Thursday, February 03, 2011

Chinese New Year! My Fair Isle story in a Newspaper in China? memory 2007

I thought it was a practical joke! this picture file was emailed to me to prove they had already publish the first story.

Today is Chinese New Year and that reminded me of this story I wrote a few years ago...

 After the first story was unknownly copied from the Scottish press had gained interest in China? I was contacted by email for a interview for a second news story. During the interview I noted a fascination with the "one son thing" and did I think it was the best thing for our Henry? After the the interview I was asked if I write in my own words a feature story. This is it unedited and untranslated...
Life on Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in the UK, is challenging and full of surprises. The only way on or off the tiny isle for people and goods is by a small once a week ferry boat or by a small plane service on Monday, Wednesday and Friday flights one in the morning and again in the afternoon, weather permitting of course. I like to say “If you can’t make due, Fair Isle is not for you.” We are really cut-off from the world. I don’t know if I could have moved here before the arrival of broadband internet a couple of years ago. I use my computer for on-line shopping, entertainment and games, news updates and corresponding with friends and family.

A few days ago I got a strange email wanting an interview from China? I thought it was some kind of an April fools joke from one of my friends back in the United States having a good laugh at my expense. Some people may think it has all gone to my head adding to my greater ego and they may be right. Yes we have had plenty of media attention from the UK and the USA almost to the point of ridiculous, but never from the China. What I didn’t know is that our story had already been picked up from a Scottish news paper, translated then printed in the news express and the interview requested of me was the follow up for more in-depth coverage. When the interviewer replied to my surprised and somewhat skeptical email with an email attachment with photos of Fair Isle, Liz, Henry and me with all the Chinese writing I then knew it was no joke but I found myself laughing as I showed it to the other islanders, when they asked me to write about our experiences as well, I think it maybe you can laugh at me this time.

I think the reason this is a story at all is that it makes people think. Are these Americans living your dream or your nightmare? Are they doing the best thing for there son Henry? Could you do it? Why would you give up all that America has to offer for an island that seems to have so little?  Or do you just like to fantasize about moving to a remote island and simpler life.

Cover Story

For me “the fantasy“ began in our home in Saratoga Springs, New York, September 26 ,2006  6:15 pm Liz opens the door excited ,did you here that story on NPR! (nation public radio) No I said, then she tells me about an house for rent on an island for 300 pounds a year. That’s cheap that’s only 450 dollars! Then I said something a little skeptical and needlessly discouraging to Liz and she runs to the computer searching the internet all night for more info. I realized then this was her dream and I should not crush it I should support her and it after all it was never really going to happen and I didn’t want her to hold it against me forever, I’ll just let the selection process kill it. All her spare time she spent reading and researching Fair Isle its history and world famous knitting traditions. She made calls and received an application and we filled it out the best we could and sent it away and waited. Liz started to knit again and tried to get knitting lessons from friends and family.  Over 1400 applications where sent out about 800 came back filled out.  We easily made the cut down to 100 mainly just because we had a child. Surprisingly to me… we then got selected to the group of sixteen applicants. We all where asked to fill out a more complete business plan, etc. We really did a good job with photos and hat samples included within. I was nervous.  One thing I had learned being an artist and owner of the Nice Hat Company was how to market myself. I must say, I was still  surprised when in mid-January; Angus Jack our contact at the National Trust for Scotland invited us to Fair Isle and Scotland to see if we really wanted to move here being one of four finalist. We bought are tickets to Scotland to arrive in late March. In the weeks before our trip it was me up late at night surfing the internet for information on Fair Isle and the Auld Haa House built in the early 1700’s. A funny thing happen in the weeks before our trip Liz’s dream became my dream too. In fact I was now thinking I am going to have way more fun on Fair Isle than her and I hope she doesn’t come to her senses any time soon.

Just getting to Fair Isle is an adventure, there is know easy or direct route. It takes days lost in airport, it would have been cheaper and easier to got to Tibet. By the time we get there the selection process is now down to 2 families. We fell I love with the unspoiled beauty of the island and the power of nature is all around. No trees in sight, but the sea ivory lichens on the stone walls dividing the sheep pastures  and croft lands until they end suddenly at the edge of defiant cliffs, its so beautiful that I had not missed trees until the other day when I walked in to Florrie Stout’s green house and smelled her blooming plum tree. The islanders seemed very pleasant and welcoming to us, inviting us into their homes for tea and biscuits while getting to know us. We had planned to stay for 3 days but then fogged in; unable to leave for another 2 days. By the time we left we wanted to live here more than ever. Moving to Fair Isle was never meant to be a competition or a prize but it sure felt like it and we wanted to win. At the landing strip waiting to leave the 10 seat plane, pilot included landed and we had a chance encounter with our competitors a nice family from the state of Arizona, USA. I knew the island had advertised for families, knitters and building skills, I was depressed, now I was sure the other family would win. We had one blond boy, they had two, she looked like a much better knitter than Liz and he was an architect with contracting experience and I was an artist sculptor who had renovated his own house, maybe my 13 years in the garment industry would count for something. Six weeks later we got a call from Angus Jack offering us the Auld Haa House and our fantasy was some how back from the dead.  We won! They said we showed more enthusiasm, I think it was the way Henry played so well with all the children on the Isle, but be careful of what you wish for.

