|UK Grid Reference:||HT956394|
|Area (ha):||1265 ha|
|Community Council:||Sandness & Walls|
|Ferry Services:||From Walls|
Foula, (Old Norse :Fuglaey = Birds Island ) is the most westerly island in Shetland. It is approximately 3.5 miles long, north to south, and 2.5 miles wide, and lies approximately 22km west of Walls, on the west Mainland.
The isle is dominated by its five hills which give it its distinctive profile. The highest point being the Sneug, at 418m, followed by the Kame, at 376m, which is the highest point of the sea cliffs on the western side of island, and both the highest sheer sea cliffs and second highest sea cliffs in the U.K, only surpassed by those on the isle of St. Kilda. Hamnafield at 344m, the Noup at 248m and Soberlie complete the quintet.
When viewed from the Mainland the isle can make quite a spectacular scene, particularly under snow, when it is often likened to a huge iceberg on the horizon
Foula is the UK's most isolated and second most remote permanently inhabited island, its near neighbour to the SE, Fair Isle holding the title of most remote.
Transport & Communication
The isle is accessed and served by a small ferry operated by Atlantic Ferries which plies between the small exposed pier at Ham Voe on the isle, and either Walls Harbour, the nearest settlement to Foula on the Mainland, or Scalloway Harbour. And also by flights operated by Directflight Ltd. from Tingwall Airport to the gravel landing strip on the isle by a BN-2B Islander aircraft.
The ferry service is very dependent on weather and sea conditions, and it is not uncommon for frequent cancellations to occur in winter, when it is not possible to safely enter or leave Ham Voe with such a small vessel due to the height of the Atlantic Ocean swell. Although the air service can be subject to cancellations due to extreme winter weather also, these tend to be of short duration, and the isle no longer suffers from extended periods of being cut of from the outside world and unable to obtain supplies, as was sometimes the case before the landing strip was constructed in the early 1970's.
The sea around Foula has developed a certain notoreity:
- "Foula's waters were a dazzling minefield which made the island, inhospitable to yachtsmen, day-trippers, and even Her Majesty's public works brigade, though not — as I learned in a few days — Jehovah's Witnesses."<ref>Millman, Lawrence Last Places (2000), p13</ref>
Despite land and aerial surveys undertaken on behalf of the Air Ambulance Service in 1948, concluding that there was no suitable location on Foula to construct an airstrip, a fully functional airstrip has been in existence on the isle since 1976. What was probably the first intended landing of a plane on Foula occured on April 9th 1961, when after a period of 11 weeks during which it had been impossible for the ferry to put to sea and supplies were running extremely low, a Prestwick Pioneer aircraft attempted to ferry in essentials. Unfortunately the experiment was a failure as without a suitable landing surface, its wheels sank in to the soft wet peat soil at landing, resulting in the aircraft sustaining damage to its nose, and along with its crew, becoming trapped on the isle for three weeks before it was successfully freed and flow off. The first successful landing was by a BN-2B Islander on the South Ness at the SE tip of the isle in 1969, piloted by Capt. Alan Whitfield, to demonstrate that with the right aircraft an air service could be possible. Unfortunately the South Ness could not be considered for a permanent airstrip due to its close proximity to cliffs, but an alternative site was identified at Santoo further north along the east coast of the isle, to the NE of Hametoun. Initial work commenced in 1970 when a rough strip suitable for medical emergencies, was created by removing the topsoil down to the underlying clay over an approx 250 yard section. Stage two occured in 1972 when a further 150 yards at the northern end was stripped of soil, and coated with gravel. The final work was undertaken in 1976 when the initial 250 yard section was coated with gravel and an additional 50 yards at both north and south ends stripped and gravel coated. The entire strip was also made a uniform 20 yards wide, the CAA requirement for a BN-2B aircraft. The vast majority of the construction work on the strip was undertaken by the islanders themselves.
The first telephone link with the Shetland Mainland was established very soon after the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to communicate with the lookout post on the back of the Sneug. Although the link was maintained for a few years after peace returned, frequent breakages of the sub-sea cable by fishing vessels caused the service to be abandoned. A number of requests for wireless communication to be established were then made at Governmental level during the 1920's and early 30's, but were always rejected on the grounds of cost.
While filming of The Edge of the World was ongoing during 1936, the film company hired a wireless for their own use, and allowed islanders to use it for their own needs as necessary. Having become accustomed to this "unofficial" benefit, and having had its worth proven during the six months filming lasted, its removal with the departure of the film crew in late November 1936 was acutely felt, and spurred a renewed effort to secure a permanent service, similar to that which had been provided to Out Skerries earlier. Finally the G.P.O. agreed to establish a service, and during the winter of 1936/'37 experimental work was carried out, leading first to a temporary service via Orkney, and finally a full permanent service to the mainland was inaugerated on April 17th 1937. Over 30 years were then to elapse before the first full phone service was established, when a public phone box was installed outside the Foula Post Office in 1954. During the 1960's the service achieved almost equal standard to elsewhere, when the G.P.O. invited islanders to install telephones in their own homes, albeit that the entire island shared one party line.
