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Foula: Bonxies and Marilyns (Shetland)

Foula: Bonxies and Marilyns (Shetland)

Postby sheasgaich » Sun May 05, 2013 9:48 pm

Route description: Da Kame, Da Sneug and Da Noup - the complete Foula

Sub 2000' hills included on this walk: Da Noup (Foula), Da Sneug (Foula)

Date walked: 15/07/2011

Time taken: 4 hours

Distance: 11 km

Ascent: 840m

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This is a belated report following a request from a member for walks on Shetland. This is really a walk on the wild side but blows your mind if the Bonxies don't do that first.

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Co pilot for the internal flight from Tingwall to Foula
The Jig Saw coastline of West Mainland
Da Toon o Ham, Foula
Da Sneug above Da Toon o Ham
Looking down to Da Sneck o da Smallie from Da Noup
Shetland Ponies - better than the pits
Puffin Love
Da Sneck o da Smaalie
Puffins Galore
Looking back to Da Noup
Bonxie Chick
Looking back to Da Sneug in cloud
Foula Primary School powered by solar panels and a wind turbine
Terminal One. No shops, baggage check in or delays.
Shetland Air lands on airstrip

Da Noup 248 metres 45minutes
Da Sneug 418 metres 2 hours 20 minutes
Da Kame 346 metres 3 hours 10 minutes Total Time 4 hours 40 minutes

My third attempt to get to Foula, the most remote island in Shetland, was a double success, the plane from Tingwall was running and I was allocated the coveted co pilot's seat. The views from the cockpit were an unexpected bonus even though low cloud was settled on Da Sneug, the second highest hill in Shetland at 418m. It is one of two Marilyns on Foula which is the most remote inhabited island in the UK with a population of only 25. It is battered by the Atlantic and was the location for the film 'Edge of the World'. Foula means 'Bird island' and it is a Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds, as well as a National Scenic Area and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its plants and geology. The flights are run by Shetland Council and the price of a return from Lerwick to the edge of the world (Foula) is about the same as that on the train from Paddington to end of the world (Heathrow Airport) without the ignomy of two hours of check ins, baggage checks and face recognition technology.

The flight passed over the spectacular western coast of Mainland Shetland with the coastline looking like a wooden jigsaw puzzle with the green green grass dappled with small lochans. We flew over Da Toon o Ham before squirting onto the landing field where a fire engine and assembly of locals had gathered to see what and who the flight brought in. The pilot chatted to the few passengers as we disembarked and before we began our adventures into this wild landscape.

I had decided to climb the two Marilyns and walk as much of the island as I could during the 6 hours between flights. I headed for Da Noup first, it was lower at just 248m and was still visible below the cloud level. But first I needed some protection from the Great Skuas - the fearsome Foula Bonxies. It was still the nesting season when they are at their most aggressive against intruders. I found an old fence post at Da Hametoon and strapped it into my rucksack so that it gave me two feet of 4" x 4" timber above my head. Compared to other companions the post was an unusually quiet and loyal during the walk and probably saved me a few maulings. The initial climb was through one of the nesting sites so it was head down and a quick ascent. By the time I reached the ridge, the traffic of low flying bonxies had decreased but they were still patrolling the ridge line with menace. I hunkered down by the summit to enjoy the views to the sea and to get some peace whilst I ate some food.

It was an easy descent down to Da West Bank where a number of Shetland ponies were grazing above the cliffs. It looked a harsh environment for ponies but it wasn't exactly the pits. A group of bedraggled sheep were grazing and looked feral, there had been no shearing of these animals in recent years and they resembled old rugs. I descended to the cliffs where hundreds of Puffins were nesting and quite happy for me to get close for photographs and to observe their quaint movements. I spent 15 minutes or so enjoying being part of the remote wild life of this place. And then down to Da Sneck o da Smaalie, a deep canyon formed from a fault in the sandstone, which was filled with Puffins and Razorbills. I climbed down into the canyon but not all the way to sea level: time was tight, there were some exposed and slippy rock faces and I was alone.

I returned back up the canyon and observed some Shetland wren and wheatears before beginning the long climb up to Da Sneug. There was a faint path to the east of the cliffs and then as I entered the clouds I took a compass bearing and headed up the steep grass slopes. The bonxies were not easily visible but emerged from the cloud heading towards me at speed and clipped my fence post a couple of times. When I reached the summit I stopped for lunch, unfortunately I had not brought a drink, foolishly assuming that it would not be allowed on the aircraft.

