Life on the islands of Britain: ‘Mesmerising in its beauty and deeply cruel in equal measure’

They may not be home to great cities or blue lagoons, but our British islands are places of insular retreat that encapsulate extremes of weather, architecture, landscape and emotion, says Mary Miers.

Wind is the defining element of the thousands of islands that encircle the British Isles. Wet and salted, it sculpts every branch and bush, burns palm fronds (yes, our islands do have palm trees — albeit bedraggled), shifts shorelines and leaves surfaces rimed and rusted, skin tanned. Incessantly, it buffets the seabirds and whines at windows; often, it sends the ferry back to port, marooning islanders on their anvil of rock and sand.

Ours are not the great city islands of Venice and Stockholm or the blue-lagooned atolls of the tropics, but kelp-fringed outposts of tough survival for generations of farmers and fishermen and places of insular retreat. They encapsulate extremes — of weather, architecture, landscape and emotion — preserve faith and tradition, offer refuge or redemption, feed dreams and intensify dramas.

The sweep of a distant landform merging on the horizon with sea and sky echoes the liminal quality of islands as places where the veil between the secular and the divine is thin. Since ancient times, they have provided a rich source of imagery, history and fantasy for poets and musicians and to see their winged shapes mapped out in ragged archipelagos, to hear their names spoken, is to yearn to set to sea. Norman Ackroyd, known for sublime etchings inspired by his voyages up and down the Atlantic coast, delivers a sea-chart incantation of the Norse and Celtic isles and headlands he has navigated: ‘Muckle Flugga, Unst, Eshaness, Foula… Glencolmcille, Lissadell, Benbulben, Lake Isle of Innisfree… Killala, Great Bog of Erris, Inishglora, Inishkea, Achill, Blacksod Bay… Inishbofin, Inisheer, Inishmore, Clare Head, Fastnet, Skibbereen.’

Life on Canna is probably easier for bovines than humans.

Over the centuries, perceptions of remoteness and disconnection have changed. Some of the earliest evidence of settlement in Scotland (8th millennium BC) comes from the Isle of Rum and, by early-medieval times, this volcanic ring of peaks thrusting up from the Minch was part of an island kingdom on a sea highway that brought the Western Seaboard into a wide orbit of religious, cultural and political exchange. Seafaring missionaries sanctified the isles with chapels and monastic dwellings. Most famous is the mother church of Celtic Christianity established by St Columba on Iona, but by far the most thrilling is the cluster of beehive cells and oratories raised high on the precipice of Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast — an astonishing monument to the power of prayer in solitude raised to dizzying heights, as close as possible to God.

Almost every outlier had its hermit monk, as names such as Pabbay (priest’s isle) and many called after saints attest. Sequestered on his rugged fastness, Beccán composed verse in praise of Columba that flows with imagery of the sea: ‘In scores of curraghs with an army of wretches he crossed the long-haired sea./He crossed the wave-strewn wild region, foam-flecked, seal-filled, savage, bounding, seething, white-tipped, pleasing, doleful.’

A January day on Arch beach in Alderney, Channel Islands.

In his poem The Light-Keeper, Robert Louis Stevenson describes one of the beacons his family built to pinpoint the reefs that make island navigation so treacherous: ‘The brilliant kernel of the night… The tall, pale pharos.’ Castle towers enisled on a few acres — Eilean Donan in Kintail, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, Tioram in Moidart — present a more martial symbolism. Alderney, the ‘Gibraltar of the Channel’, bristles with 13 Victorian forts overlaid with Nazi defences. In the Forth estuary, the Bass Rock became a notorious prison, the garrison isle of Inchkeith a place of ‘compulsory retirement’ for the diseased.

In the late 18th century, geologists, writers and artists were among the early tourists to venture north and west to the islands, armed with their sketchbooks and copies of Ossian and Walter Scott. They sought out sites of natural wonder, literary inspiration and the sublime. Keats, Turner and Mendelssohn all made the voyage to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, the owner of which would lay on pipers and oarsmen singing ‘wild, bittersweet, plaintive melodies’ in his boat, fluttering with pennants as it approached the basalt cavern.

Fingal’s Cave, Isle of Staffa, northern Scotland’s most famous basalt formation.

This was the Romantic Age and islands acquired a new allure for their wildness and stirring history. Although Dr Johnson thought most of those he visited on his 1773 Scottish tour irredeemably desolate, he was ‘highly amused’ to be offered Isay in Loch Dunvegan by the chief of Macleod and ‘talked a great deal of this island — 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’. Not for Johnson the Yeatsian dream of living peacefully on his lake isle in a small wattle cabin, ‘alone in the bee-loud glade’.

