Fairley was born in 1953 and educated at Edinburgh College of Art. After college he moved to the Scottish west coast port of Mallaig.
This he 'shared' with the American painter Jon Schueler though the younger man never found the courage to knock on the seniors door. A fact he now deeply regrets!
He moved from Mallaig to the island of Shona Beag in 1975, where he lived what has been described an 'hermetic' existence, living as much as possible off the land and from the sea and making ephemeral land based work. This work recorded, for the most part, in pinhole camera images (the camera often being made from animal carcases) was not exhibited until 2011 when the Resipole Gallery mounted a retrospective of his 'Early Work.'
All his work is based on the land and although very often it is not topographical it always relates in some way to the landscape and the weather, geology, stories, traditions, songs, myths that this encompasses and what has been called the 'terra incognito' of the human mind' that is influenced by it.
Since 1994 he has been very involved with 'Room 13', which facilitates the work of young artists alongside a professional 'artist-in-residence', providing a studio based forum for an exchange of ideas, skills and experience for 'adults of all ages'.
He has been represented by the Open Eye Gallery since 1982, and the Resipole gallery since 2010.