After a few days on the Shetland Isles, a day of good weather gave me the opportunity to visit the remote and beautiful island of Foula. My plan was to climb the two Relative Hills, or Marilyns, situated there. These are Da Sneug (1,371 feet) and Da Noup (814 feet).
A Relative Hill is a hill with a drop of 150 metres (just under 500 feet) on all sides. They were first listed in Alan Dawson’s book ‘the Relative Hills of Britain’ in 1992. There are 1,556 Relative Hills, 221 can be found on the Scottish Islands, more than can be found in England (178 Relative Hills) or in Wales (156 Relative Hills). Two of the very best and most spectacular of these hills can be found on the Island of Foula (the old norse name translates to bird island).
Foula lies twenty miles west of the Shetland mainland and is the most remote inhabited island in the whole of the British Isles. The trip should be left for a sunny day because the island will take your breath away. Few people visit Foula, often it is cut off by winds, low clouds and high seas. There are no shops so, if you are a day tripper, you will be told to bring your own lunch.
The date was Wednesday 18 April when I visited and, apparently, this was the first date in 2018 when it had been possible to do a day trip to the island. The eight seater plane took off from Tingwall, near Lerwick, shortly after 9am with four passengers. We flew at a height of 700 feet and soon the island appeared ahead of us. After 15 minutes, we landed on a short gravel airstrip. We were greeted on arrival with good news, at the Primary School there was a small shop and tea or coffee would be available if any of us wanted to drop by.
Sticks were also provided at a small charge for fending off any aggressive Skuas, seabirds who regard the island, and indeed St Kilda, as their personal property. However, the Skuas had only just begun to return from Africa and were not yet nesting so they were unlikely to be aggressive.
The walk over Da Sneug and Da Noup ( da is dialect for the) began directly from the airstrip. A path led past a small chapel and continued up the wide east ridge of Da Sneug. The short cropped grass and heather made for comfortable walking as I made my way up the ridge and over Hamnafield hill.
After a short descent the route turned north east for the final ascent to the top of Da Sneug. Seabirds abounded as I neared the summit cairn and trig point. Whilst they flew close, none of them attacked. From the summit there is a choice of routes, straight on to Da Kame, which stands above massive 1,200 foot sea cliffs, or head south for Da Noup passing Da Sneck. As a confirmed ticker of Relative Hills I opted for the latter.
I took direct aim at Da Noup and headed down grassy slopes, a descent of nearly 1,200 feet to the flat pastureland lying between Da Sneug and Da Noup. With each step the views became more impressive. On the west side of Da Noup cliffs plunge directly into the sea, a mixture of blue and white as the big Atlantic waves crashed against the rocks. Below me Da Sneck appeared, a 100 foot deep trench in rock abounding with sea birds. Then I was down, walking along the flat pastureland, wild Shetland ponies looking on.
The ascent of Da Noup is steep and runs close to the cliff edge. There was an abundance of seabirds perched on the cliffs. Giant Skuas could be picked out flying overhead as I climbed higher keeping away from the edge. On reaching the top it was time for water and chocolate. There was no cairn but the views all around were spectacular. To the west the sea, next stop Greenland or northern Canada. To the north the summit of Da Sneug and the onrushing sea beating against the cliffs (see below). To the east a peaceful scene with houses dotted along the three mile single track road.
The route descended south east close to the cliffs. Ahead of me a lighthouse appeared. At the bottom there was a farm. I went through a small gate to the farm and the single track tarmaced road which runs from the south end of the island to the north end.
I walked to the small harbour where seals were swimming and resting on the rocks then headed for the school. At the Primary school it was lunchtime and I was allowed to join the three school children for lunch in the kitchen/dining room area. After lunch I visited the small shop which contained souvenirs that the children had created. These were superb with all proceeds going to help the school.
In the afternoon I walked to the north end of the island to see the Gaada Stack before the flight back. The sheep were not welcoming, however, and chased me away when I started taking pictures! Back at the airstrip a lamb had strayed onto the runway and was being chased off together with its mother before the plane landed.
Before I visited Foula, I thought it would be my one and only visit, now I am keen to return. The walking is superb, a beautiful combination of the sea and the hills. However, it is not just the walking, this was a place like nothing I had been to before, with people who make you feel very welcome.