Before I go on to some ‘great stays with Skerries birds’ type of posts I am going to reflect on some of the changes on the isles in the fifteen years I have been visiting. I know this isn’t really nature writing, so apologies to those who come here for that content but hopefully it will be of interest to some readers.
In 2007 the isles were more vibrant than they are now. The school catered for high school pupils as well as primary. One attempt to close the high school was fought off but eventually the pupils did have to board in Lerwick during the week. Eventually the last remaining child at the primary moved to mainland Shetland, and the school was closed. It’s the only Shetland island to have lost its school in that period I think, though I’m not sure if the one on Papa Stour was reopened before being mothballed again.
In terms of industry the salmon farm that was the main employer in 2007 has been closed for a number of years. There are a couple of fishing boats that operate from the isles, and others based on other islands that are owned or crewed by Skerries residents or their descendants. The lack of opportunities for work have led to many of the younger folk moving off isle, and others having dual basis on Skerries and on the mainland.
There was still a flight service operating between the rough and ready airstrip and Dingwall airport two or three days when I started visiting, indeed the first time I came I flew in and one blustery November day I left on the plane after the ferry couldn’t safely enter the harbour. The ferry service to Lerwick has been cut from two days a week to just one; anyone wanting to visit as a tourist has to get to the remote settlement of Vidlin unless they are committed to visiting for several days and happy to travel on a Wednesday afternoon. Buses to Vidlin don’t correspond to ferry departure times, they do for several other of the outer isles.
An offcomer Chris Harris bought the Old Schoolhouse and set up a community cinema, a spa and a gym in an old shipping container. He was also in the process of setting up holiday lets on currently uninhabited Grunay when he left a couple of years back. This isn’t to say that Skerries is without amenities. The Hall stages events periodically, there are shops on both inhabited islands and there are facilities for visiting yachts at the quay including showers.
What hasn’t changed is the community spirit and friendly nature of the Skerries folk. Out Skerries was and may still be advertised by Shetland Tourist Information as ‘the friendly isles’ and this is my experience. Fifteen years of visits don’t pass without some kind of incident; I’ve been abandoned by a travel partner for rare birds elsewhere, assaulted for trespass when I wasn’t trespassing and been in danger of being stranded off isle for two days by sever weather. In all those cases locals looked out for me, and showed me kindnesses. Most people probably wouldn’t make a special trip, but if you are ever in Shetland give Skerries a visit and support a special community.