Fair Isle

Fair Isle Wren Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis ©Mark Rayment

Located halfway between Orkney and the Shetland Mainland, Fair Isle is just three miles long by one and a half miles wide; the island is home to just sixty people. It is the most remote, inhabited island in the UK. Since 1954 it has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland. World famous for its birdlife, its traditional crafts, and its stunning scenery, Fair Isle is a wonderful place to visit. It can be reached from the Shetland mainland either by sea or by air. Bear in mind that travel to the island can be disrupted by high winds and fog, at any time of year.

The bird observatory first opened in 1948.  A new observatory was opened in 2010 but was destroyed by fire in March 2019. Fair Isle Bird Observatory and its guesthouse is currently closed due to the disastrous fire. Its rebuilding is progressing and with the completion of the roof and cladding it has reached a significant milestone whereby the building is wind and watertight (January 2024). Work has started on the next stage undertaken in three phases for the completion of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing works together with the interiors.

The island houses a series of high-technology relay stations carrying vital TV, radio, telephone and military communication links between Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland. Since the installation of a third wind turbine and solar panels the island is self-sufficient in electricity. Other than the restaurant of the bird observatory, and its small evening-only bar, there are no pubs or restaurants on the island. There is one shop, one school and a community hall used for meetings and social events. There is no police station on the island, although there is a ‘retained’ fire service.

In normal times, FIBO offers extensive full-board accommodation, with single, double, twin and family en-suite rooms, plus one disabled-access room on the ground floor. Further details can be found on the Observatory’s website. (Bookings can be made by emailing fibobooking@btconnect.com or calling 01595 760258). Elsewhere on the island there are two guest houses offering full board and a self-catering cottage.

Most of the islanders live in the crofts on the southern half of the island, the northern half consisting of rocky moorland. The western coast consists of cliffs of up to 200m (660 ft) in height, Ward Hill at 217m (712 ft) being the highest point of the island and its only ‘Marilyn’. On the eastern coast the almost detached headland of Sheep Rock rises to 132m (433 ft).

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.

Birding Fair Isle

Most of the island is designated by NatureScot as both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SCA).  The island and its surrounding seas are also designated by NatureScot as a Special Protection Area (SPA) due to the important bird species present. In 2016 the seas around Fair Isle were designated as a Marine Protected Area (MPA).  As of 2019 it is the only MPA in Scotland to be designated specifically as a ‘Demonstration and Research’ MPA.

From April to June and August to October, the wardening team aims to complete a full daily census of the migrants passing through Fair Isle. The island is divided into three (north, south west and south east), with wardens following a set route through each census area and recording all sightings. All areas are covered at the same time each day, normally over a four-hour time period, to minimise the duplication of sightings and allow between-year comparisons of records, resulting in a data set stretching back over fifty years that provides valuable information for researchers. (Fortunately, the data had been digitalised before the fire.) In addition to the census data, visitors are encouraged to contribute to the record of migration through Fair Isle by submitting their own sightings at Log, held every evening in the Observatory lounge.

Because of the weather in Shetland and the lack of tree cover, mistnets are rarely practical (except in the relatively sheltered Observatory garden, if the weather permits), so, most small birds on Fair Isle are caught in heligoland traps.

Many rare species of bird have been found on the island, with at least 27 species that were the first British records, and it is probably the best place in western Europe to see skulking Siberian passerines such as Pechora Pipit, Lanceolated Warbler and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. For example, in 2015, rare birds discovered on the island included Pallid Harrier, Arctic Warbler, Moltoni’s Warbler, Booted Warbler, paddyfield Warbler, Siberian Thrush and Thrush Nightingale. The island is also home to an endemic subspecies of Eurasian Wren, the Fair Isle Wren Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis.

Getting there

By Sea – The Good Shepherd IV carries twelve passengers, and the journey takes about two and a half hours. In summer the ferry sails three times a week to/from Grutness at the south end of Shetland (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) and once a fortnight it sails to Lerwick. In winter there is only one sailing per week (Tuesday) – 01595 760363

By Air – Flights leaves from Tingwall airport, a ten-minute drive from Lerwick. There are flights to the isle each week day, weather permitting, and Saturday flights during the summer months. One flight each Saturday departs from Sumburgh airport. A subsidised taxi service to Tingwall can be booked at 01595 745745 (must be booked the day before travel). During the summer months, Loganair offers flights from Kirkwall to Fair Isle twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays. Booking information can be found on the Loganair website. Also see: https://www.airtask.com

Staying

Auld Haa Guest House – Full board accommodation – Tommy Hyndman, Auld Haa, Fair Isle, Shetland ZE2 9JU Email: tommyartgallery@yahoo.com

South Lighthouse – Full board accommodation- Josie Wennekes and Dave Brackenbury, South Light, Fair Isle, Shetland ZE2 9JU Email: info@southlightfairisle.scot

Springfield – Self-catering holiday cottage – Steven Wilson, The Koolin, Fair Isle, Shetland ZE2 9JU Email: norseman817@gmail.com

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 391

Checklist

  • Fair Isle Birdlist

    Checklist
    Downloadable checklist
Observatories
  • Fair Isle Bird Observatory

    Observatory WebsiteSatellite View
    Promote Shetland can provide information if you are planning to visit Fair Isle. We are currently rebuilding the Observatory and have no accommodation available.
Organisations
  • National Trust for Scotland

    Webpage
    The most remote inhabited island in the UK, famed for its seabirds and fabulous knitwear
Blogs
  • Fair Isle

    BLOG
    Tommy's "Wild Life" adventures. Lifestyle and island living insights on the most remote inhabited community in the UK. Fair Isle, Shetland Islands, Scotland. - Population 45 Resident Islanders, 1200 Sheep, 20,000 Puffins and a few rare birds.

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