The Island of Foula is the most remote part of the Shetland Islands, which themselves are remote enough for most tastes. Foula is also the most isolated inhabited island in Britain. It was the last place to speak Norn, a Norse language, which a pandemic of smallpox in the eighteenth century eliminated by wiping out most of the last Norn speakers. When the Island was repopulated by English-speaking Shetlanders, Norn was lost.
Getting to Foula can be a challenge. It’s served by an unpredictable ferry service that can be kept in harbor for weeks, and occasionally months, by bad weather. The air service, by a twelve-seat BN2B Islander takes only 17 minutes, but is also unpredictably because of perennially impossible flying conditions. It is interesting to note that if you miss the Island by any chance, whether by air or sea, the next stop is Greenland!
If you are brave enough, and lucky enough, to reach Foula, you have to learn several new words. One of them is equinoctial. It means “of or relating to the equinox”. It is frequently used to describe equinoctial gales, which can feel relentless this far north. In a place as exposed to the elements as Shetland, the elements can be definitive; on its most distant island of Foula, they can act as a gatekeeper.
“Things are likely to get pretty entertaining,” said pilot Marshall Wishart as we boarded his BN-2B Islander to fly from the airport outside Shetland’s largest town, Lerwick, to the airstrip on Foula, 31 miles west. Our departure had already been delayed by the gales for many hours and, for a time, the forecast said that no flying would be possible for several days. Instead, however, half-an-hours’ notice was given to scramble to the airport and take advantage of a narrow weather window. During the flight the equinoctial gales were strong enough to decapitate any white horses (white caps of storm waves) below. By that point in early October, the island’s ferry hadn’t sailed for a couple of weeks and wasn’t expected to try again for several more. This meant that the 30 or so permanent residents on the island depended wholly on the vagaries of light aircraft to bring them supplies. “It could be like this until the next equinox really,” said Sheila Gear, Foula resident of almost 60 years. “It’s only really late April or May that the wind finally stops. You have to be well-stocked, but you’re used to it if you live here.”
Nonetheless, there is a limited amount of tourism. There are two guest houses – The Burns and Ristie – and a few camping sites that provide accommodation. The majority of visitors are birders, drawn here by the tens of thousands of birds that make this blustery island their home over the summer. Otherwise, Foula offers few distractions for those not interested in the outdoors: there is no wi-fi, no pubs or bars, not even a shop to buy basic supplies. Visitors must bring everything with them. If you ask most Shetland Islanders what to expect on Foula, you are likely to get a blank stare. Almost none of them have been there, and most don’t know anyone who has. If outsiders know anything at all about the island it is likely to be that the residents still adhere to a version of the Julian calendar, having refused to change to the more modern Gregorian calendar in line with the rest of the country in 1752.
Many of the Norn words that endure today are names of seabirds. There are maalie (northern fulmars), tystie (guillemots), solan gos (gannets) and many more besides. Above them all, stands the great skua, or bonxie as it’s known locally. The huge, brown gull-like birds can be difficult creatures to love. The bonxie has no claws with which to kill its prey. It does, however, have the instincts of a predator, meaning it must use its barbed beak to pitilessly peck at its victims. Lambs are not safe, and even Shetland pony foals can be targeted, let alone small children.
Birds aside, there is extraordinary beauty on Foula. The majority of the settlement is on the east side of the island, sheltering from the most violent of the North Atlantic’s furies. Widely dispersed farms are surrounded by peat moss bogs that are patrolled by Foula sheep and Shetland ponies. While these scenes can look pretty, especially with the island’s satisfying ruddy hills in the background, the north coast is significantly more beautiful.
The granite landscape does a lot better here than metal. Salty gales eat at vehicles, meaning they rarely last more than a few years.
A resident of sixty years summed up Foula by saying, “It can be a difficult place, especially in winter. There’s the darkness, and the continual wind and rain. Just going outside can be very difficult, and yet you can grow to miss it. The first time I went abroad was to Madeira and I found myself missing the weather. It was ridiculous.”
A hard island for hard people and even harder birds. Magnus Holbourn, owner of the Burns cottage, summed it up on one especially windy morning. “This is not a place where humanity is in the ascendency,” he said. “It’s just clinging on.”
Bucket list candidate, anyone?