Visitors have indicated they are desperate to flock back to Fair lsle more than a year before its renowned bird observatory is due to rise from the ashes.
The destruction of the landmark building by fire in 2019 dealt a devastating blow to the island economy.
By the time the fifth incarnation of the observatory opens to the public, it will be around four years since it last welcomed bird watchers and others to the remote location.
The re-opening can’t come quickly enough for Fair lsle’s visitors, or for island businesses that benefited from the observatory’s worldwide draw.
A long road to recovery
Bookings are not being taken until next summer, but already Douglas Barr, chairman of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust, is receiving inquiries.
“People are phoning and emailing already,” he said.
“I’m quite sure if we took bookings now we would be inundated.”
It’s been a long road to recovery, with Covid and Brexit exacerbating building challenges on the island.
In February, it was revealed the only company to submit a tender for the £7.4 million rebuild was over the projected budget.
The trust had to re-start the tendering process and made redundant its two paid staff.
But last month Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Government announced £2.35 million towards the project.
A rebuild appeal also surpassed its £650,000 target.
It has allowed a builder to be appointed and the new observatory is due to be completed in October 2022 and opened the following spring.
“It means at last we can get on with the rebuild. It’s been a very long and difficult few years”, says Mr Barr.
Appeal shows what Fair Isle means to people
“Everything that could happen has happened.
“It’s gratifying that the Scottish Government and HIE have given us the money.
“Also, to get £650,000 from a public appeal just shows what Fair Isle means to people.
“The fact that there are no visitors obviously impacts us financially, but it also impacts the island financially as well.
“It’s hard to quantify, when you have the effect of Covid too. But when you think we have the equivalent of 3,000 bednights, it’s a lot of people.
“If there are no visitors here, it affects the shop, it affects transport and circulates its way down through the whole system.
“It’s not just bird watchers. A lot of people have connections to island in some way.
“So there is also the social aspect, as a lot of friendships have been generated over the years with people visiting the island.”
Another source of income comes from author Ann Cleeves whose books have been adapted for the BBC series Shetland.
She has donated all royalties from her novel Blue Lightning to the trust to help with ongoing costs.
Observatory first established in 1948
Ann said: “I’m absolutely delighted that Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust has achieved the funding it needs to begin rebuilding.
“The government funding has made a huge difference to the speed of the build, but I’d like to thank all the individuals who have donated too.
“I’m continuing my fundraising – the observatory will still need support even once the building is complete.”
An observatory was first established in 1948 on the island, located between Orkney and Shetland and owned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).
As well as being popular with bird watchers, it has an important research role, gathering bird census and migration data for 70 years.
As the island’s biggest accommodation provider it plays a crucial economic role and also helps sustain the population of around 50.
The new building will create seven new green jobs and help meet the community’s aspirations to become carbon neutral by 2040.
Clea Warner, NTS general manager for the Highlands and Islands welcomes the project moving forward after some difficult.
“We know this is really welcomed by the residents, the conservation community and by everyone who loves this unique place,” she said.
“We’ll continue to support the project and work with the community to take Fair Isle into the future, together.”
Celebrating the return of the observatory
Ian Best, chairman of the Fair Isle Development Company, said the recent funding package makes the timetable for rebuilding a reality.
“It gives a more optimistic view of life and the economy of Fair Isle.”
He said the loss of the observatory has been somewhat “camouflaged” by the pandemic but the impact is still felt.
“Taking something like the observatory out of the equation for a prolonged period is very detrimental to other businesses.
“You can only sustain a hit like that for a few years without it doing damage.
“So that’s why we’re celebrating the fact it is definitely going ahead.”
A spokeswoman for the Fair Isle Committee and Community Association said island guest houses were “overflowing” pre-Covid.
However, the pandemic and the fire were a “double whammy” for the island.
“We are picking up a little bit now, but nothing like it was,” she said.
“The bird observatory had, and will have, a lot more rooms than we can ever provide elsewhere and it’s a social hub.
“Economically it was a disaster. People staying at the observatory buy crafts and use other services.
“It was a major loss, but as a community we’re used to having to adapt.
“Now we have something to look forward to.”
‘It’s an important part of Fair Isle’
The return of the observatory is also good news for Stackhoull Stores, the island’s only shop, run by Fiona Mitchell and husband Robert.
“It’s been a bit of a challenge. It’s not crippled us, but it will be better once the observatory is back up and running”, says Fiona.
“People want to see it back as it has an economic benefit for the whole island.
“It is an important part of Fair Isle.
“Knowing there is a plan, the money is there and they can start work next year with a view to opening in 2023 is good news.”