In the 19th century, some islands became the playground of industrialists. They arrived in their steam yachts and cleared communities, appropriated grazings for sport, planted arboretums and put up baronial piles for seasonal entertaining. The juxtaposition of opulence and wildness was all part of the allure; Kinloch Castle, George Bullough’s florid shooting lodge on Rum, had plush Shoolbred furnishings, the latest technology, Japanese gardens, hothouses filled with figs and hummingbirds and heated pools swimming with alligators and turtles.

At the turn of the 19th century, a gentler-footed breed of millionaire romantic, often of a Liberal, non-conformist and artistic bent, invested in an island as an antidote to the rat race of modern life. Their legacy of fine Arts-and-Crafts houses included Lethaby’s Melsetter on the Orkney isle of Hoy for the Birmingham businessman Thomas Middlemore; Lambay Castle off the Irish coast for the banker Cecil Baring; and Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island for Country Life’s founder Edward Hudson, the latter two being remodelled by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early 1900s. ‘Ramparts and three miles from land’ the architect enthused of 16th-century Lindisfarne, which rises out of a plug of rock and was lit only by candles, the water for its sole bath pumped 350ft by hand. The inconvenience and austerity dictated its spartan style — whitewashed walls, bleached oak furniture, ‘nothing but stone under, over and round you’, as a disenchanted Lytton Strachey observed — although he did concede that the ‘prospects of sea, hills, other castles, etc’ were ‘extraordinarily romantic’.

Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland.

Lord Leverhulme, by contrast, attempted to create a Hebridean Port Sunlight when he bought Lewis and Harris in 1917–19. Yet the founder of MacFisheries misunderstood the character of the islanders and his tryst with commercial philanthropy was doomed to fail.

Compton Mackenzie, who ‘collected’ islands, was at the centre of an unusual circle of local personalities and literary intellectuals living in Barra in the 1930s. One of these, John Lorne Campbell, bought Canna in 1938, determined to prove that there was an alternative for a private island rather than simply becoming a rich man’s playground. He campaigned for fishermen’s rights and supported wildlife conservation long before such concerns became fashionable. As did his land-owning forebears, he planted and drained, bred livestock and enhanced the natural beauty of the island, with its sheltered anchorage and fertile home farm, wind-bent plantations, terraced flights of meadows and rough moorland pasture sliced by basalt cliffs.

Simultaneously, Campbell became a leading authority on Gaelic culture and language, publishing numerous books and de-misting the world of the Celtic twilight. With his American wife, folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw, he entertained a wide circle, from artists and fishermen to politicians and priests. Canna House became a haven ‘typical of the old Highland tackman’s house — learning, civilisation and conviviality in the middle of the seas… butterflies and insects in glass cases and books occupying every available space’.

Some of the great modern classics of literary Nature writing emanated from neighbouring fellow naturalists at about this time. Echoing the Campbells, they adopted islands to pursue interests in wildlife, conservation, farming and rural industry. Among them were Skye-based Seton Gordon; Frank Fraser Darling, the pioneering ecologist who lived on Tanera Mòr in the Summer Isles from 1939–43; and Gavin Maxwell, immersed in his shark fishery on Soay in 1945–49. As Maxwell was ‘wrestling with the monsters of the deep’, other writers were scribbling away on islands — Mackenzie on Barra writing Whisky Galore, George Orwell holed up at Barnshill on the northern tip of Jura penning Nineteen Eighty-Four and Steven Runciman working on his magnum opus, A History of the Crusades, from Eigg.

Maxwell dreamt of turning Soay into his ‘island valley of Avalon’, but harpooning basking sharks and processing the putrid carcasses was a brutal business. Harpoon at a Venture reads as a chilling metaphor, not only for the violence of the recent war, but also for the darker side of island life, as well as his own complex nature. He ‘had always been drawn to islands and the encircling moat of water they interposed between him and the rest of the world,’ writes his biographer Douglas Botting.

