Fair Isle (Old Norse: Friðarey) is a small island north of the Scottish mainland. Administratively it's part of the Shetland Islands and lies midway between them and the Orkney Islands. It vies with Foula for the title of Britain's most remote inhabited island.
There's no tourist information centre here, but see the island website for info.
A ferry sails between Fair Isle and Grutness near Sumburgh on the southern tip of Shetland, 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. The adult fare is £34 return 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 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."
Cruise ships occasionally call in summer, transferring visitors to dinghies to get ashore, e.g. the Noble Caledonia cruises. These are all booked out for 2019 with limited remaining availability for 2020.
Fair Isle's ferry pier 1 North Haven is 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 (don't bring a car over) 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 in the night and never call here.
Airtask fly between Fair Isle and Tingwall near Lerwick, Shetland, at least once M-F May-Oct, taking 25 min. Several weekdays have two flights so a day-trip is possible, with 5 to 6 hours on the island. On Saturday the sole flight is to and from Sumburgh, inconvenient for Lerwick but with air connections to the Scottish mainland. The timetable from Nov 2019 is not yet posted. Adult return fare is £90 and there's a 15 kg total baggage limit. For bookings call +44 1595 840246 - you can't book online, as they prioritise travellers such as residents and visiting GPs.
- 2 Fair Isle Airport (FIE IATA) (midway along the island). Probably the only airport to be owned by the National Trust for Scotland. No, you don't exit via the gift shop.
Walk or cycle. The whole island is only 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide. Don't bring a car: 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 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.
- 2 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.
- 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.
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. In 2019 (and probably 2020) 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 email@example.com.
- Old Haa is a farmhouse with half board from £150 double. Phone +44 1595 760349.
- Upper Leogh is a farm house with full board. Phone +44 1595 760248 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Fair Isle Bird Observatory (near ferry pier). Closed. This was the main accommodation on the island, but it was destroyed by fire in March 2019. Staff continue to record bird sightings and their records were saved, but there are no visitor facilities until a new observatory can be built. It's unlikely to re-open before summer 2021.
Decent Vodafone and O2 coverage across the island, everything else is very patchy.
Back to Mainland Shetland by sea or air.