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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Fair Isle in 1956

Looking Back

Fair Isle viewed from the West, by Neil Fairbrother (Creative Commons Licence)
Fair Isle viewed from the West, by Neil Fairbrother (Creative Commons Licence)

Friday August 26

Looking Back: Fair Isle

In June 1956 an 'investigating party' visited the remote Fair Isle to decide whether the population was sustainable or the island should be abandoned. This is the report of the Church representative.


Need Fair Isle become another St. Kilda?

By T. M. MURCHISON (Convener, Highlands and Islands Committee).

ON 7th June far-away Fair Isle was “invaded” by an official investigating party, and for four hours the island population was almost doubled. The 36 visitors represented the National Trust for Scotland, Zetland County Council, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Crofters’ Commission, medical and agricultural and other interests, and also the Home Board of the Church of Scotland, which I had the privilege of representing.

Fair Isle belongs to the Shetlands, but lies midway between Shetland and Orkney and about 25 miles from either. A green fertile island cliff-girt, it once had a population of several hundred people. In 1901 the number had declined to 147, in 1948 to 65, and to-day there are 45. Of these 45, quite a number are elderly, there are eight school children, and several unmarried men under 40.

It is plain that the population has now fallen to the absolute minimum for those communal duties and services without which no island community can continue. Any further decline, and especially any more emigration of able-bodied men, will make evacuation of the remaining population a necessity. That was what happened to St Kilda a quarter-century ago, and to Soay more recently.

There are those who say “Let’s withdraw from all these remote islands.” But we must draw the line somewhere. If we let Fair Isle go, then soon we shall be dealing with Stroma and some of the northern isles of Shetland and Orkney – and with some of the Hebrides.

The delegation which visited Fair Isle was unanimous that it ought not to be abandoned. It has problems, but it also has potentialities. If the present population are willing to continue – and they are, on certain conditions – and if some more people wish to settle there, then let all interested parties help them all they can.

The Fair Isle people are not economically depressed. Actually, they seem fairly well off. Their livelihood is derived, partly from crofting and sheep-rearing, and partly from ancillary employments, such as manning the weekly mail-boat, producing the famed Fair Isle knitwear, and jobs in connection with the two lighthouses, coast-watching, G.P.O. services, and the Bird Observatory.

What is causing the rapid decline in population is the utter inadequacy of the basic services. The Fair Isle people are paying their share of the costs of the Welfare State, but they are not getting in return anything like their fair share of the benefits thereof. Fortunately, there is a qualified nurse resident, but the nearest doctor is 30 miles away and the nearest hospital, maternity ward, dentist and optician 50 miles away. The nearest secondary school is 50 miles away. The only communication with the outside world is a weekly trip to Lerwick by the island mailboat, a large fishing boat.

On the morning following the visit, a conference was held in Lerwick. It was agreed that Fair Isle is worth fighting for. A number of detailed proposals were discussed, and since then the Zetland County Council has appointed a special committee to prosecute matters to the highest level.

And where does the Church come in? In Fair Isle the Church has an arrangement with the education authorities for a dual appointment, either the missionary or his wife being also school teacher. That arrangement has worked well in the past. A medical missionary on Fair Isle would greatly help to solve a difficult problem – but the prospects of a suitable person offering for such a dual appointment seem slender indeed.

In any case, as long as there are people to be served, the Church will continue, as it has done for many generations, to make the necessary provision. The Christian conscience, surely, cannot lightly acquiesce in the abandoning of one island after another to become a rocket range target or even a nature reserve.


Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in the UK, currently has a population of 55 (according to Wikipedia), and is served daily by air from Shetland. It is one of the finest places in Britain to spot rare birds and the Bird Observatory, founded in 1948 with a modern building completed in 2010, also offers the island's only visitor accommodation, restaurant and bar.

Fair Isle is part of the parish of Dunrossness and St Ninian's, linked with Sandwick, Cunningsburgh and Quarff in southern Shetland. There is also a Methodist Chapel on the island.


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