Fair Isle

Summer 2022
John Andrews
Wed 5 Jun 2013 08:58

Fair Isle

Fair Isle is an enchanting isle, quite magic. It is so small, only 3 miles long by 1 ½ miles wide, that it doesn’t appear on our electronic chart at all until you zoom into the 12 mile range – completely  invisible until it appears as if by magic. The island did its best to hide away from us on the day we made passage from Westray. An hour out on a glorious sunny day and we hit a bank of fog and completed the rest of the journey with visibility down to barely 50 yards or so. Not the most restful of passages. Although Fair Isle is surrounded by high cliffs and has a high point of 271 metres, it was only when we were a few hundred yards off and could make out the white line of waves crashing into the shore that we had firm visual evidence that we had found land. The birds were giving a way the presence of the isand however. From a few miles out we were surrounded by guillemots, fulmars, skuas and delightfully, a few puffins.

Shortly after our arrival in North Harbour, the visibility cleared and we found ourselves in the most dramatic of harbours, surrounded by high cliffs that were dotted with the white shapes of nesting fulmars, constantly clicking and clacking away.




We made our way up to the Bird Observatory, a large guest house which promised a warm welcome. They have a bar and we settled down to a pint, hoping for engaging conversation, but found the place curiously  silent. There were lots of people there sitting in small groups, but they were either whispering to each other or were not engaged with each other at all, playing with their ipads and iphones. 

The next day was a glorious sunny day, and we went for a walk to the south of the island where most of the 70 inhabitants live. There are a number of crofts and a great many sheep. The island is full of birds of all shapes and sizes and the air is full of their song. As we made our way along the road from the bird observatory, we came across some extraordinary constructions which turned out to be Heligoland bird traps.


Fairisle sees large numbers of migratory birds passing through. They settle in the walls and in the wooded areas from where they can be flushed into the traps and collected in the glass fronted boxes at the end where they can be identified and ringed.

There are several churches on the island, including the Church of Scotland church which has the most beautiful stained glass windows depicting life on the island.



At the South of the island there is the island cemetery, on a high south facing promontory. There are only three or four family names. Lots of Stouts, Wilsons and Irvines.  Intriguingly there is a cross erected by the Spanish Government in remembrance of those who perished on El Gran Grifon, a Spanish ship wrecked on the island after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. They say there are traces of Spanish blood in the island population ….?


We returned to the boat for lunch and watched the ferry from Lerwick come in – the Good Shepherd IV. No sooner had she landed her passengers and supplies than she whipped round to the slipway, was manoevered into a cradle and winched up into her ‘noost’, or sheltered crevice in the cliffs.


The whole process took about 10 minutes. Apparently in the winter they take her out of the water every day as the harbour is not really protected in stormy weather and waves break around and through the breakwater. In the summer take her out every two weeks to make sure that she doesn’t get a mucky bottom.

That afternoon, we returned to the community hall as they were setting up craft stalls for the passengers of a cruise ship that was coming in. The Fairisle knitting proved to be irresistible, and we bought hats and gloves and placed an order for a jersey for John. Apparently they only knit in the winter and only take orders for 20 sweaters, so John’s sweater, which they promised would be ready before Christmas, will be very much a limited edition. The ladies were all clucking round him, measuring him for ‘extra long’. I think he rather enjoyed the whole process!



That evening, we made our way up to the cliffs just above the harbour, as we were told that puffins would come in from the sea to roost later in the evening. We arrived at about 8.00 and although there were lots of burrows, there was no sign of any puffins. Suddenly we saw one fly in and then they were all around us, flitting in from the sea like so many bats, and strutting around outside their burrows on their gloriously coloured orange legs. Lovely to watch.


Sunday morning and another lovely day. A walk out to the cliffs on the North of the island before a 12.00 noon departure for Lerwick.