Fascinating facts about five remote Scottish islands

13 May 2015
imports_CESC_394px-the-old-man-of-hoy-geograph.org.uk-886157-39588_17842.jpg Fascinating facts about five remote Scottish islands
Which rocky outcrop became the last outpost of the British Empire in the 1950s? Which island welcomed the beleaguered survivors of a wrecked Spanish Armada ship? Find out the answers to these questions, along with a plethora of other island facts, in our remote islands spotlight.
Fascinating facts about five remote Scottish islands Images


In July 1967 an astounding fifteen million people tuned into the BBC show ‘The Great Climb’ to watch live as a group of six mountaineers ascended the iconic 450-foot sea stack, The Old Man of Hoy. It was one of the most ambitious outside broadcasts ever attempted; sixteen tons of equipment had to be brought to these remote cliffs, and for the last three miles everything had to be hauled across a roadless bog.

In 2014 one of the original six, Chris Bonington, climbed the Old Man again, this time to mark his eightieth birthday and raise money for charity.

When thinking about the landscape it is easy to make the mistake of believing it has remained unchanged for millennia. A good example of why this is wrong is the Old Man, which broke free from the surrounding cliffs as recently as the early nineteenth century.


The most westerly island in the Shetlands is Foula, lying fourteen miles from Mainland. It only adopted Scottish law in the late seventeenth century. Norn, a language once used throughout the Shetlands and the Orkneys, was spoken on Foula (and Unst) later than anywhere else – until the early nineteenth century.

Other Norse traditions still in evidence include celebrating Christmas and New Year using the Old Julian calendar (the rest of the UK swapped to the Gregorian calendar in 1752).

Yule is on 6 January and Newerday on 13 January. Its cliffs are the second highest in the UK after St Kilda. The filmmaker Michael Powell spent the summer of 1936 on Foula shooting the feature film The Edge of the World. Using local people as actors, the story was loosely based on the evacuation of St Kilda, and it conveys a vivid sense of the power of the sea over life in this wild place.


Halfway between the Orkneys and Shetland, with a population of around eighty is Fair Isle, 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. It is famous for its shipwrecks, its birdlife and its colourful geometric patterned jumpers.

After the Armada in 1588 the English chased the beaten Spanish fleet north. Their flagship El Gran Grifon was wrecked on Fair Isle. The 200 survivors were made welcome, but soon became a drain on the island’s resources. According to the nineteenth-century folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, any Spaniard found alone was shoved off the nearest cliff.

An Edinburgh bookseller, George Waterson, planned the original bird observatory while imprisoned with a group of keen ornithologists in Germany during the Second World War. When he was repatriated the first land he saw was Fair Isle, and in 1947 he set up the first observatory in some old military huts.


Following international negotiations, the Continental Shelf Act was passed in 1964. It set out which areas of the ocean bed could be exploited by the UK. A year later BP’s first rig, the Sea Gem, struck oil in the North Sea, although not enough for commercial exploitation.

The really big discoveries took place at the start of the 1970s. Sullom Voe, on Northern Mainland, was built to process oil and gas from the Brent oilfield and today is one of the largest refineries in Britain.

It occupies a 1,000 acre site, roughly the size of 550 football pitches, and is a vital element in the Shetland economy. Since opening in the early 1970s it has processed over eight billion barrels of oil, roughly a third of the total produced across all North Sea Fields.

Brent is named after the Brent goose. There is an apocryphal story that Shell were going to name their first field A UK, until someone realised that this would inevitably lead to F UK so they changed policy and decided to name their oilfields after birds.


The final expansion of the British Empire took place on 18 September 1955 on a barren outcrop of granite the size of a small office block that lies in the Atlantic between Iceland, Ireland and Scotland.

Three naval officers and the naturalist James Fisher were dropped by helicopter onto its summit. They raised a Union flag and cemented a plaque to the rock that declared Rockall was now part of Britain. This ceremony was driven by a fear that the Russians might place surveillance equipment there.

Eighteen years later the UK government passed the Island of Rockall Act, incorporating it into Scotland (although it is nineteen miles nearer Ireland). Rockall was now officially an island. This upgrade was driven by economics. The government felt it would improve their claim to any oil finds in the seabed. Since the 1980s Denmark, Iceland and Ireland have all disputed the legality of the Act.

     MORE: Scottish lighthouses you can visit


Extracts taken from ‘Lundy, Rockall, Dogger, Fair Isle: A Celebration of the Islands Around Britain’ published by Ebury Press.

Beyond the British shores and straight out to sea lie the most exquisite islands, just waiting to be discovered. Little worlds, unique in their rugged and breath-taking geography, legends and folklore, scattered with ruins, wildlife and clues to their fascinating past, many remain untouched by the modern world.

Take a journey, take a leap, and discover lands you never knew. Explore Lundy, the perfect refuge for pirates and a cast of other ne’er-do-wells; St Kilda, the tiny island that was inhabited for over 2,000 years but now lies abandoned; or Hy Brasil, a mirage that was featured on maps for centuries but never even existed.

Images: Old Man of Hoy copyright Malcolm Morris; Foula copyright Dr Julian Paren; Fair Isle and Sullom Voe copyright Mike Pennington; Rockall copyright Anilocra.

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