The picture above is borrowed from a splendid blog about life on Fair Isle. I’ve just been enjoying some photos on the blog of this remote island in winter. But, given that one of my pet hates is blogs simply reporting what other blogs say (or websites about other websites, etc) I’d better offer something original…
We spent a week on Fair Isle during late summer. We planned to stay a few days, but ended up staying a week on this incredible lump of rock. It’s quite simply amongst the most remarkable places we’ve ever visited (and we’ve been around a bit); even after a month spent kayaking in the Shetland Isles, Fair Isle still wowed us.
What is so special about Fair Isle? It’s the most southerly of the Shetland Isles and among the most remote communities in the UK, being c25 miles from land in any direction. Tides rip past, making the crossing on the Good Shepherd IV ferry a somewhat vomitous experience. The island is surrounded by cliffs on all sides. The c65 residents are a remarkably multi-talented bunch. The Vicar is also a construction engineer project-managing the new Bird Observatory, the ferry skipper is also a talented folk singer and musician, one of his crew is a traditional boat builder, and so forth. They are also as welcoming a crowd as you’re ever likely to meet. They don’t live alone; the isle is famous for its enormous bird populations, with c40,000 puffins, for example. This is a Mecca for twitcher types; stray rare birds fetch up exhausted on Fair Isle and there are apparently folk way down south who will charter a plane at an hour’s notice to see them.
The paddle around the island is only about 10 miles, but is among the best day trips I’ve ever done. I went around twice, once alone and once with Heather, in rather lively conditions. Below are some notes I wrote about this fantastic paddle for someone else interested in making the trip…
We had no real info other than the Admiralty tide atlas (vague), the Pesda guidebook (vague) and the skipper telling us that the tides run stronger than the atlas says (which I see no reason to doubt). You have to just look at it and go; make it up as you go along, it’s really not such a bad way to do it. If there isn’t much swell, you can dodge the worst of the tide races by sneaking inshore, etc.
The north coast is the committing bit, as the tide runs strong quite close inshore – but it’s a short section of cliffs. Our second trip round was far too exciting coming around the Stacks of Skroo at the north end; we were idiots and didn’t bother to wait a couple of hours for slack water, figuring that we were happy to work our way up the tide races. That would have been fine, if the wind and swell hadn’t meant that the races around the north of the isle were breaking. Oops. We had to surf up a very fine line just offshore of the surf break on the stacks, and just inshore of the breaking race. Not ideal, very much WW paddling territory.
On both of my paddles, the west coast was remarkably sheltered. There are lots of places where you can take an ‘inshore’ route through gaps and tunnels and avoid the swell outside. The cliffs and geos are epic, as you probably guessed. The guidebook says that there is no hope of landing on the west side, but there were actually numerous beach-ish landing points sheltered from different directions, and even a few potential escape points towards the SW end of the west coast.
South coast has a tide race to paddle through/ against (where I met a shark), but this is the one point where the shore is low and accessible, if you’re not happy.
East coast is surprisingly committing; even though it’s not epic 5-600 foot cliffs like the other side, it’s still almost all cliffed out. We were surprised to find a large breaking tide race off Sheep Rock on our ‘rough’ paddle around. We completely avoided it by going through Sheep Rock, though – incredibly there are at least three huge parallel tunnels running under the 400 foot high monolith. I checked out the first one – it was breaking in there, and I came back out with my tail between my legs – but the second was clean and good to go, even with lively swell running. The tunnels all join up in the centre, deep under the rock! There is also some tidal liveliness off Buness in some conditions, but if needed you can simply avoid this by using the North/ South Landing.
Having finished, you’ll want to paddle right around all over again…