This study compares the diversity of the demersal fish assemblage of an isolated shelf sea, the Rockall plateau, with that of the nearest adjacent continental shelf sea ecosystem, the west coast of Scotland. Bottom trawl surveys were carried out between 1986 and 2008 on the Rockall plateau and the adjacent shelf sea to the west of Scotland. All demersal fish were identified and counted. Analyses of species richness and abundance were undertaken. The fish assemblage of the Rockall plateau was less diverse and the proportional representation of species was markedly different. A number of species common at Rockall were rare on the west coast shelf and, in general, there were fewer common and temporally stable species and more rare and ephemeral species at Rockall. Some species absent from Rockall have life-history stages associated with inshore habitat. The Rockall plateau fish assemblage can be described as an impoverished subset of the north-west European shelf sea fish assemblage. It is likely that there are constraints on diversity imposed by the relatively small area of the Rockall plateau and its degree of isolation by depth, distance and ocean currents. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 104, 138–147.