Fair Isle: The remote Scottish island with spectacular scenery, bird watching and knitwear

UK's most geographically remote inhabited island is fascinating, especially during winter

Atlantic puffins are a common site on Fair Isle, Shetland. Getty Images
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The guidebooks will tell you the best time to visit Scotland's Fair Isle is summer, when the golden beams of "da simmer dim" – which means “the twilight of a Shetland summer evening” – ensure more than 19 hours of sunlight.

But winter is a time unlike any other at Fair Isle, the most geographically remote inhabited island in the UK.

It’s when Mother Nature unleashes her blistering, raw power: tumultuous winds, crashing waves and stinging breezes. There are also barely six hours of light a day.

Named Fridarey, the “island of peace”, by Norse settlers, this tiny island – barely 5km long and 2.4km wide – is half-way between Orkney and Shetland.

Now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, it is famed for its birdlife, knitwear and historic shipwrecks.

The scenery at 60 degrees north is wild, stark and beautiful during the winter, and the deeply indented coasts, riddled with voes (fjords) and enclosed by steep hills come alive.

I watch the stunning sunset show as deep violets coalesce with warm oranges, and golden yellows blend into light pinks.

My genial host tells me that I could catch a glimpse of the stunning aurora borealis, locally called "mirrie dancers" (mirrie translates into blur), if I am lucky.

I gaze hard into the big, clear skies, but the shimmering dancers fail to show up.

Winters are mild on the isle despite it being so far north, only 644km south of the Arctic Circle, due to the Gulf Stream warming the surrounding sea. The temperature rarely drops below freezing, typically hovering around an average of 2°C.

The Force 5 wind, however, is strong and can be accompanied by powerful rain and gales. It feels even fiercer as trees are few and far between.

Shetland folklore says the stormy periods are caused by a battle between two gods, Da Sea Midder and Teran, vying to dominate the seasons.

For centuries, until the discovery of oil, the people of Fair Isle made a living from fishing and crofting. Life on the island, home to barely 50 people now, is far from easy, even in today’s connected times.

Getting there is an adventure. One can travel by sea or air (booking is essential), but disruptions can occur in any season because of high winds, fog and other weather disturbances.

Those landscapes and seascapes are so wild and dramatic, however, it makes islanders content with the one shop, one school and one community hall to which they have access.

Marie Bruhat, a textile artist and knitwear designer, first visited Fair Isle in 2015 and was bowled over by its beauty.

Originally from Auvergne in France, she made the island her home in 2017. “You don’t have a job, you aren’t one thing, you’re an ‘islander'," she says.

“What is important when living in a place like Fair Isle is flexibility," Bruhat says. "You learn to make the most of the weather, and it’s important to be able to adapt to anything that happens."

The islanders, challenged by the elements each day, tend to be inventive, resourceful and rely on each other.

No two days are the same as the sun and the sea create ever-changing vistas.

This is also one of the best places in Europe for birdlife sightings. Many rare birds stop off on their migration routes in spring and autumn, while varied species of seabirds nest in the cliffs every summer.

At least 350 unique species have been identified in the area until now, with reported sightings of rare birds such as the brown-headed cowbird, red-rumped swallow and white-tailed eagle.

The black-and-white puffins can always be relied on to provide a show, but it can be tougher to spot the Arctic tern, black guillemot and northern gannet.

On my visit, I enjoy otter watching. The playful creatures gambol excitedly as they try to get in their fill of the short daylight hours.

From April to August, the cliffs are packed with seabirds such as razorbills, storm petrels, northern fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots.

There's plenty more to do than simply bird watch here, however. The dramatic cliffs and changing shorelines also offer plenty of opportunities to walk, cycle, sail, angle, kayak, dive, surf and climb.

Then there's the George Waterston Memorial Centre and Museum, named after the man who bought the island after the Second World War, where visitors learn about the history of the island, the many shipwrecks off its coast and its acclaimed knitwear.

There is also the North Lighthouse and South Lighthouse, built by the famed Stevenson brothers, Charles and David. These were first illuminated in 1892 using paraffin and turned by clockwork. Today, they stand tall as a reminder of Shetland’s glorious seafaring past.

Elsewhere, the Fair Isle Bird Observatory has been renowned for its scientific research on bird migration and the seabird breeding colonies for more than 55 years.

"The observatory burned down in 2019 and a rebuild is under way to restore the property,” says Janette Budge, a true-blue Shetlander, knitwear designer and tutor.

She says Fair Isle is world renowned for its traditional knitwear. Made popular by royals and celebrities, the technique has geometric patterns, such as the crosses and hexagons of the popular Oxo pattern, and symbols related to life on the islands, such as flowers and ram horns.

Local lore goes that a ship from the Spanish Armada in 1588 ran aground on Fair Isle.

The 17 households that then lived on the island took the sailors in and were taught the colourful patterned knitting by the Spaniards. But locals and experts don’t agree, citing Scandinavian influences instead.

Life on an island can seem romantic, but all islanders know they must be practical and pragmatic. On Fair Isle, this means almost everyone has several jobs – their day jobs and other maintenance gigs. Most islanders believe that the ability to “muck in as and when needed” keeps everyone going.

For Bruhat, that includes running her knitting studio and artistic practice, as well as hosting individually tailored, week-long knitting holidays that are her idea of a “dream” break.

"It’s a week to live with someone local, learn about the culture, immerse in the island’s beauty and knit something unique," she says.

Social events are also woven into chores and community activities. These include events in the crofting calendar, such as baling and Sheep Hill (when sheep are driven off the northern half of the island).

There’s also an annual harvest festival, a pantomime and dance at Christmas, and "guizing" at Hogmanay, when people disguise themselves and play pranks.

Life on Fair Isle may not be easy, especially in winter, but once here it’s easy to fall into the inescapable rhythm of island living.

As the days shorten and night lengthens its grip on the sky, people wait for Up Helly Aa, fire festivals held annually from January to March to mark the end of the Yule season.

The marches end in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a galley, a celebration of Shetlanders’ Viking roots.

As Shetlander, travel writer and guide Laurie Goodlad writes: “Up Helly Aa is a celebration of the return of the light after a long, dark winter.”

Just like the island, it's a sight to behold.

Updated: February 08, 2024, 7:36 AM