I was determined to visit the highest cliff in Britain at Da Kame and set the compass for the trek across to the cliff edge. It was the most disturbing part of the walk, this was in Arctic Skua territory and they really get up close and personal. Despite the fence post they clipped my shoulder several times as I worked my way across the complex terrain in the cloud. As I approached the cliff edge I inched my way down the greasy grass slope in the full knowledge that there was a 346m cliff imminent and visibility was no more than 15 metres. It was an anticlimax although I could hear the crashing of the sea below and the calls of the thousands of birds. I decided that instead of returning to Da Sneug that I would continue to circumnavigate the island. I had the option of either keeping close to the cliff edge or bearing off to the east until I emerged from the cloud. Common sense took hold but I had entered another nesting site of bonxies and they swarmed me like midges. What a perfect setting for a remake of Hitchcock's 'Birds'.

As I left the cloud above Da Clay Pool I could see the coastline ahead and I walked over to Summons Head. Unfortunately this too was Arctic Skua territory and they are even more disturbing when you see them flying straight at you at head height. I put my hood up and my head down until I reached the start of Blober's burn which provided an obvious route down to the houses at north Harrier. From here there is a single track that leads back to Da Toon alongside Da Crookit Burn. I was strafed on a couple of occasions by the bonxies but it was otherwise the most relaxing part of the day.

Da Toon o Ham is the main settlement and an untidy collection of dwellings, mainly derelict, in contrast to the impressive but probably over designed new primary school with its bank of solar panels. The island is also served by a small hydro scheme and some wind turbines which underlines the green credentials of the island. A pity that the same energy has not been applied to clearing the abandoned vehicles and machinery that litter Da Toon. The walk back to the airstrip allowed me to visit the church where the couple from Manchester who were on the plane had also arrived.

We walked back to the self service air terminal, a functional building that was ahead of the curve in its minimalism, a total absence of retail facilities, check in and free tap water. The locals turned up, a teenage girl driving the fire appliance, a four year old playing on a quad bike and Willie extolling the virtues of island life, although coming from the West of Scotland, he did miss a drink. A tall distinguished gent asked me where I had been. I explained and he told me that there were 7000 bonxies on Foula, I think I had been buzzed by all of them and only the chicks seemed afraid of me.

I had heard numerous stories about the relaxed way of life on Foula. No flights arrived before 10:00am because no one would be up. A taxi driver had told me of a visit by a friend who had stopped to talk to the wife of the distinguished looking gent. It was summer and she was tarring the roof - not exactly easy work for an elderly lady. He asked after her husband and was told he was on holiday. On asking where had he gone, he was told that "oh he's inside watching television."

Marshall landed the afternoon plane and we chatted with him about our adventures as we took our seats. We were airborne in less than five minutes. I have not enjoyed flying so much since my first flight with Dan Air in 1970. And Foula, well just go there it is one of life's genuine pleasures but get yourself a big stick, it is not for the faint hearted.
Last edited by sheasgaich on Mon May 06, 2013 12:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Foula: Bonxies and Marilyns (Shetland)

Postby icemandan » Mon May 06, 2013 12:23 am

Really interesting report. Must get up there one day. But why has everything on Foula (Da Toon, Da Sneug) etc been named by Ali G?
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Re: Foula: Bonxies and Marilyns (Shetland)

Postby foggieclimber » Mon May 06, 2013 1:05 am

Fantastic useful report. I am heading to Shetland including Foula and Fair Isle in a couple of weeks time :D.
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Re: Foula: Bonxies and Marilyns (Shetland)

Postby malky_c » Mon May 06, 2013 10:21 am

Excellent :D . Definitely on my list of places to visit one day, along with the Fair Isle.
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Re: Foula: Bonxies and Marilyns (Shetland)

Postby sheasgaich » Sat May 11, 2013 8:30 pm

icemandan wrote:Really interesting report. Must get up there one day. But why has everything on Foula (Da Toon, Da Sneug) etc been named by Ali G?

D is for Dialect, Shetland Dialect. This recent quote from a friend in Shetland makes Ali G seem a bit tame: "I am blyde ta keen dat. Hit was a super place ta explore when you were peerie.. Du wid have loved her. Dont mak dem sae bonnie noo." She was talking about a fishing boat. Yes Shetland is worth it for the fish, the birds, the wind as well as the people; the walking is an extra bonus.
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Re: Foula: Bonxies and Marilyns (Shetland)

Postby ScottishLeaf » Sat May 11, 2013 9:16 pm

wow! Love the photo looking back to Da Noup.... might not want to do it in the clag though!
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Re: Foula: Bonxies and Marilyns (Shetland)

Postby litljortindan » Sun May 12, 2013 4:30 pm

I had no idea how aggressive bonxies were when I went to Hoy last year and did wonder about counter measures. Can't find any record of serious injuries but read a couple of stories of folk being hit on the head to nasty effect. Pretty scary the first time one of them flew at me and clearly had no intention of missing. I took to ducking but that was tiresome when I had to do it every couple of minutes. Very little warning other than the woosh sound of the approach.
Example here at 5:50 minutes:
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