By Sally Hubband
A’ll mizzer Foula’s glansin distance
is shö frets da skyline; leave her dere,
loomin, uncan, owre clos fur comfort:
a mythic iceberg fae anidder wirld.
mizzer: measure; glansin: sparkling; shö: she; uncan: unknown; owre: too.
from the poem Owre clos fur comfort by Christine de Luca
It is 30 miles away but I can see Foula from my house, at least its uppermost peaks and slopes; the rest is obscured by a low ridgeline. When the sky is otherwise clear, there will often be a discrete cluster of clouds that both hide and locate the island. I check the weather three times in the morning - online, through the windows, and I look towards Foula. It is the lodestone in my view.
Shetland is a large archipelago mostly gentle in form, while small and distant Foula is all height and sharp ridgelines. The peak of one of its hills, Da Kame, falls away into sheer cliffs, the second highest in the United Kingdom. The island ‘shelves’ into deep water and there isn’t a single sheltered bay; there is no safe all-weather anchorage. It sits to the west of Shetland’s Mainland and meets the full force of Atlantic storms. In the introduction to the Flora of Foula Sheila Gear explains: ‘Foula is a very windy place. Strong winds are common, gales are frequent and very violent gusts occur when the wind is compressed against the big cliffs on the west side of the island and then released over the top.’
At times, Foula’s community must feel a glare of curiosity and I’m also guilty of wondering how they get by in an environment that seems so hostile to human life. I imagined that visiting the island would feel uncomfortably intrusive, as if I would be watching the people as much as the birds that give the island its name (from Old Norse, Fugla-øy - Bird Island).
A while back, I collected bonxie (great skua) pellets for a research project led by Lucy Gilbert who is based at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen. Lucy was due to go Foula in the last week of June to do just this, but bad weather looked set to cancel the afternoon flight. It is an easy place to visit for a day if you fly but there is no guarantee that the plane will be able to get back in to pick you up. This can mean an unplanned stay of uncertain duration and Lucy had no leeway to miss onward connections south. The forecast for the following week was good and so I willingly volunteered to go get the pellets.
A swirling mass of Arctic terns rose up from their nests as the plane came in to land but they’d settled again by the time we had taxied back to the airstrip hut. I could see that the pellet gathering site, the shores of a freshwater loch, was close to some houses but whilst faffing about organising my rucksack I was intercepted by Fran who works as one of the part-time rangers on the island. This gave me a chance to explain the purpose of my visit and to ask if there were any issues with access. Fran’s kind welcome put me at ease, the sight of many bonxies gliding like vultures on a thermal did not: with over 2000 pairs, Foula has the largest colony of bonxies in the world.
There were three of us, not counting the pilot, on the flight in. A man from the council had come out to conduct the annual inspection of the roads and a RSPB volunteer was bringing cheese, pasta and weighing scales to two seabird ecologists working on puffins. I counted more than 50 bonxies at the loch and momentarily wished that I was off to see the puffins too. I’ve yet to be struck by a bonxie but then I rarely walk straight towards them. They are big birds with a wingspan of over a metre and will clout you on the head at speed if you don’t move quickly away from their nests. Niall Rankin describes the experience of being attacked by a bonxie in Haunts of British Divers: ‘the first I knew of it was a noise like an express train followed by rush of air similar to the faint blast from a far-off bomb’.
I’m making myself sound intrepid but the loch is actually a bonxie club site, where non-breeders gather to wash and preen, shit and regurgitate up the indigestible remains of their meals in the form of pellets. This means that they are less worried by human presence and only slow swoop for a close look, often with a gentle warning ‘ack’. Most of the pellets contained fish bones or feathers, the odd seabird foot, crab shells, egg shells and tiny fused backbones, chicks of one bird species or another I guess. I’d hoped to find the fragments of a goose barnacle shell, as has been found in bonxie pellets on St Kilda. I most of all wished for the skull of a storm petrel but found none. I saw no obvious signs of plastics, as Sjúrður Hammer has found in the pellets of Faroese bonxies, most likely ‘secondarily’ consumed after preying on fulmars.
