The summer is by. The equinox is nearly here. It’s time to snuggle down for the dark nights and browse among the photos from the 2011 summer holidays. For me, it’s been a summer of islands.

I started my island sojourns with Foula – and my first crossing from Walls on the ferry. Quite a bouncy voyage – but a lovely one, in bright sunshine, so there was the opportunity to watch the Mainland fade into the distance and the heights of Foula approach.

The first time I went there I was still in primary school and went on a fishing boat when we went right round the isle. I have black and white photos of a fine summer day to remind me. We weren’t in any houses and I came home purple-mouthed from all the heather berries I’d eaten as we wandered.

This time round the photos tell a different story – rain and wind. We took a walk the night we arrived after being warned that would be the best weather we’d be getting. It proved true. The sky didn’t clear till the morning I flew back.

I was grateful that I was on the isle to work – not to enjoy its spectacular scenery and birdlife. Peter Sundkvist and I went along houses interviewing folk and it was as much a sociable as a working trip.

I was blyde that Marion at the only B&B in Foula has sacrificed the income from a guest bedroom to provide a sitting room for visitors. I sat there often with a book and a cuppa, gazing out at a dreich scene of drookled birds, glad I knew how gorgeous Foula is, and didn’t feel disappointed with my experience.

Weeks later in Lerwick, I met Christopher Mylne who’s just written a book about Foula, the island he fell in love with as a young teacher/missionary in 1954/55. Foula, The Time of My Life is a lively account of his time there, told with an immediacy only possible because he still has the diaries he kept and he includes the letters he wrote home.

He feels he was privileged to be part of a particular island way of life which he recorded with his camera. The book is a treasure, being a personal portrait of the final days of subsistence crofting and more besides. Reading it, I recalled a conversation I had with the late Bobby Isbister when I was interviewing him at South Biggins for a programme I made about Foula back in 1985. We’d ranged over many a subject – land work, the sea, boats and planes – when he suddenly looked at me and said: “It doesna tak a Foula man ta live on Foula noo!” What next for this island on the edge of the world, I wonder?

The second island where I found landfall was Shapinsay in Orkney where my berth was a lovely peerie self-catering cottage in Balfour village. It was exciting this year to find that the waterwheel at Elwick Mill is turning. It’s over 10 years since potter David Holmes moved to Shapinsay and it’s been really interesting to watch him gradually restore the mill, while still working hard at producing the most beautiful ceramics, delicate and fine, with the richest of glazes.

This summer we admired some work he’d been making with Shapinsay clay – but he was really keener to show us the mill wheel turning. How satisfying it must be after all those years to see such a project come to fruition. When I was checking out the spelling of Elwick Mill on the internet I discovered a film of the moving wheel on YouTube. I can’t help admire someone who embarks on such a long-term undertaking – and I felt the same a few days later when I finally got to Rackwick in Hoy.

Hoy’s been on my list of places to see since I first visited Stromness in the 1970s and saw the island for the first time. At long last came a fine day this summer and we caught the ferry, with me watching eagerly as Hoy got nearer. Hoy has the same high aspect as Foula but is much much bigger.

When we finally got to Rackwick it was a wonderful discovery to find it as beautiful as I’d ever imagined it to be. It was hard to believe it’s a place with only a handful of folk living there year-round, most home-owners only visiting when they can. The houses are all trig and bonny, fitting snugly into a landscape that’s a fascinating mixture of the wild and domesticated.

Up on the banks broo there’s a hamely peerie place that started off as a sheepy hoose but is now the cosy habitation of David Hutchison. It’s obviously been a big restoration job with rooms thoughtfully and cleverly plenished. It even has a grassy turf roof which he tells me needs a bit of fertiliser to keep it right.

With solar power panels and a complicated system (to me anyway) of batteries, life appears as comfortable as it can be up a steep slope beside a cliff. You wouldn’t need to be a sleepwalker. The garden was in full bloom when I was there, a variety of produce promising a fine hairst. I was treated to tales of life in days gone by – stories of sprees and laughter, others of sadness and horror. It never was and can’t be an easy place to bide and wrest a living from land and sea. Now there will be nights when there’s not a light on in the valley.

During the local film festival Screenplay I managed to catch the 1930s documentary Man of Aran which was a powerful evocation of life on the islands off the west of Ireland. Watching the folk struggle to make their meagre soil productive alongside days at sea shark-fishing kept me spell-bound. I wonder what life is like on the Aran Islands today, compared to then. Of course, it will be easier and more comfortable, just as it is on Foula, Shapinsay and Hoy but, and it’s a big but, life is always that bit harder on an island where you rely on transport links which are inevitably weather-dependent and where the future is in the hands of dedicated, hard-working individuals who need to be able to pull together as a community at the pier or the crö, at work and at play.

Living in Lerwick, I can call myself a Shetland islander but I think we toonies do have an easier time of it.

Mary Blance


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