A Time to Keep

By Liz Musser

Where the Atlantic and the North Sea converge, a small piece of land rises above turbulent waters. It is the only island in the 50 miles of sea between Orkney and Shetland.

Fair Isle
5km by 3km, Fair Isle, Shetland, is Britain’s most remote inhabited island.

Its name, Fair Isle, is most commonly used to refer to the world-famous patterned knitwear which originated on the isle; but it is most definitely a place – with a thriving community of 71. One of youngest residents is 1-year-old Alfie Thomson and the oldest is 89-year-old Annie Thomson. Both are related to folk singer-songwriter Lise Sinclair, whose family tree is as rooted in Fair Isle as layers of peat.

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A Time to Keep

Fair Isle resident Lise Sinclair explains the inspiration behind her music. BBC World Affairs Correspondent Allan Little describes some of the key moments from his career and answer questions about what it is like to report the world in an age of conflict. Bill Boyd reads his poem Hogmanay, written in the style of Robert Burns.

Full video credits. Photograph of Lise (above) by Lowri Best; all others by Tommy Hyndman.

Fair Isle’s population has remained relatively constant over the past couple of decades. Still, like so many islands, it too struggles against a tide of depopulation and loss of a unique way of life. A coalition of Scotland’s Islands aims to change that with a £1.8m initiative to boost island economies, improve links between islands and increase tourism. Beginning in spring 2011 to spring 2012, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland will host a year-long programme of events promoting the culture and creativity of their communities.

One of the flagship projects during this Year of Scotland’s Islands Culture is Fair Isle resident Lise Sinclair’s series of songs inspired by George Mackay Brown’s book, A Time to Keep. He was one of Scotland’s most prolific writers. Former George Mackay Brown Writing Fellow Pam Beasant says, “Although he is very much identified as an Orcadian, writing about Orkney, his writing appeals far beyond Orkney. He identifies the strengths and the difficulties of living in a closely-knit community and has a sharply observant eye for human kindnesses and failings, and is particularly sympathetic to those on the edge of any society.”

Fair Isle is known for its seabird colonies. Approximately 40,000 puffins arrive in spring.

On a clear day Lise can just see the edge of Shetland, on a clear night the northern lighthouse of Orkney but, in reading Mackay Brown, she says she’s found common ground for both island groups and she wanted to, “give a voice to his characters off the page, to a new generation, in a new way, in a new century.”

Fair Islander Fiona Mitchell says she’s not that familiar with George Mackay Brown’s work, “but I do know Lise’s work – her songs and poetry. She has a way of capturing island life in mediums people can relate to on a lot of different levels.”

For Lise, the project is about connecting the past and the present...and music is a way of keeping this time.

She has assembled a band of musicians reflecting a shared Northern Isles cultural identity from Orkney, Fair Isle, Shetland and Iceland. Together they will record and produce a CD and booklet of Lise’s new songs along with an Icelandic translation. During March 2012, they plan to premiere the work in Orkney, followed by performances in Fair Isle, Shetland, the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh and Iceland.

Pam Beasant is also the Orkney advisor to the Flahship Events: “The great thing about Lise’s project is the way it will seamlessly link and include the island groups and other communities. Through the great writing in A Time to Keep and Lise’s undoubtedly beautiful settings of the Icelandic translation, it will become something different, organic, that will touch people everywhere.”

Lise's work is also being supported by the Scottish Poetry Library, Creative Scotland, Shetland Arts, Shetland Islands Council.

South lighthouse
The last manned lighthouse in Scotland was Fair Isle's south lighthouse. It was automated in 1998.

Learn about The Lighthouse Stevensons (who built the south lighthouse).

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