A journey to Fair Isle

How to knit a jumper…and other life-lessons from Fair Isle, Britain’s remotest island

Fog. Fog overhead. Fog to aft, stern, port, starboard. Fog as thick as a storm cloud. Underfoot, the deck of the Good Shepherd IV yaws and pitches, and curtains of spray fly up as the boat ploughs through the swell. There’s no sign of land, no horizon for bearings, and yet according to a green blip on the ship’s navigation screen, out there in the gloom is an island: a shard of rock, 3 miles long and 1½ miles wide, the remotest inhabited island in the British Isles.

Fair Isle. Maybe you recognise the name from late nights listening to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4. If not, you’ll know it for its knitting pattern, as featured on countless golf socks, winter scarves and Christmas jumpers. Or, if you’re a twitcher, you might know it for its birdlife. But if you had to pinpoint it on a map, you’d probably struggle: is it off the coast of Ireland, you’d wonder? In the North Sea? A Scilly Isle, perhaps? One of the Outer Hebrides?

In fact, Fair Isle is north: way north. Shetland is 24 miles away; Orkney 27. When the weather’s good, it’s a twenty-minute flight from Shetland, or a choppy two-hour crossing aboard the Good Shepherd IV; but when it’s bad, Fair Isle can be cut off for days, a week, sometimes longer. Wi-fi is slow; mobile signal non-existent. Until 2018, the electricity supply shut off between 11pm and 7am until two wind turbines finally brought the island 24-hour power. And apart from the bird observatory (which doubles as Fair Isle’s hostel-cum-hotel), a shop, a little school, a couple of lighthouses and a handful of crofts, the island is empty – an outcrop of rock where sheep and seabirds outnumber humans by several thousand to one.

But for all its remoteness, Fair Isle seems to exert a peculiar hold over the people who come here. Around a thousand tourists visit every year, but a surprising number are repeat visitors. And though its population is barely a tenth of what it was a century ago, on the rare occasion a croft on Fair Isle becomes available, the National Trust for Scotland (who have owned the island since 1955) can be assured of receiving hundreds of applications for the vacancy.

So as I step down off the Good Shepherd IV’s gunwale onto the island’s granite quayside, wobbling like a drunkard as I rediscover my land-legs, I find myself wondering what it is that draws people to this wild, isolated island – and why, for some reason, some of them decide to stay for good.

The Skipper

As the islanders mill around the quayside, greeting friends and unloading cargo, Ian Best gets ready to haul the Good Shepherd IV into dry-dock. ‘It was a wee bit hairy coming in, eh?’ he laughs, sipping a mug of freshly-brewed tea. ‘Fair Isle is like that sometimes. There’s only one way to know what the weather’s doing, and that’s to look out the window. You never take things for granted here.’

Born and bred on Fair Isle, a boat-builder by training, Ian has arguably the most vital role on the island: captaincy of the Good Shepherd IV. The majority of Fair Isle’s supplies still arrive by sea, and while she’s not much to look at – built for endurance rather than elegance – the boat is a lifeline for the islanders.

‘We’ve carried some weird cargo, that’s for sure,’ he says, patting the boat’s hull. ‘Last week we had a Morgan sports car. A few months back we brought over the blades for the new wind turbines. And a few times a year, we take sheep over to the livestock market on Shetland. The deck’s packed solid with them!’

He drains his tea, then trudges up to the winch-house, hollering instructions to his deckhands, Kenny Stout and Deryk Shaw. With a rumble of gears and a squeal of metal, the Good Shepherd IV creeps out of the water into her berth.

A gust of sudden wind ruffles his hair, and whips a vapour of spray off the water. “Looks like there’s a blow brewing,’ Ian says, eyeing the steel-grey sky. ‘But as long as the Shepherd’s tucked up safe, at least I’ll get a good night’s sleep!

With a farewell salute, he jumps into his van and heads home. For Ian, and the Good Shepherd’s crew, a few days off-duty beckon – but before long, they’ll be out at sea again, whatever the weather has in store.

The Ranger

The morning after the Good Shepherd’s arrival, Viv Hastie is getting ready to lead a round-island trek for guests at the Fair Isle’s bird observatory (or ‘obs’, as it’s known to all). ‘Oh aye, Fair Isle takes getting used to, that’s for sure,’ says Viv Hastie, scanning the horizon through binoculars as she treks along the cliffs. ‘We’re a little isolated up at the obs, up on the north side of the island. Most of the crofts are on the south side, so you have to make an effort to see people.’

Today, the island presents a rather different picture compared to yesterday. The claggy mantle of fog has cleared, replaced by cloudless skies and a brisk Atlantic breeze. As we trudge out along the coast, open heathland rolls out across the island, speckled with heather and wildflowers. Along the cliffs, seabirds skim and circle in the spray, and one by one, Viv ticks off species: fulmars, gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots, tammy nories (a Shetland dialect word for puffin) and bonxies – great skuas, which have an unpleasant habit of attacking anyone who dares approach their nests.

