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:
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. Theyve 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.