Islands fascinate us. Skye, for many, was indefinably devalued when at last, two decades ago, linked to the mainland by bridge. Many of our islands, once inhabited, are today deserted and forlorn. Scarp and Taransay, for example, off the coast of Harris, supported families into the 1970s.
I myself am a direct descendant of the last family to live on North Rona, forty-four miles north-west of the Butt of Lewis. Surveys as to health and well-being regularly see the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland as, apparently, the happiest places to live in Britain and the desire to own one’s personal island – a small, smug, sea-kissed kingdom – is a common fantasy. Even the SNP have an island – Eilean Mòr, one of the MacCormaig Isles in the Sound of Jura, bequeathed to the Nationalists in 1978 and run by a charitable trust. And when that late and fabulously corrupt Irish politician, Charles Haughey, snapped up Inishvickillane, one of the Blasket Islands, in 1974, it was an early sign of the avarice, bordering on the delusional, that two decades later sank his reputation.
We are apt to associate little islands with innocence; even nobility – or, at least, a certain incorruptible peasant cunning. Scotland was first effectively evangelized from Iona, by Columba and his acolytes. St Kilda continues to intrigue millions the world over (even though the St Kildans were very strange folk) and everyone sides with the crofters of Todday as they battle Captain Waggett in Compton MacKenzie’s Whisky Galore. And the clever subversion of the trope in The Wicker Man – when the intruder, Edward Woodward’s stuffy Sergeant Howie, is a good man making landfall among pretty evil people – is one of the tricks that has lent that film abiding, unsettling power.
Malachy Tallack’s worthy book, though, is no winsome gazetteer of assorted Hebrides or Bounty Bar paradises. It is about islands that no longer exist – and, indeed, for the most part never were: the island less as sanctuary, or some realm of ocean-girt uniqueness, than as an ideal: a place looked to, or keened for, as something vital to your own identity. A noted parallel in modern literature is the ‘greenwood’ trope in the novels of EM Forster. Maurice, he lamented of the novel he refused to publish in his own lifetime, belonged ‘to an England where it was still possible to get lost. It belongs to the last moment of the greenwood…
‘Our greenwood ended catastrophically and inevitably. Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation which the public services adopted and extended, science lent her aid, and the wildness of our island, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley for those who wish neither to reform nor corrupt society but to be left alone…’
In like manner, Tallack – native of Shetland, author and singer-songwriter – writes for the most part of islands of the heart, in a book of silky covers and striking physical beauty, decorated deliciously by Katie Scott. The Gaels of Scotland and Ireland, for instance, historically believed in blessed islands far to the west, just over the horizon, where the just would live for ever in a place without age, sickness or death. The most famous of these is Tír nan Óg, the land of eternal youth – viewed not just as an afterlife but as a place the mind can go, in nostalgia not just for a where, but a when.
There is a near-untranslatable Gaelic word for that yearning – ceanalas; very similar in concept to the Welsh hiraeth – but, as Tallack details, such Islands of the Blessed have mythological roots far broader than Gaeldom. In Homer’s Odyssey, we read of Elysium; and by Plato’s time this was evidently understood as an island (or group of islands) somewhere in the western ocean, where ‘he who has lived all his life in justice and holiness shall go, when he is dead… and dwell there in perfect happiness out of the reach of evil’. The Welsh, too, had Ynys Affalon, ‘Island of Apples’, and it was in this Avalon – in later, broader medieval tradition – where Excalibur was forged and from whence, one day, King Arthur may return.
Indeed, despite centuries of Christendom ‘the idea of a promised land on Earth never left the European imagination,’ observes Tallack. ‘The fruitful isle remained on the western horizon. In England, the blissful land of Cockaigne was the subject of countless stories and poems. In Germany it was Schlaraffenland, the land of milk and honey; and in Spain it was Juaja, a name now attached to a small city in Peru…’
No doubt this to some degree drove the Conquistadores, and other European adventurers, in their bold voyages across the Atlantic – though, as we now know and as Tallack details, the Vikings had made it as far as Newfoundland; and many (not least the Irish) believe St Brendan had made landfall on America before even them. Some fantasy islands, though, are cherished not as the saints’ everlasting rest, but the motherland of a hazy history. From their earliest dealings with the first Europeans to come to New Zealand, the Māori insisted – and insist still – that it was not their original home: that their forebears had come from Hawaiki – and not that long ago either. There is considerable and hard evidence that the Māoris did indeed colonize New Zealand from eastern Polynesia, ‘especially the Cook and Society islands. Which might provide a simple answer to Hawaiki. Except that it doesn’t. For Hawaiki is not simple at all. In traditional stories it is a multifaceted idea that cannot be pinned down to a single location. This island was not just the migrants’ point of departure, it was part of their luggage – that rich, mythical tradition with which they arrived.’
