Virtually the entire population of Fair Isle attended the official launch of the island’s new £4 million bird observatory on Saturday.
The 70-strong community were among the crowd of around 120 people who turned out to mark a new beginning for the island, widely recognised as a “mecca” for birding enthusiasts with one of the UK’s largest seabird colonies.
The launch comes at the end of a roller-coaster construction period, which saw original contractor AH Wilson of Orkney go into receivership before the building was completed by local workers at Fair Isle-based Northmen last year.
Long-standing resident Jimmy Stout played his part in building the last observatory in 1969, which occupied the same site. He raised a laugh during a light-hearted ceremony when he told of an unofficial walkout during the construction period, which brought about Fair Isle’s “first ever strike”.
“Now we’re into 2011, with the opening of a new building,” he said. “There’s been a high level of stress again. But the observatory has always been a part of Fair Isle. I would wish success to the observatory and, with it, success to Fair Isle – we can’t have one without the other.
“The only problem we have at the moment is the number of people who want to come into Fair Isle. That’s a wonderful problem, and long may it continue.”
Chairman of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust (FIBOT), Rodger Riddington, described being at the opening as a real “pleasure, privilege, and relief”.
“I think it’s absolutely imperative we see this development, not as a full stop, but as the start of a new chapter,” he said. “Our seabirds are having a tough time, but there are still lots of opportunities for the Fair Isle Bird Observatory.”
Residents in Fair Isle are rightly pleased to see the building up and running. They raised around £100,000 to help bring the new observatory to completion.
FIBOT’s president, Roy Dennis, was thankful to those who had recognised the vision behind the new building.
“It’s important to remember our friends in Fair Isle. We went to them, and they came up with really good amounts of money,” he said.
He highlighted one case where a £10,000 cheque had been sent anonymously as part of the fund-raising effort.
“It was really important because it meant we then could go to funding bodies and say ‘this is the support we have from our ordinary members’.”
But the council, which invested over £1 million in the project and were represented by convener Sandy Cluness and South Mainland member Allison Duncan, was also singled out for praise during the ceremony.
“It was thanks to you, and your fellow councillors, the convener, that it really started along,” said Mr Dennis.
“The Shetland council decision to come in with over £1 million was an important thing for us to push on.”
The Scottish government was another major funder, giving almost £1.2 million through its rural development programme.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise, meanwhile, gave almost £360,000 to the cause.
Former warden Deryk Shaw stressed that the new observatory had retained a family-friendly feel, despite its many modern features.
“We now have a comfortable, more modern, spacious, energy-efficient building with increased research facilities, but also retaining that vital, homely, family-friendly atmosphere that the old building had.”
Speaking after the ceremony, newly entrenched warden David Parnaby echoed Mr Stout’s claims about the close link between the community and the observatory.
“I think Jimmy said you can’t have one without the other. It’s a nice summary of the place, because without the islanders there’d be no point in the bird observatory. I think we’re part of the community and, hopefully, contribute to it as well.”
Featuring en suite accommodation for 20 guests, the new observatory is a far cry from the ex-naval huts which formed the original base for bird watchers in 1948.
It uses a high-tech energy system that features innovative “breathing building” insulation and heat recovery.
That means any waste heat from the kitchen or laundry room is captured and used to heat the accommodation, while filters in the walls deliver fresh air and keep heat loss to a minimum.
There are also photovoltaic cell panels in the roof, which turn sunlight into electricity.
Inside the building artwork by Orkney artist Sheila Scott is also featured.
Administrator Susannah Parnaby said the accommodation was as good as most of Shetland’s hotels.
“It’s not a hostel by any means. We hold our own with most hotels in Shetland. It’s great for visitors because we find quite a few folk come not really knowing what sort of place this is,” she said.
“But they can go round the isle and find out about the knitting, or go to the museum. They can go round some of the traps with the wardens, find out about ringing [birds] or perhaps see slide shows that talk about the work that we’re doing.
“I think folk come away with a different sense of the place and doing an awful lot of things they wouldn’t necessarily have thought they were coming here to do.”
Fair Isle still faces challenges, however, despite the palpable relief the observatory is at last open.
Calls are being made for the waters around Fair Isle to be given marine protected status, following several years of falling seabird populations.
The man co-ordinating the drive is former warden, Nick Riddiford. He said 20,000 pairs of kittiwakes were nesting off Fair Isle in 1988, when he stood down as warden after seven years in the post.
That number has dropped to just 1,200 pairs now, he said. “The island has had a human population continuously for 2,000 years, and possibly for 5,000 years,” he said.
“The only way the population can survive over that long period of time is by looking after all our resources in a sustainable manner. We’re fighting to preserve the resources that still underwrite the long-term future of this island.”