Finding Foula

Foula - from the Shetland mainland
The guide books are quite clear. "There is no shop so enough supplies for your stay must be brought with you." Of course what they ought to add is "and you'd better bring extras 'cos the stay might be longer than you plan".

Travel to many of the wee islands around Scotland's coast is weather dependent, and Foula, about 20 miles off the west coast of Shetland, certainly is - even a short trip in summer runs the risk of starting or ending late.

I'd set myself the target of adding St Kilda and Foula to my remote island list this summer, and having visited St Kilda already, my next target was finding Foula.

The two islands always feel linked in some way, possibly as a result of Michael Powell's film The Edge of the World. When Powell wanted to retell the story of St Kilda's evacuation he asked permission to film there. When this was refused he adopted Foula as his St Kilda. There are parallels, both are way out west - St Kilda west of the Hebrides, Foula west of Shetland - so they get a similar battering from the North Atlantic. They have similar shapes - both have seriously big west facing cliffs and a rather more gentle eastern coastline.  However there are differences. On St Kilda all the houses are clustered together on a still-picturesque little street. On Foula the houses are dotted across the island on each croft, seemingly as far apart as they can be. The other big difference is that Foula still has a 'real' population and a service boat going there rather than tourist boats.

My visit to Foula started on a Saturday afternoon when I made my way to Walls on the west coast of the Shetland mainland. On the pier I met Magnus, who was both part of the boat crew and my landlord for my stay. The New Advance is the islands passenger/supply/mail boat, and at the moment (September 2014), when there are ‘issues’ with the plane service that usually flies to the island, is a critical lifeline.

The boat takes a couple of hours to chug slowly from Walls to Ham, the settlement on the island around the only, slightly sheltered, bay on the island.  The New Advance is a wee boat. It needs to be. After each crossing it gets lifted clear of the water so that it's less exposed to the storms that can sweep across the island. The tradition of hauling boats out of the water is well established around Shetland, lots of islands have traces of the noosts that were used to store boats overnight above the high water mark but not many are as sophisticated as the Foula dock.

New Advance out of the water, Ham Harbour, Foula
Once you get to Foula, you'll typically get a quick orientation. "That's the school, the nurse stays there and the post office is over there, it's open on Monday, in the morning."

While on Foula I was staying in Burns Cottage (just beside Da Crookit Burn - the crooked burn) in the middle of the island, roughly a mile from the northern edge, and two miles from the southern coast.  Magnus told me that he'd grown up in the cottage before moving to his current house overlooking the little harbour at Ham.
Burns Cottage, Foula
There is a road - only one - and the verges are littered with abandoned cars. The isolated nature of islands like Foula and Fair Isle means that there isn't any enforcement of the MOT (the annual inspection that almost all cars in the UK are subject to). These are the islands that adopt cars once they get beyond the ingenuity of mainland Shetland mechanics to nurse them through the annual inspection. And once they get beyond the ingenuity of the Foula folks they just get abandoned or kept as a source of spare parts.

The North Bank, Foula
Along the west coast of Foula are a series of high rounded peaks, at least rounded as seen from the east, but from the side it becomes apparent that they are only half-hills. They stop abruptly at the top, and the backs are completely missing, so if you trek up to the top you are left peering over, in some cases, a 1000 foot vertical drop into the North Atlantic.

In addition to the high cliffs there are lots of interesting geological features around the island. Along the north coast is the lovely Gaada Stack, which is a triangular double arch.  At the south end, Da Noup, and the Sneck o da Smaalie, a 60 m deep cleft in the rocks.

Even if you don’t opt to climb up any of the big peaks on Foula, you should risk life and limb and walk up Da Daal to see the cliff edge and the remarkable Sneck o da Smaalie.  And why “risk life and limb”?  Da Daal is prime breeding territory for both the Arctic and Great Skuas (the bonxies), both of which will defend their nest sites enthusiastically from each other and from anything else daft enough to get too close.

Gaada Stack

Da Sneck o da Smaalie
The bonxies will cheerfully take on any human visitor and swoop past very close to your head. There are several thousand breeding pairs of skuas on Foula, so on a 3 mile long island you’re never very far from a skua nest. There’s a bucket of ‘bonxie sticks’ for hire at the airport – and if you’re not already carrying a stick (or a tripod) to wave above your head, you would be well advised to rent one.

Bonxie Sticks at Foula Airport
I had booked a three night stay at the Burns, but as the winds built up over the third night I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to be heading back to mainland as planned.  This meant that I got a bonus day walking the cliffs of Foula, and the folks coming into the island wouldn't be arriving to evict me from the cottage, so I still had somewhere to sleep.  The New Advance did go on the next day (before my food supplies ran out).

If you want a get-away-from-it-all break and are happy with a little bit of uncertainty in your travel plans, Foula is just the thing.

1 comment:

Glen Cook said...

Nice post!

"Travel to many of the wee islands around Scotland's coast is weather dependent"

I was there at the end of October and ended up being marooned for 5 extra days by gale force winds. Luckily, I brought loads of extra food with me!

No bonxies in October, not sure why they leave, but didn't make any use of the Bonxie sticks... :)

Here are my photos: Foula Slideshow

I used those extra days to walk around the entire island!