Community & Culture
Despite the isle being entirely poor quality peaty soil over rock, one of the main sources of income to the island today is from agriculture, mainly sheep and a few Shetland Ponies, other main sources of income being inshore fishing, generally for shellfish, and from tourism. A Ranger service employing island residents has been established in the recent past, and conducts guided tours for visitors highlighting the best vantage points from which to view the estimated half million birds on the isle, interesting rock formations, such as the Sneck o' da Smallie and the Gaada Stack, and other locations of interest. Historically the main source of income to the isle was from fishing, being considerably closer to rich fishing grounds gave them a significant advantage over their mainland based counterparts in the days of sail and long-lines. The advent of steam powered trawlers in the late 19th Century , which could reach the isle and beyond from as far away as Mainland Scotland, destroyed the grounds for the line fishermen, and they turned more to the inshore fishing and agriculture which continues today.
The isle is essentially a ridge of hills which have been cut in half down their spine by the relentless erosion of the Atlantic swell over the Millenia, and which provide the towering, steep and often sheer, but stunning cliffs of the west side of the isle. Only the flatter plateau to the east and north of the ridge is habitable, and supports the settlements of Hametoun, at the southern end, Ham near the centre at Ham Voe and a few scattered crofts at the northern end, collectively known as the Nort Toons.
Historically the population of Foula has averaged around 150, in 1790 there were 143 residents, by 1881 they numbered 267, 33 of whom were children attending the school, the Census of 1911 showed 230 residents, but by 1913 the school roll was only 12, and while the 1921 Census showed 149 residents, the school roll by 1927 stood at 6. By the late 1970's the population had recovered a little from a low point in the early 1960's, to number 37 in fifteen housholds, 10 of whom were children, and has remained in the 20+ - 40 range ever since.
The current Foula Primary School which opened in 1992, also doubles as the Community Hall, and caters for pupils up to 12 years old, after which they transfer to the Anderson High School in Lerwick where they reside in hostel accomodation during term times, and return to Foula for school holidays and occasional weekends. The time taken to travel back and forth between the isle and mainland makes returning for every weekend impractical. The isle has a Post Office, volunteer Fire Brigade and a small centrally located church, the Baxter Chapel, but no shop, or pub. Islanders purchase their supplies from the mainland, which are delivered by either the ferry or plane. There is no doctor based on Foula, medical care is provided by a resident District Nurse, who refers patients to medical facilities on the mainland as necessary.
The provision of publically funded services on Foula was for long bedevilled at both local and national government level by a general attitude that "the isle will soon be evacuated, there is no point in wasting money". During the 20th Century this affected the provision of the pier in Ham Voe, the school, the upgrading of public roads from gravel surfaced to tarmac, which only occured in the early 1970's, and the provision of a public mains water supply, which finally arrived in 1982.
During their research Venables & Venables recorded the following species of birds breeding on Foula 1949-50.
Regular and common: Raven; Hooded Crow; Starling; House Sparrow; Twite; Skylark; Meadow Pipit; Rock Pipit; Blackbird; Wheatear; Wren; Shag; Eider; Snipe; Ringed Plover; Oyster Catcher; Herring Gull; Greater Black-backed Gull; Kittiwake; Arctic Tern; Great Skua: Arctic Skua; Razorbill; Common Guillemot; Black Guillemot; Puffin; Manx Shearwater; Fulmar and Rock Dove.
Irregular or rare: House Martin; Peregrine; Merlin; Mallard; Teal; Corncrake; Moorhen; Curlew; Lapwing; Common Gull; Lesser Black-backed Gull; Storm Petrel and Red-throated Diver.
Today, the Gannet and Swallow, along with migratory Whooper Swans are also common. Despite less than ideal transport links, and often difficult terrain Foula has been an increasingly popular destination for well seasoned bird watchers in recent years.
It is thought that Foula has been inhabited for as long as the rest of Shetland, a recent survey by an archeological student identified up to 430 potential sites which may date back to the Iron or Bronze Ages, and possibly the Stone Age. One example being the stone circle investigated in 2006/7. Hametoun is by far the oldest settlement on the isle with a proven record of continuous habitation, and was the only known settlement during the period of Norse rule from around the 9th or 10th Century until 1469, the legacy of which lives on in its place names. It has been suggested that due to Foula's remoteness and the laws practiced at that time, it effectively made Foula a virtually independent entity in its own right. While such things have no more support than in folklore and supposition, Foula was definitely one of the last places in Shetland that adhered to the former Norse ways, and where Norn was used as a language.
