Fair Isle Bird Observatory & Guesthouse

History of the Observatory


William Eagle Clarke of the then Royal Scottish Museum visited the island eight times between 1905 and 1911 to cover the spring and autumn migrations and recorded 207 species, then half the total on the British list. He trained Jerome Wilson of Springfield to hunt and work with him and to collect specimens when he was away from the isle.

His book - Studies of Bird Migration (1912) - can be downloaded: Volume 1 and Volume 2


Mary, Duchess of Bedford visited in her yacht Sapphire and stayed at Pund, which she christened 'Ortolan Cottage', on nine occasions between 1909 and 1914.

Excerpts from her diary - Bird-Watcher's Diary (1938) - can be downloaded here


On Clarke's last visit, in 1921, he was accompanied by a younger man, Rear Admiral James Hutton Stenhouse, who was, effectively, to warden the island for the next decade. They stayed at Pund and George Stout was said to comment that "They lived on bad food and good whisky for a fortnight".


George Waterston met Stenhouse as a schoolboy in Edinburgh and first visited Fair Isle in 1935. He returned annually until the start of the Second World War, sometimes staying with Fieldy - George Stout - on his croft, where the first thoughts of a bird observatory were born.

George Waterston, Fieldy (George Stout) and Archie Bryson, 1935. © George Waterston/FIBO archives


In June 1941, Waterston was captured in Crete and was a prisoner of war in Germany for the next two and a half years. Amazingly, he found a fellow prisoner with whom to discuss his ideas for the bird observatory on Fair Isle in the shape of Ian Pitman. In October 1943, due to ill health and thanks to the Red Cross, he was invalided out and sent home via Gothenburg. On that journey an epoch-making moment occurred when, amazingly, his first sighting of British soil happened to be Sheep Rock with Fair Isle behind it. The 2012 book Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann describes this part of the story in more detail.


In 1948, Waterston bought the island from Robert Bruce of Sumburgh and the Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO) was launched as a public trust.

The original Observatory ('Obs1') was housed in the old Naval headquarters at the North Haven, in a complex of huts and was officially opened on 28th August 1948

1st obs
The original Observatory buildings ('Obs1'), June 1968. © George Waterston/FIBO archives
The Haven and Sheep Rock; the huts of the original Observatory (left) have now largely gone (right). © Ian Andrews


The second Observatory was purpose-built in Maver's Cup and officially opened on 18th October 1969.

Mavers Cup in 1968 prior to building the Observatory. © George Waterston/FIBO archives
The Observatory ('Obs2') near completion in September 1969. © George Waterston/FIBO archives
2nd obs
The Observatory ('Obs2') in the 1980s. © FIBO archive

This wooden building was extended and cased in blockwork in 1989 (below). The refurbished building was opened on 26th August 1989.

The Observatory ('Obs3'), April 1997. © Roger Riddington
The demolition of 'Obs3', July 2009. © Deryk Shaw

2010 to March 2019

The fourth Observatory was built between August 2009 and June 2010 and was opened to visitors in July 2010. It was officially opened on 2nd July 2011 and offered 3-star, en suite accommodation until it was destroyed by fire in March 2019.

The construction of 'Obs4', September 2009. © Deryk Shaw
The Observatory ('Obs4'), June 2014. © Ian Andrews

2019 to date

After the fire, FIBOT have been working to rebuild the Observatory. The site has been cleared leaving the foundations ready for the building of 'Obs5'.

The cleared Observatory site, July 2019. © Susannah Parnaby
The wooden building (left) was extended and cased in blockwork in 1989 (centre). © Mike Pennington, Jamie McMillan & Ian Andrews