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Foula & Fair Isle

The Edge of the World

In the first Century AD, the Roman General Agricola reached the northernmost point on his circumnavigation of Britain. There, he reputedly stood atop a hill in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland — and cast his eyes yet further north, where he claimed to see Ultima Thule itself. Farthest Thule, the edge of the habitable world.

Before him were three imposing outposts: Fitful Head on Shetland’s Mainland — and the islands of Fair Isle and Foula.

Today, as it was then, Fitful Head is an uninhabited bluff. And two millennia on, the islands of Foula and Fair Isle remain among the most isolated communities in Europe.

From the pitching rear deck of a ferry in the North Atlantic, all three are in plain view.

The stout ferry Snolda is en route from its base on Shetland’s West Mainland, battling eighty kilometres of rough water south to Fair Isle. To the east, Fitful Head looms large; north-west, the sharp outline of Foula interrupts the frothing North Atlantic horizon; and looming into view southwards is bonny Fair Isle.

There is something deeply enthralling about the prospect of a new island — any new island. And Fair Isle, with its romantic name and dramatic location forty kilometres from the nearest Shetland port, soon proves worthy of such anticipation.

From sea level, it is a daunting green vision ringed by cliffs. And what cliffs they are. Even the ‘small’ ones are over sixty metres tall; commonly, one hundred metres of geologists’ dreams leap from a coastline strewn with boulders the size of houses. Vast sea cave cathedrals loom, and miniature crescent beaches, inaccessible without a boat, look as if no foot ever marked their sands.

When the Snolda berths in the cliffscape notch that is North Haven, the cheery crew set to work picking up a vehicle too large for the island’s regular ferry, the Good Shepherd IV, which sits on a ramp well above the high water mark.

A green car pulls up, and three good-natured men toting expensive binoculars introduce themselves as the ‘bank robbers’.

Fair Isle has no bank; the trio are vacationing bird watchers staying at the same Bed & Breakfast, and on an island without public transport, they are kindly playing taxi for the visitor. Their nickname comes from how they drive up to birding locations and leap out, binoculars at the ready like weapons in the hands of robbers.

Fair Isle owes a great deal to bird watchers. In particular to George Waterston, an Edinburgh ornithologist who bought the island in 1948 and soon after established its world-renowned bird observatory. Nearly sixty years on, the Observatory attracts enthusiasts from all over the world. They come to view rare species resting from trans-oceanic migrations, and money put into the island economy by birdwatchers is of vital significance.

The bank robbers are committed birders, and watching them at play is enlightening as well as fun. At the island’s North End, they explore near one of two 19th Century lighthouses built by the Stevensons, relatives of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island. The robbers strut perilously close to cliff edges, binoculars glued to eyes, and a passing Spotted Flycatcher raises spirits, if only momentarily.

In the island’s more fertile south, they splash through soggy ditches in vain search of something called a Lancey. In seventeen days, the robbers have not seen one rare bird, because this year — like last year — the wind direction is wrong. But of course they will return next year. In birding circles, this island is a powerful draw.

Fair Isle folk are warm and welcoming, not least Annie and Stewart Thomson, both in their late 80s; Annie was born on the island, and husband Stewart has lived here since the 1950s. For thirty years, Annie staffed the island post office in an outhouse that has become Stewart’s workshop, and where he hand-crafts traditional spinning wheels that now spin wool as far away as the USA and Japan.

After the National Trust for Scotland took over the island in 1954, Stewart worked as Trust Officer, and for decades organised volunteer summer work camps that still attract youngsters to help with everything from crofting to fencing and repairing dry-stone walls. Nobody knows better than Stewart how important this has been to the survival of an island with a population of only seventy.

“Without the National Trust and the work camps, Fair Isle would have been finished long ago,” he says.

Annie and Stewart’s daughter, Ann Sinclair, is Museum Curator, and an authority on the island’s famed knitwear. For centuries, Shetland featured on international trade routes, and as far back as the early 1700s Fair Isle exported knitted socks by the barrel. Islanders also sailed out to meet passing vessels and barter knitwear for items otherwise unavailable. Word of mouth spread, and by the mid-1700s, Fair Isle woollen wear was highly valued even in distant lands. The reputation lives on, and a small collective of island knitters still produces the distinctive and sought-after ‘all over’ patterned designs.

Few full-time jobs means islanders have to perform multiple roles. Crofter Kathy Coull operates the beautiful B&B where the bank robbers stay every year, but also teaches classes in traditional hand-spinning to visitor groups. Airport manager Dave Wheeler lists ten part-time jobs, including meteorologist, photographer and IT instructor.

Yet despite the isolation, the sometimes fearsome weather and the financial insecurity of island life, the pool of potential immigrants is huge. When a recent feature on National Public Radio in the USA mentioned two vacant island crofts, hundreds of enquiries resulted in ninety-four firm applications, more than half from the USA. The beautiful island and its gentle, welcoming people are so enchanting that the attraction is easy to comprehend.