In 1774, George Low wrote down The Ballad of Hildina in Foula Norn. George Low got this ballad from a man who "has the most knowledge of any I found": William Henry, a farmer in Guttorm, in Foula.
The local dialect has a strong Norse influence, and Foula was one of the significant sources for Dr. Jakob Jakobsen's dictionary of Shetland Norn.
Another legacy of the isle's remoteness is the existence of the Foula Mouse, which is a distinct and unique sub-species, having evolved and adapted within its restricted environment and gene pool over the centuries. Foula Sheep are also largely products of their environment and isolation.
Foula also remained on the Julian calendar when the rest of the United Kingdom adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Foula adhered to the Julian calendar by keeping 1800 as a leap year, but did not observe a leap year in 1900. As a result, Foula is now one day ahead of the Julian calendar and twelve days behind the Gregorian, observing Christmas Day on January 6 Gregorian and New Year on January 13 Gregorian.
The Norwegian estate that Foula became part of, can be traced back to the first half of the fourteenth century, but the first documented mention of Foula was in 1490 when this estate was formally divided up and Alv Knutsson's share included the lands in Shetland of Vaila, Footabroch, Foula, Sandness, Unst and Fetlar. The last Norwegian owner was Gorval Fadersdatter, Alv Knutsson's great granddaughter. She leased the estate to Robert Cheyne in 1576. Then followed a contentious time with both Robert Cheyne and Andrew Hawick, son of Vincent Hawick, collector of the Shetland rents for Gorval, claiming the estate, but the courts found in favour of Robert. It remained in the Cheyne family until 1698 when James Mitchell of Girlsta aquired it, due to Patrick Cheyne falling into debt. James' grandson, John Scott inherited it in 1736. Despite Theodore Cheyne's attempts to get it back, the estate, including Foula, remained in the Scott family until their family fortunes waned and they sold the isle to Mr. W. Ewing Gilmour shortly after 1891. Around 1900 the isle was purchased from Mr. Gilmour by Professor Ian B. S. Holbourn. Several of Professor Holbourn's descendants are today residents of the isle, including author Sheila Gear, and the ownership of the isle still remains with the family.
Almost certainly the first occasion Foula gained national, and international attention was in 1937 with the release of the film, The Edge of the World, directed by Michael Powell, who was also the scriptwriter. The vast majority of the film having been shot on location on Foula, using only natural light, during the summer of 1936.
Although Foula was renamed "Hirta" in the production, the actual name of the main island of St Kilda, which the evacuation of in 1930 had provided the inspiration for the film. The work is in fact a Foula/fictional hybrid, upon which a story based on actual events on St Kilda was acted. A number of islanders appeared in the film as extras, and several more were hired in crew or support roles during filming which lasted from May to October.
Lying as it does some fifteen miles or so west of the Shetland Mainland, Foula poses a major threat to shipping, a fact exacerbated by a sunken reef, the Hoevdi Grund, also known as the Shaalds of Foula, which lies some 2-3 miles to the east of the isle, between it an the Shetland Mainland. The reef comes to within four feet of the surface at low tides, but which with calm winds and sleight sea conditions gives no warning sign to the unwary mariner.
The most notable wreck on the Shaalds is that of the Oceanic on September 8th 1914. The massive and luxurious White Star Lines transatlantic ocean liner, by then officially the HMS Oceanic, having come under the control of the Admiralty and on war patrol, grounded on the reef as a result of navigational error, and went to pieces within two weeks during a storm.
Were it not for the constrictions of war time, which saw the incident kept as quiet at possible, due to the potential harm news of the loss of such a well known vessel so early in the war, for such benign reasons could have had on national morale, Foula almost certainly would have come to national and international attention somewhat sooner.
A number of other vessels have also wrecked on the Hoevdi Grund in addition to the Oceanic, similarly a number have also wrecked in Ham Voe on the isle, lists of these can be found on the respective location pages. Elsewhere on the isle the Sampson was wrecked in November 1786, the Stag went aground on January 21st 1852, and the Teal Duck was wrecked at South Ness on the isle on March 5th 1899.
Although a survey of the island was undertaken by Mr. Stevenson on behalf of the Northern Lighthouse Commission in 1883, a suitable site selected and plans made to construct a lighthouse on the isle. It was only with the arrival in the area of huge ocean going oil tankers in the late 1970's and early 1980's, some of whom passed between Foula and the Mainland, that the impetus to proceed was found, and a lighthouse was built at the southern tip of the island in 1986 , to help prevent further shipping casualties . Originally powered by acetylene gas, it has been converted to solar and wind power.
- The Isle of Foula: A Series of Articles on Britain's Loneliest Inhabited Isle, Ian B. S. Holbourn (ISBN 1841581615)
- Foula: Island West of the Sun, Sheila Gear
- A number of short videos by Isobel Holbourn