2016 marked a unique anniversary for us; 60 years of association between the Brathay Exploration Group (now Brathay Explore) and the remote island of Foula in the Shetland Islands.
Since 1956 Brathay has sent 89 expeditions to the island, consisting of 973 members and leaders, of which 121 have made return journeys with the Group – five of them nine or more times (David Scott-Langley , Bob Furness , Donald Brownrigg , the late John Gittins  and Peter Mawby ).
Foula stands out to the west of the Shetland group and so receives the full force of Atlantic storms. It sits on latitude 600N, as does the southern tip of Greenland. Fortunately Foula is warmer, although it is still one of the coolest parts of the British Isles. The island is small, (5.5km x 4km) but it packs in two summits over 350 metres and two others not far behind, some freshwater lochs and the whole wrapped up with cliffs reaching up to 350 metres, the highest in the British Isles. Foula is a Grade I Site of Special Scientific Interest with wildlife that includes half a million seabirds, plants and animals, some unique to the island. There is also a permanent population of around 28 islanders, augmented during the summer months.
So how did Brathay become involved? Professor Ian Holbourn bought the island in 1900 when the population was around 240. In 1955 his widow, Marion, was concerned that the population had dwindled to around fifty and that the younger generations were not returning to the island after their education on the mainland. There was talk of evacuating the island, as happened to St Kilda in 1930. However, unlike the St Kildans, the people of Foula were an independent group and self-sufficient in many ways and were not going to be part of any evacuation. Marion Holbourn had various ideas, one of which was to start up a Bird Observatory, similar to that on Fair Isle but this never came about. At some point she met Ioan Thomas, a member of the growing Brathay leader network, and two points arose from the discussions. Firstly, Foula was ideally suited for field studies that could be carried out using the limited skills of young people and secondly, the Brathay Exploration Group members could provide some form of community service for the older islanders. The first two expeditions were sent out in 1956 and eighty-eight more have followed since. Numbers on these expeditions have always been restricted to around twelve, i.e. the licensed capacity of the Foula Mail Boat or Hansie Smith’s “Hirta”. For a quite a number of years four expeditions per year would visit the island, although in recent years expeditions have been limited to small special interest groups.
For the first few years, expeditions camped in some of the ruined croft buildings on the island until they were offered the use of a permanent base at Ristie, the facilities at which were improved over the years (although the “Queenies and Loonies” at the bottom of the garden was never modernised), ending up with a wooden laboratory in the garden for some of the field studies. Sadly we lost the use of Ristie in the 1980s and we now stay in one of the bunkhouses attached to one of the crofts. There are four areas of activity that expedition members were involved with while on the island and this is still the case. Firstly, the experience to stay in an isolated community surrounded by magnificent scenery. Secondly, the abundance of wildlife and flora, including some unique to the island, and the opportunity to observe them at close quarters. Thirdly, staying amongst a community of very friendly and hospitable islanders with a wealth of knowledge of their history and fourthly, working with the islanders, usually in carrying peats, sheep cruies and haymaking.
Brathay has seen many changes over these 60 years. In the early days, we were virtually the only visitors to the island, partly because of its reputation for being cut off for up to a month at a time, and partly because the only transport was a small open boat carrying the mail. There was no electricity and mains water and the telephone system was temperamental; there was a shop that supplied the islanders’ needs and a Post Office. Nowadays, there is no shop, but a quick phone call to the Co-op in Lerwick is all that is needed and the goods arrive on one of the daily flights to the island. There are three to four hundred visitors a year although few stay longer than a day and when the Post Office is open they can buy and send postcards with the Foula postmark. There is a mains water system, and electricity for the whole island is provided by the school generator, now augmented by a large array of solar panels installed at the school in 2006.
From 1969 to 1973 Brathay carried out a five-year plan of field studies, extended by a further two years. During this time there were four or five expeditions per year to the island, the early ones in each season concentrating on bird studies and ringing, and the last two on other fauna, flora and social history once the bird-breeding season was over. The Brathay archives have a large amount of material that is in the process of being edited into a number of volumes under the general title of “The Foula Monograph”.
Even after sixty years, there is still a list of things to do, now arranged in discussions with Foula Heritage, the local group set up in 2000 by a couple of the islanders to record the history and natural history of the island for future generations.