Fair Isle panorama from Buness
FAIR ISLE

Thursday March 18, 2010

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A stepping stone in history

Norse settlers named it Fridarey - the island of peace - but this stepping stone in the sea was also vital in times of strife, when the Earls of Orkney and Viking warlords before them used it as a look-out post and for sending fire signals to and from Shetland. The sagas tell how Kari the Viking wintered here on his voyage to the Hebrides. Later it was visited by the brave men who brought Christianity to the north.  For thousands of years Fair Isle has been a useful landmark for shipping but in storms and fog its coastline is highly dangerous. Among 100 known shipwrecks are:
 

  • 1588: 300 soldiers and sailors from the Spanish Armada ship
    "El Gran Grifon" stranded on Fair Isle when their ship foundered in the geo (cove) of Stroms Heelor.

  • 1798: the "Blessed Endeavour", bound from Dunbar for Greenland, wrecked at Maversgeo and three crew drowned.

  • 1868: German emigrant ship "Lessing" drove ashore at Klavers Geo
    in a gale and thick fog. Islanders received bravery awards for rescuing
    all 465 passengers and crew.
     

Over the centuries the island changed hands many times, paying rent in butter, cloth and fish oil - usually to absentee landlords who rarely visited. Communications with the outside world were difficult and sporadic. Only in the late 20th century did the island acquire a safe summer harbour, at North Haven, and even today the mailboat has to be hauled out of the water from the reach of winter storms.

 

For hundreds of years the main export was dried salt fish. At Kirkigeo on the more exposed South Harbour you can see ancient "noosts" where men who rowed and sailed to the line fishing hauled up their distinctive Fair Isle boats, or yoles. The boat-shaped noosts remain in use today and traditional boats are still built in the isle.

 

5,000 years of human settlement

Fair Isle has been more intensively studied by archaeologists than almost any area of its size in Scotland. They’ve found evidence that the isle may have been settled by Neolithic people up to 5,000 years ago. There are traces of oval-shaped stone houses, perhaps 3,000 years old, and lines of turf and stone walls, or dykes, which snake across the landscape. The "Feely Dyke", a massive turf rampart which divides the common grazings from the crofts, may also be prehistoric.

 

The archaeological remains include curious "burnt mounds" - piles of blackened stones which appear to have been heated in a fire and then dropped in stone troughs to warm water. The purpose is unknown but may have been cooking, tanning, preparing cloth or even a primitive sauna.

 

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 ninth-century Norse settlement of the Northern Isles. By that time the croft lands had clearly been in use for many centuries.

 

In all, Fair Isle has 14 scheduled monuments, ranging from the earliest signs of human activity to the remains of a World War II radar station. The two fine lighthouses, now automated, are also listed buildings.

 

The islands historic role as a signal station continues today with its high-technology relay stations carrying vital TV, radio, telephone and military communication links between Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland.

 

 

 

Text and photographs 2008 Dave Wheeler except where otherwise credited. (Logo picture courtesy of Sumburgh SAR)
If you would like to use photographs from this site please contact dave.wheeler@fairisle.org.uk
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