Fair Isle, Shetland
Fair Isle is well known for its knitwear and birds and is an ideal place for wildflower study. It’s also one of the friendliest and most successful remote communities in Britain and the island, owned by the National Trust for Scotland, lies midway between Shetland and Orkney.
Photo: Viewpoint The island’s world-famous bird observatory collects and analyses data on seabirds, breeding and migratory birds, and although the observatory building was tragically destroyed by fire in March 2019, observatory work is still being undertaken from temporary premises on the isle. Plans are well under way to erect a new observatory and visitors will again be welcome to help with observatory ‘work’ (especially interesting during the spring and autumn migrations).
Today, Fair Isle is the only place where authentic Fair Isle knitwear, made in Fair Isle, is produced and has its own trademark logo. Craft fairs are held in the summer and garments can be bought or ordered at knitters’ homes. Boats and straw-backed chairs are other crafts produced by the skilled islanders.
Islanders have long been famed for their knitting skills; Stevenson described them as “great artificers of knitting”. The bright patterns, first recorded in 1856, have obvious Scandinavian and European influences. Knitwear was bartered with passing ships in exchange for goods such as spirits and tobacco. James Coates sent a gift of kaleidoscopes, allowing islanders to develop new patterns, and ordered many garments including those for the Bruce expedition to the Antarctic in 1902/4.
Photo: Peter Parker The George Waterston Centre and Museum, which includes a reconstructed crofthouse kitchen, has many artefacts, photos and exhibits relating to the island’s history. The island’s old name, Fridarey, is from (ON) Friðar – peace, and øy – isle.
There are 240 species of flowering plants, including juniper, rare elsewhere in Shetland. Some rare varieties of orchids can also be found. Seal pups can be seen in late summer at Easter and Wester Lodge; there’s a gannet colony at Dronger, and the first puffins of the year appear at Furse, in the southeast.
The isle’s cliffs and coastline helped those fleeing from the Press Gang as they, and contraband, were hidden in Thief’s Hol, in the face of Malcolm’s Head. A small boat can pass through the tunnels penetrating Sheep Craig (443ft). The Kirn o’ Skroo is a partially-collapsed cave where the sea roars in via an 80m long subterranean passage. North and South Raeva were twin collapsed caves until 100 years ago when North Raeva entirely collapsed, turning it into a geo.
Copper ore was quarried at Copper Geo in the 19th century and there are remains of prehistoric communities, an Iron Age fort at Landberg, and a large burnt mound at Houlalie. Ward Hill (712ft) has the remains of a wartime radar station on its summit. Devonian sandstones form Fair Isle and contain fossil plant remains.
Photo: Jenny Henry Fishing was the main source of income until the mid-20th century. Fish were dried on stony beaches and in ‘skeos’ – open topped huts similar to those on St Kilda – and ‘oily kettles’ were used to extract oil from the livers of white fish.
El Gran Grifon, flagship of the transport squadron of the Spanish Armada, was wrecked at Fair Isle in 1588. Three-hundred sailors spent six weeks on the isle, causing a bit of a hospitality headache among the then 17 households. The wreck was located in 1970 and divers brought up one of 38 guns. In 1984, a delegation of Spaniards dedicated an iron cross in the kirk yard to 50 men who had died.
The north and south lighthouses (commissioned in 1892) were built by the Stevenson family. The South Light was Scotland’s last manned lighthouse, ‘closing in 1998’, marking the end of over 200 years of lighthouse keeping.
The island has a population of around 60, but in the mid-19th century was home to 380 folk. There’s a shop, post office, primary school and two churches. Community gatherings are popular with events at the hall well supported. You can even try your hand at golf on the course near the South Light. Visitors are welcome to join in all island events.
Photo: Kenneth Shearer The sandy beach at North Haven is safe for swimming, but a rock pool at Gunglesund offers a warmer alternative.
For yachting information see www.shetland.org/visit/do/outdoors/sail.
The ferry (Good Shepherd IV) sails from Grutness, near Sumburgh Airport. Bookings to 01595 760363; ferry information 01595 743978 (www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries).
Inter-island flights leave from Tingwall Airport. Book with Airtask Group on 01595 840246 (www.airtaskgroup.com/shetland-islands-inter-island-service).
For accommodation providers go to our search page and check with Visit Scotland.
Visit The Shetland Times Bookshop for a great range books, maps, guides and gifts.