The Beauty of Scotland’s Fair Isle

Located midway between the Orkney and Shetland Islands in Scotland’s Northern Isles, Fair Isle is a lovely gem of land with a population of about 70 people. The isle has long been inhabited; archaeologists have found evidence of human settlement dating back 5,000 years. Ancient oval-shaped stone houses, turf and stone dykes remain on the land today. Fair Isle currently has fourteen celebrated historic monuments for you to explore while on a Scotland tour of the region. These range from structures used by the first peoples who settled the land to the remains of a World War II radar station.

The island is only three miles long by one and a half miles wide. The majority of the islanders live on crofts, small agricultural landholdings, on the lower southern part of the island. Most of the farmers follow low-intensity, subsistence farming methods, producing crops like hay, silage, oats, kale, and turnips. Many people keep sheep or cattle as well. Since 1954, Fair Isle has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and, though small, has a successful community that has led the way in developing projects in wildlife tourism, windpower, and sustainable environmental practices. During your tour of this Scotland island you are sure to experience what makes Fair Isle such a popular location for the savvy traveler.

Fair Isle may be best known for its unique knitwear, which has long been a source of income for the people. For centuries, the islanders bartered their knitted wares and fresh produce for goods they could not make on their small island. Today, the term ‘Fair Isle Knitting’ is used to describe a particular type of stranded color knitting. However, the only source of genuine Fair Isle articles is Fair Isle itself, where the small Fair Isle Crafts cooperative produces traditional (red, blue, brown, yellow, and white) and contemporary (natural wool colors of brown, grey, fawn, and white) garments on hand-frame machines, labeling each article with the unique Fair Isle trademark.

The island is a favored breeding spot for thousands of seabirds. Spring and autumn are the best time to plan a Scotland cruise for bird watchers, when a myriad of bird species migrate to their summer and winter destinations, for Fair Isle lies on the intersection of important flight paths from Scandinavia, Iceland, and Faroe. The island’s impressive cliffs are the summer home of fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets, shags, puffins, guillemots, and razorbills, while skuas and terns make their nests on the moors. Fair Isle has been home to a Bird Observatory since 1948, though the current building has only been around since 1970. The observatory has many day activities, from trapping and ringing migratory birds to counting the size of sea bird colonies.

While birds are the most prevalent creatures on Fair Isle, during your trip you may also look forward to seeing sea animals such as grey and common seals, harbor porpoises, orcas, minke whales, and beaked Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Local flora includes over 250 species of flowering plants, such as the bright yellow bog asphodel, purple marsh orchids, and the rare frog orchid. Sea pinks flourish in June, and yellow birdsfoot trefoil cascades down the cliffs along with white sea campion. Though the summer weather may fluctuate between glorious sunshine and dark, stormy clouds, the landscape beneath is always beautiful.