‘Getting bombed by the bonxies just comes with the territory on Fair Isle, I’m afraid,’ Viv says with a rueful smile. ‘Most of the time they’re just trying to scare you off, but sometimes they catch you. All the wardens have the scars to prove it.’

Like many of Fair Isle’s residents, Viv isn’t a native; she comes from a small village on the Scottish borders, and has lived on Fair Isle for the last year, following stints as a ranger on the Isle of May and California’s Farallon Islands. Her job is to help visitors make the most of their time, introducing them to the island’s history, culture and wildlife. She’s part wildlife ranger, part logistics manager, part historian and part tour guide: in a couple of hours, her walk takes in a wrecked WWII bomber, an abandoned mill and croft-house, an ancient quarry, a Victorian lighthouse and – bizarrely – Britain’s most northerly golf course. We also snatch a sighting of the island’s only endemic bird, the tiny Fair Isle wren.

‘Most people come for the wildlife,’ she says, watching a colony of puffins strutting and squabbling on the clifftop. ‘Birds are the main attraction, of course, but we often see basking sharks, porpoises and orcas, too. And there’s so much history here. The island seems empty, but there are human stories everywhere if you know where to look.’

As if to prove her point, she stops on the end of a headland, and points out a ring of mounds, half-cloaked by grass: the outline of a hillfort dating from the Iron Age. Fair Isle is isolated enough now, but it’s hard to imagine quite how remote the island must have felt to its inhabitants two thousand years ago.

Below the fort, Viv peers down hundred-metre-high cliffs to a circlet of pure white sand. Gannets wheel around the cliff faces, and down in the cove, a pod of dolphins darts through the surf, their black forms blurring through the clear, blue-green water.

‘I can think of worse views from the office, can’t you?’ she says.

  • Double rooms at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory cost £75 per night including meals and a guided tour with the ranger.
  • fairislebirdobs.co.uk

The Fair Isle Knitters

In the kitchen of her croft house, Kathy Coull is spinning yarn.

‘We call this the muckle wheel, or the great wheel,’ she explains, picking up a handful of wool from the bag at her feet. Using one hand to spin the wheel, she uses her other hand to guide the wool onto a wooden spindle known as a quill, using her fingers to create the perfect angle and tension – a skill that takes years to master. As the quill spins, the wool winds around it, creating a skein of yarn ready for knitting.

‘Shetland wool has a natural crimp in it,’ she says. ‘It makes very strong, durable yarn, and the crimp means it’s lightweight and very warm, because it traps the air. The wool also has oils that make it naturally water-resistant.’

Before long, she’s spun enough yarn to begin knitting, but a whistling kettle on the stove means it’s time for a tea-break. Through the window of the cottage, fields and drystone walls roll out across the island, and shaggy-coated sheep graze contentedly on the grass, their matted coats ruffling in the wind. Across the yard, in a corner of the garden, a pair of sheepskins lean up against the wall, stretched tight over panels to dry.

For hundreds of years, Fair Isle has been celebrated for its knitting. Once, every woman on Fair Isle would have learned the profession, passing on skills from mother to daughter as they knitted jumpers, hats, rugs and bedclothes to keep out the island’s weather. Fair Isle’s distinctive pattern evolved gradually over the centuries, and while it shares similarities with traditional Scandinavian and Dutch design – a product of cross-cultural exchange facilitated by centuries of seaborne trade – it’s a pattern that’s unique and instantly recognisable, alternating bands of colour with symmetrical, geometric shapes such as chevrons, lozenges, oxos and diamonds.

‘A traditional Fair Isle jumper would only have a few colours in it, and never more than two colours in a row,’ Kathy explains. ‘You could use the wool’s own pigments – brown, black, white and so on – or dyes from plants such as madder, indigo, amphibious bistort and blocks (a Shetland term for the yellow iris). But these days knitters have access to a much wider range of colours. The important thing to understand is that every garment has its own provenance: the Fair Isle design is very recognisable, but each knitter has their own interpretation of it. That’s one of the things that makes it special.’

There is still a thriving community of knitters on Fair Isle, but Kathy is one of few people who still makes her garments entirely by hand. Her business, the Fair Isle Textile Workshop, has helped keep the skills alive, and she is passionate about passing them on to a new generation through demonstrations, workshops and masterclasses.

A short walk away from Kathy’s cottage, across a patchwork of fields hemmed in by crumbling drystone walls, Hollie Shaw runs her own knitting collective, Fair Isle ‘Made in Fair Isle’, from the front room of her own croft. ‘I think people value the fact that it’s a truly handmade product,’ she says, surrounded by a colourful assortment of jumpers, hats, socks and scarves. ‘These are skills have been part of Fair Isle’s culture for centuries, and if we don’t preserve them, they’ll be lost forever. It’s challenging sometimes, but so rewarding, too.’