Much of the impact of this book lies in the extraordinary facts tossed out almost casually by Tallack – for instance, the startling discovery that eastern Polynesia itself was only populated within the last 1,500 years or so (by which time the Callanish Stones, in Lewis, were thousands of years old and already obsolete). For its size, though (and price) there are not many words for your buck; and a touch of humour here and there would make the going far easier.
The Ma‘dān, or ‘Marsh Arabs’, of southern Iraq – their rich culture detailed only in recent decades by the likes of Gavin Maxwell and Wilfred Thesiger – had likewise a mystical realm, a beautiful island, Hufaidh, of which they spoke and which they were certain existed. But, since Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against them after the first Gulf War – including the deliberate draining of almost all their priceless wetland – the Marsh Arabs and their world barely survive. Thule, an island in the far north written of foggily by the ancient Greeks and later celebrated in slushy Celtic Twilight fiction, is another island that never was (much as one might like it to have been). Did Pytheas – who claimed to have visited it around 330 BC – speak of Shetland, or Iceland? Could he have made the Faroe Islands? Had he ever actually ventured out of the Mediterranean at all?
Some islands were simply invented. As recently as 1910 the International Dateline had to be shamefacedly redrawn, when it was belatedly established that two islands on the map – Byres Island and Morrell Island, north-west of Hawaii – did not actually exist. The Treaty of Paris, in 1783 – wherein, with teeth-gritted reluctance, the British finally accepted defeat and acknowledged the new United States of America as sovereign and free – also, in its second and very involved Article detailing the boundary between the States and Canada, made mention of islands which in due time proved to be fictitious.
Then, of course, there are those islands that most disobligingly sank. A volcanic eruption in 1456 almost overnight removed Gunnbjörn’s Skerries, a useful halfway-house for longboats sailing between Norway and Iceland. In 1830, Geirfuglasker also likewise vanished, which was rough for the Icelanders but still more unfortunate for its population of Great Auks; inaccessible to hunters, it was their last safe breeding-ground. Within fifteen years the Great Auk was extinct: the last, in local lore, beaten to death by a boatload of those weird St Kildans convinced it was a witch. In the Cook Islands, Tuanaki also disappeared, much to the vexation of a missionary expedition determined to convert its natives.
Tallack ends with a list of islands that have, basically, been abolished. In 1875 Captain Sir Frederick Evans was put in charge of revising the Royal Navy’s charts of the Pacific, and eventually deleted 123 phantom islands from the globe. (Three of these, Tallack mischievously records, turned out to exist after all.) And as late as August 1989 the Terra Nova Islands – ‘discovered’ in Antarctica only in March 1961 – were found first to have disappeared and then, in cold fact, never to have been. It was concluded that the unfortunate 1961 surveyor had taken two vast icebergs for portions of land. What a pity, though, we are told nothing of Surtsey, a brand new island born by volcanic eruption of the south of Iceland in November 1965 and of huge scientific interest.
Malachy Tallack is an engaging and fluent writer of essential kindliness – the Alexander McCall Smith, it would seem, of bedside topography, and who grasps from the start that the very idea of a given island can be as vital as the land-mass itself. ‘In the end it matters little,’ he concludes, as to the whereabouts or even the veracity of Thule. ‘For the legacy of [Pytheas’s] voyage has not been the discovery of an island, it has been the creation of a space: a mysterious, unfathomable hole into which, for two millennia and more, dreams of the north have been poured. And while the desire to erase uncertainty has now wiped it from the map, Thule still exists in the cartography of the mind…’