21st September 1946: Bones of slaughtered basking sharks at the shark ‘factory’ on Soay in the Western Hebrides, Scotland. Ex-Scots Guard Major Gavin Maxwell purchased the small island of Soay to build a shark factory. (Photo by Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1963, Maxwell acquired the ‘primordial’ cottages of the Ornsay and Kyleakin lighthouse isles. The latter, known as Eilean Ban (the White Island), where he planned a commercial eider-breeding colony, would become his final home; Ornsay he did up as a stylish holiday let. ‘Here, it seemed to me, where the rocks and the white stone buildings were the only solid things in a limitless bubble of blue water and blue air, one might be able to live in peace again,’ he wrote. ‘I did not know… that you cannot buy paradise, for it disintegrates at the touch of money, and it is not composed solely of scenery.’Anderson Bakewell has been more fortunate in attaining that elusive sense of peace. In 1977, he bought the old post office on Scarp, the island off Harris best known for the failed 1934 ‘Rocket Post’ experiment, which ended in an explosion, scattering the islanders’ letters over the beach. ‘I was lucky; I found my place early in life, so I haven’t had to spend years searching for it,’ he says. ‘When I first set foot on Scarp in the 1960s, it was like coming home; I knew I belonged there.’ He had lived with the old families and describes how, in one of the latest examples of voluntary island evacuation, they finally departed in 1971, ‘towing the cow behind the boat across to Harris. The sound is narrow, but they were entering another world; now they had electricity, running water, roads, but everything had changed. Many never completely settled, thinking always of Scarp’.

Mr Bakewell ended up owning Scarp after the imprisonment of Nazmundin Virani, who bought it unseen in 1983, with plans for spas and chalets. ‘I had no desire to possess an island. It possessed me. I knew what was likely to happen to it, so I bought it to save it.’

A similar impulse to rescue something precious prompted Will Palin to buy his home on the Isle of Sheppey. On a visit to Sheerness Dockyard overlooking the Medway estuary, he found ‘beautiful fragments of a major Georgian complex, including a terrace of naval officers’ houses beside a burnt-out church, all Grade II* and dating from about 1828. I thought “I’ve got to get my teeth into this”, so I bought one in 2007’. Now restored, the house serves both as a second home for his young family and the headquarters of the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust, which is working to restore the church and promote local regeneration. The terrace may overlook a container port in a setting much degraded since the naval dockyard closed in 1960, but it is one of several remarkable survivals embedded in Sheppey’s strange landscape, where the mix of fine architecture, industrial blight and the stark beauty of two nature reserves is hauntingly memorable.

Great Skellig, Gaelic monastery and Irish Christian monks.

Even on these larger islands, with towns and bridges to the mainland, living and working feels special — as well as challenging — as Virginia Crosbie, MP for Ynys Môn (Anglesey), describes. ‘Since 2019, I have lived near the port of Holyhead and I’m conscious of the sense of community — farming is still at the heart of this green and fertile island — as well as the need to create opportunities for young people, to stop them leaving and taking with them their Welsh language and culture,’ she explains. ‘The island is beautiful, with rugged cliffs and sandy beaches, and it has its own micro-climate, so it can be warm and sunny when it’s raining on the mainland. But affluent resorts such as Trearddur Bay stand alongside high levels of poverty; one of my first initiatives was my Mental Health 100 campaign. The people have been incredibly welcoming and I feel a sense of coming home every time I see the lions guarding the Britannia Bridge (five hours by train from Westminster).’

The death in May of Lawrence MacEwen, the Laird of Muck, whose family has farmed the smallest of the Inner Hebrides since 1896, focused attention on what could be achieved by an owner dedicated to making an island community sustainable with little subsidy. MacEwen spent his life running his 1,400-acre island, tending his prize herd well into his seventies. He loved to walk barefoot over the heather and rocks and drove a vintage tractor, advocating traditional methods and gradual change: ‘We want evolution, not revolution.’

Dramatic geology and rockpools at Laig Bay, Isle of Eigg, with view towards The Isle of Rum, Small Isles, Hebrides, Scotland.

Too often, island owners have been stereotyped as playboys or crooks. Yet, as the popular genre of island memoir reveals, most incomers are drawn ineffably to something pure and elemental. In one of the finest, Sea Room (2001), Adam Nicolson describes how his father bought the Shiants and later gave them to him ‘because as a very young man he had felt enlarged and excited by the ownership of a place like this… by an engagement with a nature so unadorned and with a sea- and landscape so huge that it allowed an escape into what felt like another dimension… I have never known a place where life is so thick, experience so immediate or the barriers between self and the world so tissue thin’.

For most, however, our windswept islands are synonymous with the idyllic summer holiday. As on Muck, other outposts stewarded by several generations of the same family — such as Tresco in the Scilly isles and Osea off Essex — have responded to the growing demand and diversified into tourism, offering thrilling outdoor adventures and chic accommodation. They perpetuate the centuries-old romance of the island paradise, yet we should remember, as MacEwen’s obituarist shrewdly observed, ‘island life could be mesmerising in its beauty and deeply cruel in equal measure’.