The “reality” is the fantasy needed a lot of hard work and diligence on our part to become true. The fact is we are moving to a foreign country and all we had won was a chance to rent a house. The Auld Haa House is the old laird of the island house a historic building with a great view on an island that is treated almost as a national park by the people who live there. I can still remember the excitement and the feeling of awe when we  found photos of it on the internet long before we ever step foot inside, but now what more must we do to get here? We are not rich we need to work to support are selves plus it took a lot of money to get here. First I needed a working papers, a long and complicated highly skilled migrant worker application had to be filled out detailing with all original documents for my entire life’s history from my birth certificate to my present bank accounts, my educational degrees and business contracts they wanted everything and they wanted it for Liz and Henry too, and lets not forget the large application fee.

Dushikuaibao World Weekly

This took weeks to gather the needed information before we had it together enough to send in. while waiting the three weeks of processing that really took over two month, I started to close down my Nice Hat Company shop and art studio and started to refinish the bathroom in our house to get it ready to rent while we are away. Finally we get the letter and it says rather ambiguously I’m rejected… we are heart broken. Then by the next day we are mad as hell and we are not taking it. So we get on the phone and we demand further review from a superior and Liz works for days making an outline of our information so it clearly demonstrates we have all the points needed and more for acceptance to the UK.  It seems they have no idea of how to assess a persons work experience when they have been self employed all their life. Finally, weeks later we are accepted. I know this is boring and maybe that’s the point, this paper work is no fun and no dream and there is more, now we have to get a residence Visa.  More forms to fill out and two trips two the British embassy in New York City, eventually it’s done, we are legal to move.

It’s now mid September Henry started school and loves it and all his classmates .This makes it harder to leave than we thought. The city of Saratoga Springs, New York is a great place and still clings to it’s tradition of being a play ground for the rich and famous mostly associated with horse racing and mineral water. The Victorian city is beautiful and the people seem to be above average. We lived in a small house in a nice neighborhood close to all the malls, 24 hour supermarkets, pizza delivery and walking distance to down town and all it had to offer. That said, the American dream for me started to feel like a people mill. Henry’s classroom had 22 students and there where 4 classes of kindergarten at Lake Avenue Elementarily School that would some day merge in middle and then high school to about 600 students per-grade. Henry is the only child in his grade on Fair Isle and gets lots of personal attention, there are only 6 students at school and 3 more in preschool. At the age of 12 the children go to boarding school on main land Shetland. Common experiences are good but so are unique perspectives and Liz and I are Adventurous people wanting to raise Henry the best we can. Many of are friend and family are unhappy with are choice to move Fair Isle, and I have been accused of giving Henry the Childhood that I wished I had. I thought that is what parents should try to provide for their children. As a child I wanted to be a fisherman and live on an island. For the last 3 years Henry has been telling us he wants to be a scientist when he grows up that discovers new species of animals he changes his mind of witch type of scientist every once in a while , lately its a zoologist because they study all the different animals. You can not image his excitement when he found out there’s a zoologist studying the birds in our front yard for the rest of the month.

We packed up what ever we thought would be cheaper to ship than buy new. We filled our suit cases to maximum capacity and stored away every thing else into our basement. This took weeks all the while distracted by journalist and documentary companies wanting are story. We never would have made it here if not for the help and support of our family & friends. We finally arrive on Fair Isle November 29th 2006 about 1 year and 2 months after Liz heard the story on the radio. We arrive with most of are baggage still at the Tingwall Airport the little airport for the plane with the 10 seats because the TV crew filming us had to bring there equipment. I knew that one of the suit cases I did bring had a big inflatable air mattress we all slept on for a few weeks until Henry and his new friends used it as a bouncy bounce, luckily our new mattress was over on the next boat in a few days. The Fair Islanders welcomed us and helped us feel at home. The house is rented unfurnished and without appliances it is a costly endeavor to set up new home and all its amenities. Since we first visited Fair Isle last march the American dollar has lost so much in the way of exchange rate to the British pound the rent of 300 pounds is now over 600 dollars still that’s cheap, but what that really means is that we feel we lost 25% of are start up money and we had not even bought anything yet. In America the landlord pays the property taxes, here the resident does and there are many other hidden costly things that could ruin our dream and for me nothing ruins it faster than being short on money. The truth is it would have been far cheaper to stay in America and go on a few nice vacations now and again.

We live on Fair Isle now and are an interracial part of the small island community of 70 people.  In conversations with are new friends they keep forgetting we have only been here for 4 ½ months and I like remind them that 5% cent of the population is now American. The first few weeks all I wanted to do here is look out the window at the North Sea to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. As I sit here now I can see the sea birds (Gannets) diving into the South Harbor for a meal of fish and I resisted temptation to grab my fishing pole knowing that the fish are close to shore. My friends and family keep asking me how do you spend your days?

My day always starts the same way, I get up and look out the window at the Sea and the rocks called the Skerries. From this I can gauge the waves and the wind, the Sun and the clouds, high or low tied. Sometimes you can here the wind and the rain on the roof making it harder to get out of bed. I look for birds and wildlife and go down stairs to get Henry ready for school. I check my emails while fixing breakfast, while eating I’ll pick up my binoculars and take a closer look at everything. Once we skipped our breakfast in a hurry to see passing Orcas or what we call Killer Whales and when Henry got to school a little late we realized he had no socks in his boots. After dropping Henry off at Fair Isle Elementary School a little before 9am. I drive home then Liz leaves to start her new job as a giver of home health care to some of the old men on the island, and this is a big change from the Video Producer job she gave up to move here. One of my friends said it best… it is better to wipe a few butts, than having to kiss so many and it probably much more appreciated. She is scheduled to do home visits four times a day at 9am, 12noon, 5pm, and 9pm. At least 2 or 3 half hour visits each time.  This is a part time job and she finds it very hard to concentrate on any thing else in the few hours in between, though she has found that it is just enough time to make bread dough let it rise while she is away then baking it when she comes back and she has been making all our bread this way since we have arrived. Liz‘s personal goal to make documentary of our adventure has been temporarily over shadowed by the needs of the island.

 Back to 9am and what am I doing? I will often say hello to Jimmy Stout my neighbor and the Good shepherd Ferry Boat captain & and crofter working in his garage on an old car or lobster trap. I say good day, always have some projects I’m working on calling for attention. I put new upholstered on old sofas and chairs for the dinning room and living room. I’ve been setting up the guest rooms and some how acquiring all the things needed for our home and my business. I’ve been designing new hats, one in the shape Sheep Rock a famous landmark of Fair Isle. I work in the garden if it’s a nice day. If it is a shop day (one of the 4 days a week Fair Isles little shop is open to buy food and drink) Liz or I or both have to remember to go to the Stackhoull Store when it is open, this is really more like a community center with food. We say hello to Robert and Fiona Mitchell the owners and catching up on any news or dare I say gossip. 3 o’clock it is time to pick up Henry form school, and then we try to do something outside with him weather permitting.
Sometimes we go for walk or mini adventures to the beach or cliffs looking at birds and seals. If the tide is low we catch small fish and crabs with nets or cautiously with bare hands. We have three fish tanks full of indigenous sea life and Henry has become very knowledgeable about it all and is finding things that people that have lived here there whole life has never seen. In the back yard I have been landscaping what is to be are bird garden and we have dug a frog pond for some tadpoles we found.  Last week we had guest staying with us at our two room B&B or guest house and those days are filled with cooking, cleaning and entertaining. We must provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for our guest because there is simply no place else to go. After dinner one night I took Henry our guest to the cliffs where the puffins nest by the thousands, They are funny comical birds unafraid of humans and have just returned to the island to have there young after along winter at sea. We had never seen them before and it will undoubtedly be a unforgettable experience no matter how many we see in years to come.

Thursday nights its darts club… some of the men on the island meet to play darts and drink beer once a week and this has been a very educational club to join but, I have to say I did a lot better at the poker club back in the USA. After putting Henry to bed usually spend time emailing or shopping on eBay I’ll work on some little projects like the Cuttlefish bone craving sculptures I been doing for fun or just read a book. If the wind is blowing on the wind power from the wind mill will be up all night otherwise the lights go off at 11:30pm. The wind power is much cheaper than the oil generator and when I sew on my industrial sewing machines My new slogan is “ if the wind is blow’n – I’m a sew’n”

So what does the future hold for and our life on Fair Isle? Soon my supplies for hats and artwork are coming and I hope to be in full production mode soon. I have won a grant from Shetland Crofting, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group collaborating with Lise Sinclair a life long Fair Islander and Shetland dialect poet as well as traditional musician and singer. She is creating a series of poems and I paintings to be exhibited together about agricultural history and wild life of the Shetland Islands. The Auld Haa Guest House and B&B calendar and reservations are filling up. Henry’s education is of great quality and he is learning so fast and is picking up a Shetland/British accent. Liz will find time to make her documentary and I hope we catch a really big lobster in the lobster trap we are making. Sincerely Tommy H. Hyndman

The one Lobster we have caught in 4 years, North Haven Beach, Fair Isle
Funny to reread after after a few years. LOL


  1. Fantastic story! I lived in Saratoga Springs for about 8 years. I remember seeing you Nice Hat shop over on Van Dam.

    What you're doing is something similar to what my wife and I have contemplated doing.

    I agree with you about the "arrival of broadband"! I'm not sure if I could going anywhere without that! :)

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