The Foula islanders live on a narrow strip of low-lying land on the east coast; the population declined to its present level from around 270 at the end of the 19th century. In the 1960s Foula's infrastructure was sorely neglected by the authorities, who thought the island would soon be abandoned, but the islanders were so determined to stay that they built their own airstrip in 1976.

Foula remained under the medieval Norse udal law until the 16th century, and the Norse dialect known as Norn was spoken here until the 1920s. Island culture clings to the old Julian calendar, celebrating Auld Yule (Christmas) on 6 January, and Newerday (New Year's Day) on 13 January. The classic 1937 film The Edge of the World (directed by Michael Powell), a dramatisation of the evacuation of St Kilda, was filmed on Foula.