United Kingdom | Scotland
September 4, 2008
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Wave-skimming to the remotest of the Shetland Islands.

Foula - Da Kame cliffs

Ultima Thule

So far north they get lopped off most maps, the Shetland Islands are terra incognita as far as most people are concerned. Pity, because they're one of the most spectacular, wildlife-rich destinations in Europe - let alone the UK. Each island, big or small, has some unique speciality to offer, with amazing scenery to match. But for a pure travel adventure there’s little to beat making it out to Foula, fifteen miles to the west of the other islands across the angry waters of the North Atlantic, and home to 20 hardy souls: without doubt, Britain’s remotest community.

Getting to Foula is both a significant challenge and an act of faith. Since there’s only one, very exposed landing place, the thrice-weekly ferry service is entirely at the mercy of the weather and sea-state. Even when sailing is possible, as soon as the ferry arrives it has to be lifted bodily out of the water into a protective concrete cradle. The alternative, taking the 15 minute wave-skimming flight from the mainland, is even more weather-dependent; and, as is made painfully clear before departure, no guarantees are given that the plane will return to collect you - whether because of a change in the weather, or because it’s needed for air ambulance duties.

Touching down on the dusty hummock that serves as island airstrip, the main reason for a visit rises directly ahead. Despite its tiny size, Foula is the most rugged of the Shetland Islands, with the western two-thirds entirely taken up by a steep-sided mountain ridge the shape of a horseshoe. In the distant past, some cataclysmic event has sheared through this at almost its highest point to leave a vertical wall of monstrous cliffs. Translated to New York, the turf edge of Da Kame, the highest, would at eye-level with the tip of the Empire State Building. In Britain, only the cliffs on uninhabited St. Kilda are higher.

The route to Da Kame is a pathless slog straight upwards. The journey, however, is considerably enlivened by a large colony of ‘bonxies’ (great skuas). If birds have testosterone, these critters got a second, if not third helping. Their charming activities include pecking out the eyes of new-born lambs to feast off the corpses once they’ve starved. But, beware, these feathery barrels of fury also have an inexplicable love of treating humans as targets for dive-bombing practice. (Nobody’s been seriously injured, although they’re very accurate and often rake the scalp with their feet.)

Given fine weather, the panorama - once past the bonxie-zone - is outstanding. Exceptionally, on the day of my visit the weather was warm, calm and cloudless. Far below, crofts straggled the length of Foula’s single road: the only traffic, a Camberwick Green tractor. Across the eastern horizon, the whole Shetland archipelago, from Unst in the north to distant Fair Isle, was strung like so many beads on a silver necklace. Standing in a T-shirt on the cliff edge 1200 feet above the sea, I looked due west, across a thousand miles of ocean, towards distant Greenland. Grey against the dark of the water, a pod of three whales directly beneath.

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