The loch-side scoured and bags of pellets collected, sticky-hot and tired I made my way back to the road a bit too complacently and walked too close to some bonxie nests. It was good to reach the road. At the airstrip hut I swapped the pellets for my packed lunch and walked a short distance to the low cliffs that face the Mainland of Shetland. The sea was very calm and I felt sure that I would see a cetacean. As I walked I thought of this unforgettable passage from Sheila Gear’s book, Foula: Island West of the Sun:
‘Once, and only once, we were privileged to see a sight that no one here had ever heard tell of before. It was the last Sunday in June 1966 - one of those beautiful calm, pale blue days. We were sitting at the table having a late lunch when my husband glanced out of the window. His eyes widened in surprise. What could it be – a tidal wave, a strange cloud, a mirage? About eight miles offshore an unusual phenomenon stretched from opposite Sumburgh Head at the south of the mainland right to the north where it disappeared out of sight at the back of the Taing, a long line of breaking white waves with what looked like a narrow band of rain showers above it. Looking at it with binoculars we saw it was a school of thousands and thousands of whales.’
I saw no fins but there were many seals, and in the jumble of boulders below where I sat there were puffins, razorbills, guillemots, shags with large fluffy young and many pairs of fulmars tucked into the cliffs above. A grey seal nudged its way around the lowest boulders as if hawking for an easy meal. A group of seals further out made the rafts of puffins skittish. I willed the arrival of orcas to make the seals skittish. It was good to see a bonxie chase a puffin and to see the puffin abruptly abandon flight at height and splash down into the sea and dive out of reach.
The word kleptoparasite, which describes an animal that steals food from others, is often bandied about when skuas are mentioned. But surely this word should be applied to us humans more so than any other creature, with climate change being our ultimate theft. I traced puffin after puffin coming into the colony empty beaked, though such a short period of observation may mean little and there are reports from elsewhere in Shetland of puffin beaks crammed with sandeels. The diet of bonxies has changed in recent years, with less food to steal they are increasingly predating on other seabirds. Maybe the chase I witnessed was for the empty beaked puffin itself.
Using a self-guided walk leaflet I’d picked up in the airstrip hut I followed the coastline south past The Gloor which: ‘used to have a colony of Kittiwake before the decrease in sandeel’. My aim was to find a Bronze Age burial cairn. Foula wears its human history openly, with the remains of such cairns in the same view as derelict water mills and houses, and present-day dwellings. Neither does the text of the leaflet omit more recent and tragic events. Davie o Niggard’s grave lies sheltered within a beautifully constructed dry stone enclosure. The 22 year-old man went for a walk one day in 1933. His body was returned by the sea six weeks later. It was thought that he may have committed suicide and so his burial was not allowed in the graveyard. I thought of the thousands of years that people have lived here, of the flux of both human and bird populations, the only constant in all of this being the immutable physical presence of the island itself.
Not far from Davie’s grave and the burial cairn are two fishing meads: tall, loose stoned cairns that align with landscape features and once guided boats to good fishing grounds. I stood with my back to one and struggled to pinpoint the place on the Mainland where I live. It was good to have an inverse view for a day. The Mainland of Shetland looked slight - a thin interruption to an otherwise wide and sharp horizon, the faintest outline of Fair Isle, apparition-like to the south. Foula felt solid and safe enough though I know that each time a storm hits Shetland, I will be thinking of the island.
Anxious that I’d lingered too long and would soon hear the thrum of the plane’s engines, I quickly made my way back to the airstrip avoiding a tystie (black guillemot) on a cliff-top nest and the Arctic tern colony. The leaflet explains that there ‘used to be several thousand terns here in the past but in recent years there have only been one or two hundred’. Foula is incredible, truly incredible, but I wished that I could have visited at a time when Arctic terns bred here in their thousands, and when the cries of kittiwakes could be heard in amongst those of auks. As for the humans, I still feel curious of anyone that can live on such an island.
The man from the council, having quickly run out of roads to inspect, had gone for a walk up one of the hills and had been struck by bonxies twice. To get to the puffin fieldwork site the RSPB volunteer had also endured the repeated swooping of nest defending bonxies, but had remained unscathed. I’d had the easiest of days in amongst the club bonxies, and walking the southern shores. I cannot wait to go to Foula again, but only if the weather is set to be fair.
You can find out more about the island on the Foula Heritage website.
Sally is a writer with a background in nature conservation. Her PhD combined ecology and anthropology to research the connections between low-intensity agricultural practices and butterflies in Carpathian hay meadows. She swapped mountains for islands and now lives in Shetland. She writes an online nature diary that was highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Magazine 2015 Blogger Awards, and also explores land earmarked for a vast, 103 turbine wind farm.
Find her on Twitter @SalMcW
Photos copyright of Sally Huband, except cover image by Julien Carnot, CC 2.0.