The Jewel in the Ocean
Famous for its birds, knitwear and historic shipwrecks, Fair Isle is a tiny jewel of an island, half-way between Orkney and Shetland, owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Just 5km long and 3km wide, the isle's impressive cliffs rise to almost 200 metres on the west coast.
The 70 or so islanders mostly live at the more fertile southern end. The hilly northern part is largely moorland. Fair Isle's oceanic climate brings stormy but fairly mild winters, while summer visitors can expect rapid changes in the weather: a day of sparkling sunshine and incredible visibility can easily be followed by thick fog the next morning.
Island of Birds...
For more than 55 years the internationally renowned Fair Isle Bird Observatory has done scientific research on bird migration and the seabird breeding colonies - which are also a major tourist attraction.
Many keen birdwatchers stay at the comfortable, newly built Observatory Lodge to see the spring and autumn bird migrations. Fair Isle can produce impressive numbers of common species and also eastern rarities such as Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler and Pechora Pipit. Visitors can accompany the wardens on their early morning rounds of the ringing traps, and help with daily observations.
From April to August the cliffs are busy with the sound (and smell!) of thousands of Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots, Black Guillemots and Puffins, while skuas and terns fiercely defend their nests on the moorland. There's also a small colony of Gannets. Fair Isle is one of the best places to watch seabirds at close range, especially Puffins which will walk right up to you if you sit quietly.
Grey and Common Seals are seen year round, Harbour Porpoises mostly in summer. Whales and dolphins sometimes cruise close inshore but are more often seen from the ferry "Good Shepherd" on passage to and from Shetland. The crew regularly report White-beaked Dolphins, Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, Orcas and Minke Whales.
...Island of Flowers
Fair Isle is best known for birds but, thanks to traditional crofting methods, it also has over 250 species of flowering plants. In summer the wetlands are dotted with the bright yellow of Bog Asphodel and the deep purple of Early Marsh Orchids. From late May the cliffs are awash with the delicate blue of Spring Squill, which gives way in June to a bright pink carpet of Thrift. Rarer plants include Frog Orchid.
Prostrate Juniper - rare in Shetland - is abundant on the heather moorland, with alpine species like Least Willow and Alpine Bistort. Many more familiar plants thrive in the hay fields, cultivated 'rigs', grazing lands and along the roadsides.
'Fair Isle Knitwear' That's Really Fair Isle
The term 'Fair Isle Knitting' is now used worldwide but this unique style developed on Fair Isle long ago, when local knitters discovered that fine yarns stranded into a double layer produce durable, warm, and lightweight garments.
For hundreds of years the demand for hand-knits kept Fair Isle women busy. Islanders traded with passing ships, bartering home-made textiles and fresh produce for goods they couldn't make themselves.
Today the only source of the genuine article in the world is still Fair Isle, where a small co-operative - Fair Isle Crafts - produces traditional and contemporary sweaters on hand-frame machines, quality-controlled and labelled with Fair Isle's own trade mark.
A Stepping Stone in History
Norse settlers named it Fridarey - the island of peace - but this stepping stone in the sea was also vital in times of strife, when the Earls of Orkney and viking warlords before them used it as a look-out post and for sending fire signals to and from Shetland. The sagas tell how Kari the Viking wintered here on his voyage to the Hebrides. Later it was visited by the monks who brought Christianity to the north.
Fair Isle Wrecks
For thousands of years Fair Isle has been a useful landmark for shipping but in storms and fog its coastline is highly dangerous. Among 100 known shipwrecks are:
• 1588: 300 soldiers and sailors from the Spanish Armada ship "El Gran Grifon" stranded on Fair Isle when their ship foundered in the geo (cove) of Stroms Heelor.
• 1798: the "Blessed Endeavour", bound from Dunbar for Greenland, wrecked at Maversgeo and three crew drowned.
• 1868: German emigrant ship "Lessing" drove ashore at Klavers Geo in a gale and thick fog. Islanders received bravery awards for rescuing all 465 passengers and crew.
5000 Years of Human Settlement
Fair Isle has been more intensively studied by archaeologists than almost any area of its size in Scotland. They've found evidence that the isle may have been settled by Neolithic people up to 5,000 years ago. There are traces of oval-shaped stone houses, perhaps 3,000 years old, and lines of turf and stone walls, or dykes, which snake across the landscape. The "Feely Dyke", a massive turf rampart which divides the common grazings from the crofts, may also be prehistoric.
The archaeological remains include curious "burnt mounds" - piles of blackened stones which appear to have been heated in a fire and then dropped in stone troughs to warm water. The purpose is unknown but may have been cooking, tanning, preparing cloth or even a primitive sauna.
There are two known Iron Age sites - a promontory fort at Landberg and the foundations of a house underlying an early Christian settlement at Kirkigeo.
Most of the place-names date from after the ninth-century Norse settlement of the Northern Isles. By that time the croft lands had clearly been in use for many centuries.
In all, Fair Isle has 14 scheduled monuments, ranging from the earliest signs of human activity to the remains of a World War II radar station. The two fine lighthouses, now automated, are also listed buildings.
Leading With Wind Power
Being far from the National Grid, Fair Isle must make its own electricity and does so by the power of the wind - which is usually in good supply!
The first 60kw wind turbine went up in 1982 as a community effort, supported by council and government development agencies. As the first commercially-operated wind energy scheme in Europe, it proved an extremely successful alternative to expensive diesel-powered generators.
The Fair Isle Electricity Committee wisely set charges high enough to build up a reserve fund which in 1996 helped pay for a second, 100kw turbine, aided by the National Trust for Scotland, Shetland Islands Council, Shetland Enterprise and the European Union. The old machine was rebuilt and upgraded.
George Waterston Memorial Centre and Museum
George Waterston OBE (1911-1980), the former Scottish Director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was a much-loved figure who had a massive and positive influence on Fair Isle. He bought the island after World War II and co-founded the Bird Observatory in 1948, giving the isle's economy a much-needed boost. In 1955 the National Trust for Scotland succeeded him as landlord and helped islanders to stem emigration and revitalise the community.
Dr Waterston's memorial is a museum in the former Fair Isle School, packed with displays of the island's history from prehistoric times to the present. A guided tour is available on request, or you're welcome to browse this collection of photographs, documents and artefacts - for a unique insight into Fair Isle's past and a better understanding of its present.
Travel to Fair Isle is by ferry or 8-seater plane.
The ferry "Good Shepherd IV" carries 12 passengers and leaves from Grutness Pier at the southern tip of Shetland and once a fortnight (summer only) from Lerwick. The trip takes about 2.5 hours. View timetable. Please note this is not a car ferry.
The plane leaves from Tingwall Airport, just outside Lerwick, and takes about 25 minutes to reach Fair Isle. Flights operate three times a week from Tingwall and once a week from Sumburgh (April - Oct). View timetable. It is possible to fly in and out of Fair Isle the same day (weather dependent) however there is accommodation on Fair Isle and having extra time will allow you to explore the island.
For more information and bookings:
• Good Shepherd IV ferry, telephone (01595) 760 363.
• Direct Flight 'Islander' plane, telephone (01595) 840 246.
Please follow the Countryside Code
You're free to walk almost anywhere on the island, although some crofters prefer you not to cross their land at lambing time (April-May). Please follow the Countryside Code, close gates and use the stiles.
Fair Isle's cliffs offer dramatic scenery and seabird watching but they are also very dangerous. Please take care - and tell someone where you're going, and when you plan to be back.
On This Site
- Discover more about Shetland's knitting and textiles
- Find out more about diving in Shetland waters
- Learn more about another of Shetland's remotest islands, Foula