Fair Isle is the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom. It is administratively part of the parish of Dunrossness, Shetland, and is roughly equidistant from Sumburgh Head some 38 km (24 mi) to the northeast on the Mainland of Shetland and North Ronaldsay, Orkney, some 43 km (27 mi) to the southwest. Fair Isle is 4.8 km (3.0 mi) long and 2.4 km (1.5 mi) wide. It has an area of 3 sq mi (7.8 km2), making it the tenth largest of the Shetland Islands. It gives its name to one of the British Sea Areas.
The majority of the islanders live in the crofts on the southern half of the island, with the northern half consisting of rocky moorland. The western coast consists of cliffs of up to 200 m (660 ft) in height, with Ward Hill at 217 m (712 ft) being the maximum elevation of the island and its only Marilyn. On the eastern coast the almost detached headland of Sheep Rock rises to 132 m (433 ft)
Fair Isle has been occupied since Neolithic times which is remarkable because of the lack of raw materials on the island, although it is surrounded by rich fishing waters. There are two known Iron Age sites – a promontory fort at Landberg and the foundations of a house underlying an early Christian settlement at Kirkigeo.
Most of the place-names date from after the 9th-century Norse settlement of the Northern Isles. By that time the croft lands had clearly been in use for centuries.
On 20 August 1588 the flagship of the Spanish Armada, El Gran Grifón, was shipwrecked in the cove of Stroms Heelor, forcing its 300 sailors to spend six weeks living with the islanders. The wreck was discovered in 1970. The large Canadian sailing ship Black Watch was wrecked on Fair Isle in 1877.
Fair Isle was bought by the National Trust for Scotland in 1954 from George Waterston, the founder of the bird observatory.
The population has been decreasing steadily from about 400 in 1900. There are currently around 55 permanent residents on the island, the majority of whom are crofters who work the land. The island has 14 scheduled monuments, ranging from the earliest signs of human activity to the remains of a Second World War radar station. The two automated lighthouses are protected as listed buildings.
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. In this respect it continues its historic role as a signal-station, linking the mainland and the more remote island groups. In 1976, when television relay equipment was updated to permit colour broadcasts to Shetland, the new equipment was housed in former World War Two radar station buildings on Fair Isle. Many television signals are relayed from Orkney to Shetland (rather than from the Scottish mainland) via Orkney's Keelylang Hill transmitter station.
Over the centuries the island has changed hands many times. 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. Rent was usually paid to absentee landlords (who rarely visited) in butter, cloth and fish oil.
Fishing has always been an important industry for the island. In 1702, the Dutch, who were interested in Shetland's herring fisheries, fought a naval battle against French warships just off the island.
Fair Isle is also noted for its woollen jumpers, with knitting forming an important source of income for the women of the islands. The principal activity for the male islanders is crofting.
In January 2004, Fair Isle was granted Fairtrade Island status.
Fair Isle has a permanent bird observatory, founded by George Waterston in 1948. Because of its importance as a bird migration watchpoint, it provides most of the accommodation on the island. The first director of the observatory was Kenneth Williamson. It is unusual amongst bird observatories in providing catered, rather than hostel-style, accommodation.
Many rare species of bird have been found on the island, 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. In spring 2008 a calandra lark was identified in April, and in May a Caspian plover was observed, only the fourth such record for the UK. On 6 June a citril finch was found and identified by islander Tommy Hyndman, a first record for Britain. September was highlighted by brown flycatcher, red-flanked bluetail and Siberian thrush.
Fair Isle can claim to be the best place to find rare birds in Britain, with at least 27 first records. Spring 2009 started well with notable birds including white-tailed eagle, green-winged teal, red-rumped swallow and a brown-headed cowbird (second for Britain). The island is home to an endemic subspecies of Eurasian wren, the Fair Isle wren Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis.
There are no pubs or restaurants on the island, though meals are available for the public at the restaurant of the Bird Observatory, and its little bar is also open in the evening. There is one shop, and one school (see below). There is a community hall available for meetings and social events.
Fair Isle is not connected to the National Grid and electricity is provided by the Fair Isle Electricity Company. Power is generated by two diesel generators and two wind turbines. Diesel generators are automatically switched off if wind turbines provide sufficient power. Excess capacity is distributed through a separate network for home heating, with remote frequency-sensitive programmable relays controlling water heaters and storage heaters in the buildings of the community.
Fair Isle is home to two GSM 900 MHz base stations operated by Vodafone and O2.
Fair Isle has a fire station equipped with a single fire appliance, and staffed by a retained fire crew of local volunteers. It was originally part of the Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service, which was absorbed into the national Scottish Fire and Rescue Service on 1 April 2013. A locally organised volunteer fire brigade was formed in 1996 by island residents. This was later absorbed into the statutory fire service, with professional training provided, and the local service designated a retained fire crew. The first purpose-built fire engine was stationed to the island in 2002. In October 2011 a contract for the construction of a £140,000 purpose-built fire station was awarded to Shetland company Ness Engineering, who completed the construction and equipping of the fire station, including its connection to the island power and water supplies, and the installation of a rain-water harvesting system within the building. The new fire station was officially opened on 14 March 2013.
