There are elements that are expected in a book on the Hebrides. The isolation. The wind-ripped cliffs. The sense of extra endurance a person needs to live in places that are islands out on the wildest edge of Scotland
Paul Murton, BBC presenter and Hebrides enthusiast, touches on these. He describes the rockfalls, storms and general ‘tragedy woven into the landscape’ in many of the 100 or so islands. He also describes the dangerous waters: the hidden reefs and deadly whirlpools such as those around Scarba. They almost ended George Orwell. Taking a day off from writing 1984, the novelist tried to navigate Scarba in a dingy with his niece, nephew and three-year-old son. ‘The engine failed,’ writes Murton. ‘The tide then swept the party onto a rocky skerry where the boat upturned, trapping Orwell and his son underneath.’ Only a lucky wave, which threw the boat back to shore, saved the four from death. In the Hebrides, both the land and sea are formidable.
But Murton also shows the Hebrides’ other side: a place for life to thrive. He writes about the enchanting society that inhabited far-flung St Kilda in the 1600s, who reaped the island’s sheer cliffs – the highest in all Britain – like farmers would their fields.
‘Using hand-made ropes they fearlessly harvested the colonies of nesting seabirds on the dizzying heights,’ he writes. They were described by explorers at the time ‘as the only people in the world to feel the sweetness of true liberty.’
As for present-day Hebrideans, Murton discusses a different kind of liberty. ‘A certain independence of mind characterises a lot of islanders I’ve met on my travels.’ This is especially true of Bernera, the scene of a great riot during the height of the Clearances. The event was a turning point in land reform and securing rights for crofters. ‘The victory meant that, instead of leaving, people stayed, allowing the community to flourish,’ Murton concludes, ‘and that independent thinking paid dividends.’
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