Sunday 3 March 2013

Fair Isle :
knitwear, shipwrecks and birds on the smallest candidate to Ultima Thule

Fair Isle (from Old Norse Frjóey, Gaelic Fara) is one of Shetland islands, lying around halfway between mainland Shetland and the Orkney islands.

Coordinates: 59°32′N,1°37′W
Population  ~70

Fair Isle is the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom; the nearest town is Lerwick, 72 km away, almost 4 hours by sea.

The island is only 4.8 km in length and 2.4 km wide.


The majority of the seventy islanders live in the crofts on the southern half of the island, with the northern half consisting of rocky moorland. The western coast consists of cliffs of up to 200 metres in height.

The rocky west coastline

Fair Isle was known to the Romans, maybe as Ultima Thule, and to the Vikings as Fridarey - the Truce Isle.

The sagas tell how Kari the Viking wintered here on his voyage to the Hebrides.The ancient map above is roughly the right shape and there are still whales and porpoises in the waters around the isle today.

Over the centuries the island changed hands many times. Trading links with northern Europe are reflected in Fair Isle Haa, a traditional Hanseatic trading booth located not far from South Harbour, traditionally used by residents of the southern part of the island.

The principal activity for the male islanders is crofting, women work mainly on the island's traditional style of knitting. Fair Isle is also known for its bird observatory.

The North Haven

The Auld Haa

It's the oldest house, from the 18th cent, circa 1700, and featuring stappled gables.

Sheep on the hill above Auld Haa

 Walter Scott is the most renowned visitor, in 1814.

Now a guest house - doors aren’t locked!

The inevitable red phone box.

The South Lighthouse pathway.

Natural Arch, North Haven

For hundreds of years the main export was dried salt fish. At  the South Harbour you can see ancient nausts ("noosts") where halibut fishermen hauled up their distinctive Fair Isle boats, or yoles. The boat-shaped noosts remain in use today and traditional boats are still built in the isle.

Noosts are the cuts in the bank above the waterline where the ships were pulled up out of the sea.

The Museum

Fair Isle is also famous for its woollen jumpers, with knitting forming an important source of income for the women of the islands.

The George Waterston Memorial Centre & Museum is installed at the old school.

One of the unique Fair Isle patterns

The Bird Observatory

It's located above the isthmus dividing the North and South Havens. Some usual birds in the island:


 Hawfinch, looking angry


Pallid Harrier

Great Skua

and of course lots of Puffins !


Over the years there have been a long list of  shipwrecks on or near Fair Isle. The most famous being El Gran Grifón, the flagship of the Spanish Armada.

Waves in a gale,South Lighthouse

In recent years, wrecks on the isle include the Hebe on 1881, the Columbine on 1911 and the Canadia near Malcom's Head on 1915. 

The South Lighthouse, built by Stevenson in 1892

Auld Haa in the dimming evening light

Fair Isle Map: