‘I was on the edge of the world’: One travel writer’s surprise eye-opening experience on a tiny U.K. island

The small ferry, Good Shepherd IV, lurched and rolled its way through the churning North Atlantic. Four hours after leaving the Shetlandic capital of Lerwick, I arrived on Fair Isle. I was lucky to have made it. The next day, dense fog rolled in and cut off access to the island by both sea and air. I was on the edge of the world, or so it seemed. An island off an island (Shetland Mainland) off an island (Britain), Fair Isle is one of the U.K.’s most remote communities. I’d found my way there through an ad for volunteer staff at the bird observatory. Drawn to the idea of living in a far-off place but knowing little about birds, I applied for the job of bartender at the attached guest house.Five nights a week, I tended to a handful of customers, but the rest of the time was mine. So I spent long, stretched-out days walking, my feet tracing the outline of the island along sandstone cliffs that plunged into foaming, indigo sea, every ledge occupied by rattling and shrieking seabirds: fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets, guillemots and razorbills. Turning inland, across treeless moors, I’d dodge dive-bombing great skuas protecting their nests in the undergrowth. Early evenings I’d sit on a hill carpeted with blooming pink sea thrift, surrounded by dozens of puffins waddling to and from their burrows. One afternoon I watched a pod of orcas hunt seals in the harbour, just below my feet. I’d wondered if I might tire of walking around a three-square-mile island every day, but every day was different. Quickly changing light and weather patterns revealed shifting landscapes. Days poured in. I slept just a few hours a day — because in midsummer at 59.5-degrees North, there’s only a whisper of night. Yet I felt lit up, immediately pulling on my boots and heading out the door every morning.I’d just moved from New York back home to Scotland, following a few years spent flying around the world as a travel writer, often staying only a few days in each place. I’d begun to feel as though I was just skimming the surface of the world and yearned to feel a deeper connection. On Fair Isle, that came naturally. In the observatory shop, I bought an intricate poster-sized map that depicted every geographical detail — every sea stack, nook and cleft, given tantalizing names like Stacks o’ Scroo and Cristal Kame. The weight of their names made me stop, and my wanderings slowed so I could look closer. Each step I took revealed a terrain that seemed to grow more complex than my first impressions. I found myself seeing tiny things I’d missed the first time around, focusing not only on the towering cliffs but the grass below my feet, through which peeked a strange solitary flower (a botanist later looked at my photograph and identified it as “a double mutation of the creeping buttercup”). I took delight in less glamorous birds as well as my favourites, the colourful, charismatic puffins and slender long-distance flying Arctic terns. I felt I was zooming in on the world. There’s no land visible on Fair Isle’s horizon, but the islanders don’t seem to dwell on their isolation, busy with multiple jobs and strong community bonds. Once 400 people lived on Fair Isle; now there’s just about 60, residing in the dozen or so croft houses scattered around the south of the island. Loading...Loading...Loading...Loading...Loading...Loading...Loading...That there’s anyone left there at all is fortuitous. In the early 20th century, Fair Isle’s population was in free fall. Evacuation, the fate met by Scotland’s St. Kilda archipelago, seemed inevitable. Then in 1948, the ornithologist and conservationist George Waterston bought the island and founded the bird observatory, which, by bringing visitors and attention, helped turn prospects around. Waterston had visited Fair Isle in the 1930s and scratched out his plans for the observatory while a prisoner of war in a German camp. I imagine how vast this little island must have seemed to him, his world shrunken to the size of a cell.I carefully timed one of my walks to coincide with the George Waterston Memorial Centre & Museum’s five-hour-a-week schedule. David, who also runs a guest house in one of the island’s two now-automated lighthouses, greeted me, his lone visitor. I looked at artifacts and photographs and lingered in front of three Fair Isle-patterned sweaters behind glass. Islanders have been knitting them since the 1600s, when they bartered the garments with passing ships. As a six-year-old in the landlocked English town of Derby, David recalls, he was given a sweater as a gift. He looked up Fair Isle on a map and decided he’d live there one day.Many come to Fair Isle for something specific — some for the knitting, many for birding (the island has recorded 388 bird species, and it’s known as one of the best places in Europe to see rarities). I had no such solid reason. Burned out by city life, I had only a vague notion that I wanted to be someplace isolated, as if taking a temporary vow of asceticism.I had o

‘I was on the edge of the world’: One travel writer’s surprise eye-opening experience on a tiny U.K. island

The small ferry, Good Shepherd IV, lurched and rolled its way through the churning North Atlantic. Four hours after leaving the Shetlandic capital of Lerwick, I arrived on Fair Isle. I was lucky to have made it. The next day, dense fog rolled in and cut off access to the island by both sea and air.

The island has only around 60 residents, sheep not included.

I was on the edge of the world, or so it seemed. An island off an island (Shetland Mainland) off an island (Britain), Fair Isle is one of the U.K.’s most remote communities. I’d found my way there through an ad for volunteer staff at the bird observatory. Drawn to the idea of living in a far-off place but knowing little about birds, I applied for the job of bartender at the attached guest house.

Five nights a week, I tended to a handful of customers, but the rest of the time was mine. So I spent long, stretched-out days walking, my feet tracing the outline of the island along sandstone cliffs that plunged into foaming, indigo sea, every ledge occupied by rattling and shrieking seabirds: fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets, guillemots and razorbills.

Precipitous cliffs add to Fair Isle's raw beauty.

Turning inland, across treeless moors, I’d dodge dive-bombing great skuas protecting their nests in the undergrowth. Early evenings I’d sit on a hill carpeted with blooming pink sea thrift, surrounded by dozens of puffins waddling to and from their burrows. One afternoon I watched a pod of orcas hunt seals in the harbour, just below my feet.

I’d wondered if I might tire of walking around a three-square-mile island every day, but every day was different. Quickly changing light and weather patterns revealed shifting landscapes. Days poured in. I slept just a few hours a day — because in midsummer at 59.5-degrees North, there’s only a whisper of night. Yet I felt lit up, immediately pulling on my boots and heading out the door every morning.

Fair Isle's coastline is dotted with sea stacks and arches.

I’d just moved from New York back home to Scotland, following a few years spent flying around the world as a travel writer, often staying only a few days in each place. I’d begun to feel as though I was just skimming the surface of the world and yearned to feel a deeper connection.

On Fair Isle, that came naturally. In the observatory shop, I bought an intricate poster-sized map that depicted every geographical detail — every sea stack, nook and cleft, given tantalizing names like Stacks o’ Scroo and Cristal Kame. The weight of their names made me stop, and my wanderings slowed so I could look closer. Each step I took revealed a terrain that seemed to grow more complex than my first impressions.

Atlantic puffins are nicknamed "tammie norries" in Shetland.

I found myself seeing tiny things I’d missed the first time around, focusing not only on the towering cliffs but the grass below my feet, through which peeked a strange solitary flower (a botanist later looked at my photograph and identified it as “a double mutation of the creeping buttercup”). I took delight in less glamorous birds as well as my favourites, the colourful, charismatic puffins and slender long-distance flying Arctic terns. I felt I was zooming in on the world.

There’s no land visible on Fair Isle’s horizon, but the islanders don’t seem to dwell on their isolation, busy with multiple jobs and strong community bonds. Once 400 people lived on Fair Isle; now there’s just about 60, residing in the dozen or so croft houses scattered around the south of the island.

Fair Isle is known as one of the best places in Europe to spot rare birds.

That there’s anyone left there at all is fortuitous. In the early 20th century, Fair Isle’s population was in free fall. Evacuation, the fate met by Scotland’s St. Kilda archipelago, seemed inevitable. Then in 1948, the ornithologist and conservationist George Waterston bought the island and founded the bird observatory, which, by bringing visitors and attention, helped turn prospects around. Waterston had visited Fair Isle in the 1930s and scratched out his plans for the observatory while a prisoner of war in a German camp. I imagine how vast this little island must have seemed to him, his world shrunken to the size of a cell.

I carefully timed one of my walks to coincide with the George Waterston Memorial Centre & Museum’s five-hour-a-week schedule. David, who also runs a guest house in one of the island’s two now-automated lighthouses, greeted me, his lone visitor. I looked at artifacts and photographs and lingered in front of three Fair Isle-patterned sweaters behind glass. Islanders have been knitting them since the 1600s, when they bartered the garments with passing ships. As a six-year-old in the landlocked English town of Derby, David recalls, he was given a sweater as a gift. He looked up Fair Isle on a map and decided he’d live there one day.

Beyond birding, Fair Isle is famous for its traditional knits.

Many come to Fair Isle for something specific — some for the knitting, many for birding (the island has recorded 388 bird species, and it’s known as one of the best places in Europe to see rarities). I had no such solid reason. Burned out by city life, I had only a vague notion that I wanted to be someplace isolated, as if taking a temporary vow of asceticism.

I had only assumptions about small remote islands — first and foremost, that a life on one would be stripped to the basics. Instead, I learned there’s endless richness even in tiny places when we slow down to pay attention. It’s a lesson that served me well when, two years later, the pandemic stopped the world and, now back in the U.S., I could scarcely leave my neighbourhood.

When I can explore further afield again, I’ll carry this lesson with me still, by choosing to travel slow and small, rather than packing short trips with too many different places, and pausing to look closer.

But if I return soon to Fair Isle, I’ll have to stay at one of its few guest houses. A year after I left the island, the bird observatory was demolished in a devastating fire. Plans to rebuild have stumbled, due to the pandemic. But it will be rebuilt — it’s too tightly knitted to the island not to be. I hope it’s before too long, so future visitors can have the transformative experience of settling in and staying a while.