Photo: Penny Gear Foula – five square miles of island, five dramatic hills. Da Noup, Hamnafield, Da Sneug (1374ft), Da Kame (at 1233ft the second highest sheer cliff in Britain), and Soberlie tower over one of the most remote inhabited communities in Britain.
Lying 20 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean west of the Shetland mainland, Foula has four ‘environmental designations’ and is home to kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, Arctic skuas, and one of the largest colonies of bonxies (great skuas) in the world, along with around 30 folk and lots of sheep and ponies.
As well as seabirds and cetaceans, Foula’s coastal and cliff scenery – including Gaada Stack and Da Sneck ida Smaalie – beautiful sunsets and big skies, wild flowers, and moorland and migrant birds mean plenty of opportunities to enjoy a peaceful ‘away from it all’ experience. The island even has its own sub-species of field mouse – Apodemus Sylvaticus Thuleo.
Photo: John Coutts Guided walks with Foula Ranger Service can be arranged for visitors to make the most of what the island has to offer, and should be employed by anyone visiting Da Sneck ida Smaalie. This sheer-sided, dank, dark rock fault, 60m deep, gives access to teeming seabird colonies but the way down is treacherous and should not be attempted without an experienced guide.
The Devonian sandstone rock that makes up most of the island was initially deposited in flat horizontal layers. Millions of years of movement within the Earth's crust have resulted in these originally horizontal sandstone layers becoming tilted, seen to spectacular effect in the western cliffs.
Remaining under Norse udal law till the late 16th century (when Scottish laird Robert Cheyne acquired Foula from the last Norse owner, Gorvel Fadersdatter), the Old Norse language was commonly spoken until the end of the 18th century. The island’s Old Norse (ON) name is Fugla-ey – ‘bird island’; Noup is gnípr – a steep mountain with overhanging top; and Kame is kambr – a comb or crested ridge of hills. The last person to speak Norn was thought to be Jeannie Ratter (née Manson), who died in 1926.
Photo: Ryan Leith Jacob Jacobsen, the Faroese linguist, visited Foula in 1894. He “found the folk lively, intelligent and of excellent memory” and corresponded with Robert Gear for many years. At the end of the 19th century, the island supported over 250 people.
The liner Oceanic was wrecked off Foula in 1914 and a blade from the vessel’s propeller is displayed at Shetland Museum. Michael Powell’s classic film The Edge of the World was made in the isle in 1936.
Foula folk still celebrate Christmas as Auld Yule on January 6th and Old New Year a week later, according to the Julian calendar, although the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1752.
The ferry, The New Advance, sails from Walls and takes around two hours to reach Foula. In summer there are some sailings from Scalloway. Booking is essential with BK Marine Ltd on 01595 840208. Check ferry information on 01595 743976 or see www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries.
Inter-island flights leave from Tingwall Airport. Book with Airtask Group on 01595 840246 or see www.airtask.com/shetland-islands-inter-island-service.
Foula has no shop so enough supplies for your stay must be brought with you. The primary school is used for events and gatherings and there is a kirk and post office.
The isle has produced some talented musicians, singers and songwriters – Farewell Fugley Isle and Simmer Dim by Bobby Isbister both being popular locally.
Contact Visit Scotland for accommodation details.
Visit The Shetland Times Bookshop: for books, maps, guides and gifts.