The Foula Islanders. The “Journal” Commissioner to the Rescue. (13 February, 1892)

The winter of 1891/2 was tough for the inhabitants of Foula, the most remote of the Shetland islands, who were cut off from supplies and communications by bad weather. In February 1892, ‘The People’s Journal’ sent a journalist to  provide aid and supplies gifted by readers, as well as to record the state of the island.

[Special Telegram.]

Lerwick, Wednesday.

After seven weeks’ isolation from the world, the islanders of Foula were yesterday morning visited by the smack Mersey, of Scalloway (skipper, Peter Tait), which carried as many provisions as will feed the community till the weather permits something like regular communication being held between the island and the Shetland mainland. As representative of this journal, I was on board the smack, a brother of the missionary being the only other passenger, and we two were the first persons who had been in the island since the commencement of the storms in the latter part of December.

Getting A Vessel.

My instructions admitted of little hesitation. I had to get to Foula, to land there if possible, to interview the resident clergyman, ascertain the condition of the people, and assist in giving relief. Five pounds, £8, £10 were variously demanded by the skippers. It was no use pointing out that the passage could be made in ten on twenty hours; it might, they declared, take ten or twenty days, and they had all the risk. “What is the difference between your demand and Mr Grierson’s offer?” I asked Skipper Tait, a grizzly old sheilback who looked game enough for any trouble or adventure. He told me. Then I offered the difference and something more for my passage. The bargain was struck, and the smack Mersey was timed to leave Scalloway Bay at ten that evening. This delay was due to the fact that the smack had been laid up for the winter and had to get her sail bent, her tackle overhauled, and other necessary preparations made before she could go to sea.

The Provisions

had also to be got aboard. These amounted to about four tons of flour, oatmeal, potatoes, sugar, tea, tobacco, butter, &c. The consignments from Mr Grierson and Mrs Traill were purely in the way of mercantile transactions, but I took with me for gratuitous distribution among the most needy of the islanders a large parcel of meal, flour, potatoes, tea, sugar, tobacco, &c., the gift of the proprietors of the People’s Journal. The parcel included a large package of sweeties and rock, a gift for the bairns of the island from “Dainty Davie” and “Mother Sunnyblink,” of the People’s Journal Sunbeam Club. I once thought of throwing the money spent on the tobacco into the bairns’ fund, so that they might have a regular blow-out, but I was told I did not know the Foula men. In their arduous sea calling tobacco is reckoned a necessary. They can often when benumbed with cold at sea get a moment to light their pipe and enjoy its warmth when they can spare no time to prepare or eat food. They would therefore, perhaps, prefer the tobacco to the meal. This view was later confirmed by the island missionary. I am glad now I decided for the tobacco.

The Passage.

Skipper Tait proved better than his word. At nine o’clock, an hour earlier than expected, I was summoned, and after a short sail across the bay I got on board the smack, and was soon, with mainsail and two jibs set, heading out to sea. The evening was beautifully fine, the bay showing only a gently ripple on the clear moonlight. There was no wind, however, and the mainsail flapped tantalisingly from side to side of the boom, while we crawled out through the voe at the rate of about a mile an hour. But there was a double ring round the moon, and I was told there would be wind enough soon. By two o’clock we had got out through the cluster of small islands which stud the voe, and the skipper set his course for Foula. By this time, although there was hardly a breath blowing, the moon had become overcast, and masses of cloud were drifting across from the South-West. Then there came just a whiff of air to fan the cheek. A minute or two later the wind filled the sails, and we had begun to howl along in earnest. From then till four o’clock both wind and sea rose, and between four and six I gained some experience of the kind of weather which had kept the islanders of Foula so long isolated. The wind came away in furious gusts, the sea rolled on in great high foam covered waves; the rain, at first a drizzle poured down in torrents; and all around vast fog-banks shut cut the prospect. In the midst of the furious turmoil the good smack—capital sea boat as she is—leaped [sic] and plunged and shivered; but still, with rudder lashed in its place, and a man holding like grim death, she held bravely on her way. At last the voice of the steersman sounded above the tempest—”Look, sir, that’s him over the leo bow [?] there.” The fog had lifted a bit to the Northward, and there, about two miles away, could be seen a dark mass of land. It was only seen for a moment, however, for the fog was down again, and everything was shut from view; but that glimpse saved the enterprise. The helm was put over, and we steered Northward to skirt the coast side.

The Island of Foula,

I may at this juncture tell your readers, is the most Westerly of the Shetland group, and lies from twenty to twenty-five miles from Scalloway in a North-Westerly direction. From Watsness, the nearest point, it is distant about twelve miles. It is about three miles in length and about two in breadth. Unlike the rest of the Shetland group, which, with the exception of a bold headland here and there, is a succession of undulating hills and valleys, Foula presents a bold and striking appearance. Four lofty mountains tower upward from the Atlantic side, to which they present a sheer unbroken face of from 1200 to 1400 feet. Against this frowning front of rock the rushing Atlantic waves incessantly dash and fling themselves in showers of spray like giant vaulters attempting to clear the cloud-piercing summits. Here the “bunxie,” [bonxie/Great Skua] whose eggs sell at £1 a piece—the noblest of British birds—has its home, and which, nearly extinct in the rest of the British islands, is by careful protection increasing here. From the high peaks on the Western coast the land descends in couch-like form Eastward, the sea coast on this side being much lower and the soil susceptible of agricultural treatment.

