Famous for its birds, knitwear and historic shipwrecks, Fair Isle is a tiny jewel of an island, half-way between Orkney and Shetland, owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

A quick introduction

Fair Isle is the southernmost Shetland island and lies 24 miles from the Shetland Mainland and 27 miles from North Ronaldsay, the most northerly island in Orkney.

Norse settlers named it Fridarey - 'the island of peace' - but this stepping stone in the sea was also vital in times of strife, when the Earls of Orkney, and Viking warlords before them, used it as a look-out post and for sending fire signals to and from Shetland.

The island passed into the ownership of the National Trust of Scotland in 1954. Today, it is home to around 60 people and is a hotspot for ornithologists thanks to its importance as a breeding ground for seabirds, and a stopping point for migrant species.

How to get to Fair Isle

You can travel by ferry or plane and both must be pre-booked.

The ferry 'Good Shepherd IV' carries 12 passengers and takes 2.5 hours. It leaves from Grutness Pier at the southern tip of Shetland and once a fortnight (summer only) from Lerwick. Please note that this is not a car ferry. View the timetable on the Ferry Services website.

Most flights leave from Tingwall Airport, six miles west of Lerwick, and takes around 25 minutes. The flights operate three times a week and, from April to October, there is also weekly service from Sumburgh (April - Oct). View the timetable on the Airtask website.

Yachts can tie up at the North Haven, with a small nightly charge for use of the harbour. ​​

Where to stay

The main place to stay on Fair Isle was the Bird Observatory, but this sadly burned down in 2019. You can however find a list of other accommodation providers on the Fair Isle website.

Useful information
  • Stackhoull Stores is the island's shop and post office. The shop is open every day except Thursday and Sunday in the summer, with reduced opening hours during the winter months. ​
  • There are public toilets at the air strip, the hall and the shop.
  • Berthing is available for small craft at the pier in North Haven.
  • Fair Isle's cliffs offer dramatic scenery and seabird watching but they are also very dangerous. Please take care - and tell someone where you're going, and when you plan to be back.

Things to do

George Waterston Memorial Centre and Museum

George Waterston OBE (1911-1980) was Scottish Director of the RSPB and had a massive influence on Fair Isle. He bought the island after WWII and co-founded the bird observatory in 1948, giving the isle’s economy a much needed boost.

The museum, built in his name, is packed with displays of the island’s history from prehistoric times to the present. It is open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the summer and at other times by arrangement. Guided tours are available on request. See the website for more information.

Fair Isle Bird Observatory

For more than 55 years, the internationally renowned Fair Isle Bird Observatory has done scientific research on bird migration and the seabird breeding colonies. Visitors to the island – even if they’re not avid bird-watchers – find the observatory’s work fascinating.

Unfortunately, the Observatory burned down in 2019 and fundraising is currently underway to restore the property. In the meantime, there's a free ranger service offered to visitors from May to the end of October. Find out more on Observatory website.

Fair Isle Lighthouse

Fair Isle has two lighthouses, North Lighthouse and South Lighthouse. In 1998, the South Lighthouse became the last lighthouse in Scotland to be automated. Its foghorn - also Scotland's last - was dismantled in 2005. Tours can be arranged through the Fair Isle Lighthouse Society.

Genuine Fair Isle knitting

The term 'Fair Isle Knitting' is now used worldwide but this unique style developed on Fair Isle long ago, when local knitters discovered that fine yarns stranded into a double layer produce durable, warm, and lightweight garments. Today the only source of the genuine article in the world is still Fair Isle and you can buy garments and other arts and crafts, as well as see workshop demonstrations, from a number of makers on the island.

Walking in Fair Isle

Walking maps are available from the shop and on this website we've got an interesting walking route in the south of the island.

You can walk freely almost anywhere on Fair Isle, although crofters prefer you not to cross their land at lambing time (April-May). Please follow the Countryside Code, close gates and use the stiles.

Fascinating facts

  • For thousands of years Fair Isle has been a useful landmark for shipping but in storms and fog its coastline is highly dangerous. At least 100 ships have foundered around the coast, the most famous probably being the 'El Gran Grifon' of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The islanders looked after 300 sailors for six weeks.
  • Over 250 flowering plants have been recorded in Fair Isle, including rare species such as the Oysterplant, Small Adder’s-tongue, Moonwort and Frog Orchid. June and July are probably the best months to visit for variety and colour and to see some of the rarer species in flower, although late May and August are still rewarding.
  • The crime writer Ann Cleeves, known for writing the books on which the BBC series 'Shetland' is based, as well as the crime series Vera, first came to the islands to work as an assistant cook at Fair Isle. She fell in love with Shetland and though she no longer lives here, she's hugely fond of the place, as she explains in this Radio Times article.

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