Fair Isle was part of Scottish history and Viking history, possibly at times existing relatively independently, but at other times firmly ruled by: Norway, Shetland, Orkney or Scotland. No one knows the extent to which it related to the rest of the country in very early times, except through archaeology and much of what we believe is simply educated surmise.
Poverty rears its head throughout much of the island’s history, for Fair Isle is isolated, small and not rich in natural resources. Although at times people probably lived as well as many rural Scots, at other times there was extreme poverty. In 1800, 85% of the people in the world suffered from extreme poverty, ie lacking sufficient food and access to adequate shelter, an estimate of one billion people. By 1850, this had reduced to 80% and by 1900 it was down to 70%. After that there was a surprisingly speedy reduction in extreme poverty in the world, so that today it is only 12%, although with the rise in population, the total today is still 1 billion people. Extreme poverty is important in population trends, as when people can control the number of children they have, it tends to be those in extreme poverty who have large families.
As a society that depended on fishing and farming, Fair Isle could be devastated by a series of bad harvests, or the temporary disappearance of the fish. A bad outbreak of flu or epidemics such as smallpox, regularly threatened the island’s existence. During the second half of the 19th century, progress occurred for a host of reasons: new housing, new farming methods, state education and by 1903, some healthcare. So in the late 1800s, when Fair Isle was under particular economic pressure, the population was much reduced, but with a little outside help the people could survive. Although these people were no doubt poor, they were no longer “extremely poor”. Despite the fact that it was threatened, it was soon clear that Fair Isle would not become another St Kilda, its population forced into mass migration.