Britain’s top ten islands
Author Mathew Clayton chooses the UK’s most fascinating and eccentric islands.
I FELL IN love with British islands on a childhood holiday to the Welsh island of Caldey. With its monastery, lighthouse and tea room it was both exotic and reassuringly familiar. As I have got older the appeal these places hold for me has changed; what I love about them now is that they offer an alternative version of Britain. Untethered from the mainland, they have developed their own unique ways of doing things. Some appointed their own kings, other decided not to pay taxes or refused to adopt the new calendar. They have their own languages and laws; their separation is not just geographic but also cultural and political. Some of these differences you might not agree with (teenagers on the Isle of Man were regularly birched for misbehaviour up until the mid 1970s) but many (no cars, no money, monasticism, piracy!) at least show that there are other ways of living. In this post election week, when it seems that Britain is so afraid of change, it is a good point to look to our islands and see that things can be done differently.
The most westerly island in the Shetlands is Foula, lying 14 miles from Mainland. It only adopted Scottish law in the late 17thCentury. Norn, a language once used throughout the Shetlands and the Orkneys, was spoken on Foula (and Unst) later than anywhere else — until the early 19th century. Other Norse traditions still in evidence include celebrating Christmas and New Year using the old Julian calendar (the rest of the UK swopped to the Gregorian calendar in 1752). Yule is on 6 January and Newerday on 13 January. The director Michael Powell shot his film The Edge of the World here in 1936.
In the early 19th century the first King of Bardsey was appointed. The archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler reported an encounter with the final king Love Pritchard (born in 1842) in a pub: ‘Against the bar was leaning an old salt. To our “good morning” he vouchsafed a grunt. Then, after a long lapse, he spoke “Where dit we come from?” I rashly ventured “Cardiff”. The fog thickened during another long pause, and then from his whiskers came the terse sentiment “All sorts comes from Cardiff” followed by a skillful expectoration towards the door… The postman leaned over the bar: “That was the new King of Bardsey,” he said, “he does not much like foreigners”’. Pritchard offered his services to the Army during the First World War but he was turned down — he was 72. He took this as a terrible insult and declared that from then on Bardsey would be a neutral territory.
3. Skellig Michael
Violently jutting out of the Atlantic, nine miles west of County Kerry, are Skellig Michael and nearby Little Skellig. A group of monks moved there, sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries, and stayed until the 13th century: the remains of their monastery are still visible today. It looks like a location from Game of Thrones, a path winds up the cliffs of Skellig Michael to a cluster of austere domed stone cells. In 1910 George Bernard Shaw wrote a wonderful letter describing a visit he had recently made, ‘I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world’.
4. St Kilda
St Kilda is a group of lonely islands, situated 50 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. Rising to an awesome 300 feet, St Kilda has the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The islanders were expert climbers, lowering themselves down terrifying sheer drops on home-made horsehair ropes to trap sea-birds, using long poles with snares on the end. In the late 19th century the pioneering naturalists the Kearton’s photographed the thick, overdeveloped ankles of the St Kildans, who preferred to climb barefoot. For centuries the sea-birds provided the islanders with their staple diet: each adult ate over 100 fulmars a year. People have lived here for over 2,000 years, but by 1930 it had shrunk to just 36. Facing continuing food shortages and lack of medical help they asked to be evacuated. On the 29 August 1931 two boats arrived and took them away. Many were given jobs with the Forestry Commission — a strange choice as St Kilda has no trees. Today the islands aren’t completely deserted; there is a small military base on Hirta, and a constant trickle of visitors attracted by the bird life and the ghostly remains of a unique culture.
With seven unspoilt sandy beaches, Caldey is far more welcoming than most neighbouring Welsh islands. It has been the home to monks since the 6thcentury. They are currently Cistercians that came from Chimay in Belgium in the 1920s, replacing a community of Benedictines who were led into a financial crisis by their colourful abbot Dom Aelred, a man fond of first-class travel and chauffeur-driven cars. He is not the first religious man associated with Caldey to have behaved in a questionable manner — in the 6th Century the abbot St Pyr died after falling down the well while drunk. It is on Caldey my grandparents met, fell in love and got married.
