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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 35


The Cragsman—Highest Hill—The People—Churches and School —Traces of Norse Language—Scenery, &c.

FOR a long period the chief trade of Foula was in the feathers and eggs of wild fowl. The daring cragsman descended to the scene of plunder by the aid of ropes. If the distance of the breeding-place from the top of the cliff was moderate, say from twelve to twenty fathoms, he fixed a rope to stakes, driven into the ground, and descended by gradually lowering himself down, by means of his hands and feet, with which he grasped the rope. Having finished his work of destruction, he ascended by the same means, either bringing up the dead birds strung to his belt, or attaching them to the rope’s end, and hauling them up, after he had gained the top of the cliff himself. If the distance the fowler desired to descend was greater, say thirty or fifty fathoms, he had a rope fixed round his waist, and was lowered down by his companions. This dangerous traffic is now almost abandoned, and it is but seldom one of the islanders descends the cliffs. It is said that in the olden times, when it was universal, the Foula man used to say, “My yutcher (grandfather) guid before, my father guid before, and I must expect to go over the Sneug too.”

The peak of the Sneug, 1369 feet above the sea-level, is the highest hill-top of Foula. From its summit the neighbouring hills, which, from every other situation look so high, appear quite insignificant. A most extensive view is obtained; the whole west coast of Shetland stretches out before us, like a continent of no mean dimensions, and several of the islands of Orkney can be distinctly discerned.

The view from the summit of the Foula clifls, grand as it is, is greatly excelled by that from the water beneath them. The scene defies all description. Nothing is more fitted to impress the spectator with the littleness of man, and the greatness of God, displayed in creation, as he gazes upwards on these stupendous cliffs, towering from the ocean, as it were, to the very skies. There is nothing to enliven the majestic solitude of this terrific wall of adamant, save the discordant screams of the countless myriads of sea-fowl that inhabit every available spot along its giddy pinnacles, and the great ocean for ever roaring at its base. Why the sea has not made more inroads upon the west coast of Foula may be accounted for by the circumstance that .the. water, even immediately under its cliffs, attains the great depth of fourteen fathoms.

Than those of Foula a better set of people does not exist in the isles of Shetland. They are sober, industrious, hospitable, intelligent, and very attentive to the ordinances of religion. Although the rapid tideways and high winds prevent them from prosecuting the fishing with regularity, they are nearly all in very comfortable circumstances. The extensive pastures of the island yield good grass; and the sheep and cattle they sustain prove a source of great profit to the islanders. Strange to say, the population has, for the forty years, ending with 1863, ranged between 230 and 240. In 1861 it was 233. This stationary condition of the population is due to the small number of births, for very few natives ever leave the island. Many married couples in Foula have no children. In this respect the people of Foula contrast very strikingly with those of Fair Isle, who are exceedingly prolific. Again, while the people of Foula are well-to-do, those of Fair Isle are very poor. Skin diseases, so common in Fair Isle, are scarcely kno^n in Foula. Beyond the circumstance that the men are rather short in stature, no evil effects of intermarriage, so prevalent in Foula, are observable. The population appears not now to be so stationary as during the previous generation, for the census of 1871 shows an increase of twenty-four over that of 1861.

Nearly half the population occupies the Hametoun, a district in the extreme south of the island, where there are sixty-five acres of well-cultivated land. The rest of the people live in the neighbourhood of Ham, or at the north end.

The island is provided with a Society School, a Parish Church, and a Congregational Chapel. The teacher, on whom devolves a great many other offices, acts as reader in the Kirk. The Chapel, to which most of the people belong, is placed under the care of a regularly appointed pastor. The Free Church, which also has a small number of members, has a catechist, who conducts religious services. No feature in the religious life of the people of Foula is more remarkable than their scrupulous observance of the Sabbath. This is one of the evidences of improvement; for we are told that during last century, it was the habit of their ancestors, every Sunday, after the church was dismissed, to assemble for the purpose of testing their strength and skill at putting the stone, and other athletic exercises. While the young men were thus engaged, the old men are said to have stood by to witness the contest, and entertain the company by narrating their own feats of strength and daring when they were young.

The Norse language continued to be spoken here long after it had been forgotten elsewhere. In the end of last century, a good many nouns from the mother tongue were preserved, and also a few verses of old Scandinavian songs. There is every reason to believe this is the island Agricola saw from the northern shores of Orkney, when he exclaimed, “Despecta est et Thule.” Foula probably signifies the fowl island, but it is curious it should have such a close philological resemblance to Thule.

This St Kilda of the Shetland archipelago is the sole property of Robert T. C. Scott, Esq., of Melby. The good people of Foula seem to look up to their worthy laird with the devotion of an old Highland clan to its chief.

Nowhere could the lover of nature spend a more pleasant summer week than in this lonely isle of the sea. Whether rambling amongst its lofty hills, sailing round its gigantic cliffs, musing by its rocky shore, or talking to its primitive people, he can find much to call forth reflection of the most pleasing and profitable kind.

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is a rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I mav be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

Fair accommodation for strangers can be had at the factor’s house at Ham. Messrs Garriock & Co., Reawick, who have a store in the island, send a small sloop there as occasion requires. Three months have, however, frequently elapsed without a mail, and a gentleman resident at Walls, only twenty miles of£ used to remark that he had, at the same time, a correspondent in Foula and one in China, and that he could often get an answer sooner from the latter than the former.

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