Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Foula, Island West of the Sun - Sheila Gear

I've enjoyed both the previous books from Northus, but 'Foula, Island West of the Sun' feels like something more. Tang and Broken Lights are important to Shetlands literary tradition and interesting from a historical perspective, they're also enjoyable enough to read for pleasure and not just to broaden knowledge. Sheila Gear's book is arguably more significant as a neglected/potential nature classic than it is a classic piece of Shetland writing.

I've been familiar enough with this book for almost as long as I can remember. Dad would have bought a copy when it first came out in 1983, I know I had one found in a second-hand shop for a while, but I'd never actually read it. Now turned out to be an excellent time to remedy that.

I grew up with the silhouette of Foula on the western horizon as a shifting landmark - sometimes completely hidden by cloud, often partly obscured by it, sometimes it felt tantalizingly close (close enough to make out houses) due to a freak of atmospheric conditions, but generally, it felt every one of the 14 miles over the sea that separates it from the mainland of Shetland. Remote, mysterious, somewhere to visit one day. Sheila Gear's grandfather bought Foula in the late 19th century and she spent childhood holidays there. At some point as an adult, and post zoology degree she returned, married an island man, and stayed.

Foula currently has a population of about 30 people, which has stayed stable for the last 40 or so years, it peaked in the 1880s at 267, but for most of its recorded history, the island supported around 150 people. When Sheila wrote this book life in Shetland was changing dramatically thanks to the money North sea oil was bringing in. For people on the mainland (the largest island that makes up the archipelago) it meant funding for everything from roads to leisure centres, real job choices, and a future for young people in the islands beyond the fishing industry. It also made places like Foula feel much more marginal as they get left behind whilst living conditions improve elsewhere.

Even in the 1970s what Sheila describes (no flushing toilet, water from a well, not even a sink, presumably no electricity, phone via a phonebox shared by much of the island) would have been common enough across the islands, certainly in the homes of older folk, by 1983 it was unusual anywhere but the outer islands where the costs and logistics of change are a considerable challenge. When she describes how they live it's done with a mixture of pride, humour, and defensiveness. 

Part of Sheila's reason for writing this book was to answer the question, why. Why is it important to preserve this way of life, and why does she choose to do it - the only answer she finds is love, and as she observes, love is not enough. The portrait of Foula, and to some extent, Shetland, at a point of great change for the islands, and the comprehensive overview of the wildlife and weather that make it such a unique place would each be enough to make the book worth reading, but that underlying question of 'why' is what makes it really significant.

It came as something of a shock to realise how little the conversation has moved on in the last 40 years, despite it being a hot topic again - do you re-culture or rewild the highlands and islands? Sheila's views are uncompromisingly honest, and not ones that will necessarily be popular. She has a tangible contempt for many of the tourists who visit her home and treat the inhabitants as a curiosity. Even when it's visitors they like there's always a sense of us and them, and she's very dismissive of incomers to the island who arrive without understanding what they're signing up for and inevitably leave within a year or two.

It's a thorny issue. Islands need young people, they need decent housing, and they need ways to make a living to sustain communities. The modern world has reached Foula, but it still gets weather-bound, and even when it doesn't getting things to the island will never be easy. Children still have to leave home and board from the age of 12 to carry on with their schooling, even getting home for weekends isn't a given. That's hard for any family to deal with. 

When Sheila talks about love, she partly means a love of the island that's been bred through generations of people living in a place that they know intimately. It's a sense of history and attachment that really helps in the depths of winter when hills that have been friendly all summer catch the wind so that it's like "the thunder of a tremendous sea about to overwhelm the whole world, and you will feel fear." Communities need to evolve, but they also need continuity to preserve the things that make them unique. Sheila, writing 40 years ago, says things we'd be wary of expressing now - but her points are valid, even if you don't entirely agree with them (I'm in two minds - broadly sympathetic to her point of view, but with reservations). 

My own answer to why it's important to support communities like Foula's after reading this is that it matters that we know there are other ways to live, different ways to measure success. Island life is a struggle, crofting is beyond heartbreaking at times - a late winter storm that kills lambs and sheep that you've struggled to bring into the world, ponies lost over cliffs, the constant worry over how to keep everything going - there are easier ways to live for sure. But to really belong to somewhere in the way that Sheila describes belonging to Foula - that's no small thing. 

For an outsiders view of the island, and a glimpse of some of the same personalities have a look at Alec Crawford's Treasure Islands

Sheila wouldn't approve but the 1937 film 'The Edge of the World' (which lead to decades of speculation that it would be evacuated St. Kilda style) was filmed on Foula and around Shetland and is well worth searching out to see some great footage of crofting life.

To see more of Foula follow the Foula Heritage page on facebook - it's a great way to see something of the island's character and wildlife. I'm in awe of the size of the Humpback pod they had earlier this winter.

Finally, I haven't (yet) ordered any wool from this site, mostly because I've already got an out of control stash, but you can directly support the island's crofters by buying Foula Wool, all in natural colours. 


  1. So many interesting points here, Hayley: the discussion of critical issues this book generates makes it worth republishing, let alone the simple pleasure of reading it. Thanks so much.

    1. Absolutely worth republishing, I loved it both for the descriptions of the wildlife on Foula, and the discussion of island life generally. I need to find out more about yule bread too!

  2. Such an interesting post, and I really appreciated hearing your thoughts on the book as you have a personal knowledge of the region. It's certainly a book that raises many issues about the way we live now and whether the kind of island lifestyle is still viable. I imagine the mainland temptations must be even stronger now that they were when she wrote the book...

    1. In many ways the life she describes wasn't viable, or usual anymore, even when she wrote it - though in some ways it's probably more viable now if, and it's a big if, you can get a croft. The biggest problem remains schooling, children have to leave for the mainland around age 12, although at least everyone has phones now, and internet so it's no longer a case of not seeing or speaking to your children at all for months on end anymore. Crofters are increasingly selling yarn directly to customers now, rather than fleeces to the wool-broker for very low prices (wool is generally very cheap, yarn demands a considerable premium). Modern heavy duty plastic planti-crub's (like a poly tunnel but capable of withstanding Shetland weather) mean you can grow things we wouldn;t have been able to imagine back in the 80s and wind turbines are another game changer for the really remote islands. Boats are also better so when the weather is good it's easier to get things in and out safely to Foula than it used to be.

      In all honesty it would be to remote for me, I like to browse in a bookshop and sit in a café on a regular basis, but I'd move back to mainland Shetland anytime. It's one of the most creative and cosmopolitan places I know. The only thing that's stopping me are family commitments down here because the distance can make things difficult, especially in the winter.