Publisher Michael Walmer kindly sent me a review copy of his reprint of Peter Jamieson’s “Letters on Shetland“, which forms part of his Northus Shetland Classics imprint, a while ago, and once I’d reviewed it and been enthusiastic about this series, he offered me another volume. As at least two other bloggers I know had reviewed this one, I knew it was the one I wanted, and I was not disappointed (you can read Kaggsysbookishramblings’ review here and HalfManHalfBook’s here). This book was only originally published in the 1980s but had obviously fallen out of print and Michael has done a good job rescuing it.

Sheila Gear – “Foula: Island West of the Sun”

(20 April 2022, from the publisher)

… none of us will ever make a fortune here – not in money. But the fragrance of a flower, the cry of an allen, the warmth of sun on one’s face are worth more than a few extra pounds. (p. 176)

In this book, written by a woman who married a crofter and raised their children on a tiny isolated island, farming sheep and ponies, we go round a whole year, seeing the jobs of the farm, the vagaries of the weather and nature (very much red in tooth and claw: not a read over the dinner table), the birds and flowers, and the friends and neighbours. It’s lyrical where it needs to be, blunt where it has to be, with plenty to say about romanticised views of living on a remote island and about the tourists who descend every summer.

The hardness of life as an island crofter is not skimped, but is told in a matter-of-fact way that doesn’t invite pity, just respect. Even if you want to sell your lambs you have to wait for the shipping forecast, hope the boat comes and find someone to keep hold of them on the main island in case they arrive early or the sale is delayed. Doing the washing involves getting well water in the winter or water from further afield in the summer, and Gear wonders if the local councillors would think differently about organising infrastructure if they had to do the same. Then there’s the constant battle to keep animals alive (sheep are particularly difficult and there are some upsetting scenes; but ponies and indeed people get lost off the steep cliffs, too).

It’s not all grimness: there is warmth in community and celebration and the description of trying to buy Christmas presents over the phone from the mainland is very funny. There are some lovely photographs of landscape and animals. There is also optimism, that maybe ways can be found to make things easier without having to try to use the heavy equipment other farmers use that is not sustainable on these small patches of ground, although the last pages are quite elegaic, wondering if love for the place is enough in the end.

There is quite a lot about the ponies, and it was lovely to read those same words found in “The Ponies at the Edge of the World” about particular ponies looking like “their sort of pony”, whether bought in or bred. A special book, imbued with love of place and a lifestyle that is still just about going (as shown in later books).

Thank you to Michael Walmer for sending me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.