Weeks later, a Loganair Islander, Shetland’s twin-propellor workhorse, takes off from near the Shetland capital of Lerwick. In control is pilot Marshall Wishart, who stares out to where his four passengers might reasonably expect to see a horizon, but where there is only dense cloud.

“It’ll pop up soon,” he says. But the notion of the four-hundred-metre cliffs of Foula island ‘popping up’ anytime soon offers up little comfort.

Twenty-five kilometres out in the Atlantic, Foula (pronounced ‘Foolah’) is the last habitation between Mainland Shetland and the Americas, and it is obscured by cloud. But flying around Shetland depends primarily on sight rather than radar, and soon Marshall picks Foula’s jagged silhouette from a skyscape of pregnant clouds, and a few minutes later he gently puts the Islander down on the wind-washed gravel airstrip. As the fire crew unloads luggage, locals clamber from battered cars.

With a population of only twenty-eight, the wearing of multiple hats is even more necessary on Foula. Today, crofter Isobel Holbourn is also Island Ranger and B&B operator, and she soon plucks her only customer from the crowd of four arrivals.

Nowhere is far on an island only five kilometres by three, and not long after she points out a modern school attended by only two young boys and one pre-school infant, Isobel stops on a hillcrest overlooking North Foula.

Sweeping coastal plains and soaring sheep-flecked slopes stretch to towering cliffs. Of only three houses in view, the white one is Freyers, Isobel’s croft and B&B.

It takes twenty stumbling boggy foot-soaking minutes to walk from Freyers to the cliff overlooking Gaada Stack, a colossal pinched rock doughnut set on edge amidst the boiling North Atlantic swell. From there the patchy trail turns North towards the cliff edges of Soberlie Hill. To make things even less comfortable, slate-grey clouds open up with a barrage of shrapnel-like horizontal rain.

Any newcomer to Freyers will creep up on hundred-metre cliffs with caution verging upon paranoia, Isobel’s stern caveat about the flaan ringing fresh. Foula’s pitched terrain makes it possible to face directly into a gale, yet still be caught from behind by a powerful gusting flaan. A position behind a clifftop rock the size of a family car provides nominal peace of mind and offers a view of the stunning North Bank, a two-hundred-metre coastal precipice block-printed with rust-tinged geology. Around the corner and sadly out of sight is The Kame, nearly twice as tall.

Next morning, a more leisurely walk is the Daal, a bowl-like glacial valley that traverses the south of the island. At the west coast, the Sneck o’ da Smallie, a dauntingly deep parallel-sided ravine no wider than a hotel corridor, runs straight through the cliffs to the Atlantic. Foula’s west coast, one long undulating cliff face, soars either side of the Sneck. The sun shines from an azure sky, making this a picnic lunch location to remember.

From April to October, Foula Rangers share decades of island knowledge with visitors, and, back on the East coast, Ranger Sheila Gear offers a personalised service to the island’s only tourist.

It starts at Ham Voe, where the absence of natural shelter is even worse than at Fair Isle’s North Haven. Here, the New Advance ferry hangs from davits in a stout concrete shelter, essential protection from storms.

At the harbour mouth, a crumbling earthen slope slowly surrenders artefacts from a neolithic homestead. More recently vacated is the island shop. Sheila, in a ‘glass is half full’ moment, talks of Foula people now being more aware of essentials, more able to assist neighbours in need. It is a recurring Foula theme, of a tight little community united in the face of threat or difficulty.

She indicates an ageing croft outhouse, shaped like a boat only because, on an island without trees, a damaged 18th Century boat offered itself as a roof. Nearby sits a broken quern, a deep stone bowl which, with a wooden mallet, once produced barley bere, a coarse cereal eaten roasted. The quern is from the Bronze Age. Four thousand years old. On Foula, even ancient history sits unmarked.

Sheila breaks apart a handful of peat; embedded are tiny branches from distant millennia when Foula had trees.

A ruined böd, or fisherman’s barn, clings to the coast, last occupied by the crew of a 1700s fishing boat who drowned when the boat foundered only yards offshore.

In the swaying bay of Ham Little, a curious seal tracks the walkers’ every step. In summer, cliffs here swarm with puffins and coastal fields are alive with native flowers. Late October presents the occasional fulmar and a striking landscape of muted greens.

Perhaps due to its isolation, Foula endures lingering dissociative fall-out from Michael Powell’s 1936 film The Edge of the World, beautifully shot on Foula but set on the even more remote Atlantic island of St Kilda during its evacuation in 1930. Seventy years on, this association with St Kilda continues to cast ill-informed doubt upon Foula’s sustainability. Doubt that unaccountably ignores the colossal significance of the island’s unique heritage and landscape.

When it comes time to depart the island, Marshall informs traffic control that he will go ‘around the back’. And so his two passengers relish the privilege of witnessing the four-hundred-metre Kame from the air. It is a stretch of coastline without compare.

Difficult to reach. Limited accommodation. Zero nightlife. Nowhere to spend money. Foula and Fair Isle — the perfect getaway destinations?