'Crazy Chris' brings magic to a declining Scottish island

By Ewan Murrie
BBC Scotland news website

Image caption,
Christopher Harris says he is happy to be known to the locals as "Crazy Chris"

A fire-breathing entertainer hopes he can work his magic to boost a small island community battling depopulation.

Chris Harris moved to Shetland's Out Skerries two years ago - where he has opened Scotland's smallest cinema, a gym and a spa.

The 46-year-old magician, who refers to himself as "Crazy Chris", bought a house on the remote island without seeing it in person after spotting an advert online.

Image source, Ivan Reid
Image caption,
The Out Skerries are three tiny islands, four miles off Whalsay, and are Shetland's most easterly outpost

"I've always been in cities," Chris says.

"I'm from Cardiff but have lived in Swansea, Southampton and Hull. When my wife left me after 13 years, I decided to look for something different."

Image caption,
Chris had never been to Skerries when he bought this house only 24 hours after it was listed

The small archipelago is only accessible to the outside world via a ferry from the mainland of Shetland, which must be booked in advance.

At the last census, in 2011, the population there was recorded as 74.

But with the closure of its school, fire service and salmon farm since 2016, it has now fallen to about 30 full-time residents.

Image source, Chris Harris
Image caption,
Chris says fire breathing is difficult in Out Skerries because of the wind

Chris arrived on the island with savings and no job but he's since got work at the local water processing plant.

However, much of his time has been taken up with a range of "projects" such as the opening of his School House Cinema, which hit the headlines last year.

"We might be smaller than your average cinema, but we make up for it by giving out free homemade popcorn and candyfloss and playing your choice of movie - so long as you give us seven days notice," Chris says.

Image caption,
Schoolhouse Cinema is the second smallest in the UK

Chris has spent the past 12 months transforming his garage into a Hawaiian-themed spa, complete with bamboo taps and a hot tub - with his efforts culminating in a "winter beach party" to mark its opening.

Image caption,
A winter beach party in Out Skerries

"People coming along to my beach party will be greeted with the sounds of Hawaiian music, before being given flower garlands and mocktails to get the party going," says the teetotal entertainer.

He has also transformed a portable cabin into a mini gym fitted with professional gym equipment, Sky television and mobile phone charging points.

Image source, Chris Harris
Image caption,
Bertha Anderson is among the Skerries locals impressed with the facilities

All of the facilities are open to the public free of charge.

Attending the winter beach party, I ask Chris if he plans to stay in Out Skerries for the rest of his life.

He says: "There's still a lot of work to do here, so I'll stay for as long as I'm needed - next year I plan to build a crazy golf course in the garden."

Image caption,
The gym is open to the public free of charge

Alice Arthur, of the Out Skerries development group, says: "Chris has been a breath of fresh air - he's come into Skerries and shaken us all up a bit."

Her three children have left the islands in recent years because of the lack of opportunities, despite each of them owning a house there.

Image caption,
Alice Arthur says the struggle with depopulation is "very serious"

"It would be difficult to find someone willing to buy one of their homes because there's no work, so any incomer would need their own business and that requires broadband which is dire here unless you pay for satellite broadband," she adds.

The situation was also made more challenging when Shetland Islands Council withdrew the Skerries inter-island flight service in 2015.

Image caption,
Christopher Harris is happy to be known to Skerries locals as "Crazy Chris"

Alice says that the struggle with depopulation is "very serious" - but she believes that the community can turn around its fortunes.

"It's definitely not an easy ride. You do need to work hard to make a success of it - and that's exactly what Chris is doing," she adds.

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