Her phone dings; another order’s just come in. Squeezing into the corner of her front room, she sits down at her knitting machine and settles down to work, its rhythmic clack and rattle underscored by the patter of rain on the window outside.

The Minister

‘Rubbish is a big problem on Fair Isle,’ explains John Best, as he adds the finishing touches to his latest artistic creation: a bird hide made out of plastic bottles. ‘Everything we throw away has to be transported back to the mainland, where it’s either recycled or thrown into landfill. And then there’s the whole issue of plastic waste. Living on an island teaches you to be resourceful, and I hope this project will encourage people to be more conscious of the things we throw away.’ He steps back to assess his progress, before adding a splodge of superglue and another plastic bottle to the rapidly-rising structure.

John is a cornerstone of the island community. He moved to Fair Isle more than forty years ago with his wife, who answered a newspaper advertisement to become the island nurse. Originally, they only planned on staying for a year – but forty-five years later, the Best family is still here, and John lives in the same croft house which he renovated for his family all those years ago. Now in his eighties, John still works his sheep, tends his croft, and lend an experienced eye to various community projects, while also finding time to indulge his lifelong passion: painting.

But most islanders know John for his spiritual side. For the last three decades, he’s served as the island’s only minister. He completed his ecumenical training via a bespoke correspondence course, coordinated by the Wesley Study Centre in Durham. ‘When I was doing my training, it was a long time before the internet!’ he says. ‘I’m sure it would be a lot more straightforward these days,’ he says.

Despite the fact that his ministerial position attracts no salary, John provides a much-needed touchstone of spiritual guidance for Fair Islanders, presiding over marriages, christenings, confirmations and funerals. Although he has now semi-retired, John continues to deliver the sermon for Fair Isle’s congregation every Sunday, spending the rest of his time working in his studio overlooking the South Lighthouse.

‘If there’s one thing that living on Fair Isle has taught me, it’s the importance of community,’ he says, dabbing at his latest canvas, a moody Fair Isle landscape of stormy seas and wild, brooding skies. ‘The friendships you make in a place like this are stronger than any you’d ever make on the mainland. When you live out on the edge, you have to look out for each other. It’s the only way to survive.’

The (Teenage) Crofter

It’s early evening, and Raven Shaw is rounding up the sheep. Dressed in blue overalls and gumboots, shepherd’s crook in hand, she looks every inch the crofter. Concentrating hard on the sheep’s movements, she shouts a string of commands to her dog, who races around the edges of the field, coaxing the flock into a pen where Raven is waiting to latch the gate. It would be an impressive display for a crofter of many years’ experience – even more so, considering the fact that Raven’s still in her teens.

Like all Fair Isle’s young people, Raven has grown up with crofting. As in previous centuries, maintaining a croft is a duty to which all islanders must adhere – although these days most islanders also hold down at least one of the other essential jobs required to keep the island running. It’s a lifestyle of self-reliance and self sufficiency of which the 19th century transcendalist, philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau would be proud – but to Raven, it’s simply second nature.

‘We’re so lucky to grow up in a place like this,’ Raven says, as she watches the sunset from the back step of her family’s croft. ‘That’s one of the best things about Fair Isle: everyone pitches in to help each other. In a way, it’s like having this huge extended family spread out all over the island. It’s hard to feel lonely somewhere when you know everyone.’

But there are drawbacks. The population of the island’s primary school rarely rises above half-a-dozen, and after eleven, young Fair Islanders must travel over to the secondary school on Shetland’s mainland to continue their education. Most of them only get to return to the island once every three weeks.

‘I’ve grown up knowing that this was how things are, so to me it doesn’t seem all that strange. But of course it’s hard when you have to leave and adjust to a new life somewhere else, especially at such a young age. To us, Lerwick still feels like a massive town – I van remember going into the supermarket for the first time and being amazed by all the different kinds of bread they had for sale! ’

Raven is currently studying for her Highers, the Scottish equivalent of A-Levels, and plans to go on to university, although she hopes to be able to get back to the island whenever she can. And after that?

‘When you grow up somewhere like Fair Isle, it’s in your blood,’ she says. ‘I know I’ll probably have to live somewhere else for the next few years, but I really hope I’ll be able to come back to the island someday. Fair Isle will always be my home, and I know there will always be a family waiting for me here.’

As night falls, a mile or so to the south, a light flashes along the coast – the reassuring sodium flare of the South Lighthouse, warning vessels away from the island’s treacherous, rock-strewn coast. Raven watches it for a while, then heads inside for dinner.

Like Fair Isle’s other teenagers, she’s got an early flight back to school tomorrow. Assuming the plane is flying, that is.

Related Island Stories

The Galapagos Islands

St Helena