Fetlar is probably most renowned by bird-watchers for the snowy owls found nesting at Stackaberg in 1967. Unfortunately, the cantankerous old male, having driven off all the young suitors, died of old age in 1975 and left several morose females without a mate. As a result, there are now no more snowy owls nesting in Shetland, although they do occasionally come visiting from Scandinavia.

Fetlar is an outstanding bird sanctuary, and Jean and I were lucky to have had the late Bobby Tulloch as our guide. As a Shetlander, RSPB warden, noted ornithologist, wildlife photographer, and, above all, a wonderful character with a wealth of tales, we couldn't have been in better hands. We were accompanied by six fanatical bird-watchers, which suited us perfectly as, whenever they settled down for a prolonged study, it gave us an opportunity to sketch.

Apart from that, however, we were keen to see a red-necked phalarope - because, if nothing else, it has such a wonderful name - and Bobby didn't let us down. We stood beside the Loch of Funzie and this strange and fearless little bird paddled right past us, no more than six feet away.

The story of Fetlar goes back a long way. The first Norse settlers are thought to have made landfall here, and swashbuckling King Harald the Fair-haired visited the island during his pursuit of ''vikings'' in the ninth century. This is Shetland's most fertile island and more than 200 different species of wildflower have been recorded, including rareties such as the frog orchid, the northern gentian and some unique sedges.

The Norsemen never arrived at a suitable definition for the island and they spoke of Fetlar as Est Isle and Wast Isle, probably because a mini-Great Wall of China divided the island in half and no-one was sure who had built it. Its creation was attributed to the Finns, magical figures in Norse folklore, who might have been Laplanders, or giants, or trolls, or all three rolled together. It was said that the Finns built the wall in a single night in exchange for a farmer's best cow.

Today, the mysterious one-metre wide wall, or what little is left of it, is still called Funzie Girt (pronounced fin-ee gurt), which means the Finns' dyke. There are other mysteries, too, such as the Fiddler's Crus. These are three stone circles set in a cabalistic triangular pattern and almost touching each other. Each circle is about 13.5m in diameter. Nearby there is another strange monument called Hjaltadans (which means ''limping dance''). This is an outer circle of 38 serpentine stones, about 11.5m in diameter, with an internal, low and concentric earth bank. Two stones lie at the centre. Both these structures seem to be related, but archaelogists have no satisfactory explanation of their purpose. The local belief is that a fiddler and his wife were dancing in the moonlight one night with trolls and were enjoying it so much that they failed to notice the dawn. They were all petrified

by the light of the rising sun and the stone circles are the dancing trolls and the two prostrate central stones are the fiddler and his wife.

Fetlar is surrounded by shipwrecks. In 1737, under the magnificent eastern cliffs of serpentine stone, a Danish ship, Wendela, carrying a large quantity of unspecified silver currency, ran aground and sank. Most of the coins were immediately salvaged by the islanders but in the 1970s a diving team investigated the wreck and collected a number of coins which had been overlooked (note: unauthorised diving is forbidden).

A Fetlar man, Sir William Watson Cheyne of Leagarth House at Houbie, went on to become a famous surgeon after assisting Joseph Lister in the development of antiseptic surgery. The Fetlar Centre, which is almost opposite Leagarth House, is a treasure trove of island history and Houbie itself is a delightful spot - but don't use a compass in the bay as the sand is magnetic.

The first large-scale clearances in Shetland began on Fetlar in 1822 when the owner, Sir Arthur Nicolson, evicted the crofters to make room for sheep. By 1858 he had emptied the whole of the north and west part of the island and cleared more than half the population. Using stone from the evicted crofters' houses he then built himself a three-storey tower folly, Brough Lodge.

l Access: Ro-ro ferry eight times daily from Gutcher (Yell), 01957-7222259

l O S Maps: 1:50000 Sheet or 1 or 2 1:2500 Sheet 5 Admiralty Charts: 1:750000 No.3282 1:30000 No. 3292 west part