Reviews for Fair Isle Ghosts
An informative and moving account of Fair Isle life
The Orcadian, December 24, 2015
Fair Isle Ghosts by Carol Tweedie, is the story of two Fair Isle families - the Irvines of Quoy and the Wilsons of Taft - and their fight to save their way of life. But while much of this way of life was undoubtedly similar to that of rural Orcadians, the remoteness of Fair Isle was an additional hurdle to overcome. But they fought on. Many of the challenges they faced are not dissimilar to the issues still faced by islanders today - isolation, communication links, supplies and population. But while concerns these days relate primarily to the depopulation, the problem in Fair Isle, at one time stemmed from population growth... Because of limited land, the folk of Fair Isle often had no choice but to leave and, naturally, Orkney and Shetland were the first ports of call. We read, for example, of Jeannie Wilson, who, after much deliberation and anguish, followed some of her offspring to Kirkwall in search of a better life, but instead found one that was perhaps more challenging that they had expected. It is episodes like these that make this book shine. It's not a history book in the normal sense, but intersperses narrative with historical fact. This brings the characters, their world, hopes and fears to life. They fought for a postal service, and got one. They fought for a lighthouse, and got two. And at times, they fought each other... But, while it may, from this review at least, seem that the islanders faced one uphill struggle after another, one fact is clear in the book: despite all the problems, they loved their home and all it represented. The author has captured this admirably in a work that is informative, poignant and a joy to read.
Review reproduced with permission
'Ghost story brings a wonderful piece of Fair Isle history to life
Keegan Murray - The Shetland Times, December 31, 2015
Concerned with the struggles of life on the UK's remotest inhabited island, Carol Tweedie's Fair Isle Ghosts is a book which will appeal to those interested in history, fascinated by isolation, or keen on fiction. The novel started as an attempt to piece together a history of Fair Isle and the research which has gone into this task is evident. Passages are vividly descriptive, bringing to life a period of time in which poverty and change were dominatng factors in life. Every detail, even those not crucial to the narrative - such as the methods of cooking - are testament to the research undertaken. They show an author dedicated to her subject matter, poring over history. It is not all facts, however. The novel does employ the literary device of an omniscient narrator. This allows the reader insight into the thoughts of the islanders, a chance to perceive the story from a variety of angles.
The novel opens with disaster when we are introduced to a group of doomed men sailing a yoal to Dunrossness. The perilous trip these men must undertake comes to a tragic end when a freak wave tears their yoal apart sending the sailors to an early and watery grave. This sets the scene, showing an isle where the sea plays a crucial factor in life - and in death. A cruel temptress described as a "lottery" on which the men of the isle gamble their lives. The opening disaster touches the lives of many people on the island, including that of two families at the centre of the novel; the Wilsons of Taft and the Irvines of Quoy. In such a small community, loss is shown to be something out of which is born not just grief, but also a struggle to survive in a harsh climate.
Change is a central theme of the novel. We see a community change, through the loss of members who travel further afield seeking a better life. We also see a changing way of life within Fair Isle, the slow encroachment of modernisation which is on one occassion exemplified through the faceless bureaucracy of a census carried out on the whims of wealthy men in Edinburgh. However, when seeing through the eyes of the elderly Laurence, we understand that change has been a fact of life on the isle for a long time. His perceptions are a valuable tool for the reader, and they are used deftly by the author. His historical knowledge gives us necessary background, explaining factors which occur outside of the narrative timeframe but have a hand in shaping the events.
Another of the key themes is poverty, something which the novel tells us is 'universal'. Poverty is an eternal struggle for the characters in Fair Isle Ghosts, it shapes their lives, it is the driving force behind the early tragedy when the doomed sailors left the isle hoping to barter knitwear for food... Fair Isle is shown to be a place where the commitment to family was so strong, and the struggle to put food on the table so real, that mothers often lived on scraps to ensure their children could eat.
The isolation which gives the inhabitants a beautiful sense of security in their surroundings also takes from them opportunities to better their way of life. The women in particular have to play the hand they are dealt. It is sometimes easy to forget that so much of the novel, including the characters, is in fact grounded in real life events.
Tweedie's reading is so effective at immersing you in the story that it is only when confronted with pictures in the centre pages of the book, some of which even depict a few of the central characters, that you are jolted back into an understanding that these events really occurred. They may not have happened exactly as the author's literary re-imagining portrays them, but they did occur, and the people of Fair Isle really did face these hardships. It is this realisation which makes the novel such an uplifting experience. It draws a feeling of admiration from the reader; a reader who will never understand these struggles but can't help feeling an incredible empathy towards the people who suffered through them and yet found the will to keep on fighting.
Review reproduced with permission
Survival spirit of remote Fair Isle chronicled in new book
Alistair Munro - The Scotsman, Jan 6, 2016
The harsh realities of life on the UK’s remotest inhabited island is being brought to life in a new novel which claims its strong community spirit stopped it from suffering the same fate as that of St Kilda.
Carol Tweedie biography