By Robin McKelvie
In the world of glossy TV documentaries the soaring mountains and tumbling glens of Scotland are left, front and centre, all-consuming and senses-grabbing. What often isn’t centre stage is the richness of the built environment on Scotland’s eclectic isles. There in lie the stories, intrigue, heartbreaks, drama and the joy of the people who matter most – the islanders. Set against this background I’m delighted Scottish Islands Passport have just published their excellent ‘Shaping Our Islands’ travelogue, which sheds light on – and brings alive – the built architecture of our isles and the people who live there.
I’ve spent the last couple of decades travelling and writing my way around Scotland’s wondrous sweep of islands. I’ve never not enjoyed a trip to one and central to those rich experiences has been the remarkable built environment, an ever changing landscape forged over the last 10,000 years of human settlement in parts of the UK where mankind’s roots run dramatically deep. I’m always impressed by the communities that live and work here today too: the real people beyond all the ‘remote’, ‘wild’ depictions of Scotland’s islands.
We’re turning to page 4 now sweeping off to Unst, one of my favourite of Shetland’s isles. Sorry glossy TV documentaries, but as well as big skies, roaring seas and epic landscapes, I always find a passionate community who fill me with positivity. And I revel in the built environment on the most northerly inhabited isle in the British Isles. I ramble through old Viking settlements, tracing the landscape to see where they grew their crops and landed their boats. As ‘Shaping our Islands’ notes Unst is home to a frankly ridiculous 60 Viking longhouse sites and that is just the ones that have been uncovered. At the excellent Viking centre at Haroldswick you can check out the Viking longship, the Skidbladner. My favourite site, though, is the ruin of the longhouse that sits by the sand of the gorgeous beach at Eastings. Man is never done on Unst with the most modern additions to the built environment the space rocket station at SaxaVord. And we’ve not even mentioned the art award-winning Bobby’s Bus Shelter – I’ll leave that glorious discovery for you to enjoy yourself.
Staying up in the vibrant Northern Isles grab a brew and settle in as we move to Orkney’s Papa Westray, or just ‘Papay’ as it is known to the residents. Last time I was there the superb Papay Ranger (check him out on Instagram) told me, “We’re very proud of our island and strong sense of community. The wildlife is a constant source of drama with bird migrations and marine mammals and our built environment sweeps through the millennia too.”
That built environment certainly does sweep through the centuries. Papa Westray’s Knap of Howar is worth catching the world’s shortest schedule flight for alone. I once wrote provocatively in the Telegraph that Orkney Mainland’s prehistoric treasures make Stonehenge look like IKEA. I’ll extend that now – the Knap of Howar makes Neolithic Orkney look like IKEA! The oldest dwelling in northwestern Europe is thought to be a good half millennia older than Skara Brae. The first time I came here over a decade ago I just sat for an hour by the water trying to get my head round that. The Knap of Howar is a place to linger. My favourite visit was when I savoured a wee dram of Highland Park on the shore watching the June Orkney sun refuse to really set, feeling the traces of man back through time.
Easing into the Outer Hebrides now, the imprint of mankind continues to be constantly compelling. You can lose yourself in centuries of built environment on Lewis, with 19th century Lews Castle in Stornoway a highlight, as ‘Shaping our Islands’ recognises. There are further manmade joys sprinkled around this gloriously diverse island. Chief among them are the epic Callanish Standing Stones, but this world famous wonder is ably backed up too by vaulting Dun Carloway, the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village and the rugged lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis, the latter the windiest spot in the UK. I’ve just learned that from ‘Shaping our Islands’.
Coming further south in the Inner Hebrides we arrive in Coll. Yes it has over 20 remarkable sandy beaches and bountiful wildlife, but the built environment stars too on this low-lying island. A brace of castles are rugged reminders of the past – one dating from the 18th century and the oldest from the 15th century. There are crannogs too that evoke even earlier habitation. And the sad ghosts of communities long gone. Today Coll has less 200 inhabitants where once there were around 1,000. The old fishing township of Sorisdale echoes with the ghosts of a community long gone. It’s a familiar scene for regular travellers around Scotland’s isles that ties deeply into the historical struggles in these isles.
Flicking through the information-packed pages of ‘Shaping Our Islands’ I’m taken back to those trips, synapses popping and starting to plan future adventures. The strength in depth of Scotland’s islands really is quite staggering as this travelogue vividly makes clear. The inspiring introduction sets the tone and then you’re off to the isles with a whopping twenty separate double page spreads on the islands. The travelogue doesn’t end there as it continues with a further double page spread to inspire you on more adventures on other isles and to travel sustainably. ‘Shaping our Islands’ ends with a handy section on getting around and blank pages for your own ‘Field Notes’. It’s a handy size too for popping in a pocket when you are out in the field.
This isn’t the last travelogue you will see from the ever-busy and dynamic Scottish Islands Passport team. The next travelogue will take a deep dive into active and sustainable travel, with work already underway. The travelogue after that will see the rebirth of the Eat, Drink, Explore pilot travelogue. It only covered ten islands and was not available to buy so this will be a very welcome addition to their expanding portfolio. If these new travelogues are as good as ‘Shaping our Islands’ this will become another essential purchase for anyone interested in the islands that star so spectacularly off Scotland’s coastline.