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Scottish Gaelic nameFughlaigh[1]
Scots namealso Foola[2]
Old Norse nameFugløy
Meaning of nameOld Norse for 'bird island'
Foula is located in Shetland
Foula shown within Shetland
OS grid referenceHT960392
Coordinates60°07′59″N 2°04′01″W / 60.133°N 2.067°W / 60.133; -2.067
Physical geography
Island groupShetland
Area1,265 hectares (4.88 sq mi)
Area rank43 [3]
Highest elevationThe Sneug 418 m (1,371 ft)
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaShetland Islands
Population rank56 [3]
Population density3 people/km2[4][5]
Largest settlementHam
Foula Lighthouse Edit this at Wikidata
Foula Lighthouse (geograph 5027735).jpg
Constructed1986 Edit this on Wikidata
Constructionconcrete (foundation), metal (tower) Edit this on Wikidata
Height8 m (26 ft) Edit this on Wikidata
Shapecylindrical tower with balcony and lantern[7][8]
Markingswhite Edit this on Wikidata
Power sourcesolar power Edit this on Wikidata
OperatorNorthern Lighthouse Board Edit this on Wikidata
Focal height36 m (118 ft) Edit this on Wikidata
Lensfourth order Fresnel lens Edit this on Wikidata
Light source35 watt metal halide lamps
Range18 nmi (33 km; 21 mi) Edit this on Wikidata
CharacteristicFl(3) W 15s Edit this on Wikidata

Foula (/ˈflə/; Scots: also Foola; Norn: Fuglø), located in the Shetland archipelago of Scotland, is one of the United Kingdom’s most remote permanently inhabited islands.[9] Owned since the turn of the 20th century by the Holbourn family, the island was the location for the film The Edge of the World (1937). The liner RMS Oceanic was wrecked on the nearby Shaalds of Foula in 1914.


The name "Foula" derives from Old Norse Fugley, "bird island": compare the Faroese name of the island of Fugloy, "bird island", and Scottish Gaelic Fughlaigh.


Foula lies in the Atlantic Ocean, 20 miles (32 km) west of Walls in Shetland. It was part of Walls civil parish. The island is about 2+12 by 3+12 miles (4 by 6 kilometres), with a low-lying coastal strip along the east side. With an area of 12.7 km2 (4.9 sq mi), it is the seventh largest and most westerly of the Shetland Islands. It rises from low broken cliffs in the east to precipitous 150–365 m (490–1,200 ft) cliffs in the west.[5] The island has five peaks, rising to 418 m (1,371 ft) at the Sneug and 376 m (1,234 ft) at the Kame.[10] At the north end is Gaada Stack, a natural arch and towards the south-west is Da Sneck Ida Smaalie, a spectacular 30 m deep and 2 m wide crack in the cliffs.[11] Foula lies on the same latitude as Saint Petersburg.

Foula has a population of 38 people, living in Hametun and Ham.[4] Islanders previously made a living from fishing – first for whitefish, then lobster.[12] Today, most islanders are crofters[13] with income from sheep farming and birdwatching tourism.[9]

A hidden reef, the 'Hoevdi Grund' or the Shaalds o' Foula, lies just over 3 km (2 mi) east of Foula between the island and the Shetland Mainland. Tides here can reach 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph) and as the reef comes to within a few feet of the surface, it poses a significant threat to shipping.[14]


Da Noup, Foula

BK Marine Limited operates the ferry service from Ham to Walls on the Shetland mainland. New Advance carries up to 12 passengers and completes the voyage in about two hours. Flights take off from Foula Airfield to Tingwall Airport. A ferry service ran from Foula to Scalloway until 2010.

There is little shelter for boats in the island. The only beach is at the head of Ham Voe on the east coast. Local boats, including the mail boat, are hauled out of the water.[5]


Cliffs in Foula.

The island's 370-metre (1,210 ft) cliffs are home to numerous birds, including Arctic terns, red-throated divers and great skuas, and birders make up the bulk of visitors to the island.[9]



Foula was first inhabited as far back as 5,000 years ago.[15] Between 2006 and 2008, the Bath & Camerton Archeological Society took several trips to Foula to study prehistoric standing stones. A particular sub-circular stone circle of interest was discovered in 2006 at Da Heights in the north of Foula. 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 BC.[16]

15th to 19th centuries[edit]

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.[5]

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.[17]

Foula remained on the Julian calendar when the rest of the Kingdom of Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752.[9] 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.[18][5][19]

