouse, one of the two buildings who used to serve as accommodation for the lighthouse wardens. As every newcomer must come with a business idea of how to sustain a living on the island, Mati’s and David’s plan was to convert the lighthouse building into a café with a workshop area and possibly a gallery. David, who is also an artist, could sell some of his work to earn money. They quickly realised, however, that Fair Isle did not have the type of tourist back then to sustain such a café. They needed to look elsewhere for a job.
Back in London, Mati worked as an architect. “But out here, there was no demand for it”, she says, “and here on Fair Isle, this kind of work is still left to the men.” Apart from that, with two children – in the meantime, their daughter Saskia was born – working as an architect full-time is something you don’t pull off so easily.


Shortly after arriving on Fair Isle, Mati was approached by the knitwear community on the island. The tradition of Fair Isle knitting is famous around the world and the demand for high-quality products by far outweighs the supply. She took a liking to the craft. On top of that, it was also a way to socialise with other islanders. Mati picked up the skills very quickly and became part of the Fair Isle Crafts Co-Operative, which was formed back in the 1980s to protect and foster the tradition of Fair Isle knitting.

When it came to introducing new ideas – ways of manufacturing industrially and also off the island, marketing and handling the business-side of things – she quickly realised these were not welcomed with an open mind or heart. “There’s so much potential regarding the textile industry on Fair Isle and I think it’s not being fully explored”, Mati says. But here suggestions for introducing change may have come too soon. “Rather than proposing various things at once, I should have taken it one step at a time. Maybe there wouldn’t have been as much resistance.”

Instead, what started out as an effort to help the island, turned out to be almost the exact opposite. And ironically, this all happened around one of the very things that make Fair Isle unique: its knitwear.

As a result, the Co-Operative was dissolved after 30 years and there are now two opposing “strings” of knitting companies establishing itself on the island: Mati Ventrillon, who also produces some of her garments in England but designs everything on Fair Isle, and “Fair Isle Made in Fair Isle”, a brand which various people on the island are part of – and which produces solely on Fair Isle. It’s not that the people of the respective brands don’t talk to each other or get into big fights. That’s simply not possible – or rather: reasonable – on a place like this island. But you could certainly speak of a business rivalry. Sitting down and talking things over hasn’t helped and Mati says, that, because of her trying to introduce these new ideas, she has felt somewhat of an outcast for the last years.

David, who is now her ex-partner for five years but still lives on the island, also says that getting fully integrated into a society which is as close-knit as the one on Fair Isle, can be difficult. “Don’t get me wrong. Everybody is extremely helpful and supporting when you arrive. But you have to realise that all the jobs are taken when you come to the island, the hierarchy is soundly in place and you have to find a way to fit in there somewhere. As a newcomer, you need to invent something but even then, you’re under the watch of the long-term residents of the island”, he says. For people that might not be a problem. But especially if you have a strong character, are questioning existing structures and don’t always just do as you’re told, that could soon turn into a problem. It certainly takes a lot of stamina, strength and communication skills not only coming to the island – but sustaining a life here on a long term.

Two people who are trying just that are Marie Bruhat, 25, and Thomas Fisher, 21. They are the newest residents to the island. Marie, originally from France, initially came here for a three-months internship with Mati in 2015. She took a liking to the island, the people and the lifestyle and returned in 2017, when Mati employed her in her knitwear business. In February 2018, she met Thomas. He was working on the island at the time helping to install some of the new windmills. Marie and Thomas met at the men’s weekly game of darts in the halls of the primary school. “When you’re dating on Fair Isle, you’ve got limited options. There are not many things to do. And most of the islanders probably knew we were a couple before we actually did,” she says with a smile on her face. After being together for two months, the work Thomas did was finished and the couple had to make a choice: trying a long-distance relationship or moving in together. There simply wasn’t anywhere else for Thomas to stay. As none of the two fancied seeing the other only every other month, Thomas quit his job and moved to the island. The couple now has a little house to themselves which they have just finished refurbishing. “For some, this might have been too early into a relationship, but I think it was a good move because we knew right from the start what we’re getting ourselves into. I think, we work as a couple precisely because we see each other so much”, Thomas says. When the 21-year-old, who is originally from Aberdeen, first came to the island, he never thought he would once live on it permanently. But he soon fell in love with Fair Isle – and Marie. For her, as for him, this part of Scotland is the perfect place to be: “The landscape is stunning, the community is great and I've got the job that I wouldn't get elsewhere. I've got the meaningful task of carrying on a tradition of knitting using my skill as a designer and I get the satisfaction of creating a product from A to Z. You don’t have that in a big textile company anywhere,” she says.