Lundy is situated only 20 miles off the bucolic north coast of Devon, but it feels more remote and otherworldly. The coastline is mainly cliffs, and there is only one safe landing point. This has made it a perfect refuge for pirates and a cast of other ne’er-do -well eccentrics keen on keeping the outside world at bay. There is a fantastic pub, The Marisco Tavern, that never locks its door and has incredible views across the Bristol Channel. Lundy was at one point ruled over by an Muslim pirate and at another by a crooked MP Thomas Benson who was paid to ship criminals to America but instead dumped them on Lundy.
7. Farne Islands
Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?’ Letter to The Times. On 7 September 1838, Grace Darling looked out of her bedroom window on the Longstone lighthouse and saw what she thought was a boat striking the Harcar Rock. She alerted her father William, the lighthouse keeper. Through a spyglass they could see that three or four people clinging to the rock. William judged the sea to be too rough for the local lifeboat crew. If a rescue was going to be attempted he needed to do it — but he couldn’t manage it alone. William and Grace set off in a 20 foot boat. In the end they rescued eight men and one woman. The newspapers picked up the story and Grace found herself in the middle of a media frenzy (William’s role was forgotten). There were boat trips from Newcastle to see where she lived. Grace was bombarded with letters and requests for support. This took its toll on her health. In 1942, aged 26, she died of tuberculosis.
Six miles east of Guernsey is Sark. Three and a half miles long and one and a half wide, it is divided into two parts linked by a high, thin ridge. It is Britain’s last fiefdom, run by a Seigneur who pays an annual rent to the Crown of £1.79p. In 2008 Sark held their first elections. The officials voted in were broadly in favour of the old system. Not everyone was happy. The Barclay brothers, multimillionaire businessmen who had built a home on the nearby islet of Brecqhou, claimed there was ‘no true democracy’. It was the latest salvo in a battle between the brothers and the residents of Sark. The Seigneur’s wife Diana Beaumont commented: ‘They were the ones that started all this democracy business, now they don’t like it because they haven’t won.’
9. Tír na nÓg
There is a strand of Irish mythology in which a hero travels on a fantastic voyage to the ‘blessed’ or ‘fortunate’ isles. They are places of eternal youth, eternal summer and eternal love — a bit like the world of Beach Boys’ songs. Tír na nÓg appears in a story about the poet and warrior Oisin. Niamh of the Golden Hair, the daughter of the sea god Manannan Mac Lir visits Oisin they fall in love. She persuades him to return to her magical land Tír na nÓg. Eventually Oisin becomes homesick, Niamh lends him a white horse that can fly across the ocean, but warns he must never dismount. Arriving in Ireland he discovers that hundreds of years have passed and everything he held dear has gone. Distressed, and forgetting Niamh’s warning, he jumps down off the horse, rapidly ages and dies.
In a time when the sea was the principal means of long distance travel it is not surprising that islands feature so heavily in these stories. The narrative of leaving home in search of a better life, then being drawn back through homesickness, only to discover that home isn’t how you remembered it, is a universal story as relevant now as it was then.
10. Hy Brazil
The island of Hy Brazil first appeared on maps in the 13th century and survived cartographically right up until the mid 19th century; an impressive lifespan for a place that never existed. Lying south-west of Ireland, it was always drawn in a strangely symmetrical fashion as two half circles with an east west sea passage running between them. In 1480 a ship of 80 tonnes left Bristol with the purpose of sailing to Hy Brazil. The next year two ships, the Trinity and the George set out on the same unsuccessful search from the same port. The year 1498 saw the largest expedition yet, when John Cabot set off with five ships and 300 men. In the 17th century a number of people reported that they had seen or even visited the island.
Lundy, Rockall, Dogger, Fairisle: A Celebration of the Islands Around Britain by Mathew Clayton and Anthony Atkinson (Ebury Press) is out now
Originally published at idler.co.uk.