Past Times: Foula relieved on 77th day

From The Shetland Times, Friday 24th March, 1961

The skilled seamanship of Skipper James Fullerton, the initiative of the Scottish Daily Express and the rapid organisation of the chief constable, Mr Robert Bruce, brought food and mail to lonely Foula on Wednesday, after a record of 77 days of isolation.

Last weekend, as food stocks dwindled, the island postmaster, Mr Harry Gear, told a Shetland Times reporter that Monday would probably be D for decision day on the island. Then, if weather still prevented them launching the Island Lass, they would have to ask the chief constable to put into operation the emergency plans he had in mind.

Monday’s weather, however, turned out to be as bad as any experienced this winter, with gale force winds gusting to 80 miles per hour. Knowing the impossibility of relief, the islanders refrained from asking for it. In the House of Commons, the Secretary of State for Scotland told Mr Jo Grimond, MP, that an aircraft was standing by at Prestwick to drop supplies if no other method could be used.

Valiant attempt

Meanwhile another aircraft was being prepared for a quite daring relief attempt. A Prestwick Pioneer owned by Scottish Aviation Ltd, flew to Dyce on Monday night to await an opportunity to attempt a landing on the isle. The machine is well-known for its ability to land and take-off on short runways and this one has just returned from a two-year tour of the Middle East. Captain T. R. Hope was the pilot, accompanied by Captain H. K. Gemmell. They obviously hoped to demonstrate the prowess of this excellent aircraft.

On Monday night Tods of Lerwick was given an order for supplies for the isle and these were at Sumburgh early on Tuesday. The day was an excellent one for flying, with high cloud and light winds and the aircraft reached Foula about 11am to seek a suitable landing place. A 150-yard stretch at Stremness, on the north end of the isle had been marked out by the islanders and a fire lit to indicate wind direction.

Captain Hope decided to land at once on this improvised strip, intending to take off again and bring the food from Sumburgh if he thought it possible to land a loaded plane. He made a good landing but had not realised how soft the ground was – the plane came to rest with its wheels bogged down and it lay at an angle.

The two pilots got local assistance to try to get the machine clear, but night fell with no reward for their efforts.

But while the airmen laboured to free their machine from the tenacious peat two newspapermen were heading for Shetland with the object of getting supplies to Foula ahead of all rivals. Daily Express reporter Bill Alsopp and photographer Jack Hill only arrived at Lerwick at 10pm on Tuesday but immediately set out to find a skipper who would at least attempt to reach Foula. By then the weather was far from promising, but Mr James Fullerton of Hamnavoe and his crew agreed to go to Walls at crack of dawn and pick up the Foula supplies in their fishing boat, Golden Harvest.

The chief constable, himself anxious that Foula should be relieved, was also relieved that the public purse would be spared expense. He willingly arranged at shortest notice for supplies and mail to be available and alerted Mr James Rattar, an elderly Foula man who had been stranded on the mainland after a spell in hospital, to the opportunity to get home. Just to satisfy himself that all was well on the island, Mr Bruce sent P.C. R. J. Isbister, a man with Foula connections, with the party. And Mr Bruce was at Walls to help them load the boat and to see it away.

The journey to the isle was unpleasant but quick. Seas were high and the winds freshening – a landing seemed unlikely. But good fortune and skill combined, the wind falling away to give momentary calm in the vicinity of the pier at Ham. Seizing the opportunity skipper Fullerton brought the Golden Harvest alongside. There was just time to put goods, mails and passengers ashore before he had to cast off again.

Many of the islanders were on the pier to greet the visitors and they were warmly thanked for their help by the island missionary/teacher, Mr Alisdair Holbourn.

Some holiday

A passenger on the return trip was 14-year-old Vina Henry, the only Foula lass who is at present a pupil at a Lerwick secondary school. She was returning from her Christmas holidays – with little more than a week left before the Easter holidays start. She went to Foula on 14th December but since the end of the school holidays no boat has left the isle.

For Scottish Aviation and its two pilots, this is a story without a happy ending. They deserved better fortune and none but the most ill-informed will imply that this mishap detracts from the capabilities of this splendid aircraft, the Prestwick Pioneer. Still grounded on the island, it may have to wait for the most favourable conditions before a take-off is attempted but it will surely do so and in other fields continue to show its worth.

Two engineers were due to arrive in Lerwick by air yesterday, and it is understood that they hope to get into Foula today – with the Golden Harvest making another bid to get to the pier.


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