We currently have 250 field surveyors who contribute to the 10,000 changes taking place every day in our database. Thanks to them our master map of Great Britain is constantly, subtly shifting and changing. Luckily, the country is nothing if not varied, and not all of our surveyors are pounding concrete and worrying about urban canyons (the phenomena of being in an area so built up that satellite signals – can’t reach their GNSS kit). Some spend their days surrounded by sheep, not Starbucks. One such surveyor is Guy Rodger who looks after Shetland. Guy’s worked for OS for 30 years and spends an average of four weeks in Shetland every year and has to carefully plan his work to maximise his time there. I caught up with him recently to ask him some questions.
Describe your area of geography. Have you always worked in this area?
I used to just look after all of West Lothian but through various historical reasons I now look after the eastern part of West Lothian, the southwest part of Edinburgh and all of Shetland! I like the contrast and the variety I have in my area – the remoteness of the islands to the buzz and congestion of Edinburgh city centre.
Remote working is something most of us know very little about, can you enlighten us as to the challenges of this?
On the practical side you have to be very well organised. You have to know all the jobs you have to do before you leave in the morning and have everything loaded on to your Toughbook. Broadband can be dodgy at times so you don’t want to be calling up jobs when you are away if you can help it. Similarly with poor phone signals in many areas the Intuicom RTK Bridge unit is often required. I travel up to Shetland on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen so have to make sure all my gear is in the car – RTK, batteries, chargers, PPE etc. For jobs on the smaller islands that make up the archipelago that is Shetland there are other practicalities to sort out such as can I get a ferry to a particular island or do I have to take an inter-island flight? If I fly then there are only certain days I can get to certain islands and even fewer where I can get there and back on the same day. On the emotional side you have to be happy with your own company for a fortnight. Going on detachment is part of my work so I am used to it, as is the family.
Tell us about Fair Isle – and how to get there!
Fair Isle is Britain’s most remote inhabited island lying half way between Orkney and Shetland. Just 5km long and 3km wide, Fair Isle is owned by the National Trust and is home to around 70 islanders (compared with 400 in the mid-19th century). Travel to Fair Isle is by ferry or plane. The ferry ‘Good Shepherd IV’ carries 12 passengers and leaves from the southern tip of Shetland 3 times a week and takes about 2.5 hours. The plane (Britten Norman Islander aircraft for those who want to know), which carries 7 passengers, leaves from Tingwall airport just outside Lerwick, 4 times a week and takes 25 minutes to reach the island. I chose to take the plane hoping that I would get everything done in the six hours I would have on the island.
So it’s not your average commute?!
My fellow passengers on the flight were three engineers maintaining the huge telecommunication mast on Ward Hill, the highest point on the island, a teacher visiting the school, and a couple of birdwatchers. The flight south to Fair Isle was noisy and bumpy in such a wee plane but we had a tremendous view of Shetland as we were only 600ft above sea level. We landed on the grassy, gravelly airstrip, disembarked and picked our luggage out of the hold and went on our way. Everyone headed south to the inhabited end of the island except me. I shouldered my belongings – Toughbook, RTK backpack, pole and a metal case which held the RTK repeater, brick battery, pdl radio etc and headed north.
How did you use your six hours on Fair Isle?
When I arrived at the Bird Observatory it took me a wee while to get an RTK fix but when I did it was an ordinary straightforward task apart from the screech of seabirds, the beautiful scenery and above all the total remoteness of it all. After I had completed the survey I was given a conducted tour by the site manager after which I packed up the kit and trudged back to the airport where I left everything but my prism kit in the terminal building. I then spent my remaining couple of hours on the island checking ADDRESS-POINT, small scales items and making sure everything was up to date – who knows when I’ll be back!
About Fair Isle
With cliffs and stacks bearing names such as ‘Gumpun’, ‘Cat Lie’, ‘Yarn Cole’ and the slightly more famous ‘Sheep Rock’, it’s hard to ignore the ancient charm and otherworldliness of remote, salt-crusted Fair Isle. Cast adrift in the North Atlantic, equidistant between the main groupings of the Shetland and Orkney Islands, it is a place of resilience, beauty, high winds and lots of birds. Fair Isle is an important centre of research into rare bird migration and conservation. An Observatory has existed on Fair Isle since 1948 and the current building was completed in 2010 with the aim of housing the charity and visiting researchers and providing accommodation for tourists. The rest of the island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and as such, new buildings are very rare, making Guy’s visit a truly unique piece of survey work.
Geologically and scenically, Fair Isle is a closer relative of Iceland and Norway than it is the rest of the UK. Its subarctic climate limits the variety of flora, but this does not create a dull landscape, it increases the ethereal nature of an island tormented by wind and rain. A certain hardiness is needed to exist out here, which explains why there are plenty of sheep roaming the island. Unconcerned with the challenges of living atop storm-battered cliffs, they are responsible for the island’s most famous exports – wool and the Fair Isle style of knitting. Like the landscape itself, Fair Isle knitting has a distinctly Nordic edge, highlighting the importance of the Shetland Islands to Norse kings who traded the islands like jewels and bullion. After several centuries of battles between the Norse and the Scots, the islands were eventually annexed by Scotland as settlement of an unpaid dowry.
Today, 68 people live on the island, most of them crofters working the land. The island boasts a small shop, a primary school and a community centre. There are no pubs and children of 11 and older board at high schools in Lerwick. There are regular flights to the island from Mainland Shetland, but the frequency of these is very much determined by the weather. Fair Isle has a surprisingly stable climate with cool summers and mild winters. During the summer, temperatures rarely peak above 17 °C and temperatures below freezing are scarce in the winter. This may seem anomalous, but Fair Isle is somewhat protected by its remote location, except when it comes to high winds and thick fog, both of which frequently disrupt travel to and from the island.
Fortunately, Guy’s flights went (fairly) smoothly when he visited to survey the new Bird Observatory, but, due to the National Trust for Scotland owning the island, it could be many more years before we need to dispatch a surveyor to Fair Isle.
Every piece of change across the country, whether it’s a new housing development on the outskirts of a growing city or a bird observatory on the most remote island in Britain, needs to be surveyed and added to our national dataset. For some, it’s a short drive of a few miles, for others, surveying one building is a journey involving seven-seater planes and a two-week detachment.