Fetlar’s falling population has been well documented in recent years, with many of the stories painting a rather depressing picture of the isle’s future.
Recently, however, the population has experienced a boost with several families moving back to the isle. With potential developments in the pipeline, both from within the community and further afield, the future is looking brighter than ever.
One of the newest arrivals is four-month-old Casey Thomason, son to Brydon Thomason and wife Vaila, who moved to the isle in February 2008 to pursue Brydon’s business, Shetland Nature Tours, and allow Vaila to continue her work in massage which she did both at the Unst leisure centre and from home.
As Brydon is originally a Fetlar man and Vaila hails from Unst, the move was perhaps less of an undertaking than for newcomers to Shetland, but the decision to move back nonetheless posed difficulties.
Mr Thomason said: “For a while one of the biggest stumbling blocks was the lack of young folk making the commitment to come back, which isn’t an issue anymore.”
Vaila agreed and said “a presence of younger folk” would help to attract more people to the isle and that “things are definitely looking up”.
While the employment Shetland Nature Tours provides is an ideal reason to be situated in the isle, for another of the isle’s new families, the motivation was the lifestyle.
Sarah and James St-John Smythe and their daughters Jade, 13, and Imogen, three, moved to Fetlar six months ago from the Midlands after an internet search turned up Fetlar.
Feeling the pressures of modern life and yearning for a fresh start, the family decided to make the move to the isle, bravely, without visiting first, and arrived in October last year.
Mrs St-John Smythe said: “We lived in the Midlands in a nice enough area, but there was heavy traffic near us and we couldn’t let Imogen out to play. Now she’s got the freedom to go out and do what children do, play.”
The move didn’t begin in the best way possible, however. After a “horrific” journey which featured delayed ferries, problems getting their lorry aboard NorthLink and then the lorry breaking down on the road to Toft, the family arrived in Fetlar “in a 4×4, we had nothing but a bag of clothes and my brother and his kids … with us”.
Although the journey had been enough to make them turn around and go straight back, Sarah said the welcome they received was “unbelievable”.
“The locals were absolutely brilliant. Marie from next door gave us food and we were given bedding, even a sofa … everything you could need for the first week.” Now though she says she “wouldn’t look back”.
She said: “It’s good for the kids. Jade is at the Anderson and really enjoys it. She’s taking music as one of the options and loves it. We could never afford it, now she really enjoys it, so it would be a real shame if they started to charge for tuition. School wise they do a lot more here, before it wasn’t as interactive.”
While the isle has struggled to attract incomers in the past, there now seems to be a different problem: interest from visitors, but a lack of places for them.
Housing, or lack of it, is a pressing issue and one that Fetlar Development Company officer Robert Thomson said is posing “a bit of a problem”.
He said: “There’s nothing in a walk into condition. We need to speak to a few private owners to see if we can get something done in the near future.”
Mr Thomson was appointed as development worker to the isle last year. The company set a five-year population target of 70, which it is currently just short of reaching. Mr Thomson said the 10 year target is 100; however he feels that to be sustainable the figure would need to be well above this.
Yet with the council housing at Stakkafletts now at capacity and with no new housing developments planned, lack of room is hampering future population growth.
Mr Thomson said: “There’s been a lot of interest in all the properties that have been up for sale. There seems to be a good market for properties and that’s a positive thought.”
However Mr Thomson said that importantly, the atmosphere of the island has been transformed recently: “Some things have begun to happen and the whole mood of the place has changed from very down and quite despairing to having a more positive and hopeful view of the future.”
For full story, see this week’s Shetland Times.