Fair Isle (Old Norse: Friðarey) is one of the Shetland Islands. It lies 24 miles / 38 km south of Shetland Mainland, midway between Shetland and Orkney, and vies with Foula for the title of Britain's most remote inhabited island. The island is 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, and in 2011 had a population of 65. The main settlement is towards the south, the traditional landing point, but ferries nowadays land to the northeast.
There's no tourist information centre, but see the island website for info.
A ferry sails between Fair Isle and Grutness near Sumburgh on the south tip of Shetland Mainland, taking 2 hr 40 min. May to Sept it sails once on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; Oct to April it only sails Tuesday. It departs Fair Isle early morning, returning from Grutness towards noon for a mid-afternoon arrival on Fair Isle; a day trip is never possible. One sailing every two weeks is from Lerwick, taking 5 hours. Until April 2023, the return fare is £37 adult, £2.40 conc or child, and booking is essential (+44 1595 760363). You won't be accepted for booking unless you've confirmed accommodation on Fair Isle, which is in short supply, see "Sleep".
The ferry Good Shepherd IV only takes 12 foot passengers and fairly heaves around in any sort of sea. Services may be cancelled for days on end, and the ship's name is a wry take on Psalm 23, where the shepherd "leadeth me the quiet waters by." You might not want to enquire too closely into the fate of Shepherds I-III, but Number IV was built in 1986 and is showing her age, with longer spells out of action for repairs. The islanders are concerned at delays to the successor Good Shepherd V, promised for 2017 but still no sign.
Cruise ships occasionally call in summer, transferring visitors to dinghies to get ashore.
1 North Haven is the island ferry pier. It's on the more sheltered east coast, but exposed to nor'easterly weather. Yachts and other boats may anchor here, but you need to know what you're doing in these hazardous waters. There are strong currents, winds and waves and lots of sharp rocks, as the flagship of the Spanish Armada discovered to its cost in 1588.
See Sumburgh for transport on Shetland Mainland to Grutness. In brief the choice is to walk half a mile from the airport, drive to the pier and park up (you can't bring a vehicle across) or take Bus 6 down from Lerwick which is timed to meet the ferry.
The big Northlink ferries between Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland sail past and never call here.
Airtask fly to Fair Isle from Lerwick-Tingwall airport on Shetland Mainland, taking 25 min. There are 2 or 3 flights M, W-F so a day trip is possible with 5 hours on the island. Tuesday, and May-Oct Saturday, have a single flight. Until Oct 2022 the adult return fare is £94 and there's a 15 kg total baggage limit. For bookings call +44 1595 840246 - you can't book online, as they prioritise residents and essential visitors such as the GP. These timetables and fares apply until May 2022.
Walk or cycle. Your hosts will pick you up from your arrival point.
- Birds: thousands upon thousands of them, both resident and migratory. Depending on season you can see massive colonies of puffins on the cliffs, arctic skuas, great skuas, rock pippets, arctic terns, fulmars, gannets, and many many more. Check the Observatory blog for recent sightings.
- 1 Sheep Rock looks like a grassy asteroid that has come to rest a few yards offshore. Until 1977, terrified sheep were hauled up from small boats to graze there.
- 2 George Waterston Memorial Centre and Museum, Auld Skoll, Utra (next to church). May-Sep: M F 14:00-16:00, W 10:30-12:00. George Waterston (1911-1980) was a leading ornithologist, for many years Scottish Director of RSPB. He set up the Observatory here, and indeed bought the whole island, eventually selling it at cost price to the NTS. This one-room museum in the former school hall relates his history and the island's.
- South Haven was the traditional landing beach for visiting vessels and the fishing yoals. Fishing was with long lines, 200 to 400 hooks baited with mussels, and the catch was saithe (Pollachius virens, known elsewhere as pollock or coalfish). The vat by the shore was a kettle, used to boil the fish livers to extract the oil.
- 3 Malcolm's Head is the headland near the southwest tip, with views of great sea stacks and bird colonies. There's the ruins of an coastguard's lookout post. Nearby is the South (or Skadden) lighthouse, built by Stevenson, where you can stay in the former keeper's cottage, see "Sleep". The lighthouse is automated, the tower interior can't routinely be visited. Also take in Mathers Head, with views of the puffins on Black Holm islet.
- North end of the island is moorland ending in cliffs. 4 North Lighthouse (or Skroo) is the other Stevenson lighthouse at the northeast tip. The keeper's cottage has been demolished. Along the eastern coast are sea stacks and arches, with a blowhole where a sea cave has collapsed.
- 5 Ward Hill at 220 m is the highest point on the island. It's easily reached by a track leading northwest from the airfield. The summit approach is ugly with modern telecoms and the remains of a Royal Air Force radar station, but the views north to Sumburgh and south to Orkney are impressive. Return the same way, or (with great care) go along the western clifftops, past stacks and gullies and wheeling birds, before turning inland towards the airfield and paved road.
- Walk: Walk Highlands suggest trails around the island that take in the main sights.
- Knitwear is what Fair Isle is famous for. Half a dozen traders independently to ply their craft; see island website. The highest profile among these is Mati Ventrillon, with a shop near the museum and church.
- The Post Office, a quarter mile north of the museum, has a few essentials and bits and pieces. It's open daily 06:30-17:30. The larger Stackhoull Stores has closed.
- Don't trade offshore: as the harbour was unsuitable for large vessels, the entrepreneurs of Fair Isle traditionally rowed out to trade with passing ships, sometimes for great distances. Their boats were yoals, rather than the sixareens used on other islands. In 1897 four yoals rowed 12 miles out to trade but the weather turned nasty. Two made it safe back, one suffered deaths from exposure, and one was never seen again.
There are no eating-out facilities, pubs, cafes, burger vans, pizza deliveries on motorbikes, KFCs, or intimidating sommeliers. That's partly why you came. Your accommodation will be full board, or at least half board with the sort of stonking breakfast that doesn't leave room for lunch. Check ahead with your hosts if you have special dietary requirements: you may need to bring your own supply (e.g. for gluten-free), or they may need time and extra payment to ship stuff in.
Same applies, no pub or off-licence, BYOB to eke out your host's supply.
The island's entire accommodation capacity normally totals little over a dozen beds, but until 2023 that's halved by the loss of the Observatory.
- South Lighthouse near Malcolm's Head is a Stevenson creation. The former keeper's cottage offers full board from £140 double. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Old Haa is a farmhouse with half board from £150 double. Phone +44 1595 760349.
- Upper Leogh[dead link] is a farm house with full board. Phone +44 1595 760248 or email email@example.com.
- Taft[dead link] is a guesthouse south end of the island.
- Fair Isle Bird Observatory (near ferry pier). Closed. This was the main accommodation on the island, but it was destroyed by fire in 2019. Staff continue to record bird sightings and their records were saved, but there are no visitor facilities until the new observatory is built. This is expected to open in April 2023.
As of Nov 2021 Fair Isle has 4G from Vodafone and O2 but no signal from EE or Three. 5G has not reached the island.
Back to Mainland Shetland by sea or air.