Shetland Islands 2013

The Isle of Foula - Friday 21st June

Foula is an astonishing place, probably the jewel in Shetland's crown!

I awoke to the strains of fulmars flying overhead and the trickle of water in the stream alongside the tent. It was raining.

The rain became more intermittent, I stuck my head out and the hill tops behind me were shrouded in low cloud and mist. I warmed up breakfast during the rain breaks and cleared up a bit. The larger Terra Nova tent was proving useful with plenty of room for all the bags. My plan was rather weather dependent as I wasn't that well equipped to go walking in the rain. In fact I wasn't that well equipped to go hill walking at all.

After breakfast, I togged up in my most waterproof gear, stashed supplies in my pockets and set off towards the road. Without a rucsac, I was travelling light and relied on my iPhone for photos and Garmin for navigation.

Heading north, I kept straight on past the turning to Garda Stack and walked alongside Harrier House after which the tarmac ran out above Bloburn House. The route up Soberlie seemed fairly clear and I followed various sheep paths to arrive at one of the most stunning coastal panoramas ever, which only improved with each step upwards.

The sea and sky met at an indistinct horizon in laminated sheets of variegated grey. The path clung to the cliff edge requiring a certain degree of caution. Whilst the wind was reasonably slight, I'd read about the potential for back drafts generated by air currents rising up and over the cliff tops. I also eyed the curious sheep with some suspicion in case one thought it a giggle to charge at an unsuspecting walker. Periodically, the scene below opened up in breathtaking fashion.

Eventually, the path forward became dominated by the abrupt bulk of The Kame, disappearing upwards into the mist.

I was very much in two minds whether to carry on given my limited gear, I had to use imagination to complete the scale of the impending climb.

The first part was in clear air with outstanding views back over Soberlie and the valley down to the east side of the island. The mist swirled around and suddenly I found myself in the cloud with minimal visibility. The gradient was impressive so I decided to traverse left, not only to lessen the effort but also to make sure I was well away from the cliff edge.

Eventually the climbing eased as I reached the saddle between The Kame and The Sneug, the highest point on the island. Navigation was a real problem with no features visible, although I still retained enough sense of direction to continue upwards to the right.

The land ran out and in complete cloud I could only imagine looking out to the horizon from my lofty vantage point on top of the mighty Kame, 376 metres above the foaming ocean.

I sat and ate the first half of my meagre rations whilst considering my options. I'd been hoping that the cloud would clear as it was obviously dangerous to tramp around blind in such a featureless and often hostile landscape. I decided to walk south east towards The Sneug in the hope that I could climb above the clouds should they start to clear. The route down the spine of The Kame was reasonably navigable but my caution was suddenly diverted towards a new and most unexpected hazard - bonxies.

Great skuas were everywhere although so far they'd left me alone. I started to realise the mistake of wearing a bright yellow goretex cycling jacket when a pair of bonxies began attacking in close formation time after time. Like a light going on in a flash of inspiration, I suddenly recognised the value and true nature of the bonxie sticks I'd seen at the harbour - if only I'd hired one!

I was truly intimidated. The dive path was direct and at high speed, with a one sided game of chicken being played out as each bird decided to flinch only at the last second within inches of my head. I ducked and ducked with each assault until I was crouching down, nervous to stand up in case I caused the bird to miscalculate the distance.

Thankful that nobody could witness my embarrassing display of mild fear, I stood up and calmly took a few paces back in the hope that the birds would see I wasn't trying to invade their territory. Bit by bit I edged away, only to stumble into the range of a different pair of birds.

The attacks continued unabated, I'd obviously created a stir and the word had gone out that an intruder was in their midst. At that point I decided to give up. Being under equipped was a worry, the low cloud was both a danger to navigation and a hindrance to enjoyment but hostile bonxies were the final straw. I ate the rest of my food, retraced my path using the Garmin and made for a speedy descent down the valley eastwards.

It was a relief to emerge below the cloud. The bonxie attacks continued until I reached the cliff top path along Soberlie.

There was what appeared to be a sightseeing trawler at the base of The Kame, bobbing around in the waves. I sympathised with the tourists who'd sailed a couple of hours out into the Atlantic to see this world famous spectacle, for it to be half obscured by cloud.

