Post-evacuation stations

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
Pupil numbers plummeted at Baltasound Junior High, Britain's most northerly school, after the closure of nearby RAF Saxa Vord. A year after the exodus of forces families, Henry Hepburn spoke to the school's headteacher

It was December 2005 and getting dark at 2pm on the Shetland island of Unst. The long nights matched the sombre mood. People waved goodbye to their friends from RAF Saxa Vord. The North Atlantic base had become a casualty of the end of the Cold War; the island's population fell to 500, from a high of 1,000.

The impact was nowhere as great as at Baltasound Junior High. The school roll halved and scores of friends were separated. Most departures were at primary level, where numbers fell from 70 to 25.

"It was a massive blow," says headteacher Andrew Spence. "That was when people's morale was at its lowest."

The presence of RAF youngsters had brought benefits to all. Local pupils learned first-hand about countries such as Germany and Cyprus, while teachers found that the stable island life helped settle frequently uprooted RAF children.

The closure of the base added to the loss of another chunk of the population as many young people left for university and careers, often expressing a desire to come back but failing to find work.

"Our greatest export is our young people," Mr Spence says.

But the people of Unst are striving to make the island an attractive place to live and visit. A can-do attitude is evident in businesses such as crofting, salmon farming, a brewery, chocolate factory, an animation studio, and renewable energy research. And there are plans to turn the RAF base into holiday accommodation and a whisky distillery.

"If you start being negative it's a downward spiral," says Mr Spence. "The island could have quite a future - it does have the attraction of being the place farthest north in Britain."

Baltasound Junior High binds the community. Events such as this year's nativity play and production of Cinderella are not only for proud parents but are enjoyed by most of the island's population.

The link between school and community is personified in janitor Fraser Paul. He is also a youth worker and firefighter and makes contributions beyond the janitorial. Next month, he will make a charity ascent of Aconcagua, in Argentina, the world's highest mountain outside the Himalayas. He is keen on Baltasound's status as a health-promoting school and has given talks to pupils about his upcoming adventure to fit in with the programme's aims.

Unst itself takes a determined effort to get to - a two-hour, two-ferry journey from Lerwick - and that creates added demands if the school is to be attractive to pupils and their families. "Because we're so far away, we try to do things that maybe other schools would not," says Mr Spence.

Pupils are taught subjects that are more usually found in further education colleges, such as construction and childcare. Highers are sometimes offered to pupils who do not want to leave the island after reaching the school's usual S4 cut-off point. The school can also point to a horticulture project that could provide jobs for four special needs pupils.

Baltasound's 72 pupils - from nursery level upwards - also benefit from 17 teaching staff. Yet Mr Spence, who has been head since 1984, is the only teacher from Unst. Most of the others are from outside Shetland, attracted by a different pace of life and small class sizes.

"Staff come here to stay," says Mr Spence.



The abundant wildlife of Unst includes Shetland ponies, seals, porpoises, killer whales and 100,000 nesting seabirds at the Hermannes nature reserve.

The island is geologically rich, and gold has recently been prospected in its hills.

The Muckle Flugga lighthouse was built by David and Thomas Stevenson, whose nephew, Robert Louis, wrote Treasure Island after a visit there. The map of the fictitious island bears a close resemblance to Unst.

Edmonston's chickweed, one of a number of rare plants on Unst, is found nowhere else in the world.

The island has a famous bus shelter, known for its settee, television, computer, hot snacks and live music.

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