Foula stalwart Isobel dies after a lengthy illness

Well-known Foula resident and island spokesperson Isobel Holbourn died on Sunday, after a lengthy illness with cancer.

Mrs Holbourn, maiden name Boyd, first came to Shetland in 1956. Her family moved from Peebles after her father George got a job as teacher in Foula.

Although she moved away from the isle as a youngster, she spent the majority of her life there, coming back to Foula to have children with first husband Kenneth Gear.

A writer and broadcaster, Mrs Holbourn was very active in the community. She was a member of the Foula Heritage Trust, the Foula Airstrip Trust and the Foula Electricity Trust, as well as being elected to Scottish Natural Heritage north area board from 1997 to 2003. She will be a huge loss to the community and her friends and family.

She also worked as secretary at the school and taught the children knitting and about Shetland and Foula, subjects she was very in­terested in.

Her 70th birthday party, which was described as “a very joyful occasion”, was held in the summer, attended by many friends and family who came from as far away as Canada and Germany to celebrate.

Friend Nan Kerry met Mrs Holbourn when, as a young girl at the Anderson Educational Institute and no regular trips home to Foula, she and her sister Liz would come to stay with Nan’s family in Bigton. They remained friends for 53 years.

Mrs Kerry said the occasion of her birthday was “just brilliant” with “music and dancing to the end”. She said of Mrs Holbourn: “She was full of fun, always up for a laugh and she saw the great side of every­body.”

Mrs Holbourn leaves two sons, Bobby and Kenneth Gear, five grand-daughters and a baby great-grand-daughter.

Mrs Kerry said: “She was very accomplished in many ways, but she was most proud of her family.”


Add Your Comment
  • John Dickenson

    • December 29th, 2010 9:10

    It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Isobel Holbourn.
    As a frequent visitor to Shetland my wife and I re-visited Foula for the first time in almost 50 years this Summer. Isobel had helped me plan every minute of our visit. She personally met us at the Airstrip and arranged transport for us to Ristie, the very place I had visited in 1964.
    We knew she was ill but had no Idea of how serious her illness was.
    My wife and I have received kindness and hopitallity during many visits to Shetland, Isobel was by far the the greatest Shetland Islander we met.
    We send condolences to her family and friends
    Sadly missed.

    John and Shirley Dickenson

  • Ron McMillan

    • December 29th, 2010 9:45

    This is very sad news. I had the privilege of spending time at Isobel’s lovely B&B in 2005 when I was researching my Shetland travel book. Isobel’s love of her adopted home came out in everything she ever said about it, and my short stay on Foula was all the more pleasurable and productive thanks to the generosity with which she shared its history. She pointed me to the best places and introduced me to fellow-islanders, trusting me not to do what she and other islanders had so often seen outsider writers do – belittle the community. My sympathies go out to her family and friends.

    ron mcmillan
    bangkok, thailand

  • Andrew Anderson

    • January 6th, 2011 8:53

    I am very sorry to hear this sad news. I only visited Foula once in 1986 when I spent several hours with Isobel as she showed me round the island. It’s a treasured memory. My sympathies to her family.

  • Patrick and Sally Thorne

    • February 17th, 2011 17:26

    As poor and geographically ignorant students based in London in 1987 we booked a three month stay at Isobel’s Ristie chalet without knowing where Foula was. Despite having travelled the world since, our time on Foula remains the happiest we’ve spent anywhere and led to us moving to Inverness after finishing college (Not quite Foula but in the right direction), where we’ve remained to this day, and perhaps was a key part of our recently celebrating 25 years together. As others have said, Isobel was a wonderful person and it has been a pleasure to know her over the years. We remember watching her on TV Nation, following her work for SNH, helping to get the new school, ferry and hydro system for Foula and just being a lovely, inspirational person.

  • Llorenc Sole

    • May 26th, 2011 23:45

    Tonight I was going to write a mail to Isobel to let her know I still remember the good time my family and I we spent in Foula last summer. I don’t know why, but I searched the net about Foula and found this really sad news. I’m shocked now to know that although she was very ill, she received us open arms and showed us her lovely island. I would never have thought this and she never showed no sign of it. We were enyoying our holidays and she didn’t want to interfere. Thanks for all Isobel, rest in peace. Hope I can come back there in the future and see this community is still alive and strong. Regards to Sheila and Marion.

  • Darren Taylor

    • July 5th, 2011 18:41

    Isobel was really kind to me every time i came to Foula to visit my dad,Granny Etc and really kind to my brother. my Dad only told me about her death today because he thought i would be really Upset about it. I didnt believe him so I looked up on the internet and read this.

    I hope Isobel Is happy and will never be forgotten

    She was a great Friend 🙁

    R.I.P Isobel Holbourn

  • Greg Clark

    • October 25th, 2011 10:01

    I am very saddened to hear to Isobels passing. I had the pleasure of staying with her for a few days while on assignment for the BBC. I was researching the idea of documentary on Foula. Isobel couldnt have been more helpful and open her home and hospitality to me.

    Greg Clark

  • lisa Brumby (nee Gear)

    • October 24th, 2014 18:20

    I’ve been informed that my father’s family may have lived “on a Scottish island somewhere”. So very strange to find a reference to a Kenneth Gear 9my father’s name) on Foula. I’m now wondering if there are other Gears on this island and if Dad’s ancestors did come from this remote spot, also are there some still there?

  • Haydn Gear

    • October 24th, 2014 22:39

    Lisa ,Isobel Holbourn was related to Sheila and Jim Gear of Foula.I visited the isle in 1998. Well worth the effort, since I live in south Wales.You’fin many more called Gear on Foula and throughout Shetland. Happy searching!!

  • Haydn Gear

    • October 24th, 2014 23:43

    Lisa Brumby may be interested to learn that there were about 12 people called Gear out of a population of 36 when I visited Foula in 1998. Also, my father had a first cousin called Kenneth !!

    • lisa brumby

      • November 9th, 2014 9:01

      Thank you Hadyn for your replies. I think your Kenneth Gear was my father, born in Newport and lived there until the 60s. Son of William & Jesse Gear, so think we are somehow related? Would love to hear more but don’t want to put my email here, however I’m happy for Shetland Times to let you have it. Intrigued to know if we- the “South Wales lot”- are related to the Shetland Gears.

  • Ian Jolly

    • August 26th, 2021 12:50

    A great lady, gone but not forgotten. You can still hear an excerpt with Elizabeth speaking from a BBC Radio 4 programme – ‘The Secret Life of Telephone Numbers’ from around 2005 by dialling Lerwick (01595) 79822. Foula was the last place in the UK with two digit telephone numbers – they were still dialling two digits to reach each other until 1995. In those days the island had its own national dialling code 0393 3 – all calls in those days being ‘trunk calls’ to and from Foula. I was the only person present when the old exchange finished in service on the evening of 12th July 1995. The exchange is now in my collection of old GPO exchanges here in North Wales – it was the very last old public electro-mechanical exchange in the UK public network.

    • Ian Jolly

      • August 26th, 2021 12:52

      Phone number should be Lerwick (01595) 708222


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