Foula book an enthralling step back in time

Foula: The Time of My Life by Christopher Mylne. Islands Book Trust, £20.

As a young man in the early 1950s Chris Mylne was looking for a dif­ferent lifestyle, which he most cer­tainly found with the position of schoolmaster and lay missionary in probably the most remote place in the British Isles.

He is honest and forthcoming about his own privileged back­ground, which saw him being parcelled off to all-male public schools from the age of eight, where his childhood included “cold baths, runs and rugby” and goodness knows what other unmentionable practices which blighted the lives of so many.

While Mylne does not com­pletely lift the lid on the goings-on in private schools he certainly questions whether they were suit­able for someone such as himself; a “swot” without the skills and cour­age for organised games.

He was a successful scholar, achieving top marks at Sedbergh School in Yorkshire, and after fight­ing off the after-effects of the meningitis which almost killed him he ended up at St John’s College in Cambridge. Following army ser­vice, difficult for a staunch pacifist, he returned to Cambridge to com­plete an honours degree in English.

Apart from his interest in Clas­sics Mylne had developed a love of birdwatching during his years in the Yorkshire fells, and his study of migration patterns included a visit to the island of Utsira in Norway.

His first teaching job was at John Watson’s School in Edinburgh, but he was obviously hankering after something else, and he says a glance at the situations vacant page in the Scotsman early in 1954 stopped him in his tracks. “Zetland Edu­cation Authority: Teacher and Lay Mis­sion­ary, Isle of Foula. Single-teach­er primary school; school roll five.”

Mylne’s application was success­ful – he says he was the only cred­ible candidate. He arrived in April and was immediately struck by the overwhelming kindness, generosity and old-world courtesy he discov­ered. Entering the schoolhouse for the first time he discovered on the table “home-baked bread, fresh butter and a bowl of the fresh eggs from my own hens”.

What follows is a fascinating and meticulous piece of writing, and surely as interesting an obser­vation of Shetland island life by an outsider as has ever been pub­lished. For sustenance he developed an instant love of the sadly-missed Black’s Biscuits, learned the real way to eat hot porridge and enjoyed Sunday lunches at his neighbours the Beagries in return for giving them hot water.

He tells of the problems he encountered in getting eight-year-old Eric Isbister back to school, as his father was worried that his son would encounter some kind of infectious disease. Mylne visited the family, re-assured them about advances in hygiene and medicine and Eric duly returned to the classroom. It worked and to this day the pair have kept in touch.

Another difficulty was the way islanders, including the children, were reluctant to go to their beds early in the summer months, prefer­ring instead to savour the long even­ings, so consequently many bleary eyes were to be found during a particular lesson.

Mylne immersed himself in the Foula way of life but he did not lose contact entirely with the outside world. He regularly tuned in to the Home Service on his old valve radio, listening to The Archers and classical music concerts, and appears to have taken great pleasure from his “weekly Scotsman” even though it was usually at least seven days late and full of old news.

Like most small places in Shetland, Foula has its share of quirky, sometimes dark stories and Mylne recounts the tale of Magnie Henry of Quinister, who married Baabie Umphray from South Harrier, a couple of miles further north.

The couple had probably taken it for granted that they would live together after their betrothal, but had never discussed where. Magnie assumed it would be at Quinister but for Baabie it seemed unthinkable to leave her own family. So leaving the church on their wedding day, Magnie turned south and Baabie headed north.

After much protest, Magnie packed his belongings in a wooden chest and arrived at South Harrier. But Baabie’s brother Scotty, the “man of the house”, said there were too many chests there already and no room for another one. Magnie duly headed back home to Quinister and that was the way it stayed!

Mylne’s interest in birds led to a rare bit of ill-feeling during his 18 months in the isle, when he posted a notice in the shop advising against the taking of eggs from early bonxies’ nests. Someone added the word “rubbish”, accompanied by the Kipling quote “There is never a law of God or Man runs north of 53”. He had his suspicions but never actually discovered the perpe-rator.

Having already been a teacher Mylne was obviously more com-fortable in that side of his dual job – he had never even seen the inside of a pulpit before taking his first service.

Interestingly he says the folk were open-minded in matters of religion, as opposed to for instance the Western Isles, which he was actually relieved about. In Foula they observed Sunday in a practical and sensible way, a day of rest but not a day wasted so far as croftwork or the routines of daily life were concerned, and they were free of “such hypocrisies as late drinking on a Saturday followed by strict abstinence on the Sabbath which had upset me in the areas of Scotland with a Celtic heritage [and] not a Norse one”.

During his 18-month stint he officiated at several funerals, the most memorable being that of Tom Gray who died in December 1954. At the same time his daughter-in-law was eight months pregnant with her second child, suffering prob­lems, and the doctor ordered her to be sent to hospital without delay.

Mylne recalls the dilemma faced by chief mourner and young father-to-be James Gray, who was among those actually gathered at the church when the nurse came running up the hill with the news. The difficult decision was taken to postpone the funeral by one day, allowing the mailboat crew to ferry the young mother to the Mainland.

Unfortunately Mylne’s earlier health problems with an acute duodenal ulcer returned during his last few months in Foula, and he was forced to leave in October 1955. But the influence of the place remained and he later became a pioneering wildlife photographer and cameraman.

There are some excellent photos throughout the book, mostly show-ing people going about their work or with their families. Some of those featured are still resident in the isle, such as Eric Isbister and Jim Gear, both of whom he praises for their studious-ness and all-round ability, and talented knitter Edith Gray, now in her 90s.

Also included is a photograph of the Henry family, shown sitting in their crofthouse renovated by father John on his return from the whaling in the 1950s. John, who now lives in Lerwick, is pictured with his late wife Vida and children Davie (that’s he of Hom Bru fame), Mary and Margaret.

With a book stretching to over 200 pages (equivalent to over 400 at normal hardback size) there are going to be a few inaccuracies and perhaps a little over-elaboration. For instance, the author obviously did not make his first trip on “P&O Ferries” and there was no “baby son” born to Anna Gray but actually a daughter Katherine (now Sandi-son). But considering it is nearly 60 years since he took that leap of faith, and is now an octogenarian, we can excuse them in what is an all-round enthralling read.

Chris Mylne went back to Foula this year to renew acquaintances and examine the dramatic changes since 1955. Another volume will bring the story up to date and should be worth waiting for.

Jim Tait


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