Cinematic, by Mike Dixon

This article was first published in the IMC’s 50th Anniversary journal. It appeared in this form in the SMC Journal for 2013. The photos are Mike’s too; the plinth above is known as the Diving Board.

Very rarely is a natural setting done justice to in a feature film. John Ford’s films are an obvious exception with the use of Arizona’s Monument Valley in several of his classic westerns. These tend to remain in the same location for their whole duration. In most films, the norm is for scenes to cut to ones which bear no close geographical relation to those before or after them. For instance, in the opening sequence of The Wicker Man the sea plane flies close to the Old Man of Storr eventually landing plausibly in Plockton but bizarrely via a Mediterranean-looking hillside.

Next scene it jumps to Galloway then dots about randomly all over that region. Local Hero flips back and forth from Pennan to Arisaig as if they were just down the road from each other. At least both these films have merit. A modern film A Lonely Place to Die opened promisingly with some spectacular aerial shots of climbing on Rannoch Wall. After that things went downhill in every aspect, particularly the plot. It even ended up in Dingwall, a town whose most photogenic building is probably its Tesco.

Use of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands scenery in films tends to be repetitive to the point of cliché. Glen Nevis and Eilean Donan castle/Loch Duich crop up regularly. Glen Coe has made many a cameo too. Everyone’s been there: Hitchcock, Monty Python, Liam Neeson, Harry Potter, even James Bond recently to name a few. Whisky Galore shot on Barra is a notable exception to the usual filmic flitting but there is another far less well known example of Scottish cinematic integrity.

Shipwrecked 14 miles off the west coast of mainland Shetland lies a constellation of some of Scotland’s greatest natural features. The island of Foula measures less than three miles by three, its hills of modest height. Although only one of them exceeds 400m they form a most alluring, mountaineer’s skyline. Dark fins of land, like sharks on the prowl, lurk on the western horizon when viewed from the Burra Islands. On a rare, fine evening they might be back-lit by a Technicolor sky, with bands of vividness that you normally only see in a cocktail glass. Under such conditions the whole island seems to have risen and the imagination is fired up too.

Given that the stupendous west coast cliffs are teasingly hidden from view and the knowledge that Scotland’s second highest lies somewhere out there, only adds to the attraction. Tom Weir came away highly impressed when he visited on his honeymoon but not many seem to have followed in his footsteps, despite his enthusiastic praise for the scenery. The Kame, he thought, was more continuously vertical and awesome than Conachair on St. Kilda. However the route he took to circuit the main hills meant that Weir would never see the island’s greatest cliffs.

Michael Powell is best known for the films he co-directed with Emeric Pressburger such as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death. These are renowned for their expressive lighting and colour, outstanding set designs and original narrative threads. All these strands add up to a filmic magic realism. He later went on to commit professional suicide with Peeping Tom, since hailed as another classic by the likes of Scorsese and Coppola, but never a comfortable film to watch.

In 1936, Powell shot his film The Edge of the World in black and white, almost entirely on Foula. He was inspired by a Times article on the evacuation of St. Kilda, but was refused permission to film on that spectacular archipelago by the then owner Lord Dumfries. Foula was chosen as a stand-in having the advantage of a ready assembled troupe of extras in the form of the small, indigenous population.

Powell’s book about the filming reveals his tenacity, humour and optimism in working in one of the most exacting of locations. Weather alone caused several epics. Powell appears briefly in the film’s prologue with a leggy, blonde honey, in real life his first wife. He quite rightly stayed behind the camera for most of his career, coming across as plummy and wooden. In those days attitudes to wildlife were different. He shoots an eagle for a bit of incidental sport before the main story about the death of an island community begins.

Shetland for me one summer was a replacement for a cancelled Alpine holiday, 4000m swapped for 400m. With the thoughts of what might have been, it was difficult not to feel disenchanted even before setting foot on the ferry in Aberdeen. In my mind I’d conjured up a land populated by fanatical twitchers and beards playing traditional music. But there was one of its islands I’d heard about, ultimately my main reason for visiting Shetland.

Flying out from Tingwall is a good way to appreciate the fjord-like inlets of west central mainland and the sea stacks of Westerwick. Pre 9/11 you could sit in the front seat next to the pilot and watch nervously as he wrestled with the controls through patches of turbulence. Foula’s sharp outline is ever beckoning. The toy plane banked startlingly before it prepared to land but then suddenly pulled up. The rough track of a runway had a fire engine haring up and down it with the siren full on. Had we lost an engine or had the undercarriage failed to lower the wheels, necessitating a crash landing? No, thankfully something far more mundane. The runway had to be cleared of a few stray sheep.

The road north passes more of these motley specimens, several scattered houses and a school at Ham. Viewed from the east the hills are noticeably lacking in rock. For stone monkey Johnny Dawes, Foula seemed like ‘a gigantic golf course that had been compressed until its smooth greens were angled at 1 in 1.’ Pleasant and shapely but verdant and with no real drama were my first impressions. A nagging suspicion of anticlimax was hard to suppress.

Gaining curving height on Soberlie Hill you suddenly emerge on the brink. An abrupt plummet causes senses to recalibrate with a sudden jolt. To the north is the holed Gaada Stack, a classic icon of Foula. Below is the striking arch of East Hoevdi which juts out from the main face like a stabiliser on a child’s bike. The flat North Bank accentuates the feeling of teetering along a skyscraper roof. There is no worn path beside the edge. The grass is slightly flattened, mainly by a herd of ponies which wanders here.

