It has been just over a month since the Fair Isle Bird Observatory and guest house were destroyed in a blazing fire, and the images of the flames are still running through the mind of former administrator Hollie Shaw.

She says: “it was like watching a film. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I can see the images in my head and it’s still really hard to believe it actually happened.”

It would be hard not to stew over the images, sights and sounds. Four weeks on and when you stand next to the charred remains of the building the smell of burnt wood and metal and just about everything else still hits you.

The community of about 60 people on Fair Isle, which lies between Shetland and Orkney, is hugely thankful that no one was hurt in the fire at the facility, which was opened in 2010 at a cost of around £4 million to replace the old observatory.

Read more: Bird Observatory blaze sparks ecomomic crisis for tiny Fair Isle

Warden David Parnaby and wife Susannah had lived with their two children at the observatory for the last eight years. They are the latest in a long line of people at the helm of the observatory, which was founded in the 1940s.

“It felt very unreal for most of the day,” Mrs Parnaby recalls. “I was very mindful that people who you’re very close to are dealing with the fire, and you’re more concerned about people than you are about anything else.”

While the directors of the bird observatory trust want to see the building rebuilt as soon as possible with insurance money, there is no doubt that Fair Isle will be hit hard.


A number of flight bookings from Tingwall Airport on the Shetland mainland, always busy in the summer with birdwatchers, have been cancelled and the local shop, which supplied the observatory with food and drink, will take a hit.

A knitwear collective based in Ms Shaw’s home, which produced about 300 hats and 50 jumpers last year, saw around half of its sales come from observatory guests.

The fire was spotted by the crew of the Fair Isle ferry, Good Shepherd. Former skipper Neil Thomson, who was on board, said there was nothing anyone could do. “You felt so helpless,” he said.

Jimmy Stout lives just down the hill from the Fair Isle’s cosy museum. The view from his kitchen, gazing out on to the sea southwards, grand lighthouse peering into the vista, is striking.

Read more: What it feels like ... to live on Fair Isle

Born in Fair Isle before returning to settle with his wife some 50 years ago, Mr Stout is well aware of the impact the bird observatory fire will have on the community.

“It’s very important for the island,” he says. “It’s been here for 70 years now, and it was important even back then, in my father’s time.”

Back up the hill, not far from the island’s imposing cliff face at its south end, and Eve Eunson is on her laptop, presumably struggling with the isle’s sloth-like broadband speeds. Eve, who grew up on the island, helped to set up an online crowdfunder for the Parnabys after the fire, raising more than £26,000 in a matter of days.

“It was above and beyond what we expected to achieve,” she says.


The school has a roll of three at the moment and provides vital employment, and across the road is the fire station, with both not too far from the kirk and Methodist chapel.

Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, which last year advertised a house for rent on the island for just £23 a month, you get the feeling the island is most definitely self-reliant.

But what will the future hold for Fair Isle? Mr Stout is hopeful but, it is clear in his mind, Fair Isle’s roots and heritage should not be forgotten.

“You have to have indigenous people living in these places, otherwise it tends to become a different place,” he says. “People come to the place because of the way they see it.”