|OS Name:||Fair Isle|
|Shetland Name:||Fair Isle|
|UK Grid Reference:||HZ210720|
|Area (ha):||768 ha|
|Ferry Services:||Good Shepherd from Grutness|
Fair Isle (Old Norse Friðarey or Fridar-øy) is the southernmost island of Shetland, lying roughly halfway between Shetland Mainland and North Ronaldsay, the northernmost of the Orkney Islands. Geographically, Fair Isle is the most remote inhabited island in the UK, situated about 25 miles from Sumburgh Head, at the far south of the Shetland Mainland.
During the mid-nineteenth century there were as many as 400 islanders, but the century that followed saw steady, sometimes rapid depopulation. Today, the population of the island is approximately 70, and has remained reasonably constant for several decades. Politically, Fair Isle is part of the South Shetland council ward.
Though there are no pubs or restaurants on the island, Fair Isle Lodge and Bird Observatory offer meals and a bar between April and October. There is also a well-stocked shop and Post Office, Stackhoull Stores. The island has a primary school, but its secondary-age pupils attend Anderson High School in Lerwick, and stay in hostel accommodation there.
The topography of the island is, like much of Shetland, divided between hill moorland and fertile croft land. There is also spectacular cliff scenery, particularly along the west coast. All of the crofts and other housing are situated in the south, while the moorland in the north provides communal grazing. The island's airstrip and harbour are also in the north, as is the bird observatory.
For the past 60 years, the story of Fair Isle and its bird observatory have been intimately connected. The observatory was built in 1948 by George Waterston, who owned the island, and since that time ‘the obs’ has become a Mecca for birdwatchers. The island is renowned for the number of rare birds sightings, particularly during the spring and autumn migration seasons. As well as carrying out extremely significant research on both migrating and breeding species, the observatory also provides accommodation to the majority of the island’s visitors.
A new bird observatory was opened in 2010.
The depopulation of Fair Isle during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was dramatic and almost devastating. However, the fortunes of the island were turned around in 1954 when the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) became landlord. The trust carried out necessary improvements on the island’s accommodation, and employment opportunities and standards of living gradually improved. Because housing is owned by the NTS, an application process is required for allocating properties. This process has attracted much media attention in recent years.
The NTS now operates a fairly ‘hands-off’ approach to island affairs, and the islanders themselves have been instrumental in maintaining a strong and thriving community. Projects such as Fair Isle Electricity Company, which provides the island’s energy through a combination of wind and diesel generation, and is both owned and staffed by islanders, are considered by many to be a model of innovative community enterprise. Fair Isle was the first island to be granted Fair Trade status, in 2004.
Just as elsewhere in Shetland, the traditional crofting lifestyle has been replaced a diversified economy, with most islanders now holding multiple employments.
Fair Isle has long been world renowned for its colourful, patterned knitwear. This has been widely copied, though many garments labelled ‘Fair Isle’ now bear little resemblance to the original geometric patterns. Most knitwear on the island is currently sold through the co-operative, Fair Isle Crafts.
There are several visual artists, photographers, writers and musicians on the island, including Dave Wheeler and Lise Sinclair. Malachy Tallack was earlier living on the island, but has now moved to Shetland Mainland.
There is also a traditional boat builder, Ian Best, who learned his trade in Western Norway.
Fair Isle can be reached by both sea and air. DirectFlight operate a regular service to the island from Tingwall in Shetland Mainland, and during the summer, Loganair run a twice weekly service from Kirkwall in Orkney.
The North Haven is also the second busiest harbour in Shetland for visiting yachts.
Over the years there have been many shipwrecks on or near Fair Isle. The most famous being El Gran Grifon, the flagship of the Spanish Armada, which was wrecked in the cove of Stroms Hellor on the 20th August 1588, forcing its 300 sailors to spend six weeks living with the islanders. The wreck was discovered in 1970.
Other wrecks on the isle include the Blessed Endeavour in Mavers Geo in 1798, the Laurestinus on August 4th 1804, the Favourite on April 27th 1805, the Li La Too Zee on November 15th 1817, the Vandrandande Man which wrecked on the Head of the Landberg in 1822, the Resolution at Muckle Orie Geo in 1829, the Rover which struck the Heids o' Sheldigeo and foundered at Hesswalls on either October 22nd or 23rd 1831, the Adolph Wilhelm at Slogar, and the Anna Carolina at Hesswalls both on August 22nd 1835, the Lessing in Klavers Geo on May 18th 1868, the Wilhelmina which drove ashore at South Ramni Geo on October 13th 1876, the Carl Constantine on Fogli/Fugli Stack on December 6th 1876, the Hertigen on Sheep Rock on December 14th 1876, the Black Watch on the west coast of the isle on September 19th 1877, the Monchgut on Cubbie Skerry at north end of the isle on May 30th 1879, the Hebe on November 25th 1881, the Columbine at either South Haven or South Harbour on November 12th 1911 and the Canadia on Heely Stack or Fugla Stack, near Malcom's Head on March 12th 1915.
World War II
Although Fair Isle is just a small isolated island, it saw perhaps more than its fair share of involvement in wartime incidents.
The south lighthouse was attacked twice in the winter of 41/42. On the first occasion the assistant lightkeeper's wife was killed, and on the second occasion a direct bomb strike to the accommodation block resulted in the death of the keeper's wife and daughter.
Perhaps the best known incident during the war was on 15th January 1941 when a Heinkel HE111 aircraft crash landed after being shot down by allied aircraft. Three of the five crew survived the crash. The pilot, Heinz Thurz, who was only twenty years old at the time, revisited the island in the late 1980s to see the site of the crash, and the remains of the aircraft, which can still be seen to this day.
Also during the war a RAF radar station was sited at Ward Hill.
Recent Notable Events
- Fair Isle community website
- Fair Isle Bird Observatory
- Dave Wheeler Images - A Collection of Fair Isle Photos by Dave Wheeler.
- Dave Wheeler Photography
- The Fair Isle Weather Data
- Details of Fair Isle airport
- Fair Isle Guest House
- Fair Isle School website
- Fair Isle Crafts Ltd. website.
- Fair Isle North Lighthouse
- Fair Isle South Lighthouse
- Fair Isle - Visit Shetland website
- Ian Best Boatbuilder
- Malachy Tallack's New Statesman Blog
- Virtual Island Tour