Josh Sutton takes a family trip to the edge of the world and gets some helpful advice about train times.
Like most children, our two love an adventure. So when I suggested a 1,200-mile round trip to visit aunty Frances on Foula, a two-and-a-half hour ferry ride west of Shetland, Wilf and his sister Ruby immediately started packing.
“It’ll be just like in the Katie Morag stories,” they both said, “We’re off to see Franny Island.”
I was just as excited. The journey would entail not only planes, trains and automobiles but an overnight ferry ride.
It was the idea of having our own cabin on the 14-hour, Aberdeen to Lerwick crossing which held the most appeal. Or was it the flight over to the island on the tiny six-seater aeroplane? No, come to think of it, it was the fact that I’d be seeing my sister again, whom I’d not set eyes on for more than six months.
Frances moved to Foula a couple of years ago after falling in love with the place following lengthy visits as a geography student. Six years on, Fran now lives on a tiny croft nestled below one of the highest of the five hills on the island.
Foula rises from the Atlantic some 20 miles west of Shetland Mainland. With a population of about 30 people, it stakes its claim as Britain’s most remote inhabited island. The population (albeit temporarily) rose by 13 per cent the day we touched down on the gravel and sheep-strewn airstrip.
Our journey had started some 27 hours earlier. A six-and-a-half hour train journey with children of eight and five takes some serious planning. Luckily, my wife, Anne-Marie has the foresight to envisage the need for entertainment, so we coloured, stuck and read our way to Aberdeen. I’d loaded a couple of audio books on my iPod, which came in handy.
The ferry port is a five-minute walk from Aberdeen railway station and after collecting the tickets we’d booked online, we made our way up the gangplank of the MV Hjaltland and found our cabin, a four berth with en-suite. Luxury.
I awoke early the next morning in time to watch a glorious sunrise as we came alongside Sumburgh Head, the southern point of mainland Shetland.
Fran met us at the ferry terminal in Lerwick and we took a 10-minute taxi to Tingwall airport in time for the 10 o’clock flight. We bumped along the short runway, leaped into the sky and 15 minutes later were at Foula, the edge of the world (it felt like it).
The island appeared windswept and barren, three-and-a-half miles long and roughly two-and-a-half miles from east to west. From the tiny landing strip looking north, you can see the hills rising gently from the east and dropping over vast cliffs on the western side of the island. Any trees hug the leeward side of buildings and never venture higher than the roof that protects them from the biting wind.
Foula’s glory is its bird population. The whole island is designated a Special Protection Area as well as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its plants and geology. Indeed the name derives from the Old Norse name of Fuglaey – Bird Island.
Tourism appears to have passed it by. Most visitors are keen bird watchers.
With the bags in the back of Fran’s battered car, we headed north on the only road to Fran’s place at the foot of Hamnafield, the second highest hill on Foula.
High on the hill, just below the summit, you can just make out a white cross marking the site where in July 1944, a Royal Canadian Air Force Canso flying boat crashed into the hill while returning from a submarine hunting mission in the north Atlantic. Of a crew of eight, only one airman survived.
We stayed for five days. We’d arrived laden with supplies for my sister, including dried herbs and spices, cured meats, yeast for bread making and a couple of bottles of wine.
There’s no shop, the locals order in bulk from Shetland and it comes over in the mail boat when the sea’s not too rough. Sometimes it can be a couple of weeks before fresh supplies come. The secret is to grow your own and stock up well.
We were lucky, the May weather was fantastic, enabling us to explore practically every nook and cranny. Ruby and Wilf got to spend a short day in the island’s school, doubling its population in the process.
On the journey up, I’d pored over Ordnance Survey Explorer map number 467, marvelling at the Tolkien sounding place names: Gaada Stack, Da Snek o da Smaalie, Da Sneug, Da Kame.
Da Snek even resembles a place from middle earth, a deep fissure in the cliffs leading down to the sea on the south west of the island, rich with flora growing within its own microclimate and scattered with the skeletons of unfortunate sheep who’d fallen in from the top. We saw puffins (norries to the locals) and were dive-bombed by bonksies (great skuas). We also helped out with a maalie (fulmar) survey.
Days were spent watching the birds from the western cliffs or rock pooling on the northern shore. Whales and dolphins can often be seen offshore, but not by us.
Our final evening was marked by a marvellous feast, with neighbours calling in for drinks and a singsong into the early hours.
The following morning as we were coming in to dock back at Aberdeen, we were discussing our train connections over a cooked breakfast. I’d forgotten what time the Menston train leaves Leeds. The woman sitting opposite us leaned over and said rather helpfully, “they leave at 20 past and ten to the hour love”.
The Shetland isles are not that far from home after all.
Let the train, boat and plane take the strain
Train: Leeds to Aberdeen, about six hours and from £300 if you have a family railcard. (Booked online through nationalrail.co.uk)
Ferry: Aberdeen to Lerwick, about 14 hours, Northlink Ferries depart 1700 and arrive 0730 (via Kirkwall). A four-berth cabin is £84.90 each way. (Booked online through northlinkferries.co.uk)
Flights: Shetland (Tingwall airport) to Foula, is about 15 minutes and operates Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. By Direct Flight (01595 840246), return tickets, £53 per adult and £26 per child. (Book by phone and pay on arrival at the airstrip)
Total journey cost for this trip, which was travelled in May, was £542.90.