The writer and journalist John Sands lived on Foula and Papa Stour for a while during the late 19th century. He fought hard against the prevailing truck system and drew political cartoons lampooning its deficiencies. In one, he drew Foula as a beautiful young woman being strangled by a boa-constrictor labelled 'landlordism' watched by other reptiles called 'missionary', 'laird' and 'truck'.[20]

The island was one of the last places where the Norn language was spoken (although it is claimed that Walter Sutherland of Skaw in Unst was the last speaker), and the local dialect is strongly influenced by Old Norse.[9] In 1774 George Low, a young Scottish clergyman, visited Foula hoping to find remnants of oral literature in Norn, then nearing extinction.[21] He found fragments of songs, ballads and romances, and from his best source, an old farmer called William Henry, the ballad now known as "Hildina". Henry was quite poorly acquainted with the language, so that, although he had as a child memorised all 35 stanzas of the ballad in the original Norn, he could give Low only a summary of its content rather than a translation.[22][23][24] "Hildina" is the only extant poem in Norn.[25]

20th century[edit]

Ham in Foula.

Professor Ian Holbourn purchased Foula around 1900, becoming its last laird.[26][27] He described the disaster of 8 September 1914, when the White Star Line RMS Oceanic hit the Shaalds o' Foula, becoming a wreck within two weeks. Holbourn's remarkable luck with steamship travel held through the following May, when he embarked upon the RMS Lusitania (he survived its sinking).

The professor's grandson, Robert Holbourn, a naval architect, acted as the island's "Peat Marshal" for many years. Peat is a valuable and scarce resource for heat and fuel in Shetland. Its cutting requires skill, taking several years to master. The most able islanders become known as the 'Cutters' and, in the spirit of a long-standing Foula tradition, all able-bodied men are now and then 'bid to the banks'[citation needed] of women who 'didn't have a cutter in the house.'

Simon Martin, who stayed in Foula for five years during his prolonged claim upon the wrecked Oceanic, describes the island as follows:

Foula post office in 1964
"Foula, or Ultima Thule, as it was known as far back as the Roman times, rises impurely out of the water, and from the Shetland Isles mainland its five peaks, the Noup, Hamnafield, the Sneug, Kame and Soberlie stand out starkly and characteristically. The cliffs on the west side vie with those of St Kilda as the highest sheer cliffs in Britain, 1,200 feet (370 metres) of solid rock towering from the sea.
"Foula, or Fughley as it was once also known, means literally 'Bird Island', with an estimated half million birds of various breeds sharing the rock with the inhabitants. The island’s surface largely consisting of a peat bog on rock."[citation needed]

A lighthouse at the southern tip of the island was built in 1986. Originally powered by acetylene gas, it has been converted to solar and wind power.[28]

Culture and the arts[edit]

Gaada Stack, Foula


Many inhabitants of Foula attend a Presbyterian parish known as Foula Kirk or Baxter Chapel that is part of the Church of Scotland.[29] It is made of grey-coloured stone and is situated "on the tail of 7 Hamnafield".[29]


  • Michael Powell's film The Edge of the World (1937) is a dramatisation based on the true story of the evacuation of the last 36 inhabitants of the remote island of St Kilda, on 29 August 1930. St Kilda lies in the Atlantic Ocean, 64 kilometres (40 miles) west-northwest of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides; the inhabitants spoke Gaelic. Powell was unable to get permission to film in St Kilda. Undaunted, he made the film over four months during the summer of 1936 on Foula, where the islanders speak Shetland dialect.
  • Return To The Edge Of The World (1978) is a documentary capturing a reunion of The Edge Of The World (1937)'s cast and crew, 40 years later, as they revisit the island.

Folklore, festivities, and traditions[edit]

Foula's inhabitants preserve many Norse traditions of folklore and festivities. They still follow the Julian calendar for Christmas celebrations, with all the islanders gathering in one house on 6 January though a day out.[30] New Year's Day falls on 13 January.[31]


Vagaland's poem "Da Sang o da Papa men"[32] about the fishermen of Papa Stour includes an insistent chorus chant, "Rowin Foula Doon".[33] This refers to the fishermen's practice of rowing their open fishing boat out to sea until the high cliffs of Foula were no longer visible. This entailed the boat's being some 96 kilometres (60 mi) west of Papa Stour.[34][35]


The Sneug in Foula was the origin (meridian) of the 6 inch and 1:2500 Ordnance Survey maps of Orkney and Shetland.[36]

Notable residents[edit]