There is a small Coastguard cliff-rescue team on the island. Like the fire service, the Coastguard is a retained (volunteer) emergency service. The Fair Isle Coastguard cliff rescue team were the first British Coastguard unit to be equipped with a quadbike. The quadbike is painted in H M Coastguard livery, with reflective Battenburg markings and has an optional equipment trailer.
There are no emergency medical services on Fair Isle. Routine medical care is provided by a community nurse. In the event of accident and emergency the community nurse provides first aid until casualties can be removed to Shetland Mainland, usually by fixed-wing air ambulance. In severe weather conditions the Coastguard helicopter can sometimes undertake medical evacuations when the air ambulance is grounded.
Fair Isle Airport serves the island with flights to Tingwall Airport near Lerwick, and weekly to Sumburgh. Flights to Kirkwall are scheduled to begin in September 2017, provided by Loganair. Private aircraft use the facility and scheduled flights arrive twice daily, three days a week. There is a small terminal building, but facilities are otherwise very limited. Fire cover is provided by the island fire service.
There is also a helipad at the South Fair Isle lighthouse, for official use by the Northern Lighthouse Board and Coastguard helicopters.
There are two main harbours (north harbour and south harbour), both formed naturally. The north harbour is the main route for goods, provisions, and Royal Mail postal services arriving at and departing from the island. The ferry Good Shepherd IV plies between Fair Isle north harbour and Grutness on Shetland Mainland.
A road network connects the populated areas of the island, along its full length.
Fair Isle has one primary school, with two classrooms. There is a full-time head teacher, and a part-time assistant teacher. The number of pupils varies over time, but is generally between 5 and 10, with 5 pupils in 2014/2015. Islanders of secondary school age are generally educated off-island, on Shetland Mainland, where they board in halls of residence, returning to the island during holiday periods.
Christianity is the only formally organised religion on Fair Isle. There are two churches, one Methodist, and one Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). The Methodist Church has a resident non-stipendiary minister, who reports to a full-time minister on Shetland Mainland. The Methodist Church was constructed in 1886. The Church of Scotland church was built in 1892. The Church of Scotland parish which contains Fair Isle is Dunrossness, which is linked with Sandwick, Cunningsburgh and Quarff parish. The congregation's minister is the Reverend Charles H Greig.
During the Second World War, the Royal Air Force built a radar station on top of Ward Hill 712 feet (217 m) during the Battle of the Atlantic. The ruined buildings and nissen huts are still present. A cable-operated narrow gauge railway lies disused, though it was once used to send supplies up to the summit of Ward Hill.
On 17 January 1941, a German Heinkel He 111 bomber, modified as a meteorological aircraft, crashed on the island; wreckage remains on the crash-site to the present day. The aircraft had been flying on a routine weather reconnaissance flight from its base at Oldenburg in Germany. It was intercepted by RAF Hawker Hurricane fighters from 3 Squadron, based at RAF Sumburgh; both of the aircraft's engines were damaged and several of the five crew were wounded. The pilot managed to make a crash-landing on Fair Isle to avoid ditching his crippled aircraft in the sea. Two crew died and three survived. The dead crew were buried in the island's churchyard; the survivors were detained by the islanders and remained for several days until weather conditions allowed them to be taken off the island by means of the Shetland Lifeboat.
Fair Isle experiences an oceanic climate (Köppen Cfb, bordering on a subpolar oceanic climate (Cfc), with cool summers and mild winters. This is especially pronounced due to its location far from any sizeable landmass; Fair Isle has the smallest overall temperature range (least continental) of any weather station in the British Isles: an absolute maximum of 20.2 °C (68.4 °F) and an absolute minimum of −5.6 °C (21.9 °F) since 1951. This 60+ year temperature span is actually smaller than many places in inland southern England will record within a given three-month period.
The lowest temperature recorded in recent years was −4.6 °C (23.7 °F) in February 2010. Rainfall, at under 1,000 millimetres (39 in), is lower than one might expect for somewhere often in the main path of Atlantic depressions. This is explained by a lack of heavy convective rainfall during spring and summer months due to the absence of warm surface conditions.
Fair Isle's ocean moderation is so strong that areas on the same latitudes in the Scandinavian inland less than 1000 kilometres to the east have average summer highs 2–3 degrees higher than Fair Isle's all-time record temperature, for example the Norwegian capital of Oslo and the Swedish capital of Stockholm. The −5 all-time low is uniquely mild for European locations on the 59th parallel north. The winter daily means are comparable to many areas as far south in the British Isles as south-central England, due to the extreme maritime moderation.