Britain’s most remote inhabited island, the historic wildlife sanctuary of Fair Isle, is home to 50,000 puffins and just 70 people
Fair Isle is known all over the world as a distinctive knitting style. But the actual island where that simple pullover pattern evolved is far less well known. In fact, it’s almost Britain’s forgotten island.
Fair Isle is so small (three miles by one) and so awkwardly positioned (alone at the top of the North Sea, midway between the Shetlands and Orkneys), that it’s often omitted from UK atlases and maps. This is Britain’s most remote inhabited spot. It’s owned by the National Trust for Scotland and it can take as long to get there from southern England as getting to Australia… and, unfortunately, can cost as much too.
First you have to get to Shetland by boat or plane. There are several daily flights from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and car ferries sail from Aberdeen seven nights a week, arriving in Lerwick early the next morning. Then you continue by either plane or boat, depending on the day, season and weather. For the 25-minute Loganair flight from Shetland to Fair Isle you have to get a cab to the tiny Tingwall airport. You load your own luggage, then board a tiny eight-seater Islander aircraft. The flight is obviously a memorable experience. I sat next to chirpy pilot Eddie Watt who pointed his house and boat along the way and offered to swoop down to let me take pictures.
Fair Islanders' mail boat, The Good Shepherd, sails to and from Sumburgh or Lerwick up to three times a week. That takes up to four-and-a-half hours. The 25 miles of open sea between Sumburgh Head and Fair Isle is notoriously choppy. I watched green-faced passengers being helped off by crewmen and decided on the flight back. Of course, fog frequently means flights are cancelled, while storms mean the boat can’t sail. So the island is regularly cut off altogether.
Once you land on the island’s gravel strip, next to a tiny hut, Fair Island visitors look around them to find there are 70 people, 1,000 sheep and 150,000 seabirds, including 50,000 puffins. Some of these birds are very rare. That explains the Fair Isle Bird Observatory, which is famous in the birdwatching world. The staff will take visitors on a fantastic cliff walk to sit among the puffins and be dive-bombed by skuas. The observatory doubles as the island’s hotel (sleeping 33), café and bar. It’s a bit like a primary school inside but everyone is friendly and they don’t make you feel like a bird ignoramus. The other places to stay are cosy B&Bs.
There are no real sights here but I was really busy. It took a day to walk the island’s coastline, a spectacular and unspoilt series of towering cliffs and swooping bays. There are two lighthouses, a quirky shop, harbours and beaches. I even found myself joining in helping to unload supplies from the mail boat.
The island women developed the intricate Fair Isle knitting style over hundreds of years. Some say it was influenced by the crew of a wrecked Spanish Armada ship, others by passing Baltic fishermen. Whatever, it is a distinctive series of knitted shapes including island icons like anchors, rams' horns, ferns and flowers. You can buy them at one of the knitters’ houses.
I had to call round to see The Good Shepherd’s captain’s wife, Florrie. She keeps the world’s unsold stock of genuine Fair Isle knitwear in a cupboard in her spare room. It’s alarmingly small time for such a massive brand name. There are four part-time knitters working in croft houses across the island, using hand frames; five other women help with finishing, washing and admin. They only produce about 100 sweaters a year. They cost over £100 a time so it’s a handy income in a community where there are no nine-to-five jobs. And the islanders are justifiably proud of their knitwear heritage.
There’s a wonderfully homemade museum in an old stone schoolhouse with some fantastic examples and period advertising material, including a 1920s model trying to look seductive in a bizarre Fair Isle knitted hat. There’s also a workmanlike letter from the leader of an Antarctic expedition, ordering 100 jerseys in 1902, and a photo of Edward VIII playing golf in one. As well as the knitters, there are dozens of craftspeople only too pleased to show you what they make, from violins to stained glass. I found that usually meant having a cup of tea in their crofts and talking about the weather all afternoon.
Where to stay
Fair Isle Bird Observatory: though this may be closed for some of 2009 for refurbishment.
Upper Leogh: I stayed in Kathy’s warm, cosy bungalow guesthouse and enjoyed her good home cooking.
Auld Haa Guest House: stay in the impressive 18th-century laird’s house, where Sir Walter Scott once slept. It’s now the home of a friendly American family.