In places you could get down to the sea. The angle of the grass and the ever present moisture would make this very risky. Hugging the edge, the hill rears up and reaches a crescendo at The Kame. This 360m two-tier arête has an upper section which is Dolomitic in profile. First climbed by Mo Anthoine, Ian McNaught-Davis and John Kingston in the late 1970s it was repeated by a team including Johnny Dawes and Dave Thomas in the early 1990s. The latter were unimpressed, having to clear vast amounts of moss to reveal the underlying rock. Dawes performed a cartwheel at one point to demonstrate the lack of steepness and low overall (for him!) technical difficulty. Dolomitic doesn’t always mean the best of quality. In recompense they climbed two much harder, quality routes on North Bank and explored some sea stacks.

Cloud rolled in shortly after our arrival at The Kame. Were we to be jinxed at this, the real spiritual heart of Foula? Luckily, a patient, dreamy wait on the edge of the void, entertained by puffins, led to a sight I’d never seen on a sea cliff. Sun burst through behind and projected Brocken Spectres on to the dissolving cloud over the sea. Eventually the thin shroud retreated up the cliffs like a waterfall in reverse and the naked verticality was there to gawp at again.

From The Kame you can make a detour to the highest hill, The Sneug. Simple on the map; in practice you risk the wrath of the Bonxies (Great Skuas). These sinister birds have an air of Hitchcockian menace and will swoop and attack even without chicks to defend. They will quite literally eat baby puffins for breakfast. The Dawes team found No 10 hexes very useful weapons of defence to bonk them back. After two and a half weeks on Shetland, frequently pestered (and often downright scared) by Bonxies, I’d have happily taken a Kalashnikov to them with great relish.

The ‘inverted amphitheatre’, Nebbifield. Photo: Mike Dixon

Nebbifield is the sheerest cliff round here; a mini El Capitan, Noselike arête, soaring 300m to its apex. As yet this feature has only been breached by two routes, courtesy of Dave Turnbull and Crag Jones. The Nose route itself was repeated in 2011 by Dave Brown and partner. Abseil approaches are serious before any climbing begins. A small plinth near the top of Nebbifield projects like a diving board – pictured, top -over a shaft of deep space. If big drops make you recoil you’ll probably not get the best out of Foula.

Continuing south, you descend a graceful arc where the next section of Nebbifield assumes the topography of an inverted amphitheatre. It has a magnificent striped curvature, a giant cave at its base and overhangs outrageously in its 200m height. It offers Foula’s greatest remaining climbing challenge and will guarantee any takers an awfully big adventure. Anyone climbing here should seriously consider their options if they became cragfast in such a remote spot. Dave Brown was reassured by Magnus the local laird: ‘If you get stuck on a ledge you can trust us, we know what to do. Occasionally our sheep get stuck on ledges. We’ll use a .22 rifle to put you out of your misery. It’ll be more humane than letting you starve.’

A solitary gannet circled overhead, perhaps on the hunt for a weekend retreat away from all the high rise, overcrowded squalor of Noss. Continuing the descent you arrive at the ‘short’ Wester Hoevdi, a vertical slice of fractured rock ending as a blocky wedge above a viscous sea. Yet another significant chunk of 150m virgin rock. The waterfall on the east side was the setting for the climbing sequence in Powell’s film. Devoid of special effects or any CGI manipulation it has an authenticity and visceral punch absent in many modern, action blockbusters.

 From Wester Hoevdi a rising traverse across cliff-sandwiched grass demands caution. This is the home of the largest collection of routes on Foula on the weathered sandstone at Mucklabrek. Here lie climbs of up to 120m, all with a straightforward approach compared with the other venues. A short descent leads to a sheer sided 60m cleft, a real torture chamber of a slit. Once the lair of a mythical beast, the Sneck of the Smallie is now mostly populated by puffins and judging from the smell, the resting place for several unfortunate sheep.

The final hill is detached from the rest and has an elegant conical shape. The Noup has cliffs impressive in their own right, but suffer in comparison with what’s preceded them. A gentle saunter takes you back to zero metres. Any tempting shortcuts away from the edge will niggle those restless natives, the Bonxies. The friendly pilot took us the long way back round the cliffs. It was a different perspective but still left us wide-eyed. In 15 minutes we were back on tarmac, in another 15 enjoying a pint in Lerwick.

Later that evening in The Lounge the fiddly bollocks music was in full flow as I replayed the highlights of the day over and over in my mind. If neuroscientists had scanned my brain on Foula no doubt the areas associated with pleasure and aesthetics would have been glowing luridly. But reductionism is never the full story. Furthermore when these highs occur is often unpredictable and the reason I always travel in hope. After that day I developed a penchant for coastal walks and the heights of hills no longer had the significance they once did. I got a similar hit exploring the even smaller island of Ailsa Craig.

Recently I watched Powell’s film again, followed by the documentary about a revisit he made in 1978. He took lead actor John Laurie (Private ‘We’re doomed, Captain Mainwaring’ Fraser from Dad’s Army) with him and there was obvious affection from both for the film, Foula and its residents. The opening sequences of each film, the latter with aerial colour shots of the great cliffs, had me riveted and goose bumped, testimony to the skill of a director to portray a setting so evocatively. You can sometimes be disappointed after a return visit to a place which has entranced you first time round. With Foula I’m always afraid the same magic might not materialise. Unlike Powell, I’ve never been back.