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Island Mythologies

Forty-odd miles as the crow flies from Holy Isle lies Jura. It drifts off mainland Argyll in a sea littered with small islands and skerries. Its smooth-edged bulk is impressive on the map, almost severed in the middle where a big indentation on the Atlantic west coast pinches the island to a narrow waist of land. It contrasts with neighbouring Argyll whose coastline is in tatters, a succession of long skinny peninsulas. From the sea, Jura is even more imposing, as the cliffs rear up like a fortress from rocky shores. Above rise the three distinctive hills of the Paps, those softly rounded breasts of pale scree which are so compelling on the eye from every vantage point.

As the ferry ploughed along the east coast of Jura, there were few houses or trees on this wind-cleaned island. I glimpsed the single track twisting its way twenty-five miles along the island past the tiny hamlet of Craighouse to its dead end at Ardlussa. From the ferry, Jura appeared to be near empty; it is one of the least populated islands on the west coast. 'There is nothing', is how people describe the place; either as an expression of appreciation or horror. The writer Kathleen Jamie called it 'fabulous nothing'. Only slightly smaller than the Isle of Wight with its population of 133,000, Jura has 188 inhabitants.

Jura is a fabulous illustration for the islophile dreams of three nations — Scotland, England and Britain — and how they have been exported. Over the course of the last century an Australian hedge fund manager, a second-generation American immigrant millionaire and a penniless English writer have all been seduced by the bleak grandeur of Jura. These disparate characters offer a glimpse into the multifaceted history of how islands have been used both as places of prestige and status, as well as of insight and creative solitude.

Britain's understanding of itself — its identity and its place in the world — is deeply rooted in being an island. From this has flowed political principles, cultural preoccupations, and economic and imperial strategies. But it is not true. Great Britain is made up of at least 5,000 islands around 130 of which are inhabited. It includes several groups of islands such as Scilly, Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, and is part of the archipelago known as the British Isles. The plurality of this geographical reality have often been ignored, because island brought with it the attractive characteristics of inviolability, steadfastness and detachment. As one clergyman put it in a sermon praising the Act of Union with Scotland of 1707: 'we are fenced in with a wall which knows no master but God only.'

Even more erroneously, England is sometimes described as an island. Martin Amis wrote a television essay on England in 2014, and the voiceover began to images of waves pounding chalk cliffs, and the quintessential English mistake, 'England is an island nation'. Our Island Story: a history of England for Boys and Girls (published in 1905) was a popular children's history for several generations; the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (himself a visitor to Jura), raised in the seventies, cited it as his favourite childhood book.

In the eighteenth century, after the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland, the island theme became a unionist project for reform and progress. The unionist, Daniel Defoe, entitled his book of journeys in 1724-27, A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, a title which made clear its political commitment to the island now made whole. In Defoe's descriptions, the island was a place of energetic activity, reordered for building, farming and hunting; it was to be 'improved', a term which became deeply political in Scotland.

When Samuel Johnson and James Boswell set off to discover Britain's unknown north in Scotland, they headed for its islands, and one can sense Defoe's shadow hanging over them. Close enough to visit, far enough away to excite curiosity; both Johnson and Boswell were intrigued by the distinctive character of the islands they visited. They indulged their Crusoe-style fantasies, as Boswell recounted when they passed Scalpay off Skye: 'Dr Johnson proposed that he and I should buy it and found a good school, and an episcopal church, and have a printing press where he would print all the Erse [Gaelic] that could be found.'

Johnson was enchanted by the island of Raasay, east of Skye: 'without, is the rough ocean and the rocky land, the beating billows and the howling storm; within is plenty and elegance, beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance.' On another occasion, Johnson expanded on what he would do, if given the island of Isa in Loch Dunvegan: 'Dr Johnson liked the idea and talked of how he would build a house there, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and take the isle of Muck, and then he laughed with uncommon glee and could hardly leave off,' Boswell recounted.

But within a few pages, such mirth and enthusiasm had given way to its opposite when bad weather delayed their journey. Dr Johnson complained to Boswell that 'it would require great resignation to live in one of these islands. If you were shut up here, your own thoughts would torment you.' Boswell agreed, describing how 'we were in a strange state of abstraction from the world'. Johnson wrote of the danger of brooding when stranded on an island: 'the phantoms which haunt a desert are want and misery and danger: the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness.' Islands can be both places of delightful retreat and maddening frustration — heaven or hell.

In British literature, islands emerge as places of particular power; they offer magic, intrigue and adventure as well as damnation. Many of the most influential depictions can be traced to the Hebrides. Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Swallows and Amazons and Lord of the Flies are all set on islands, and three of these authors — Robert Louis Stevenson, J.M. Barrie, and Arthur Ransome — spent formative periods of time in the Hebrides.

Some island lovers want to do more than visit — they want to live out their own Robinson Crusoe dream and create their own 'blessed plot'. The Astors and the Australian billionaire on Jura were the first intimation of a recurrent theme on my journey north-west through the Hebrides: flamboyant, sometimes eccentric islophiles went to extraordinary lengths at huge cost to create their 'little world' on remote islands. Throughout the nineteenth century, mansions and grand estates were built in the Hebrides. Perhaps one of the most remote and compelling is that of the Dundee linen manufacturer, Erskine Beveridge, who sunk a handsome portion of his family fortune into a house, long since a ruin, on the tidal island of Vallay off the coast of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The imposing baronial roofline looms over the sands; inside, the rich coloured paintwork, panelled bay windows and tiled fireplaces still convey the glamour. For some of these ventures, no expense was spared; stone and soil were imported to build dreams on rocky outcrops in the Atlantic. Once the island estates were bought, the mansions built and the gardens laid out, these plutocrats then discovered that they had subjected themselves to the uncertainties of the West Coast climate; while they had mastered much of the universe, they were still at the mercy of the winds and tide tables when it came to getting or leaving home.

The unpredictable accessibility of islands was central to the plot in one of the British film director Michael Powell's most famous films, I Know Where I am Going in 1945. The glamorous Londoner heroine heads to a Hebridean island to be married to her fiancé, and ends up stranded on the mainland by heavy storms, where she falls in love with another stranded passenger. Islands can throw you off course, they are places of the unexpected and that is part of their appeal. It is particularly true of the Hebrides. […]

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