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Fair Isle

The most isolated inhabited island in Britain, Fair Isle is situated midway between the Shetland and Orkney island groups of the Northern Isles. The name derives from the Norse faer, meaning 'sheep'. Almost abandoned in the 1950s, new settlement was encouraged and the population stabilised, recorded as 68 individuals in 2011. People are mostly resident on croftland at the southern end of the island and Fair Isle is noted for its crafts including the manufacture of distinctive knitwear, fiddles, straw-backed chairs and model boats, which were traditionally traded with passing ships. The island's knitwear was promoted by James Coats of the Paisley thread-manufacturing family, when he bought many items to supply the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-04. In the 1920s, the patterns became highly fashionable when the Prince of Wales, later briefly King Edward VIII, was seen wearing a Fair Isle jumper while playing golf.

Fringed by high red sandstone cliffs, the island has an area of 768 ha (1898 acres) and rises to a height of 217m (712 feet) at Ward Hill. The ancient Feelie Dyke separates the northern hill grazing from the southern croftlands and the island's cliffs are home to large breeding colonies of sea birds. Geologically, Fair Isle is composed of Devonian sandstones, mudstones and conglomerates. Copper ore has been found at Reeva and Copper Geo, and fossilised plants at Bu Ness. Flights from Tingwall and Sumburgh arrive at an airstrip located in the centre of the island, while a ferry connects Sumburgh on Mainland Shetland with the pier at North Haven. A museum is dedicated to the memory of George Waterston (1911-80) who gained international recognition for the island by publicising its diverse birdlife. Spring and Autumn bring large numbers of birds to Fair Isle as a staging point on their migration. In 1948, Waterston founded the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust and in 1954 he was able to pass ownership of the island to the National Trust for Scotland. North Haven is overlooked by the island's largest building, the Fair Isle Bird Observatory, completed in 2010 at a cost of £4 million. This replaced a smaller structure built in 1969, which itself superseded Waterston's original observatory, established in former navy huts at North Haven twenty years earlier. Observatory staff manage a number of distinctive bird-traps located around the island. Fair Isle Kirk is a distinctive whitewashed building which dates from 1892 and includes a small self-service library nominally managed by Shetland Library in Lerwick. Nearby are the island's post office, school and community hall. The island's cemetery lies a half-mile (1 km) to the south southwest, overlooking South Harbour. This cemetery contains a remarkable memorial to the crew of the El Gran Grif√≥n, the flagship of the Spanish Armada's supply squadron, which was wrecked off Fair Isle in 1588. Fifty of the crew died on the island and were buried at Spaniard's Grave.

Fair Isle has to produce its own electrical power, which is sourced from two diesel generators (each rated at 32 kW) at Shirva, augmented by two wind turbines constructed nearby. Electricity is distributed around the island by underground cables, because the frequent gales would bring down overhead lines. The wind turbines were commissioned in 1982 and 1997, and provide a combined output of 160 kW. The former represented the first commercial wind generator in the British Isles and the scheme is now operated by the Fair Isle Electricity Company, most-likely the smallest commercial utility company in the UK. A secondary power network distributes excess electricity for home heating. When the wind generators are unavailable power is severely restricted and turned off at night.

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