Foula - a taste of island life

by Promote Shetland -

Have you ever dreamt of making a completely fresh start? What if you could live on one of the most remote islands in Britain?

Foula is one of the most picturesque islands in Shetland, with the second highest sea cliff in Britain, and home to an array of seabirds, which attract visitors from around the world. It’s also home to just 35 full-time residents, who share and manage the running of the island. Jobs include ferry crew, fire crew, a nurse, a postman, three rangers, a fisherman, accommodation providers, and electricity and water maintenance workers. And, as with other rural communities in Shetland, the islanders also work the land as crofters.

“Apart from the teacher and nurse we are all crofters and exclusively keep multicoloured ‘Foula sheep’ of which there are approximately 1000,” explains Magnus Holbourn, who runs Foula Wool and who has lived most of his life on Foula.

“The island has its own yarn business, producing a range of undyed naturally coloured yarn. This yarn is marketed online as Foula Wool and shipped out to knitters all over the world.

“Life is very seasonal in Foula and nature dictates what activity you will engage in on any given day. Crofters cut peat to heat their houses in winter and also grow some vegetables for food."

The growing season is short but fast due to a lot of sunlight hours during the mid-summer months. There is a community polycrub (greenhouse).

There’s no shop on Foula, so islanders rely on the regular ferries and flights for provisions. The ferry runs three times a week in summer and twice a week in winter, depending on the weather. During the summer there are seven flights a week and in the winter five flights.

“Flying is the more popular method of travel for islanders. We get discounted plane tickets and the access to Lerwick is better from Tingwall, where the plane lands,” explains Magnus, who usually travels to the Mainland once a month.

“The ferry is used mostly for cargo. Your food supplies will come by boat as will fuel for your car, heating oil and gas for cooking. You phone the local Mainland shop and they deliver your supplies to the ferry. You need to order at least a week in advance and keep good stock of supplies, especially in winter.

“Shopping online works well, too; you just need to remember to choose Royal Mail for delivery to avoid huge courier bills when they find out they are delivering to a tiny rock in the middle of the sea!”

Key to living successfully on a remote island like Foula, reckons Magnus, is planning ahead and enjoying a sense of independence: “The most important attributes to have for life on Foula are flexibility and patience. You need to think ahead and expect to change your plans, and always remember to be flexible.

“There is a good sense of community, but also Foula folk are quite independent. People are friendly and welcoming, but you need to be happy with your own company and enjoy nature as a companion.”

As any Shetlander will tell you, one of the nicest things about living on our island archipelago is the community spirit and the friendliness of the people, and this is reflected in Foula, where folk work together to keep the island thriving.

“Almost all islanders have to perform some form of community role and some individuals have multiple community roles,” says Magnus. “We have responsibility for our own electricity supply, run by the Foula Electricity Trust. We also have to provide fire cover for plane landings via the Foula Airstrip Trust and we administer the ranger service via the Foula Heritage Community Group.

“Mostly everyone living here just now has a good idea about their community responsibilities and the island shares a common vision for the future. Foula is very keen on renewable energy and is developing its own decarbonisation plan for the future. This will be an important part of the island identity moving forward and therefore a good opportunity for our small community to be involved in a wider transition to low carbon living.

“There are many good things about living on Foula. The chance to be close to nature and feel like you are a part of something that is bigger than you. It’s not paradise, but nowhere is, you balance the positives and negatives, enjoy the good things, learn things about yourself and make contributions to a community that genuinely lives on the edge of something.”

For more information about the island of Foula, head to the Shetland.org website. And, if you have any specific questions about moving to Foula, or any of the other islands on Shetland, check out the Living and Working in Shetland Facebook page.

Thank you to Leah Irvine for giving us permission to use her photographs of Foula. You can follow Leah's Shetland adventures via her blog Shetland Islands With Leah.

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