The fairest Isle
Months ago I had the brilliant idea of having a launch party for BLUE LIGHTNING in the new bird observatory on Fair Isle. The book is set in a field centre on the island, I first went there 35 years ago to be assistant cook, and besides I love the place and wanted to share it with friends and colleagues. Helen, my publicist knows and likes Shetland, and she encouraged me. She thought the novelty of a launch party on the most remote inhabited island in the UK would attract the press – and anyway it would provide an excuse for her to visit too! Hollie, the observatory’s administrator, was enthusiastic because it’d give us a chance to show off the smart new building.
From the beginning the planning was a little stressful. The plane that runs the scheduled flight into the Isle will take 8 at a push – if everyone’s skinny and doesn’t have much luggage - and we were bringing in a couple of dozen people. But there are two flights on a Saturday and some people agreed to use the mail boat, the Good Shepherd, so we got that organised.
Then just a few weeks ago Hollie was told by the contractors that the observatory wouldn’t be ready for guests in time for the party. Everyone had paid for their flights into Shetland, we had a publisher and press coming from Sweden, and features writers from a couple of major British newspapers on board. We both decided that it would be too disappointing to cancel. Hollie, who must have been already frantic coping with builders, took on the task of finding accommodation in the island for all our party. Some people would be there for 5 nights, but still islanders offered up their spare beds, Dave at the South Lighthouse put his guest house at our disposal, and the observatory domestic staff offered to do the party food – although the only cooking facilities they could use were at the Puffinn, a glorified fish hut, where they were camping out. And though Ann, head cook, right-hand woman, and my very good friend, had been diagnosed with a serious illness and wasn’t there. The team decided that they’d use Ann’s planned menu and follow her special recipes – their own tribute to her.
I expected that some of my guests might back out at this point, but everyone decided that they’d go ahead. The first of us went in on the Good Shepherd from Lerwick with boxes of Shetland smoked salmon and smoked mussels, a leg of reestit mutton (a Shetland delicacy), all donated, along with crates of Unst beer, by Promote Shetland. And at the North Haven in Fair Isle our hosts were there to meet us. Some very old friends and some people new to me, all equally welcoming.
I stayed with Margo and Bill in the Koolin. When I first worked on Fair Isle, they’d not long moved there with two young children. Bill was a lightkeeper at the North Light, travelling to the remote north of the island at all times and in all weathers to wind up the clockwork weight every forty minutes to keep the lens of the light turning. Margo was full of ideas about crafts and knitting and was a founder member of the Fair Isle co-op of craftspeople. They often rescued me when I needed time away from the observatory, and they rescued me too much later when my husband was ill and we needed somewhere for him to recuperate. Now, they took me in again, and my good friends Ingirid and Jim, who arrived in the following day from Shetland.
Early on Saturday morning I had a text from my Swedish publisher to say that volcanic ash had descended again and they wouldn’t make it. Liz Hunt from the Telegraph got as far as Aberdeen, but had to turn back. The volcanic ash also grounded the small plane due to bring in more guests that afternoon, but Neil, skipper of the Good Shepherd, held the boat at Grutness and everyone who’d reached Shetland got in.
And the party? Of course that went ahead and everyone, from the smallest baby, to their great grandparents had a wonderful time. We had music from the world-famous Chris Stout and from other fabulous island musicians: both Stuarts, Neil, Lise and Angela. There was beer and wine, bannocks filled with Ingirid’s reestit mutton, oatcakes and smoked salmon, and mounds and mounds of homebakes. Cathy had made a felted wall-hanging, depicting the lightning strike featured on the jacket of BLUE LIGHTNING, to be auctioned in aid of Vaila’s Fund and the new observatory – if you’re interested in bidding check out the observatory website. We all sang Happy Birthday to island children Robyn and Raven.
On Monday most of my guests had gone and I had time to do what I remembered doing when I lived there. I sat in croft kitchens drinking tea – or something stronger – and talked. Jane and Dave at Field and Jimmy and Florrie at Skerryholm made me feel as if I was 20 again.
I left the island on the Tuesday boat, not feeling too emotional because I knew I’d be back the following day on a day trip with two German journalists. We had beautiful weather on Wednesday, a smooth flight and a clear day. Deryk showed us the new bird observatory and close-up views of puffins. Hollie made a wonderful lunch. Leaving that time was more difficult. I made sure I sat at the back of the plane so nobody could see me cry.
Photgraphs by Roger Cornwell; you can see Dave Wheeler's photographs here.