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Shetland Islands - Foula

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Shetland Islands - Foula


  • Old Norse Fuglaey, "bird island", (Norwegian Fugløy, "fowl island")
  • Gaelic Fughlaigh
  • Size about 2.5 miles (4.0 km) by 3.5 miles (5.6 km)
  • Area 4.9 square miles (12.7 km2)
  • Language Foula and Unst were the last places in Shetland where the old Norn language, a relic of Norse times, was spoken. The Lord's Prayer was still said in Norn in Foula at the end of the 19th century.

Foula in the Shetland Islands of Scotland in the Atlantic Ocean, is a remote island which has been owned since the turn of the 20th century by the Holbourn family.

It is the seventh largest and most westerly of the Shetland Islands. It rises from low broken cliffs in the east to precipitous 150 to 365m cliffs on the west.

Foula Islanders previously made a living from fishing - first for white fish, then lobster. Today, most islanders are crofters with income from sheep farming and ornithological tourism.

Bird life

The island's 370 metre-high (1200 ft) cliffs are home to numerous birds, including Arctic Terns, Red-throated Divers and Great Skuas. Foula has been an important research station for Glasgow University zoologists. The island has the world's largest colony of Great Skuas (bonxies). This fierce, piratical gull competes fiercely with Arctic Skuas for breeding territories. Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns and Red-throated Divers return annually to nest. The cliffs teem with Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags, Fulmars - and a small but increasing colony of Gannets. Leach's Petrel, Storm Petrel, and Manx Shearwater are also found, along with shore and moorland birds and migrating songbirds.


Both Grey and Common Seals haul up around the shore and can be watched at close quarters in the Voe. Schools of Killer Whales have been seen close inshore and Harbour Porpoises often follow the ferry.


Foula's wildflowers include Sea Pinks, blue Spring Squill and yellow Tormentil which are found on the shoreline, Marsh Marigolds and wild orchids in ditches and marshes, and white tufted Bog Cotton, Sphagnum Moss, Sundew and Crowberry found on the moorland.

Peaks -

  • da Noup in the south is divided by the glacial valley of the Daal from Hamnafield,
  • da Sneug,
  • da Kame, and
  • Soberlie


Foula is believed to have first been inhabited as far back as 5000 years ago and is rich in historical significance. Between 2006-2008, the Bath & Camerton Archeological Society took several trips to the Island of Foula to study prehistoric standing stones. "Da Heights" on the north of Foul is a sub-circular stone circle of interest discovered in 2006. A further investigation launched in 2007 revealed that the sub-circular stone construction was man-made, elliptical in shape, with the axis pointing towards the mid-winter solstice, built before 1000 BCE.

Around 800 AD Norsemen conquered Foula and took up residence in the fertile Hametoon, leaving a legacy of croft namessuch as Norderhus, Krugali, and Guttren, and many other descriptive Norse place names. The grassy knoll outside the Hametoon dyke, called Krukaitrin (Katherine's shelter) is the location off the tragic end of Katherine Asmunnder, the last Norse 'queen' of Foula.

In 1490, the Ciske family's estates were divided and Vaila and Foula became the property of Alv Knutsson. However, the Ciskes were Norwegian, and as Scotland had annexed Shetland a few decades before, there were confusing and conflicting claims of ownership. [Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7.]

Foula remained on the Julian calendar when the rest of the Kingdom of Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Foula adhered to the Julian calendar by keeping 1800 as a leap year, but it did not observe a leap year in 1900. As a result, Foula is now one day ahead of the Julian calendar and 12 days behind the Gregorian, observing Christmas Day on 6 January Gregorian and New Year on 13 January Gregorian.

In 1720, a smallpox epidemic struck the two hundred people living on Foula. Because the islanders were so isolated from the rest of the world, they had no immunity to smallpox, unlike most North European peoples at that time, and nine out of ten of the island's population died in the epidemic. [Watts, Sheldon (1997). Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 85–86. ISBN 0-300-08087-5.]

John Sands, writer and journalist, lived on Foula and Papa Stour for a while during the late 19th century. He fought against the prevailing truck system drawing political cartoons ridiculing its deficiencies. In one cartoon he drew Foula as a beautiful young woman being strangled by a boa-constrictor 'landlordism' watched by other reptiles called 'missionary', 'laird' and 'truck'. [Fleming, Andrew (2005). St Kilda and the Wider World: Tales of an iconic island. Macclesfield: Windgather Press. p. 159. ISBN 1-905119-00-3. Fleming credits the source of this information as Nicolson, J (3 July 1937). "John Sands". The Shetland Times.]

The island was one of the last places where the Norn language was spoken (although it is claimed that Walter Sutherland of Skaw on Unst was the last speaker), and the local dialect is strongly influenced by Old Norse.

Professor Ian S. Holbourn (1872-1935) (born John Bernard Stoughton Holbourn), was the last Laird of Foula; writer, a professor and lecturer for the University of Oxford


  • Population Figures found
  • 1720 - 200
  • 1841 - ±218 (from transcriptions listed below)
  • 1851 - ± 277 (from transcriptions listed below)
  • 1861 - 233
  • 1871 - 257
  • 1881 - 267
  • 1961 - 54
  • 1962 - 27
  • 1971 - 33
  • 1981 - 39
  • 1991 - 40
  • 2001 - 31
  • 2013 - 38

and 1851 Census transcriptions

1861 and 1871 Census returns

1891 Census Transcriptions

Names listed -

  • Abernethy
  • Anderson
  • Cheyne
  • Christie
  • Fraser
  • Gear
  • Georgeson
  • Gray
  • Henderson
  • Henry
  • Humphrey/Humphray
  • Isbaster/Isbister
  • Jamieson
  • Manson
  • Peterson
  • Ratter
  • Robertson
  • Scott
  • Thomason
  • Thompson
  • Twatt
  • Umphray
  • Walterson
  • Williamson

References, Sources and Further Reading