George Waterston Memorial Centre and Museum

George Waterston OBE (1911-1980), the former Scottish Director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), was much-loved figure who had a massive and positive influence on Fair Isle. He bought the island after World War II and co-founded the Fair Isle Bird Observatory in 1948, giving the isle's economy a much-needed boost. In 1955 the National Trust for Scotland succeeded him as landlord and helped islanders stem emigration and revitalise the community.

Dr Waterston's memorial is a fascinating museum in the former Fair Isle School (Auld Schule), packed with displays of the island's history from prehistoric times to the present. The museum is open on 3 days a week during the visitor season. A guided tour is available on request, or you're welcome to browse this collection of photographs, documents and artefacts - for a unique insight into Fair Isle's past and a better understanding of its present.

(Text courtesy of Shetland Islands Tourism brochure.)

The Centre is open from the end of April to October. Opening times in 2011 are Monday and Friday 2pm-4pm and Wednesday 10.30am -12 noon.

For anyone wishing to visit at other times, contact Anne Sinclair (tel. 01595 760244), Stewart Thomson (tel. 01595 760241), Dave Brackenby (tel. 07752 566 231), Pat Thomson (tel. 01595 760228) or Hollie Shaw (tel. 01595 760399).




George Waterston, one of the founder members of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and former Scottish Director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB),  bought the island just after the Second World War, with the intention of establishing a Bird Observatory, on what is one of the prime sites in Europe for studying bird migration.

He was, however, also keenly interested in the people of the isle, their traditions and their history so, when he died, the islanders felt that there was a need to promote his interest and establish a Centre with this in mind.

A number of islanders safeguarded materials and documentation over many years, but these were dispersed across various households. The first attempt to make artefacts available for public display was in the 1970s when a small collection of cultural materials were gathered together in an outbuilding at Setter.

In 1980 a new community hall was constructed by the islanders. Prior to that the Auld Schüle had acted as the community hall. Originally a school, it had serve the purpose of locale for dances and other community events from the 1880s and was a traditional building in its own right. The release of the Auld Schüle for other uses was seized upon by the community and the scattered materials of Fair Isle’s history and cultural heritage centralised there once the building had been re-roofed and renovated. Because Waterston had been so active and supportive of the isle’s cultural as well as natural heritage, and had been the catalyst in re-envigorating the island’s fortunes, it was felt absolutely appropriate to name the museum The George Waterston Memorial Centre (GWMC).

The documents and artefacts on display in the GWMC bear witness to the significance of the sea in every aspect of the isle and its culture. Owing to its geographical position as a crossroads for maritime travel, the island has a large history of shipwrecks, from Viking times right up to the present day. These include a Flagship from the Spanish Armada, a Dutch East Indiaman and a German Emigrant ship bound for the New World.

The economy of the Island was closely associated with the sea, with most islanders working sustainable line fishing until the early 20th century, when the market for dried salt fish declined and the inshore grounds were desecrated by trawlers from elsewhere.

 The Fair Isle knitting was also closely bound to the sea, as most of the early trade in hosiery was done through bartering with passing ships. Even today, the bulk of the garments produced are bought by passengers from cruise-ships, again emphasising our links with the sea.

(Source: Fair Isle Marine Protected Area Proposal, Appendix 15. page 113. Copyright FIMETI.)

This display case is based on 'Our Boys' - Fair Isle and World War I' - a commemorative flm project completed by Fair Isle Primary School children for the Royal British Legion Scotland War Memorial Competition. Fair Isle Primary School's film won joint 1st prize. The display was put together by the children working together with the George Waterston Memorial Centre and was the focal point on the Museum's official opening day on 25th May, 2014.



The shape of the extension will mimic that of a dry stone-built kjyls (kiln for drying grain) which was built onto some of the byres (barns) on Fair Isle in times past. As well as providing much-needed office space and toilet facilities for the museum, the new entrance will act as a buffer against the wind and rain and will help to protect the museum collection every time the door is opened.

All donations of whatever size towards this worthy cause are very much appreciated by the Museum and the community of Fair Isle.

The museum has charitable status (SC005177) and is a member of Museum Galleries Scotland. Donations can be sent to:
George Waterston Memorial Centre & Museum, Fair Isle, Shetland, ZE2 9JU, UK.


The raffle aimed to raise £5,000 towards the cost of the museum extension and by the time the prize draw took place on Saturday, 25th October, 2014 it had managed to raise an amazing £4,150 to add to the extension fund. Congratulations to all the winners. A huge thank you to everyone who bought tickets and to all those who helped to sell tickets for us.

Further updates coming shortly....




Funds raised from barter with Tall Ship £2,770.




"With Fair Isle as a Guest Port for the Tall Ships, three new displays were created in the Centre.  Two are sea based, one touching on a few of the many ships known to have foundered on our shores  and the significance of coastguard, lifesaving crews and the lighthouses; and the other highlighting the importance of the Fair Isle yoal in every  aspect of Fair Isle’s history. The third display, covering  Fair Isle knitting from the 1880s - 1980s, dovetailed neatly into our one day exhibition of the 49 traditional Fair Isle Fisherman’s Keps, knitted over the winter by a group of us specifically to reintroduce the tradition of bartering with passing sailing ships. The seven keps left over from the Tall Ships visit have been auctioned on Tommy’s blog page (http://www.fair-isle.blogspot.com) and have raised £2,770 for our museum extension project.

The conversion work on our museum store at the South Light is almost finished. We have received two grants from Museums Galleries Scotland which have enabled the museum to purchase much needed storage equipment and to employ Carrie Gunn to update our collection catalogue. The digital age is upon us!

Vitally for the future of the museum and collections ...the George Waterston Memorial Centre was awarded Full Accreditation in November." 

A range of booklets about the maritime history of Fair Isle is available for sale. Please see OTHER PUBLICATIONS for further details.

Text and photographs Copyright Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative. All rights reserved.

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