Back in November 2021, I covered my first read in a new series of books from a favourite indie publisher; the book was “Broken Lights” by Basil Ramsay Anderson, the series Northus Shetland Classics and the publisher Michael Walmer. As I revealed at the time, after relocating to the Shetland Islands himself, Mike has now issued three titles in this newly inaugurated series, and today I want to explore the most recent release in this fascinating imprint: “Foula, Island West of the Sun” by Sheila Gear. It’s perhaps an unusual book for Mike in that it’s by a living author; Gear is a Foula resident still, I believe, having spent the bulk of her life living on the island. The book was originally published in 1983 and the reprint comes with an introduction by Jen Stout.

Before you read any further, it might be worth you googling and having a look at just where Foula is; previously, the Shetland Islands were shown on a box insert on maps, so you had no real idea of where they sat in relation to Scotland. However a recent law was passed which means that the maps now have to show the islands exactly where the really are and it’s quite scary to look at this and realise the distance between the islands and the mainland. And if you zoom in to find Foula, you get a further shock seeing how exposed this island is, stuck out in the middle of the north sea and isolated from its fellow Shetland Islands. It’s useful to have this in mind when reading the book because that distance and the hardship it causes informs the book.

Sheila Gear is married to as islander and the biog describes her as “a keen crofter, breeding sheep and Shetland ponies”. She brought her children up on the island, and in her book explores the reality of living on an exposed, remote island with all the difficulties this can bring. We may all have dreamed of living in isolation on an island, away from the hustle and bustle and pressures of everyday life. However, as Gear is keen to show, life on Foula is no utopian vision; instead, it’s hard graft to scrape a living from the land, relying on nothing but your own physically demanding work to dig peats, gather the crops and farm your animals. If you fail to croft successfully, you could starve or feeze to death – life is that extreme out here on the margins.

Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, we do not spend our time sitting in the sun plunking a guitar, or wandering through the hills crying “Dear peerie lamb” to our sheep. The same mad rush that pushes on the rest of the world is just as relentless towards us. Time and tide wait for no man, certainly not for an islander. Summer is short here and winter stretches for seven long months, so we must pack a seemingly endless list of jobs into a few months of reasonable weather.

Foula life is very much dictated by the seasons, and Gear takes us through these, describing the work the crofters have to do year round to ensure continuity. While she does this, she explores the history of the islands, meditates on the difficulties faced in receiving post or doing Christmas shopping via a rackety telephone line, and relates tragic tales of shipwrecks. The Shetland Islands themselves have the north sea on the east and the Atlantic on the west, so Foula is a place often battered by the elements. As Gear’s narrative makes clear, this is an extreme landscape where trees cannot survive and a living has to be carved out.

Perhaps a few summer visitors do no harm to an isolated island like this as they bring in new ideas and interests and get to know the island and its ways. Only when the numbers become too great to be absorbed and they become anonymous tourists do the islanders feel outnumbered and swamped. In a small island with a limited population the number that can be happily absorbed is small – a fact not often realised by the officials who advocate tourism for such places.

Gear is clear that she sets out to give a view of her island which is not romanticised; and her mockery of the tourists who visit is understandable, as they treat her and her fellow islanders as exhibits in a zoo. It needs to be remembered that this book was written in the 1980s, at a time when island living was in decline; the attractions of convenience and easier living was drawing younger people away from their place of birth, which was undersandable. Gear believes that a love of roots and community, living and working together, will be strong enough to hold a population to Foula (and indeed other islands). Certainly the number of people living there, which was 267 in 1881, dipped to 64 in 1961 and has bobbed up and down in the 30s since. It’s hard to hold onto the old ways, when the alternatives offer more than a subsistence level of living; yet Gear is adamant that the riches of living in a community like that of her island are worth all the work involved. And despite her avowed intent to avoid sentiment, she regularly waxes lyrical about her home, painting a striking and vivid picture of a landscape in which she’s completely rooted.

Snow came with the north-west wind. Not big soft flakes gently floating and twirling in the wind, covering the world in a blanket of white. No, a mad world, where snow is hurtled through the air on the fierce icy wind, barely stopping to touch the frozen ground as it passes. On and on, the snow was flung into the sea, where big dark breakers rolled by from the north. On and on, but the isle was swept bare by the storm.

“Foula” was a fascinating book on a number of levels, from its detailed look at the life of a crofter through its portrait of the wildlife of the island to the history of Shetland life. The book contains photos of the landscape and Gear’s family, and all the elements add up to a striking portrait of a way of like not many would probably choose nowadays. Yet the fulfilment that comes with being responsible for every element of your survival must be great, albeit I suspect many would prefer a more forgiving environment. Here, nature is red in tooth and claw, whether it’s one bird species preying on another, sheep falling down cliffs or getting buried under snowstorms, or just the fact that animals and birds and fish have to be farmed for the food and resources they bring, there’s no hiding the cruel reality of surviving on Foula.

Despite the relentless difficulties, “Foula” sparkled with lively events and characters, and its rich narrative painted unforgettable pictures. Although the modern island no doubt has more conveniences laid on than it did in 20th century, with modern technology probably bringing a little ease to communications with the mainland, I suspect much in the book is unchanged. Iif you want to read a vivid and memorable portrait of life on a Shetland island in all its harsh glory, I can highly recommend “Foula, Island West of the Sun”!