  • Martin Ferguson Smith (b. 1940), scholar and writer.[37]
  • Sheila Gear, author of Foula, Island West of the Sun (published 1983 by Robert Hale Limited). She was born in Oxford and studied zoology at Aberdeen University. She married Jim Gear, a crofter, and wrote a book about crofter life in Shetland.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Sabhal Mòr database". UHI Millennium Institute. Archived from the original on 1 April 2008. Retrieved 3 April 2008.
  2. ^ "Map of Scotland in Scots - Guide and gazetteer" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 29 September 2020. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  3. ^ a b Area and population ranks: there are c. 300 islands over 20 ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  4. ^ a b National Records of Scotland (15 August 2013). "Appendix 2: Population and households on Scotland's Inhabited Islands" (PDF). Statistical Bulletin: 2011 Census: First Results on Population and Household Estimates for Scotland Release 1C (Part Two) (PDF) (Report). SG/2013/126. Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7.
  6. ^ Ordnance Survey. OS Maps Online (Map). 1:25,000. Leisure.
  7. ^ Rowlett, Russ. "Lighthouses of Scotland: Shetland". The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 29 May 2016.
  8. ^ Foula Archived 2014-07-27 at the Wayback Machine Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 29 May 2016
  9. ^ a b c d e Lafferty, Jamie (9 December 2021). "Foula: Britain's most remote inhabited island". BBC Travel. Retrieved 17 December 2021.
  10. ^ "Overview of Foula". Gazetteer for Scotland. Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  11. ^ "Walks on Foula | Scotland Activities". Lonely Planet. Archived from the original on 27 October 2021. Retrieved 27 October 2021.
  12. ^ Henley, Jon (21 February 2008). "Living at the edge of the world". The Guardian. London. p. 5. Archived from the original on 19 February 2014. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  13. ^ "Foula – The Edge of the World". Foula Heritage. Archived from the original on 1 February 2009. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  14. ^ "Hoevdi Grund" Shetlopedia. Retrieved 19 April 2012. Archived June 10, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Bradley, Helen (2004). "Foula Archaeology". Foula Heritage. Archived from the original on 1 September 2010.
  16. ^ "The Foula Landscape Project: Da Heights Stones Survey and Investigation" Archived September 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine (pdf) (June 2007) Bath and Camerton Archaeological Society. Retrieved 19 April 2012.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Jon Henley (21 February 2008). "Living at the edge of the world". Guardian. Archived from the original on 15 January 2018. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  19. ^ Keay, J. & Keay, J. (1994) Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. London. HarperCollins.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ The Language of The Ballad of Hildina (2006–2014)
  22. ^ Kershaw, N. (1921). Stories and Ballads of the Far Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 164–165. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  23. ^ Millar, Robert McColl (2014). "Social History and the Sociology of Language". In Hernández-Campoy, Juan M.; Conde-Silvestre, J. Camilo (eds.). The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell. p. 57. ISBN 978-1118798027. Retrieved 6 June 2014.
  24. ^ Millar, Robert McColl (2007). Northern and Insular Scots. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 128–129. ISBN 9780748623174. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  25. ^ "The Language of The Ballad of Hildina". Norn. Hnolt. 2006–2014. Archived from the original on 9 June 2015. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  26. ^ The Isle of Foula. ASIN 1841581615.
  27. ^ "Must Foula Become Deserted?". The Times. No. 56109. 5 September 1964. Archived from the original on 27 October 2021. Retrieved 7 May 2015.
  28. ^ "Foula Lighthouse". Northern Lighthouse Board. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
  29. ^ a b Gear, Sheila (1983). Foula: Island West of the Sun. Hale. p. 55. ISBN 9780709196730.
  30. ^ Merritt, Mike. "Remote Foula islanders finally get to celebrate Christmas". Archived from the original on 28 October 2019. Retrieved 21 November 2019.
  31. ^ "Islanders not scared of luck". The Herald. Glasgow. 5 January 2015. p. Front page.
  32. ^ Fleming, Richard. "Da Song o' da Papa Men including a translation" (PDF). Papa Stour magazine. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 December 2009. Retrieved 13 September 2007.
  33. ^ "Rowin Foula doon" (PDF). Papa Stour magazine. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 December 2009. Retrieved 13 September 2007.
  34. ^ Vagaland (edited by M. Robertson) (1975) The Collected Poems of Vagaland. Lerwick. The Shetland Times.
  35. ^ "Papa Stour". Shetlopedia. Archived from the original on 26 June 2008. Retrieved 13 September 2007.
  36. ^ "198 years and 153 meridians, 152 defunct" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 26 October 2016. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  37. ^ SemiColonWeb. "Martin Ferguson Smith". Archived from the original on 7 September 2019. Retrieved 23 November 2019.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 60°08′N 02°04′W / 60.133°N 2.067°W / 60.133; -2.067