The Population,

chiefly to be found on the Eastern side, numbers about 266, the number of families being 42. They are all crofters in addition to being fisher folks, but the soil is tilled entirely with spade, there being neither ploughs, horses, nor carts on the island. Like crofters everywhere else they had got into arrears with their rents, and a recent visit of the Crofters Commissioners has resulted in wiping off a large amount of these and in reducing the rental of the island from £140 to £90. The island has neither a dock nor harbour, and the only place where a boat can land is a little voe or crack running in from 50 to 100 yards on the Eastern side at a place called Ham. Even it is surrounded with rugged rocks, at some places shelving, and at others precipitous, and when the wind is from the Eastward there is such a turmoil of waters that no boat can either be landed or launched. After a time a boat was rowed out to us, and with stores on board made for the shore, where we were soon clambering up the rocks. Accompanied by Mr Morrison, my fellow-passenger, I at once set out for the house of his brother,

The Resident Missionary.

The walk was a trying one. Foula can at present be likened to nothing else than a huge mudpit. The roads are rivulets, the fields are ooze, and yet the fields prove better walking ground than the roads. But anyhow you get ankle deep at every step. Mr Morrison stays not very far from Ham; by the near cut we took not more than half a mile, and we were soon there, and in conversation with him. He is minister of the Independent Church, to which nearly all the inhabitants belong, and has practically the spiritual oversight of the whole island. As there is no medical man upon the island, Mr Morrison combines the healing of bodies with the cure of souls. But he told me that distress is very rare in the island, and that in recent years there had only been two occasions on which the services of a medical man from Walls had been necessary. He was full of the news brought by his mail bag when I found him, and told me how surprised he had been that morning to learn of the death of Spurgeon and of the Duke of Clarence. “Dear me,” he added, alluding to the Duke, “and the mail had also brought a circular to my wife asking her assistance to provide a national marriage present to his bride.”

Condition of the Islanders.

He was deeply moved when I told him of the consignment of goods I had brought to him for distribution among the needy of the island. “Yes,” he said, “there are needy cases. The Foula islanders are a careful, frugal, and prudent people; but there are old people, with very little to live on, that a bad winter like this tries sorely, and there are several widows who need a lift with their families. Tell the proprietors of the People’s Journal that I heartily thank them, and I will by and by thank them further myself. “The sweeties,” he added, when he heard of them, “tell ‘Dainty Davie’ they are still in time for our Christmas treat to the children. It comes off next week. You see, up till now we have been without anything to give the children as a feast, and the meeting could never be brought off. The sweeties and the rock will be remembered for many a day to come.” “Were things getting very bad, then, Mr Morrison,” I asked. “Yes, they were bad enough. Another week and there would have been some cases of very decided privation. You see we had begun to subsist entirely on the meal grown in the island. Now, neither the oats nor the barley grown here are of good quality, and contain very little nutrition. Besides, the people cannot grow nearly enough for their wants.” He showed me the bread he had been using in his own family for five weeks—coarse black bere bread, unpleasant to both eye and palate. Then I was shown a cake of borsten, a primitive kind of bread used by the people. I tried a bite, but could manage no more. It weighed almost its bulk in metal, and from its appearance I judged it must lie as heavily on the stomach as it did on the hand. Although there are a number of cows, there is no cheese made on the island. What butter is made does not nearly meet the consumption. Butter with Mr Morrison was but a name. He had not seen it for weeks, and it formed no part of the breakfast which he soon after our arrival placed before us. In the matter of butter he was still without relief. The people, he said, had still some dried fish, and there were plenty of sheep and fowls; but bread, tobacco, tea, and sugar were at an end. As we sat at breakfast, very grateful, through frugal as it was, after wretched passage, he told me.

A Few Interesting Facts

about the island and the people. There is no drink sold upon it—no public-house, no shebeen, and no smuggling. The island has seen a good deal of smuggling in its day, but that is all at an end now. The people do not keep whisky about them, although when they go to the mainland they may take a dram, or sometimes two. As an adjunct to there being no public-house there is no crime, and consequently no policeman. Only once has there been a policeman on the island, and that was through a mistake. The schoolmaster went insane, wrote to the Superintendent of Police that the people were all being poisoned, and that the police appeared the poor man’s state was only too evident, and he was placed under restraint, where, I understand, he still remains.


In addition to being skilful fishermen, I learned that numbers of the islanders were expert craftsmen—joiners, shoemakers, &c.—and that they preserved the old industries of spinning their own wool, dyeing it, and weaving it into cloth. The island contains four dressmakers, a couple of blacksmiths, a boatbuilder, four masons, and four shoemakers.

The Return Journey.

There was no time to lose. The turn of the day had brought an uglier look to the elements, and we were quickly being rowed out to the smack. Once on board, the helm was put round, and, with the wind bellying out the sails, the run back to Scalloway was commenced. In twenty minutes the island was lost behind us in the mist, and we were eager to increase the distance between it and us. A gale was coming away, the rain was lashing as before, and all the previous discomforts were repeated. By seven o’clock, however, we were safe within the shelter of the islands, and before eight I had got close enough into the bay of Scalloway to see the lighted window of my little room in the Royal Hotel, and to know that rest and comfort were there awaiting me to compensate for the discomforts of the previous night and day.

Another Expedition.

This afternoon the steamer Queen arrived at Scalloway. Mrs Traill was on board, and there were about a couple of tons of provisions for Foula. About half-past two the steamer left to proceed to the island, but from the course steered it seemed as if she intended taking her ordinary Northern stations first. She is expected back at Scalloway tomorrow afternoon or evening.

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