Island on the edge: The challenges facing Foula

The remote island of Foula. Picture: Chris Watt
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David Pollock finds a memoir of life on the remote outpost of Foula highlights the present challenges to its survival

ask Christopher Mylne about the island of Foula’s reputation as “the next St Kilda” and he bristles. “That’s an ominous description,” he says because, of course, the St Kilda story didn’t end well. Formerly the most remote populated area in Scotland, St Kilda’s main island of Hirta was evacuated in 1930 after a series of fatal germ outbreaks and crop failures, with the archipelago, now a World Heritage Site, having become a subject of enduring fascination through its imposing, element-battered scenery and ghostly abandoned settlement.

“The comparison between the two islands is the expectation of the evacuation of Foula,” says writer and filmmaker Mylne, who spent 18 months running Foula’s primary school in the mid-1950s and has retained an affection for and contact with the island ever since. Set 16 miles off the westerly Atlantic coast of Shetland, Foula now holds the title of the United Kingdom’s most remote inhabited island.

“I don’t think the request [for evacuation] would come from islanders,” says Mylne, as it did in St Kilda, “it would come from Shetlanders. A lot of them resent money being spent on Foula, but then they take for granted ambulances, hospitals, good roads, bus transport, taxi services, their own cars…”

He laughs regretfully about the fact there are now more cars than people on Foula, whose population has dwindled to 30 from the 70 who lived there alongside him more than half a century ago.

“But they’re all wrecks,” he says. “MoT wrecks are sold to islanders and they die a death within two years, because Foula’s covered in salt spray from September to February and everything metal rusts. The islanders are now bound not to throw the cars over the cliffs as they used to, of course.”

It’s a symbol of the modernism which confounds 85-year-old Mylne when he thinks of Foula then and now.

He revisited the island last year when the book of his experiences Foula: The Time of My Life was published and found a community much changed from the one he remembers. “There’s now a plane and an airstrip and a boat two or three times a week in the summer,” he says. “A telephone in every house, electricity, television, computers, the lot. It’s not Foula any more. But the people still have the same attitudes, they’re desperate to survive there.”

It’s a point which was elaborated upon by recent reports of all-night blackouts on Foula following temporary problems with the island’s new self-sustaining green energy systems. It isn’t that Mylne is against progress, though, more that he’s saddened by the erosion of a vernacular culture which sustained itself for centuries and which, in its own way, was one of the most ecologically sound lifestyles imaginable.

Born and raised in Midlothian’s Dalhousie Castle when it was run by his father as a preparatory school for boys and schooled in the Yorkshire fells as the Second World War was being fought and won, Mylne sandwiched his post-war military service with a year’s officer training at Oxford University and a degree in Classics at Cambridge. He was working as a teacher at John Watson’s School in Edinburgh – now the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – when he saw the job advert in The Scotsman that would divert the course of his life.

“You had a choice of teaching jobs in those days, of course,” he recalls, “but this one was different. It said, ‘Head Teacher, Isle of Foula. School Roll: five’. It sounded like the dream job, and to be paid to do it as well.” In Yorkshire, he had developed an appreciation for birdwatching, spotting buzzards and peregrine falcons on cross-country runs over the hills with friends, while clubs at Cambridge taught him the then-developing science of ornithology, about bird observatories and how islands are vital for studying bird migration. At the time this was his main motivation for taking the job, although he’d perhaps underestimated the work involved in a combined role of teacher and lay missionary.

He talks vividly of his first trip to Foula, taking a boat from Aberdeen to Shetland and then eventually catching Monday’s once-weekly mail boat to the island on Wednesday, by which time the Atlantic storms had abated. He travelled on only the second engined craft used to sail to Foula, the islanders having previously used a boat powered by six oarsmen for the rough crossing. “Foula is out in the Atlantic,” he says, “which is different from the North Sea. There are bigger swells and nothing between you and Newfoundland once you pass Foula.”

The boat was a round-hulled affair designed by David Howarth, who had helped lead the Shetland Bus special operations unit during the war. “It was no bigger than this room,” says Mylne, gesturing around the lounge of his home on the outskirts of Linlithgow, but the hold had to be big and sturdy enough to carry fifty-gallon drums of paraffin or, on the first trip he made, a live bull. “The crofters needed it so they could have calves,” he laughs. “One would look after it for a while, then they’d get bored of it and pass it on to another.”

“Primitive,” is how he describes the way of life as he saw it then. “I was lucky. When I got there I found Foula as it had been for two, three hundred years, a crofting community just fading away, but enough of it left to show me what it had been like when there had been 250 people on the island.”

In the 18th century, smallpox had wiped out all but a handful, and a few families of ‘incomers’ had repopulated. “It was a community out of the past and I was in a position to get to know it,” he says. “That was a real privilege.”

He describes a life where every family would cut their own peat for winter, keep cattle to supply their own milk, butter and cheese, and own a boat for fishing when the ocean storms were at their lowest ebb. “But they weren’t really fishermen,” he says. “They say people from Orkney are fishermen with a bit of land: well folk from Foula were crofters who owned boats.”

Cabbages, carrots and potatoes would be grown within walled kaleyards, the only way to protect them from a battering wind, which was the facet of Foula life he found hardest to adapt to, and the children in Mylne’s classes would eat cabbage stalks like a stick of rock as a snack.

“It was actually quite tasty,” he says, “and high in vitamin C. We would throw that away now, we’re so wasteful. But nine times out of ten I would return home and find something on my dinner table: a dish of freshly churned butter, or half a dozen crabs claws for my supper, or a couple of fresh fish which you would cook in the oil from their livers.”

Mylne’s time on Foula ended prematurely after only 18 months, when a doctor told him a problem he had with stomach ulcers might require emergency hospitalisation within two hours in case of perforation. Reluctantly he moved back to Edinburgh, although a short film he made of his time on the island would soon win him a job as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ one-man film unit and then on to work with the National Trust for Scotland and as a freelance wildlife filmmaker. In these roles he would return to Foula many times, as well as other Scottish islands including Shetland’s Fair Isle and St Kilda, filming the latter 26 times in a decade.

Foula informed not just his future career and his love of wildlife, however, but an ecological sensitivity which has stayed with him throughout his life.

He remembers those who posited theories of climate change and global warming being harangued as crackpots in the 1970s, but he’s a firm believer in both the phenomenon and of a change in political emphasis from economic growth to subsistence being a way to counter it. “An island is the human story writ small,” he says. “Within a community like Foula, you give more than you get. Your work life and your home life are both dedicated to the people who live with you. An island is a human community that teaches us lessons about how to live.”

Mylne keeps in contact with his surviving pupils on Foula, all retired now, and they tell of families who plan to build new homes on the island. “It’s on a cliff edge existence at the moment, I’m afraid, but there are a few of us who want to do everything we can to make sure Foula is not the next St Kilda.”

Finally, he laughs when reminded of the filmmaker Michael Powell’s 1937 movie The Edge of the World, which is 75 years old this year. A drama about island depopulation, it was based on the story of St Kilda, but filmed on Foula, “so you can see why people came to think of Foula as ‘the other St Kilda’”. The film is somewhat old-fashioned and stagey, he says, but that’s no bad thing.

“The world is full of sights and sounds and smells, but children don’t know how to experience that these days,” he says. “I believe in the ‘miracle of the commonplace’.

“People experience a miracle when they see something wondrous, something which makes them realise the beauty all around them, and that’s what I found on Foula.”

• Christopher Mylne discusses his book Foula: The Time of My Life and shows his film of the island at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, tonight at 6pm. The book is available now, published by The Islands Book Trust.

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