Fair Isle

Fair Isle is probably the most well known of Shetland’s smaller isles. The island, owned by the National Trust for Scotland, lies midway between Shetland and Orkney. Famed for its knitwear and bird observatory, it is also an ideal place for wildflower study and is one of the friendliest and most successful remote communities in Britain.

Photo: Peter Parker Zoom Photo: Peter Parker 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 bird observatory, which collects and analyses data on seabirds, breeding and migratory birds, was established in 1948 and has operated from a succession of premises. The most recent was destroyed by fire in 2019, but observatory work is still being undertaken and plans are well under way to erect a new observatory building. Visitors will again be welcome to help with observatory ‘work’ (especially interesting during the spring and autumn migrations) when construction is complete.

Fair Isle is the only place where authentic Fair Isle knitwear, made in Fair Isle, is produced and has its own trademark logo. Garments can be bought or ordered at knitters’ homes or online, and from occasional craft fairs held in the island. Boats and straw-backed chairs are other crafts produced.

Photo: Viewpoint Zoom Photo: Viewpoint 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.

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.

Photo: Jenny Henry Zoom Photo: Jenny Henry Devonian sandstones form Fair Isle and contain fossil plant remains. 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.

The George Waterston Centre and Museum, named for a former owner of the island and co-founder of the observatory, includes a reconstructed crofthouse kitchen and has many artefacts, photos and exhibits relating to the island’s history. The island’s old name, Fridarey, is from Old Norse Friðar – peace, and øy – isle.

Photo: Kenneth Shearer Zoom Photo: Kenneth Shearer The island has a population of around 60, although 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.

The sandy beach at North Haven is safe for swimming, but a rock pool at Gunglesund offers a warmer alternative.

The ferry (Good Shepherd IV) sails from Grutness, near Sumburgh Airport. Bookings to 01595 760363; ferry information 01595 743978 (shetland.gov.uk/ferries). Inter-island flights leave from Tingwall Airport. Book with Airtask Group on 01595 840246 (airtask.com/shetland-islands-inter-island-service).

For yachting information see shetland.org/visit/do/outdoors/sail and for accommodation check with Visit Scotland.


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