Do they feel the pressure of carrying the island into a sustainable future? Everybody knows of course that the community needs young couples and families who can take over in ten, twenty years. And the past has shown time and again that it’s difficult to sustain a love relationship on the island. The lifestyle there simply challenges you in ways that you wouldn’t experience elsewhere. “We don’t feel the pressure as such, though”, Marie says, “but of course we are aware of challenges that we as a whole community are facing. However, I’m convinced that new people need to come for themselves, not primarily to save the island. From my perspective, Fair Isle has so much to offer that the island is doing new inhabitants a favour of offering them a place to live a life they wouldn’t get elsewhere.”

John Best is the person on the island who has got the most experience of this very aspect. At 83 years of age, he’s the oldest resident on Fair Isle. John, white beard, alert eyes and always up for a chat, came to the island in 1973. His wife Betty got the job of the nurse. Initially, it was only for a year but and even though John saw that he and his family, especially the kids – Ian and Fiona among them, had a great time, he wasn’t quite sure if Fair Isle was the right place for them. With every week spent on the island, these doubts vanished, though, and they decided to stay long-term.

John, who worked in the health service back then, needed to find something else to support his family. So he set up a building firm with and islander – despite the fact that he had no experience in the field whatsoever. They worked on the first mast and windmill as well as on most houses on the island. He even built his own, a spacious two-story building down at the south end of the island, with a stunning view of the rugged coastline. Is there anything more you can ask for, particularly when you’re also working as an artist? “In the 47 years I’ve been here, I not once thought of leaving the island. You don’t come here if you want to make a load of money. But life here is very fulfilling and gives you this little something. Also, we consider each other as a big extended family”, he says. In this family, John probably takes on the role of the grandfather. Not only because of his age, but also because he is an ordained minister, gives services at the church and many people on the island come to him for confidential conversations. “I think it’s a big service for the community. Normally, there’s not really a room for secrets here. We know so much about each other that this can sometimes be a little difficult. That’s when people come to me. To talk in privacy.”

This notion of sticking together, helping each other and proving as a strong, resilient community came to light particularly in March earlier this year. For more than 70 years, Fair Isle has been home to one of the world’s most important ornithological research stations. The Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO) was first established on August 28th in 1948. Since then, volunteers and researchers have collected data on sea birds and migration routes every single day. “I am quite sure that there is not a lot of places in the world which can say that”, says David Parnaby, the current warden of the FIBO. This March, however, huge black clouds were seen over the island. The roof of the observatory had caught fire and the building burned down to its very foundation. “Fortunately,” says David, “we didn’t have a building full of guests and nobody was hurt.” Nevertheless, the fire poses a great challenge for the whole island. Not only was the FIBO the main provider for tourists who came to Fair Isle, the disaster also has implication on island businesses such as the electricity company or the local shop which provided food and beverages to the observatory. Right now, the board of directors is working full steam to rebuild and re-open the FIBO as quickly as possible. As all of the directors are volunteers and have various other duties, however, it’s still a slow process. The community hopes to re-open in time for the spring season of 2021. In the meantime, the daily census will continue to be made.

Even though the fire at the observatory was a huge blow to the community, there’s actually another thing which is much more unsettling to the islanders: Brexit. As a rural community, the island relies heavily on European funding, on subsidies and projects which improve life on Fair Isle. After getting around-the-clock-electricity only in October 2018, 4G internet was installed on the island in April 2019. “It’s a life-changer”, Marie says. “Telecommunication is such a big thing when you live in a place like this.” Not only for entertainment purposes, but also for people who want to establish their own business or are working in home office. But what Brexit will mean for the island – nobody knows.

Only one thing is quite certain: That it will bring the Fair Isle community even closer together yet again.

click to view the complete set of images in the archive