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The Knitters of Fair Isle

On an isolated outcrop of sandstone far from the Scottish mainland, a new generation of knitters is creating distinctive Fair Isle knitwear.

BY TERRY WILLIAMS

Fair Isle is a vertiginous experience. Mid-way between Orkney and Shetland and 24 miles from either, where Atlantic Ocean confronts North Sea, it is Britain's most remote inhabited island. Sheer red sandstone cliffs support a gently tilting, tabletop perch for thousands of transient birds, an abundance of bright flowering plants, around 70 human beings, an indigenous mouse (called apodemus sylvaticus fridarensis) and wren (by the name of troglodytes troglodytes fridarensis), a tribe of varicoloured rabbits and several hundred sheep. The island is just three miles long by one-and-a-half miles wide. The exposure is formidable, the fertility remarkable. There are few days without wind, the view is usually 360 degrees of uninterrupted salt water, and the ever-eroding sea is, for the most part, hundreds of feet below.

Getting there depends on the weather. Aberdeen is a good place to start. You can book a 13-hour ferry trip to Shetland, followed by two-and-a-half hours aboard the Good Shepherd IV, the island's essential supply boat. Owned by Shetland Islands Council, she takes 12 passengers and is operated by a Fair Isle crew. Or, like the birds, you can fly. The Loganair flight from Aberdeen to Shetland takes just under an hour. Then Direct Flight welcomes you aboard Fair Isle's airborne lifeline -- an Islander-class plane supplied by Shetland Islands Council. Eight passengers and a pilot travel in shoulder-to-shoulder, knees-to-back intimacy. The pilot starts the engines with an ear-splitting roar and signals a thumbs-up "OK?" confirmed by raised thumbs from the passengers: "OK."

I chose to fly, and the weather treated me kindly. The little plane trotted forward, hopped into the air, and 25 minutes later was weaving through the thermals of Fair Isle's looming cliffs to land, dainty as a kittiwake, on an earth and gravel landing strip laid across the open moorland. "Welcome to Fair Isle" announced a sign. I had arrived.

Kathy Coull's e-mail had warned that she might be rather dirty when we met. My arrival coincided with "sheep hill." Islanders and visitors together had gathered the 360-strong communal flock from the northern slopes into the shearing pen or "cru." I shared the front seat of Kathy's car with a bucketful of hand shears. Behind me swayed a pile of freshly cut fleeces. Crofter, knitter, hand-spinner and workshop tutor, Kathy eats, sleeps and breathes Fair Isle knitwear. She also runs a guesthouse.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2008 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on The Isle of Bute by Keith Aitken.

Photos above: © Terry Williams