Measuring some three miles from north to south and a mile and a half from east to west, Fair Isle is Scotland's most remote inhabited island. It lies some 25 miles south west of the southern tip of Mainland Shetland and some 30 miles north east of the nearest of the Orkney Islands.
Fair Isle's population today stands at about 70, having slowly increased from a low point of about 50 in the 1950s, when evacuation of the remaining population seemed a very real possibility. That this did not happen was largely due to George Waterston, who purchased the island after WWII and established a Bird Observatory here in 1948. The National Trust for Scotland acquired Fair Isle in 1955, and have since worked to develop the island's amenities and its links with the outside world. Today it is a busy, thriving island with a strong sense of community spirit and a striking friendliness towards visitors.
Fair Isle is an island of two distinct parts. The northern two thirds is characterised by common grazing, open moorland, hills and sea cliffs that rise to almost 200m in height. The southern third is more cultivated croft land and is home to most of the islanders.
There are two ways of getting to Fair Isle. Most popular, and cheapest, is the two and a half hour ferry crossing from Grutness, near Sumburgh, at the southern tip of Shetland (with some services from Lerwick ). The ferry used is the Good Shepherd IV. It would be fair to say that the Good Shepherd is built for sturdiness and safety more than for comfort: and in waters that are often very rough, the airline style passenger seatbelts are often needed. The ferry berths at Fair Isle's main harbour at North Haven.
Smoother and quicker are the flights which take 25 minutes from Tingwall Airport to Fair Isle's gravel airstrip. This is constructed at an altitude of 200ft on the southern slopes of Ward Hill, almost in the centre of the island.
However they travel, most visitors to Fair Isle stay at the Bird Observatory. Today's Observatory can accommodate around 30 visitors and was built in 1970 (this text predates the opening of the new observatory in 2010 and will be updated as soon as possible). It enjoys stunning views across the harbour at North Haven and south to Sheep Rock. Sheep Rock is Fair Isle's most distinctive feature, four hectares of steeply sloping grass on top of a rocky outcrop connected to the east coast of the island. Its name comes from the days when grazing land was scarce and islanders climbed the rock and hauled sheep up by chains to graze there.
Fair Isle's archeology is almost as well studied as its ornithology. The first settlers arrived on the island 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic era, and there are signs of occupation ever since. The island first entered recorded history in the Viking sagas and in more recent centuries has featured as a landmark for, and all too often the final resting place of, ships passing by. There are around 100 shipwrecks dotted around Fair Isle's coasts, the most famous of which was the El Gran Grifon, a Spanish Armada vessel wrecked here in 1588.
Fishing always featured large in Fair Isle's economy. Dutch interest in Shetland's herring fisheries led to a battle between Dutch and French warships just off the island in 1702, though as the island's population had been decimated by smallpox the previous year it's not clear how much interest the survivors took in proceedings. Trading links with northern Europe are reflected in Fair Isle Haa, a traditional Hanseatic trading booth located not far from the South Harbour traditionally used by residents of the southern part of the island.
By 1861 the population of Fair Isle stood at 380. This was probably an all time high, for the following year 134 residents emigrated to Nova Scotia. Fair Isle finally became a safer place for shipping with the construction of two lighthouses in 1891 by the Stevenson family. These are found at the north east and south west tips of the island.
Fair Isle today is internationally known as a haven for flora and fauna. Some 240 different species of flowering plant have been identified here, as have over 345 species of birds. This is more than anywhere else in Britain, and includes the unique Fair Isle Wren. The island is also home to multicoloured rabbits, while the waters offshore are home to a wide variety of aquatic life
In 1982 Fair Isle became home to Europe's first commercially operated "aerogenerator", when a 60kW wind turbine began to produce power for the island community. By 1996 funds had been raised to build a second, 100kW, turbine. Today wind power produced some 85% of the island's energy requirements in winter (when the weather tends to be windier), and 50% of its summer needs. The remainder is supplied, as it was before, by diesel generators.
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