The walk back though was truly enjoyable, somehow going in the opposite direction revealed previously unnoticed vistas. All the time, birds were wheeling overhead and flying out over the cliffs into the vast blue emptiness.

At one point I spotted a sheep and a lamb down the cliff face, clinging on improbably whilst nonchalantly eating the grass.

Further along Da Nort Bank was a superb view of a large natural arch below with an elevated promontory towering above.

A herd of Shetland ponies were grazing on top of the promontory, seemingly oblivious to the cliff edge danger just a few feet away.

The northern end of Foula is just stunning, smooth green fields rising above sea caves and arches with lonely off shore stacks, each battered by the Atlantic foaming at its base.

I took the opportunity to take a photograph looking straight down, whilst lying with outstretched arm careful not to drop the phone.

Low cloud still embraced the hill tops as I walked back to the tent feeling very pleased with my morning's ramble, at least it hadn't rained. The experience had been totally magic. I was thirsty, hungry and ready for lunch.

In the afternoon, I decided to go for a ride to see the rest of the island and set off with a few supplies and the camera stuffed into the handlebar bag. This once more involved lifting the bike over a fence but I was soon underway south on the slightly uneven tarmac. I passed one of the ferry crew with his family, they seemed to be tending the sheep but I noticed he was carrying a bronxie stick!

On the left further on, I stopped to photograph a peat cutting. Not because I'd never seen one before but to try and capture the interesting intricate criss-cross patterns formed by the peat bricks stacked up to dry.

The picture at the top of this page was taken further on as the animal stared down at me with a belligerent 'don't mess with me' gaze. The low cloud swirled around and the sunshine of the previous day was masked out. I passed the lovely primary school on the left, it was very quiet as I sped down the valley and climbed the other side, up to the turning for the Post Office. A communications tower stared impassively into the greyness towards the mainland, looking and listening with its microwave drums.

The ferry was hanging from its davits in its protective concrete bunker down in the harbour, so I decided to investigate.

The Post Office road ran down to the left past a few houses, I left the bike propped up against a fence at the bottom.

A blue sign pointed the way to a coastal walk and war memorial one km away, so I grabbed the camera and set off on foot. If you ever go to Foula (and I urge you to), then follow this coastal path because it reveals delightful surprises at every turn.

Snapping away happily, I captured images of the ferry, a garden, sleeping seals, seals in crystal clear water, rabbits, birds of all kinds and amazing coastal scenery.

I decided to keep on going to the war memorial up ahead, the obvious square structure standing in its prominent position on the headland. The coastal path continued along the shoreline and more wonders were revealed as it ran around a cliff lined bay.

The cliff face was shot through with pinky coloured rock dykes which the sea had eroded at the base making small caves. Rocky storm beaches were a historical record of the sea's power. Every hollow was home to a gull, adding to the colourful scene of pink and white flowers. A bunch of puffins were bobbing around in the sea and a flock of shags kept a watchful look out from their rocky platform.

Eventually I climbed up the slope to take a closer look at the war memorial. The mist clung to the hill tops providing a dramatic backdrop.

I retraced my steps back to the bike, conscious of all the pairs of eyes watching me from land, sea and air. I cycled back up to the main road and headed south to the airstrip turning, I decided to go and have another look. A group of sheep were in front and they started to sprint ahead down the road, so I stopped to let them go. The church was behind.

I propped up the bike and set off on foot down the runway. On the left was another pair of arctic skuas, like the ones the RCPCA team were capturing the day before. The airstrip was made up of loose stone, which started to slope down gently towards the sea. A lamb and its mum eyed me up suspiciously.

Eventually, the airstrip ran out and the grassy land fell away to the sea, ending in rocky outcrops. A group of shags were peering out into the distance. I crept up on a black guillemot and snapped away happily whilst it objected to my presence with a loud squeaky squawk.

The weather looked as if it was improving on the ride back, the conveyor belt of low cloud was more intermittent and the hill tops started to reveal themselves bit by bit. By the time I reached the camp site, the Kame was clearly visible again.

What a day! All the experiences had bombarded every one of my senses and I was so glad that I'd chosen to use the afternoon for a scout around. I made a meal and retired to my sleeping bag feeling very happy. It was still light on this day of the summer solstice, however I needed to be up early for the ferry.

Day eight