On not getting to Fair Isle or Foula

This post is about why I didn’t get to either Fair Isle or Foula, two of the locations on my “must see” list when I arrived in Shetland. They're both islands that are part of Shetland but at some distance from the primary vertical cluster of islands. I did know that “must see” would have to be as flexible as everything else on my list. Getting to each of those locations requires the cooperation of the weather.

Access to both is by boat (mailboat or passenger-only ferry) or air. Going by sea takes much longer. The air option is more likely to be cancelled or aborted by weather conditions. Neither runs daily, even when everything is on schedule, which it was not during my time in Shetland. You have to think ahead about what day it is, which transportation methods are operating, and whether your choice is likely to successfully reach its destination or need to turn back.

For Fair Isle, the friend I intended to visit there said that I would need to plan to return to Shetland’s Mainland at least five days before my scheduled flight out in order to leave room for delays. Thus any trip to Fair Isle would need to happen within the first part of my Shetland time. As it turned out, my friend was on Mainland herself during those days, because she had meetings that she needed to be at and couldn’t otherwise be sure that she’d be able to be on the right island at the right time. (We did have opportunities to visit during my travels . . . in Lerwick.)

Foula can ordinarily be visited in a day trip—but only, in that case, by air, because the ferry takes too long and doesn’t run daily. Again, which day and the weather have to be taken into account. Other factors intervened there.

So here’s what I saw of Fair Isle and Foula, and how I saw them.

Fair Isle

When I came out of Jarlshof, the multi-layered historic site near the south end of Shetland’s Mainland, the day was so clear and beautiful—and I’d already spent so much time indoors—that I decided to check out the coast hiking trail to Sumburgh Head.


It’s well marked, if, as you can see, not trodden into a thoroughfare.


I made it about halfway along the route from Jarlshof to the lighthouse on its promontory when the narrow trail began to follow the edge of a precipitous drop-off that was located on the same side as my more-arthritic hip. In addition to the fact that it was a long way down onto a bunch of rocks in churning water, I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. And it’s true that people are lost off Shetland’s cliffs into the sea (due to wind, most often, which doesn’t rule out just a slip of the foot). I didn’t want to be an object lesson for future visitors, so I called it a good walk already, turned back, retrieved my little rental car, and approached the lighthouse by road instead. Because the car park (parking lot) is at the bottom of a hill, I got another good hike in up to the top.


Weather is the topic of one of the many excellent new exhibits at Sumburgh Head.


From the rocky cliff just south of the lighthouse, I got a good look at Fair Isle on the horizon.


Here’s a closer look to distinguish it from some of the lower clouds.


Even when the weather is fine elsewhere in Shetland, a flight to Fair Isle can be forced to turn back because of suddenly appearing fog. I think the island may attract fog.


I took that photo on one of the clearest days during my two weeks in Shetland: I likely wouldn’t have made it to Fair Isle even if I’d planned to go then. (This was also three days before my departure flight to Aberdeen, so it wasn’t an option anyway.)


Foula was complicated for other reasons. As I mentioned above, going over and back in a single day by boat isn’t an option. In addition, air service is currently curtailed.


The folks (and sheep) I wanted to visit were also dealing with the aftermath of a fierce rainstorm and some flooding. It was not the time for me to come barging in, even if I could have arranged to get there.

I did get a nice clear view of Foula from the west side of Mainland on a clear day.


This is the same day, and a closer view of the island, although obviously the cloud situation and shimmering light have shifted.


On the following day, I got another glimpse of Foula from St Ninian’s Isle.


It’s out there somewhere. I could just make it out when the subtle shifts of light put enough contrast into the shades of blue-gray.

A few more notes

Shetland is diverse, variable, and splendid. It behooves one to be aware of the hazards, a few of which are marked.


Lerwick and other establishments have enjoyed both bright days and battering here for a long time—humans and sheep have been living in Shetland for millennia. To understand the sheep, it’s necessary to understand the environment. I got more experience with that during this trip, which still only allowed me experience of the moderate types of weather.


The photo above was taken a few yards from the photo below, on a different day.


(The reflected building in the water just above isn’t the same one as in the preceding picture.)

I don’t think rainbows ever become commonplace, but I saw many: in this case, a double one with both full arcs visible.


One representing Fair Isle, and one Foula?

I may need to find a way to try again on those goals.