The Scottish Islands

Using a well-received Christmas gift book token I recently bought Hamish Haswell-Smith's wonderful masterwork, The Scottish Islands. Living as we do within sight of several of his subjects I was anxious to learn more about them than I could pick up from local word of mouth. I have not been disappointed.

At £30 this book is not cheap, but is excellent value for anyone with a serious interest in the flora, fauna, geology and not least in the history of the Scottish Islands, for Haswell-Smith sharpens up a blurry subject of much wider interest; the history of land as property. Here you can see how property ownership 'progressed' over a millenium from force of nature to force of arms to force of money - by no means always for the better of a place or its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

But this is not all about fact and science. Fables and legends are part and parcel of Highlands and Islands folklore and add much light and colour to the narrative. For instance I loved the passage concerning the island of Papa which reads: 'In May 1903 the crew of Adelong fishing near Papa reported that a sea-monster, known locally as a 'sifan' had ruined ten of their nets. A similar report from the other side of Shetland was given in a sworn account by six men crewing the Bertie in 1882. They had been fishing south-east of Fetlar for two days. Their holds were full of fish and they were hauling in their lines to return home when they saw a sifan heading for their boat. It was 150 feet long with a huge head covered with barnacles, a square mouth with bright green whiskers - 'probably of seaweed' - and it had humps and a long neck. They fired at it at close range and threw ballast stones at it but that only infuriated it and it followed the boat for three hours.'

Great stuff! Does it remind you of anything a bit further south in a place called Loch Ness?

Some might call The Scottish Islands a coffee table book, produced as it is with all the stunning quality of layout, photographs, drawings and prose that such an item demands. This is an intensely readable work, one that I will dip into again and again over the years. Yes, it will stay on our coffee table for a while and then will take pride of place on our bookshelves.

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